[Marxism] What Do Palestinians and Arab-Jews Have in Common?

Yoshie Furuhashi furuhashi.1 at osu.edu
Fri Apr 9 19:35:17 MDT 2004

*****   What Do Palestinians and Arab-Jews Have in Common?
Nationalism and Ethnicity Examined Through the Compensation Question

Yehouda Shenhav

Department of Sociology and Anthropology
Tel Aviv University(1)
Tel Aviv 69978, Israel
e-mail: shenhav at post.tau.ac.il

ABSTRACT: This article focuses on the immigration of Iraqi Jews to 
Israel in the early 1950s and examines the manner in which the 
Israeli State has used this immigration to offset the claims of the 
Palestinian national movement. It also sheds light on actions taken 
by WOJAC (World Organization of Jews from Arab Countries) to further 
Israel's national interests, as well as on how these interests were 
challenged and re-formulated by WOJAC's non-Israeli members. The 
history of WOJAC serves as an example of the anomalous relationship 
between nationality and ethnicity in the Zionist context. Lastly, 
this article underscores the conspicuous compartmentalization of "the 
Palestinian question" and the "Mizrahi question" within Israeli 
political and intellectual discourse.


The histories and memories of Jews from Arab lands have been used in 
the political arena (national and international) in order to offset 
the claims of the Palestinian national movement regarding three 
issues: legitimate rights over the land (Palestine/Israel), the right 
of return (Zchut Ha'Shiva) and compensation for the Palestinian 
refugees of the 1948 War. This paper focuses on the third claim (an 
extended discussion of the other two claims and their histories are 
presented elsewhere. See: Shenhav, forthcoming) and reveals how the 
State of Israel constructed linkages between Jews-from-Arab-lands and 
the Palestinians, as well as how its "national accounting theory" 
became embedded in state practices. The State's theory of national 
accounting is examined through the prism of several events, including 
the peace treaty with Egypt in the 1970s, the Gulf War in 1991, and 
the interim agreements with the Palestinians in the late 1990s. In 
addition, this paper examines WOJAC's (World Organization of Jews 
from Arab Countries) response to state theory and action. Analysis 
shows that WOJAC's efforts to legitimize practices of the State 
paradoxically and unintentionally resulted in the deconstruction of 
the theory behind these practices. Not surprisingly, the 
epistemological vantage-point from which this de-construction was 
possible was provided by non-citizen Jews, members of WOJAC living 
outside of Israel.

Let me begin with a telling story that took place in Israel in 
January 1952, about half a year after the official conclusion of the 
operation that brought Iraq's Jews to Israel. During this year, two 
Zionist activists, Yosef Basri and Shalom Salah, were hanged in 
Baghdad. They had been charged with possession of explosive materials 
and throwing bombs in the city center. According to the account of 
Shlomo Hillel, a former Israeli cabinet minister and Zionist activist 
in Iraq, their last words, as they stood on the gallows, were "Long 
live the State of Israel." (Hillel, 1985: 342) It would have only 
been natural for Iraqi Jews in Israel to react to the news of this 
hanging with outrage. On the contrary, however, the mourning 
assemblies organized by leaders of the community in various Israeli 
cities failed to arouse widespread solidarity with the two Iraqi 
Zionists. In fact, the opposite was true. A classified document from 
Moshe Sasson, of the Foreign Ministry's Middle East Division, to then 
Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett maintained that many Iraqi immigrants, 
residents of the transit camps, greeted the hanging with the 
attitude: "That is God's revenge on the movement that brought us to 
such depths" (2). The bitterness of this reaction attests to an acute 
level of discontent among the newly arrived Iraqi Jews. It suggests 
that a good number of them did not view their immigration as the 
joyous return to Zion depicted by the community's Zionist activists. 
Rather, in addition to blaming the Iraqi government, they blamed the 
Zionist movement for bringing them to Israel for reasons that did not 
include the best interests of the immigrants themselves.

Even if it does not represent the reaction of the entire Iraqi 
community in Israel, this historical document certainly attests to a 
problematic element in the primordial perspective of nationalism 
espoused by the Zionist movement since its inception. (Smith, 1986) 
This perspective deems nationalism to be the awakening of an ancient 
ethnic force, engendered by a primeval need to belong to a national 
framework. Zionism, according to Anthony Smith, is a particular case 
of such nationalism, and, more specifically, a characteristic case of 
"diaspora nationalism." More than a mere academic model, the concept 
of diaspora nationalism also serves as a yardstick of Zionist 
historiography and praxis. Through its prism, Zionism viewed the 
Jewish communities around the world as inherently part of the Jewish 
national identity in Israel. Israeli encyclopedias and textbooks 
describe what is known in the Zionist epos as "Operation Ezra and 
Nehemiah" (which brought Iraq's Jewish community to Israel in 
1950-1951) as a "rescue aliya" (aliya, literally translated as "going 
up," is the standard Israeli term to denote immigration to Israel) 
that saved persecuted Jews who yearned to return to their ancient 
homeland, after enduring ethnic repression and discrimination (3).

The story of how Iraq's Jews were brought to the newly established 
State of Israel provides an opportunity to reexamine the essence of 
the connection between ethnicity and nationalism. (Smith, 1986; 
Armstrong, 1982) Developments surrounding the "nationalization" of 
Iraq's Jews reveal how problematic it is to apply the thesis of 
primordial Zionism to them as an ethnic group, as well as to other 
Jewish groups in Europe and the Middle East. From the complex 
sequence of events in which the Iraqi Jews were brought to Israel, I 
have chosen to deal with one specific episode that has not yet been 
recounted: the fate of the property of Iraq's Jews, and its 
connection to the property of the Palestinian Arabs who were expelled 
or who fled in 1948.

This article focuses on two intersecting claims that faced the 
Israeli government between 1948 and 1951. One was the demand, put 
forward by the United Nations and the governments of the United 
States and Britain, that Israel compensate the 1948 refugees for 
property that had been impounded by the State's Custodian of Absentee 
Property. The other was the expectations of former Iraqi Jews that 
they would be compensated for their property that had been frozen by 
the Iraqi government in 1951. I will draw on archival sources to show 
that the Israeli government turned this bind into a system akin to 
double-entry accounting with regard to the two categories of property 
- that of the 1948 Palestinian refugees and that of the Iraqi Jews - 
in an effort to neutralize the claims of both. The Government of 
Israel cited the injustice that the Iraqi government had done the 
Jews of Iraq in order to explain its refusal to compensate the 
Palestinians, but told the Iraqi Jews in Israel to apply to that same 
Iraqi government for the restitution they sought.

This logic of accounting was propounded by exploiting circumstances; 
it was not necessarily a deliberate scheme. However, when implemented 
as a raison d'état it enabled the Israeli government to 
"legitimately" absolve itself of responsibility for compensating the 
Palestinian refugees (4). Moreover, Israel's nationalization of the 
identity and property of Iraq's Jews in its relentless drive to 
articulate Jewish nationalism served as a bargaining policy with 
which to deny Palestinian nationality. This article confirms that the 
Jews of Iraq became an instrument in a decision-making process from 
which they were excluded and which rested on basic assumptions they 
did not necessarily share. Furthermore, I draw on another source of 
archival data in order to document how WOJAC responded to the theory 
employed by the Israeli State. WOJAC strove to facilitate the linkage 
between the property of Iraqi Jews and the property of the 
Palestinian refugees. But, as it turned out, the organization's 
non-Israeli members challenged these assumptions and developed a form 
of resistance against them.

The present case shows that the transition from (Jewish) ethnicity to 
nationalism is neither natural nor self-evident. While naturally 
concerning itself with the tension between "ethnicity" and 
"nationalism," this paper's empirical description will also shed 
light on the manner in which Israel played an active role in the 
Middle Eastern arena. Throughout its analysis, the Israeli government 
is conceptualized as a political broker acting to construct "national 
interests" and "ethnic categories" in order to fulfil its own 
objectives (raison d'etat). State political actors formed a common 
Zionist identity for Jews of very different backgrounds, and 
simultaneously formed a common identity of opposition for all 
"Arabs". This paper demonstrates that by relating to the property of 
each group as collective, rather than individual, the State assisted 
in constructing these antagonistic categories of national identity.

I begin with a contextual background, which lays down the major 
parameters within which the drama described by the empirical material 
took place. This will be followed by an analysis of the emigration of 
Iraq's Jews in the context of the ongoing theoretical debate over the 
question of nationalism. I will then present an empirical description 
of the actions taken by the Israeli Government vis-à-vis the Jewish 
property and the Palestinian property in question. Finally, I will 
describe the various voices raised by WOJAC members in the course of 
the discussion surrounding the compensation issue. . . .

[The full text is availabel at 
<http://www.arts.mcgill.ca/MEPP/PRRN/papers/shenhav1.htm>.]   *****

* Bring Them Home Now! <http://www.bringthemhomenow.org/>
* Calendars of Events in Columbus: 
<http://www.freepress.org/calendar.php>, & <http://www.cpanews.org/>
* Student International Forum: <http://sif.org.ohio-state.edu/>
* Committee for Justice in Palestine: <http://www.osudivest.org/>
* Al-Awda-Ohio: <http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Al-Awda-Ohio>
* Solidarity: <http://www.solidarity-us.org/>

More information about the Marxism mailing list