Book Reviews

Clash of Identities

Avi Shlaim is a groundbreaking Arab-Jewish historian. His memoirs both benefit and suffer from this duality.

By Jordan Michael Smith

Tagged Foreign PolicyIraqIsrael

Three Worlds: Memoirs of an Arab-Jew by Avi Shlaim • Oneworld Publications • 2023 • 336 pages • $30

In his 1979 book, The Question of Palestine, the academic, literary critic, and Palestinian-American activist Edward Said observed of Palestine that “[O]ne of the features of a small non-European people is that it is not wealthy in documents, nor in histories, autobiographies, chronicles, and the like.” Partly for this reason, the traditional Zionist narrative of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict predominated in Western countries for decades, even in North American and European universities, normally the centers of alternative perspectives.

But a diverse group of Israeli scholars appeared in the 1980s with seminal, deeply researched works that undermined key tenets of this narrative, and their findings, which confirmed long-standing claims made by Palestinians, gradually made inroads in Western countries. The “new historians,” as they became known, a group that notably included Benny Morris and Ilan Pappe, used newly opened government archives to illustrate that some of the foundational myths of Israel were false. Among other things, these writers showed that Zionist forces and the Israeli military intentionally drove Palestinians from their villages in the late 1940s, that Britain facilitated the establishment of a Jewish state, and that Israel was as much responsible for the creation and perpetuation of the conflict as were Arab countries.

Avi Shlaim, a distinguished Oxford University professor, made his first contributions to the new history with two books suggesting that Zionists and Jordan’s King Abdullah colluded against the Palestinians in partitioning the land between 1947 and 1951. He portrayed the two sides as allies in a state-building project rather than adversaries and illustrated how the Palestinians were victimized during Israel’s creation. Shlaim’s work destabilized two widely held myths simultaneously: the supposed cross-Arab rejection of any Jewish presence in Palestine, and the fiction that Palestinian Arabs voluntarily left their homes during the 1948-49 war. His most significant book since was his 1999 study, The Iron Wall, which still may be the best work on Israel’s policies toward its neighbors.

Shlaim was the only one of the new historians to have been born not in Israel or Europe but in an Arab country, Iraq. This fact motivates the distinctive perspective of his new book, Three Worlds: Memoirs of an Arab-Jew, and he is admirably forthright about the ways in which his background affected his scholarship. “My experience as a young boy and that of the whole Jewish community in Iraq, suggests that there is nothing inevitable or pre-ordained about Arab-Jewish antagonism,” he writes. Shlaim’s family had lived in Iraq for many generations, prosperous and secure in Baghdad until Arab nationalism and Zionism combined in the 1940s to make their lives unsafe.

Arab Jews are often forgotten about outside of Israel itself, and Three Worlds attempts to restore their place in the history of the Middle East. Aside from reviving the little-known story of Jews in Iraq, Shlaim’s personal account highlights the limits of seeing Israel as a white supremacist state. Analyzing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict entirely through the prism of America’s racial conflict is common enough on the far left in the United States, but the sizable presence in Israel of the Mizrahi, a Hebrew term for Jews from the Middle East and North Africa, illustrates that seeing the tensions between Jews and Arabs as identical to those between white and Black people in the West is inadequate. Efforts to confine this most complicated of historical conflicts to simplistic binaries are doomed to fail—a truth that Shlaim himself, ironically, does not always appreciate.

In Shlaim’s telling, an Arab-Jewish identity was once rich and unconflicted. Born in 1945, he had an idyllic childhood in an upper-middle-class environment with servants, nannies, and an elaborate garden. The Shlaim family was Jewish by religion but culturally as Arab as their Christian and Muslim neighbors. There were family outings on the Tigris, travels to Alexandria, dinners of chicken and rice. They had no longing to move to Israel, and they had no affinity for Zionism. Shlaim expresses deep affection for this lost world of the Mizrahi. He writes of his parents’ glorious social life: “Their favourite club was al-Zawra where the atmosphere was friendly and welcoming. Barbecued dinners were served on the lawn by waiters in smart uniforms. When they were not having a meal, the guests could play backgammon or card games or just lounge around and chat to friends.”

In the wake of Israel’s establishment in 1948, more than 800,000 Jews were expelled or fled from Arab countries. In 1950, the Shlaims left for Israel, along with most of the Iraqi Jewish community. He makes clear that this was not what Jews call aliyah, the word for immigrating to Israel that literally translates to “moving up.” Shlaim writes, “Migration involved descent for us, yerida in Hebrew.” In addition to leaving behind property, the Shlaims lost stability, prestige, and identity. In their new home, they were condescended to and discriminated against, being Arab and hence considered uncivilized in a state desperately trying to build a Western identity and erase any notions of weakness and regret. Sadly, Shlaim’s father was forever broken by this transformation, unable to adjust to his new life in a foreign country, and he eventually divorced Shlaim’s mother, who was similarly miserable in Israel, which she referred to as a pigsty.

The Mizrahi were ripe targets for right-wing populist politicians such as Menachem Begin, who were eager to exploit grievances, and they have been integral to Israel’s conservative shift over the last 50 years. But contrary to having the hostile feelings toward Arabs that many Mizrahi were thought to harbor, Shlaim retained a fondness for Baghdad and didn’t warm to Israel during his childhood. “Sometimes one aspect of one’s identity dominates and overshadows all others,” he writes. “In my case being Iraqi was the dominant, ever-present, restricting, even stifling sense of myself.” He maintained an inferiority complex on account of his origins until he moved to England in 1961; outside of Israel, he felt liberated. He spent three years in London and decided to study history at Cambridge University. But first, he returned to Israel for two years of service in the Israel Defense Forces.

Shlaim developed a patriotic attachment to Israel while living abroad, and he was a nationalist during his stint in the military from 1964 to 1966. It isn’t clear why or how this pro-Israel sentiment grew, since he describes his earlier years in Israel as filled with loneliness, alienation, and humiliation. But in the military, he writes, “We saw ourselves as a democratic little country surrounded by millions of fanatical Arabs bent on our destruction, and we genuinely believed that we had no choice but to stand up and fight.” And yet, some of his experiences pushed his thinking in a more questioning direction. While his company was training in the Judean hills in 1964, six of its members, including Shlaim himself, were forced to march half a kilometer without weaponry into what they were told was Jordan as punishment for leaving their rifles unguarded. They returned unharmed. Shlaim thinks that by showing how Jordanians would not, in fact, slaughter them all, the twisted prank might have seeded in him an inkling that Jordanians were not the enemy Israelis were taught they were, a theme his books would later develop.

Narratively, the book ends abruptly at this point, which is unfortunate. It is not Shlaim’s background but his discoveries as a historian—entirely neglected here—that are the most notable thing about him. The pressure and exhilaration of subverting a country’s central myths are left for readers to imagine, as are how he made his pioneering archival findings and what impact they had on his life.

The epilogue of Three Worlds ends with an essay assessing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which clarifies that Shlaim’s military service marked the apex of his patriotism. For reasons left as unexplained as his brief nationalist stint, he progressively fell out of love with Israel and ultimately rejected the country’s self-conception altogether. He outlines Israel as a settler-colonial movement that inevitably displaced the native population—the Palestinians. He disputes claims that the country changed after its victory in the 1967 war, the triumph that led to Israel’s conquering of the West Bank—including East Jerusalem—and the Gaza Strip. In Shlaim’s telling, the Israeli endeavor has always been an expansionist, exploitative mission. This is a familiar evaluation, if still a radical one coming from an Israeli whose family was forced to flee an Arab country.

More originally, Shlaim maintains that Arab Jews were also victims of Zionism. He barely faults the leaders of countries like Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan for making life inhospitable for Jews, essentially absolving them of antisemitism. While he has much to say about Zionism’s impact, he largely avoids condemning the Arab nationalists who deemed all Jews to be subversive agents working on behalf of the Jewish state. He frames their actions entirely as a backlash against Israel’s creation, as if they had no agency in deciding how to respond to events in the Holy Land. But these demagogues didn’t just protest Zionism. They wrongly questioned the loyalty of Arab Jews and then pressured them into exile—a profound evil that Shlaim essentially blames on Israel.

The most controversial section of Three Worlds is a chapter recounting bombings on Jewish targets in Baghdad in 1950 and 1951 that inspired virtually the entire Jewish community to leave. One grenade attack on a synagogue killed four Jews and wounded 20 others. Shlaim argues that three of the five bombings were the work of Zionists operating in Iraq who aimed to force the Jewish community to flee for Israel. Indeed, he asserts “undeniable proof of Zionist involvement in the terrorist attacks that helped to terminate two and a half millennia of Jewish presence in Babylon.”

But the claim is overstated. Shlaim’s new evidence is an interview with one of the alleged participants bragging about his involvement more than a half-century after the bombings occurred, and a report, supposedly from Baghdad police, recounting confessions by the Zionist culprits. I must agree with Benny Morris, another of the new historians who made his name in the 1980s, who argued recently in Tablet that “[T]his historical documentation is inconclusive at best.” There is no indication on the document that it is from an official source—no dates, no names, no titles—and others have testified to the exact opposite of the claims made by Shlaim’s source. The jury is still out on the Baghdad bombings.

But more can be said for Shlaim’s assessment of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He wrote this book before the latest Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip, which followed Hamas’s brutal attack inside Israel on October 7. But the viciousness of Israel’s response, which has been accompanied by settler attacks on Palestinians in the West Bank, underscores that the ongoing dispossession of Arabs is at the heart of the dispute. A thread of continuity exists between Zionists purchasing land in the 1920s and evicting Palestinians from it, the expulsion of Palestinians in 1947-48, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan for a “voluntary migration” of Palestinians in 2024. “Since Zionism was an avowedly settler-colonial movement from the outset, the building of civilian settlements on occupied land was only a new stage in the long march,” as Shlaim writes.

Shlaim endorses a one-state solution, where Palestinians and Jews would share the land in a democratic country. This seems to me impossibly utopian, not least because nations that despise each other, as Israelis and Palestinians clearly do, cannot be expected to share power well. Israeli Jews will not cede power, and Hamas’s political Islam has no place for equality with Jews. Shlaim unconvincingly suggests that his experiences as a Jew living in Iraq indicate that Arabs and Jews can live harmoniously in one polity. But Jews were a small minority in Middle Eastern countries, so their presence didn’t jeopardize the majority power of Arabs. Moreover, Jews were second-class citizens in Arab countries and subject to periodic violence, which Shlaim’s rosy recollections tend to overlook. While his experiences as a boy are touching and well evoked, they are hardly representative.

And yet, as Shlaim’s account makes clear, the two-state solution now seems equally implausible, since Israel has entire communities of Jews living deep in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem. Land and water that should have been ceded to Palestinians in a peace agreement long ago have been de facto annexed, and Netanyahu openly renounces any possibility of a Palestinian state anyway. On the other side, Hamas officially refutes Israel’s existence. The militant group’s leaders have stated publicly that they want to repeat the October 7 attacks on grander scales until the country disappears. The likeliest scenario in the short and medium term, sadly, is deepening apartheid in the Holy Land. At this point, coexistence along the lines Shlaim imagines seems as distant as the multiethnic, peaceful Baghdad in which he grew up. No wonder he misses his childhood.

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Jordan Michael Smith is a contributing editor at The New Republic. He received the 2023 Richard J. Margolis Award for social justice journalism.

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