On Tuesday, Nov. 18, University of Chicago Professor of Modern Middle Eastern History Orit Bashkin presented a talk entitled “‘I Treasure My Love to the Nation of Muhammad’: Jews and Muslims in Modern Iraq.” Bashkin is the author of “The Other Iraq: Pluralism, Intellectuals, and Culture in Hashemite Iraq, 1921-1958” and “New Babylonians: A History of Jews in Modern Iraq.” Her lecture, co-sponsored by the Center for Jewish Studies, the Religion Department, the Middle Eastern Studies Program, the Jewish and Israel Studies Program, and the History Department, as well as the Bayit and the Muslim Students Association, was the inaugural talk of the “Jewish Cultures of the World” lecture series.
Assistant Professor of Religion Elisha Russ-Fishbane introduced Bashkin and expressed gratitude for the collaboration between the Bayit and the Muslim Students Association. The lecture was centered on the shifting Iraqi Jewish identity in the years between 1921 and 1951. Specifically, Bashkin explored what it meant to be an Arab Jew in the face of growing Arab nationalism.
“What does it mean to be an Arab?” Bashkin said. “And what does it mean to be a Jewish minority in a new Arab Muslim nation-state?”
The talk made generous use of memoirs, poetry, and newspaper articles, beginning with a photo of Renée Dangoor, an Iraqi Jewish woman who was the country’s beauty queen in 1947. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict was about to erupt in what Iraqis anticipated would be a long, bloody conflict.
Bashkin noted that Dangoor was a curious choice, yet one who symbolized larger undercurrents in Jewish-Muslim relations in Iraq.
“They chose a Jewish woman to represent the beauty and glamor of both modern and ancient Iraq,” Bashkin said.
Four years after Dangoor was crowned Miss Iraq, in 1951, all but 5,000 Jews had fled the country. By 1968, few Jews were left in Iraq.
Bashkin emphasized that the Jews’ disappearance from Iraq in the mid-20th century has its roots in the 1920s, when the Iraqi political climate spurred changes to Jewish identity. The rise of pan-Arab nationalism, or Iraqi Arab nationalism, essentially secularized Iraqi history, turning the prophet Muhammad into a national rather than solely religious hero and awarding the Jews an integral place in the Iraqi historical narrative.
“This national narrative, which tried to tie Iraqis of Sunni, Shiite, Christian, and Jewish descent, emphasized the power of Arab unity, and it secularized the Islamic past,” Bashkin said. “Muhammad was not just a prophet; he established the Muslim state…. The stress was very much on Arab culture rather than religion, and the Arab Islamic past was celebrated as a whole cluster of stories that the nationalists could learn from.”
Jews’ identification as Iraqi rather than Jewish was bolstered by their education in Arabic language, culture, and history: Secularized Iraqi culture offered room for all Iraqis, Jews included, to enjoy a sense of national pride. In 1941, a pro-German government coup rose up. The coup was defeated, but in the two days before the British entered Baghdad, anti-Jewish riots erupted, and many Jews were killed. Bashkin noted that many Muslims risked their lives to defend their Jewish neighbors and friends.
Bashkin explained that, after these riots, Zionism and Communism became attractive to the radical Iraqi youth. Communism, imported largely from Soviet Russia, was compelling for its promises to help the poor and the workers; Zionism, on the other hand, appealed to young Iraqi Jews who rejected the conservatism of contemporary Iraqi society.
“[The youth] looked at the conservative Iraqi society as signifying the weakness of the Jew in exile, and they saw Israel as allowing for feminism, socialism, and progress,” Bashkin said
After the 1948 establishment of the State of Israel, some right-wing Iraqis associated all Jews with Zionism, and thus with a disloyalty to Iraq. Although the mainstream Iraqi media, the Senate and the Parliament, as well as the Jews’ friends and business partners, encouraged the Jews to stay, the difficult times persisted, and in 1950 Jews who emigrated were forced to renounce their Iraqi citizenship. In 1951, Bashkin explained, all Jewish property in Iraq was frozen, leaving many members of the community penniless. The community’s numbers dwindled as Jews were displaced to Israel.
Despite the tragic end to the history of Jews in Iraq, Bashkin concluded her talk with a Jew’s memory of peace in the country.
On Wednesday afternoon, Bashkin joined Russ-Fishbane’s class, RELI 227: Jews and Muslims: Perceptions and Polemics, to discuss Iraqi Jewish history further. Alison Mann ’17, a student in the class, said she enjoyed the perspective on Arab Jews.
“This event is very rewarding,” Mann said. “Considering all the things that are going on in the Middle East right now, and Jewish-Muslim relations or Arab-Israeli relations, it was very rewarding to listen to a speaker talk about Iraqi Jews and the Jewish presence in Iraq throughout the past few centuries, and to give a different Jewish perspective on that topic.”
Cheryl Hagan ’17, another student in the class, said she felt compelled by Bashkin’s research, which largely focuses on a time of peace.
“I thought [Bashkin’s visit] was really valuable,” Hagan said. “There aren’t any Jews in Baghdad anymore, [so] I think it’s really interesting to go back and look at that time. People are always looking for times and places where people did live relatively…in peace and with their neighbors side by side, regardless of whether they were Jews or Muslims or Christian.”