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Impossible Exodus: Iraqi Jews in Israel.

Impossible Exodus: Iraqi Jews in Israel

By Orit Bashkin. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2017, vii + 305 pp.

Orit Bashkin's purpose for writing Impossible Exodus is clear: The author aims to elucidate a historical injustice that has yet to be significantly investigated in Israeli historiography. Facing discrimination and prejudice following the escalation of the Arab-Israel conflict and the founding of the State of Israel, Iraqi Jewish migrants challenged Israeli state politics. By focusing on agency and resistance, Bashkin centers the dehumanization and rehumanization Iraqi Jewish migrants experienced in the face of Israeli social engineering projects (8). Such migrants were dehumanized by the poverty and segregation they experienced in Israeli transit camps, and later rehumanized through protest and the mobilization for justice. Situating her study in an interdisciplinary framework of cultural history, Bashkin procures her primary documents in Hebrew and Arabic from archives, official accounts, statistics, newspapers, and secondary literary analysis. Given her previous books and articles on Iraqi history and the history of Iraqi Jews, as well as her insider/outsider position as an Israeliborn Ashkenazi Jew, Bashkin has both the background and the authority to write a book such as Impossible Exodus.

The author argues that the newly established elites of Israel identified non-European Jewish migrants with its Palestinian and Arab rivals and created a dichotomy in which European civilization was considered to be ascendant compared to Eastern culture (11). Settled in transit camps, Iraqi Jews were alienated from the rest of Israeli society through socioeconomic, cultural, and racist discrimination in the 1950s. Iraqi Jews came from a sectarian society in which the Iraqi state had implemented "divide-and-rule" policies within its ethnic and religious communities. Consequently, Baskin emphasizes the term sectarianism, a term which was used by the Iraqi Jewish community after their migration to describe "how the state enforced a separation between Mizrahi and Ashkenazi Jews" (12). Therefore, one's ethnic and religious backgrounds were important in determining who would have political affiliations, employment, and access to housing in Israel. Throughout Impossible Exodus, Bashkin tries to restore the stories of Iraqi Jewish migrants who lived in Israel in the 1950s.

The first and second chapters analyze the dehumanization of Iraqi migrants. In chapter 1, Bashkin discusses how Iraqi Jewish migrants were sprayed with DDT as soon as they landed in Israel (29), as well as the poor transportation and medical services that only exacerbated illnesses among pregnant women and children. For Bashkin, the settlement of Iraqi Jewish migrants in transit camps was "part of a larger project of Israelizing former Palestinian territories" (33). While many Iraqi Jewish migrants had decent jobs and homes in Iraq and belonged to the middle and upper classes, once they migrated to Israel they often lacked adequate nutrition, housing, employment, and health care, all of which framed them as subaltern figures in Israel (65). Chapter 2 turns its focus to the children who grew up in transit camps and kibbutzim, presenting the story of a girl named Amalia who questioned symbolic representatives of the state and challenged the power dynamics within it. In this chapter, Bashkin documents the everyday racism that developed toward Iraqi Jewish teenagers in the kibbutzim, including stereotypical slurs that framed migrants as ignorant, uncivilized, and primitive or conflated their identity with Arabs or Black people (97).

The third and fourth chapters shift the focus to the rehumanization of Iraqi Jews. In chapter 3, Bashkin centers the Israeli political system that developed in the 1950s to allow Iraqi Jews to verbalize their complaints. By paying particular attention to the parties that had the most Iraqi participation, this chapter highlights the leaders' stance toward sectarianism and Iraqi Jewish migrants. It shows how the leaders of the parties in question generally avoided criticizing Zionist ideology, which in turn limited the recognition of racism in Israel. Bashkin reveals that, despite its efforts, the Israeli State was unable to propose an in-depth solution to the Iraqi problem (104, 105), and that many state officials tended to blame the ynctim vis-a-vis Iraqi Jewish discrimination. Thus, according to Baskin, "Israel was a democracy in name only," and the first prime minister of Israel, Ben-Gurion, "offered the poor the same freedoms that Truman offered blacks in the United States" (125). Chapter 4 examines aspects of resistance among Iraqi Jews as thev shifted from passive victims to active political agents. Bashkin indicates that the majority of petitioners and demonstrators in the 1950s were Iraqi Jewish migrants, and issues included, for example, major concerns about poor drinking water in the transit camps--described bv Iraqi Jews as "Coca-Cola" because of its brown color (173). According to Bashkin, such protests rehumanized Iraqi Jewish migrants; their function within the state could not be reduced to populating vacant territories left behind by the Palestinians. In this regard, the Iraqi Jews' contributions to forward Israeli democracy was praiseworthy.

The final chapter outlines the formation of certain Iraqi Jewish identities in Israel before 1967. Iraqi, Mizrahi, and Arab identities, as Bashkin stresses, "were not monolithic but were intertwined with one another" (218). Fluency in Arabic was an asset in Israel in the 1950s and 1960s, as it was important to have a bilingual (Hebrew and Arabic) space for Jews from the Middle Fiast and North Africa. This linguistic capital, Bashkin shows, advanced the status of Iraqi Jews, though European Jews still tended to have better jobs.

Impossible Exodus is an exceptional expose of the sufferings of the Iraqi and Mizrahi Jews in Israel during the 1950s. It hopes to uncover a historical injustice, heralds a new era of Israeli historiography, and renews the Iraqi Jewish experience. As such, it paves the way for a critical rethinking of ethnic, racial, and sectarian discrimination of Iraqi Jews as practiced by the Israeli state elites in the 1950s.


Ovgii Ulgen is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Montreal. She graduated with a degree in sociology from the Middle East Technical University in Ankara, Turkey in 2011, and subsequently completed her Master 2 in sociology at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (EHESS) in Paris, France in 2014. Her master's thesis focused on Kurdish forced migrants, urban politics, collective memory, and the political sociology of violence in the Middle East in a neighborhood called Tarlabasi in Istanbul, Turkey. Since September 2017 she has been a PhD student at Universite de Montreal. Her current dissertation project focuses on bridging the gap in the extant literature on integration discourses by way of a longitudinal case studv of the Sephardic sense of belonging in two neighbouring but different provinces (Quebec and Ontario).
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Author:Ulgen, Ovgu
Geographic Code:7ISRA
Date:Dec 22, 2019
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