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The wrong kind of Israeli: Avi Shlaim on life as an Iraqi Jew

October 14, 2023 at 3:48 pm

Professor Avi Shlaim gives a speech in London on October 13, 2023. [@MiddleEastMnt/Twitter]

MEMO hosted a book launch event yesterday at the University of London’s Senate House for the recently published and reviewed Three Worlds: Memoirs of an Arab-Jew by distinguished author Professor Avi Shlaim, a British-Israeli historian of Iraqi heritage.

Joining Professor Shlaim was another accomplished British academic, Professor of Humanities Jacqueline Rose, who also shares a Jewish background to discuss his memoirs. The conversation was moderated by MEMO columnist Nasim Ahmed.

As the event began, Ahmed set the stage by outlining the evening’s programme before noting that this conversation will be taking place “in the dark shadows of the tragic events in Gaza,” adding that “we have grown accustomed to indifference and complicity in the suffering of Palestinians.”

Less accustomed are we, Ahmed said, are that two leaders of major political parties have refused to call out war crimes and the crimes against humanity we have witnessed in recent days.

Relevant to the discussion ahead, he pointed out that former Israeli general, Shlomo Brom said earlier this week that “The state that was founded to protect Jews from persecution failed miserably in protecting its citizens living near the Gaza Strip.”  According to Brom this crisis shows the failure of Israeli policy towards the Palestinians. This was relevant, Ahmed says, as despite Israel’s military might, Jews are not safe, going as far as to say that they are less safe now.

As part of his address to the audience, Shlaim explained that this event was planned some time ago, stressing that we had no way of knowing it will take place amid such distressing times. For Shlaim, the mutual hatred on both sides of the conflict can be attributed to the “deeply divisive and destructive force” of nationalism, which he distinguishes from patriotism, by the need of having an external enemy.

In his book, Three Worlds, Shlaim harks back to a distant age, a time of co-existence between Muslims and Jews in his native Iraq.

“My book is an attempt to react, recapture and reanimate a rich Jewish civilization of the Near East,”

he says. This civilization was abruptly disrupted thanks to nationalism, both Arab and Zionist.

Tracing his personal and family history, the book as the name hints, spans three countries, that of Iraq, followed by his formative years growing up in Israel, followed by his adolescence in Britain. Pertinently, the book, he says “traces the evolution of my thinking on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict after the present day,” whereby he is an advocate of one democratic state, “from the river to the sea, with equal rights for all citizens. Regardless of religion, and ethnicity.”

Exploring Iraq’s rich Jewish history along with that of his family’s forms the first half of the book, before delving into his memoirs, as such, Shlaim argues it is an “impersonal autobiography,” revolving around his self-identification as an Arab-Jew.

Taking to the podium Professor Rose spoke of how Shlaim’s latest work reminded her of a similar one, The World I Loved: The Story of an Arab Woman by Wadad Makdisi Cortas.

Professor Rose said “the story is a story of the making of a historian” shaped by the history and politics he narrates throughout. Having also read the book, it was an interesting point raised by Rose, that the author’s failure to identify as an Israeli and his difficult time at school, was a way of unconsciously identifying with his mother’s unhappiness. For if he was unhappy, the project of assimilation had failed, and therefore Israel as a state had, further evidenced as events unfold now.

In their dialogue they spoke of the way forward, suggesting that Israel having exhausted all options of the use of force “with more force” will eventually be compelled to reach a settlement with the Palestinian people. Significantly, Rose said that the young Jewish American population is increasingly perceiving the conflict under the scope of human rights, representing a significant shift away from Jewish nationalism compared to previous generations.

However, Shlaim accepts that AIPAC, is still the most powerful foreign policy lobby in the US, “but they are only represented by 30 per cent of American Jews” while the liberal advocacy group J Street represents more or less represents the vast majority in their outlook and attitudes towards Israel, although this has yet to leave an imprint on US foreign policy.

Following an engaging Q and A session, Shlaim finished up by mentioning how states are reluctant to issue apologies for atrocities committed in the past, with Israel being no exception to the 1948 Nakba and all that has entailed since. This is in part due to the acceptance of responsibility and liability in paying compensation.

Yet Britain also has a role in this – having “stole Palestine from the Palestinians and given it to the Zionists,” without any acknowledgment or apology. To address this historical injustice, Shalim announced that he has joined forces with legal experts, activists, and academics to file a historic lawsuit against the British government. This was met with enthusiastic approval and applause from the audience, bringing an enlightening evening and discussion to a close.

WATCH FULL EVENT: Three Worlds: Memoirs of an Arab-Jew