An Iraqi Jewish story, written in Arabic, finds an unlikely champion in Abbas

Palestinian leader gets permission from Israeli family to reprint and distribute Yitzhak Bar Moshe’s ‘Exodus from Iraq,’ which official says made the PA president cry

Adam Rasgon is the Palestinian affairs reporter at The Times of Israel

The late Israeli author of Iraqi descent, Yitzhak Bar Moshe. (courtesy, Idit Shemer)
The late Israeli author of Iraqi descent, Yitzhak Bar Moshe. (courtesy, Idit Shemer)

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas intends to commission the printing of new copies of a book by a late Israeli author of Iraqi descent and distribute them to Palestinians and other Arabic-language readers, Ziad Darwish, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Committee for Interaction with Israeli Society, said on Sunday.

Darwish made the comment a day after Abbas hosted five members of Yitzhak Bar Moshe’s family at the PA presidential headquarters in Ramallah.

“The president plans to re-print Bar Moshe’s book Exodus from Iraq in Arabic soon because he wants to inform Palestinians, Arabs and everyone else about the Jews of the Arab world. He wants them to know what happened to them in Iraq but also in the transit camps in Israel,” Darwish, a cousin of famous Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish who was friends with Bar Moshe, told The Times of Israel in a phone call.

“He told Bar Moshe’s family yesterday that he first read the book when he was living in Syria and that it made him cry. He said he thinks it is so important because it shows how the suffering of Iraqi Jews is not different from that of the Palestinian people,” Darwish added, noting he plans to give it to “many of the people he will meet after he receives the new copies.”

Darwish said both the Bar Moshe family and the Sephardic Community Committee, which originally printed the book, granted Abbas permission to commission the re-printing of the book.

+972 Magazine first reported this month that Abbas intends to commission the printing of new copies of Bar Moshe’s “Exodus from Iraq.”

The Sephardic Community Committee published the book in the 1970s in Arabic and it was later translated into Hebrew.

The book addresses the history of Iraq’s Jewish community and their immigration to Israel, Idit Shemer, Bar Moshe’s 58-year-old daughter, said.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas shaking hands with Idit Shemer, the daughter of Yitzhak Bar Moshe, a late Israeli author of Iraqi descent, at the PA presidential headquarters in Ramallah on November 16, 2019, with Ziad Darwish, a member of the PLO Committee for Interaction with Israeli Society, standing next to them. (Courtesy, Idit Shemer)

“It looks at personal family stories, neighbors and life in Iraq and talks about how Jews actually thought about the question of where to immigrate — whether that was Israel, England or somewhere else,” Shemer said in a phone call on Sunday, noting that her father did not believe Zionism motivated most Iraqi Jews to move to Israel. “It also discusses historical and political information and Jewish-Muslim relations and takes a critical view of Zionism that acknowledges the suffering Palestinians have faced.”

Iraqi Jewish history traces back to ancient Babylonia, predating the advent of Islam, and the community survived under ever-changing conquerors. By 1910, Jews comprised roughly a quarter of Baghdad’s population. But Nazi-inspired riots in 1941, known as the Farhud, left some 180 Jews dead and helped drive out the population. In the early 1950s, forced to relinquish citizenship and stripped of their assets, some 120,000 Jews fled.

Many Iraqi Jews, who went to Israel in the 1950s, spent time in transit camps called ma’abarot, which primarily housed Jews from Arab lands upon their arrival in the Jewish state. The camps, many of which were made up of ramshackle tents or huts, were plagued with poor sanitary conditions and water problems and led to claims of discrimination from members of the community.

Abbas, who has written several books himself, has alleged that Israel, in coordination with Iraqi and British authorities, perpetrated violence against Jews in Iraq to encourage them to immigrate to the fledgling Jewish state to boost its numbers.

In 2012, he cited what he said was one of Bar Moshe’s descriptions of discrimination that Iraqi Jews faced after arriving in Israel in an article in which he made the claim.

“[Former prime minister David Ben Gurion] implemented what he hoped for when he sent his emissaries to Iraq and Morocco to uproot the Jews from there with force and killing in order to bring hundreds of thousands of them [to Israel],” he wrote then.

Tom Segev, an Israeli historian, said he does not know of any evidence that backs up Abbas’s claims, while Shlomo Hillel, who played a major role in facilitating the immigration of Jews from Iraq to Israel, described it as a fabrication.

“Abbas’s claim is completely false and a lie. Jews in Iraq were arrested, killed and removed from their jobs. There were also demonstrations held against them. They were living under very tough circumstances,” Hillel, 96, said in a phone call. “So they fled.”

In a 2007 paper, Reuven Snir, an Arabic literature professor at Haifa University, indicated that “Exodus from Iraq” actually argues that Iraqi authorities were responsible for the flight of Jews from Iraq.

Iraqi Jews arrive in Israel’s Lod Airport on May 1, 1950. (GPO / BRAUNER TEDDY)

“The reader is led to the conclusion that Jewish emigration was not at all a result of an inner Zionistic drive on the part of the Iraqi Jews, but rather the result of sheer stupidity and blindness on the part of the Iraqi authorities at the time and their shortsighted policies and cynical opportunism,” he wrote in an academic article published in Middle Eastern Studies, referring to Bar Moshe’s book. “It seems they used the Jews as a scapegoat for their own problems and failures, in order to protect themselves from the anger of their own people.”

Bar Moshe and his family left Baghdad in 1950, after two of his friends were arrested and hanged by Iraqi authorities over their involvement in Zionist and Communist activities, according to Shemer, who is a musician based in Jerusalem. At the time, he was 23.

After arriving in Israel, Bar Moshe founded al-Anbaa, an Arabic-language newspaper, and later was a director at an Arabic-language, government-funded Israeli radio station. Following the signing of the Israel-Egypt peace treaty in 1979, he served as the attache for journalistic and cultural affairs at the Israeli embassy in Cairo. He wrote at least 10 books in Arabic, three of which were translated to Hebrew.

Darwish said that Abbas told Bar Moshe’s family on Saturday that he remembers watching the author translate for former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat and prime minister Menahem Begin, decades ago on television.

“He told them he thought his [Bar Moshe’s] Arabic skills were superb,” Darwish said.

In 2003, he told a Hebrew-language magazine called Direction:East that he prefered to write in Arabic because he felt more connected to the language, according +972.

Abbas’s decision to distribute the book in Arabic, which is currently out of print, could give it new life. Both Shemer and Darwish said finding copies of “Exodus from Iraq” in Arabic is an arduous task.

“I have a friend who found one at a second-hand store the other day, but it is thoroughly difficult to track down,” Shemer said.

Darwish said that both the Bar Moshe family and the Sephardic Community Committee had granted Abbas permission to commission the reprinting of the book.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas meeting with members of Yitzhak Bar Moshe’s family on November 16, 2019 at the PA presidential headquarters in Ramallah. (Courtesy of Idit Shemer)

He also said that, over the past two years Abbas has ordered a total of 500 copies of “Baghdad, My Beloved” by Shmuel Moreh, another Israeli author of Iraqi descent, and has distributed them to Palestinians and other Arabic speakers.

Shemer said her father, who died in 2003, never met Abbas, but said she thought the two would have had a strong rapport.

“I wish he could have been there last night to meet Abbas,” she said. “I know they would have had so much to discuss with each other.”

In recent years, Abbas has welcomed delegations of Israelis from Arab countries to the PA presidential headquarters.

In November 2016, he told a group of mainly Israelis of Iraqi origin: “When I greet you, I don’t feel that I’m talking to visitors, rather to my family. Perhaps what brings us together is the civilization, culture and language that we share.”

Shemer said that Bar Moshe ultimately left Israel in the latter years of his life because of his disillusionment with the political situation.

“He was heartbroken after [former prime minister] Rabin’s death and could not take it anymore,” she said. “He moved to Manchester in the UK, but he was glued to his radio there, constantly following what was happening in Israel. He was always living in his body in one place with his soul somewhere else.”

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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