Remembering Iraqi Jewish Refugee Children

| כ״ה באב ה׳תשע״ז (17/08/2017) | 0 Comments

by Orit Bashkin, Professor of Modern Middle East History at the University of Chicago.

Life for Iraqi Jews in Israel was not easy, particularly for the youngest among them.

Between 1949 and 1951, some 123,000 Iraqi Jews who were denationalized by the Iraqi state migrated to Israel. These Jews, I suggest, were not native sons returning to their homeland, but rather immigrants arriving at a new location, where they encountered prejudice and discrimination.

Displaced Iraqi Jews, 1951.

Displaced Iraqi Jews, 1951.

Most of them resided in transit camps, known as Ma‘abarot. Originally, these camps were perceived as sites in which Jewish migrants would stay for only a brief period of time, yet many Jews remained there for much longer periods (between one to seven years), living in tents, huts, and shacks where poor sanitary and hygiene conditions, poverty, and neglect ran rampant.  The transit camps where Iraqi Jewish children resided were dangerous spaces.


Impossible Exodus

Impossible Exodus  tells the story of Iraqi Jews’ first decades in Israel, who, faced with ill treatment and discrimination from state officials, engaged in various forms of resistance.

My book, Impossible Exodus, sheds light on Iraqi Jewish life in the Ma‘abarot of Israel; on the communists and activists who participated in strikes, sit-ins, and demonstrations, on the Iraqi mothers who managed to get their children out of the cycle of poverty, and on the teachers who, without state permission, organized classes and schools. The most difficult chapter for me to write concerned Iraqi Jewish children, not only because these children were the fathers and mothers of childhood friends of mine but also because of the resonance of their experiences with those of current refugee children, Syrian and Yemenite in particular, who, like the Iraqi children whose history I was reconstructing, lost a sense of home and normalcy—and also because it is always difficult to write about the sufferings of the most helpless and vulnerable.

Indeed, the transit camps where Iraqi Jewish children resided were dangerous spaces. Mothers aborted because ambulances could not reach these camps. Mice, rats, and insects threatened the children’s health. In Jerusalem, land mines were found in the vicinity of one camp. In 1954, a child living in the transit camp at Holon was killed when he was playing by a dunghill, and an old shell exploded. As families were living in tents and shacks and lighting was mainly in the form of oil lanterns and candles, these temporary houses caught fire. A two-year-old baby was burned alive in one such fire; there were no water tanks to put it out and no phone with which to call the fire department. Near Haifa, three children met with the same fate when their tent caught fire. They were raised by their widowed father, who tried to commit suicide twice after the tragedy.

Children who grew up in transit camps also describe how they enjoyed playing outside with their friends, conversing with them, and running about. Indeed, the creativity and imagination of these children alleviated the harsh circumstances. And yet, Iraqi Jewish families were broken apart when sons and daughters left for kibbutzim which offered better education; when fathers lived far away from their families in order to make a living; and especially when children watched their fathers and mothers suffer a decline in social status.

State officials crippled the success of their own absorption project due to their stereotypes about the “primitive” nature of Iraqi families.

The Israeli state had an effect on the lives of these children. Since the state elites were socialist, they invested in measures to make sure that Iraqi children were educated and fed. A long battle was waged in the Knesset to guarantee that children would get a glass of milk per day in school. Local committees in the transit camps assisted the Ministry of Education in providing milk powder, sugar, and cacao to children. Teachers, social workers, soldiers, and doctors were sent to these camps. In truth, it was very difficult to find the resources to support the children; the state was extremely poor and all of its citizens lived under difficult austerity measures. But state officials crippled the success of their own absorption project due to their stereotypes about the “primitive” nature of Iraqi families and due to their dismissal of the sufferings of Iraqi Jews.

Israeli society was also divided on how to treat Iraqi children. On the one hand, large segments of society did come to their aid. Families that were themselves dealing with austerity measures took Iraqi Jewish children in, and volunteers and women’s organizations from across the political spectrum assisted the children and their families, especially during harsh winters. But the presence of a large number of poor immigrants also exposed the darkest side of Israeli society, as when employers took advantage of illegal teen and child labor.

My work on Iraqi Jews is also relevant to thousands of children and young adults living in Israel during the 1950s. While being a child in Israel at that time was not an easy matter for many, life was particularly difficult for those children whose parents were recent migrants to the state, whether from Iraq or elsewhere, and, of course, for those children whose parents were Palestinian. For instance, some 25,000 immigrant children, mostly Yemenite and North African, and 3,700 Palestinian children underwent dangerous radiation treatment for ringworm disease. In Palestinian villages, children could not always access doctors because of severe limitations to their parent’s freedom of movement; the results were deadly. Babies, mostly Yemenite, were snatched from their parents and given up for adoption. This past June, hundreds of parents, activists, and members of the second and third generation, demanded state recognition. A brave NGO called AMRAM, whose members set up an online archive of evidence of parents, played a crucial role in this venture.

Yemenite Jews in Ma‘abarot Rosh Ha-Ayin, 1949.

Yemenite Jews in Ma‘abarot Rosh Ha-Ayin, 1949.

While working on my book, my thoughts wandered between past and the present. I felt that Israelis and Jews in particular ought to know more about the 1950s, instead of being satisfied with rosy tales about Israel as a merry Jewish melting pot. Many more histories from the 1950s—from the histories of Bulgarian Jews settled in depopulated Jaffa to the fate of poor Palestinian children in the state of Israel—are yet to be told. The shift in Israel Studies from a type of global hasbra (propaganda) to a painful and genuine look at the state’s past was happening while I was writing my book, and I am proud to be part of this historiographical shift. The present, however, lingers, as more and more refugees are being created, and as the pain of older refugees, Palestinians most notably, are still globally ignored. I hope that my readers, as they learn more about the Jewish children of Iraq, will think about the children of the present, who face similar, horrific, challenges. They deserve our attention and our compassion.

[ Original posting here ]


Category: Books

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