On Wednesday, Orit Bashkin, professor of modern Middle Eastern history at the University of Chicago, presented on the findings of her most recent book, Impossible Exodus: Iraqi Jews in Israel.
Speaking to an almost full Gund Community Foundation Theater, Bashkin shared excerpts from memoirs, poetry and literature highlighting Arab Jews’ protest against the living conditions of the transit camps, referred to as “ma’abarot” in Hebrew, that they had been placed in by the Israeli government.
Bashkin began her talk by emphasizing that the term “Arab Jew” was not oxymoronic. Despite the prevalence of Arab-Israeli conflict in world affairs — a conflict that paints Arabs and Jews as antagonists she argued that these Jews identified as Arab, as Arabic was the language they learned, read and spoke in, and they were full members of pluralistic neighborhoods alongside Arab Christians and Muslims.
The Iraqi Jews who migrated to Israel in the 1950s had left behind their culture, their education had been disrupted and their living conditions in the ma’abarot had caused them to feel neglected by the state. During especially rainy winters, the state separated Arab Jewish children from their parents; Bashkin said that this policy of child separation prevented whole families from leaving the ma’abarot.
For Bashkin, this fit into a broader tension between Jews in Israel who had migrated from Europe and those from the Middle East and North Africa, including the Sephardi Jews in Israel, Iraqi Jews and Jews from other Arab countries. She highlighted the use of racialized language and a complex taxonomy used by Israeli officials that cast these Arab Jews as inferior.
Bashkin used stories from Arab Jews recounting their lives in these transit camps to show the ways they resisted their treatment as second-class citizens. Alongside more obvious examples such as the Israeli Black Panthers, she highlights less obvious forms of resistance, such as how mothers resisted child separation policies and Arab Jews continued to speak and produce literature in their native tongue.
For Adam Aluzri ’19, the major takeaway was the resistances’ parallels with the U.S. civil rights movement.
“That was something that was totally unexpected, but I think it really demonstrates a lot about the kinds of conditions that [Iraqi Jews] were living in and the origins of ongoing discrimination against Eastern or Sephardic Jews in Israel now,” he said.
Bashkin concluded her talk by discussing the relevance of her research to modern times.
“Even today [that is what] we are seeing with the separation of children,” she said. “It makes you feel like you are dealing with not only a problem of the past, but something that is ongoing.”