A Response to Israel Shahak

Against the Current, No. 33, July/August 1991

Joseph Massad

THE ONE POINT where I agree with Israel Shahak’s rebuttal of my review is that I failed to cite direct Iraqi Jewish sources on the pogrom. I resorted to secondary sources because I had no access to direct sources. I do welcome Shahak’s recommendations if he has any.

As for the remainder of his rebuttal, Professor Shahak launches a venomous attack(1) on me the likes of which do not benefit someone of his stature and integrity. He begins by stating that in my review I use “arguments that have been used to justify anti-Semitic pogroms and persecutions of Jews in Iraq, while also using the most one-sided imaginable source…”

What are these “anti-Semitic” arguments and these “one-sided sources”? As for the anti-Semitic arguments, Shahak lists none. Instead he attributes to me things that I never said or implied.

Shahak states that Israel Zangwill, to whom I attributed an article calling for establishing a Jewish State in Iraq by citing an historical document, was not a prominent Zionist. But if Zangwill was not prominent, certainly his slogans were! Zangwill is the Zionist who, at the turn of the century, coined the slogan by which Zionism was to propagate its cause for decades, namely that Palestine is “a land without people for a people without land.”(2)

As for the authenticity of my claim, I relied on Hanna Batatu’s classic book on Iraq where he quotes the Zionist document which I had to delete from my review due to reasons of space. I reproduce here the story in full.

During the Young Turks’ period, Zionists wanted to introduce large numbers of Jewish colonial-settlers into Iraq (then still Ottoman-ruled—ed.). The General Jewish Colonization Association, Berlin Branch, wrote that the “parts of Turkey which seem most favorable to our present enterprise are Shaft-ui-Arab, Anatolia, Syria and Palestine … Although Iraq is large enough to contain ten times as many Jews as there are in the world, our program includes the settlement of Jews in Cyprus and Egypt.”(3)

More compelling was a letter from the British ambassador in Istanbul to the Foreign office in London, in which he writes about the above-quoted German Zionist document, which was “alluding to the offer made by Jewish capitalists to accommodate Turkey with the sums necessary to balance the recurring deficit in her budget as a quid pro quo for unrestricted Jewish immigration….

“Israel Zangwill, in the April number of the Fortnightly Review also expresses the hope that under the Grand Vizierate of Haqqi Pasha, whose private secretary and official and private friends are Jews, the realization of schemes for founding an autonomous Jewish state in Mesopotamia may become possible [Batatu’s emphasis].”(4)

Shahak states that “the most casual knowledge of Zionist principles and practices would bring one to the conclusion that ‘an autonomous Jewish state in Mesopotamia’ be a scheme of Zionists and in fact would have been violently opposed by them had it been more than an idle rumor.” As someone who has more than a casual knowledge of Zionism’s history, I beg to differ.

Palestine was the choice on which most Zionists agreed to settle European Jews, but it certainly was not the only one discussed and/or proposed. The fact that other choices were discarded does not mean that they were of no import.

The Iraqi Jewish Tragedy

Here Shahak gears up to his most reprehensible charge: “To bring up this story, in a falsified form [which I have just proved is not the case] to [sic] imply that Iraqi Jews were a threat to Iraq is a manner of reasoning that would justify persecution of any group, Palestinians included. To explain public hangings, torture and all kinds of horrifying persecutions of Jews who elected to remain in Iraq after 1952 by quoting false stories dating from 1910 is a practice adopted by racists.”

Nowhere in my review did I suggest or imply in any form that Iraqi Jews were a “threat” to Iraq. On the contrary, I stressed that Iraqi Jews were the victims of the Israeli and the Iraqi governments leading to their exodus (see my review, 37).

What I did say was that Zionism had designs on Iraq as early as the first decade of this century, and this was in response to al-Khalil’s claims that Zionism and imperialism had no role to play in the modem history of Iraq. Shahak’s venomous charge notwithstanding, my awareness of the racism of successive Iraqi governments not only against Jews but against Kurds, Assyrians not to mention Shiites, was demonstrated throughout my review (see also my articles in the Guardian, New York, Sept 26 and Oct 31, 1990).

Shahak’s charge that by mentioning Zionist plans I am justifying racism and horrors against Jews makes as much sense as if I were to accuse him that by calling pro-Iraqi Palestinians “anti- Semitic,” he is supporting Israel’s monstrosities against Palestinians.

As for Shahak’s charge that I avoided mentioning that Iraqi Jews were patriotic and anti-Zionist, on page 37 of my review I said exactly that—“In fact, many Iraqi Jews were in the forefront of those who spoke against Zionism.”

The Baghdad Bombings

Finally, Shahak alleges without documentation that only one synagogue was bombed in Baghdad. In fact, as I mentioned in my review, several sites were bombed. Among them was a bomb that exploded in front of Dar el-Beida coffee shop on Abu Nawas street in Baghdad frequented by many Jews. Another explosion took place at the U.S. information center where many Jews came to read.

A third bomb exploded outside the Mas’uda Shemtov synagogue where a Jewish boy was killed and a Jewish man wounded in the eyes. By then, however, most Jews in Iraq were so panic-stricken from the Israeli bombs, which they thought were the work of Iraqi racists that they immigrated to Israel by the tens of thousands. It was then that more anti-Jewish laws were passed by the Iraqi parliament to confiscate the property of all emigrating Jews.

It must be stated here that Massed (Israeli police intelligence—ed.)  files “abound with telegrams reporting the persecution of Jews in Iraq, but almost all of them refer to Jews who had been involved in the activities of the Zionist underground, or who were suspected of belonging to it There was little harassment of other Jews.”(5)

As for the anti-Jewish laws passed by the Iraqi parliament, many Mossad documents state that they were partly in response to the activities of the Zionist movement there.(6) In fact, one telegram sent by Zionist agents to the Mossad states explicitly that “[w]e are carrying on our usual activity in order to push the [anti-Jewish] law through faster and find out how the Iraqi government proposes to carry it out.”(7)

Information about the bombing is taken from David Hirst’s book, which relies heavily on the Black Panther (a Hebrew Journal published in Israel by Oriental Jews) which quoted Iraqi Jewish witnesses.(8) Israel, in fact, also fanned the flames of anti- Semitism in Egypt (whose Jewish population Shahak mentions) by Israeli terrorist attacks in that country, better known as the Lavon affair. Citing the involvement of Israel in these despicable attacks does not exonerate the racism of the Iraqi or Egyptian governments as Shahak would like us to believe; it only shows the nature of Israel’s “commitment” to the security of Jews.

Shahak discounts the importance of the Israeli bombs and alleges that only the Iraqi government’s racist laws were to blame. Such assertions fly in the face of available historical facts. Moreover, my review did not blame only Israel for the Jewish exodus as Shahak alleges; I stated explicitly that the Israeli bombs coupled with the increasingly restrictive anti-Jewish laws enacted by the pro-Western Iraqi government” were responsible for the tragic Iraqi Jewish exodus. Such a non-contextual attack on my argument is the stuff Zionist propaganda is made of.

As for sources that I cite, I did not rely only on Shiblak’s book as Shahak alleges, but on three accounts available to me, that of the Arab Shiblak, the European Jewish Woolfson(9) and the European gentile Hirst. The latter two, at least, are neither “crude Arab nationalists” nor much affected by them.

Nationalism Not Monolithic

As for Abbas Shiblak, he is a Palestinian living in Britain, where he works for the Arab League as a researcher and information officer. He is also a leader of the London branch of the Arab Organization for Humn Rights, which condemns human rights violations by all Arab governments.

Shiblak, moreover, circulated a petition condemning Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. He is an advocate of Palestinian-Jewish dialogue and a contributor to Jewish Quarterly. He was one of many Arabs incarcerated by the British movementment without charges or trial during the recent Gulf crisis. He was released after the intervention of, among others, the British-Israeli novelist Simon Louvih (editor of Jewish Quarterly) who is Shiblak’s friend (see Aryeh Neier, “Watching Rights,” Nation, March 11, 1991, 295).

Shahak’s entire premise is to introduce Arab nationalists as a monolith to which he attributes anti-Semitism. But so doing, he fails to see the different currents in Arab nationalism malt its varieties. Shahak further fails to see the difference between nationalism and national liberation. As a Palestinian who is highly critical of the Sunni-dominated Arab nationalist movement and its racist tendencies, and who has condemned the Ba’th as a fascist party with a romantic reactionary nationalist ideology, I, unlike Shahak, acknowledge the importance of nationalism in Arab politics and the need to deal with it.

Shahak seems to think that Jews should be the only ones writing about Jews, or at least questioning the version of Jewish history provided by other Jews. However, he himself consistently tells Palestinians not only about our history but about how we should conduct present policies. Shahak, furthermore, wants to subject Palestinians to numerous litmus tests to ascertain our lack of “anti-Semitism,” while he never questions his own subjectivity, as an Israeli European Jew with a service record in the Israeli military, as a commentator on and critic of Palestinians and our leader ship (see, for example, his articles in Middle East International, July 11, 1987 and February 2, 1990), sometimes with patronizing attitudes.

In conclusion, I must say that writing this response was a very painful experience for me. I have great respect for Israel Shahak, whom I invited to speak in New Mexico in 1985. Sadly, his response to my review left me no room for a more courteous reply.


  1. Shahak’s use of abusive language toward Palestinians with whom he disagrees seems to be a pattern. See his critique of an article by Daoud Kuttab in which Shahak calls Kuttab’s position dishonest and then assails Kuttab for having ignored certain “facts” (which, in fact, Kuttab did not) and proceeds to call his position “inexcusable morally and stupid politically.” See also Kuttab’s response in the same issue (Nation, January 30, 1989.)
    back to text
  2. Zangwill, Israel, “The Return to Palestine,” New Liberal Review II, December 1901, 627, cited in Hirst, David, The Gun and the Olive Branch, Faber and Faber, London 1984, 19. See also Said, Edward, The Question of Palestine, Vintage Books, New York 1979, 9.
    back to text
  3. This quote comes from a pamphlet circulated privately in 1910 by the General Jewish Association, cited in Hanna Batatu’s classic The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movement of Iraq, A Study of Iraq’s Old Landed and Commercial Classes and of its Communists, Ba’thists and Free Officers, Princeton University Press, Princeton 1978, 287.
    back to text
  4. Letter of 31 August 1910 from Sir Gerard Lowther, Istanbul, to Sir Edward Grey, further Correspondence July-September 1910, 155-156, cited by Batatu, op. cit., 288-289.
    back to text
  5. Segev, Tom, The First Israelis, The Free Press, New York 1986, 165-166.
    back to text
  6. Ibid., 165.
    back to text
  7. Cited Ibid., 167 fn. Cherbinsky of the Mossad to Moshe Sharett, 10/10/49, Massed files, Army Archive 14/29/C.
    back to text
  8. Hirst, op. cit., 155-164.
    back to text
  9. In a personal conversation with Professor Shahak in September 1985 in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he expressed to me that he did not value Woolfson’s very good book on Arab Jews which I cited in my review.
    back to text

July-August 1991, ATC 33