An Iraqi Jewish Voice on Zionism in 1938

[This is a newspaper editorial I assign in my Modern Middle East class.  The Iraq Times was an English-language newspaper in the British Mandate of Iraq and afterward, and the author of this editorial was a Jewish lawyer in Baghdad, part of what was then a large Jewish community.  Before World War II, the British Mandate of Palestine was charged with setting up a self-governing state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, but instead created rising tensions between the Jewish and Arab inhabitants of the region.  These tensions led to the Arab Revolt of 1936-1939, the Jewish militias’ participation in World War II, the subsequent Jewish terrorism to drive England out of Palestine, the Intercommunal War, the foundation of the State of Israel, and the first Arab-Israeli War.  I have not edited the letter other than changing the indent style and adding links to explain his allusions.  I am not endorsing his arguments, but the editorial presents an interesting viewpoint which is easily forgotten in the landscape of today’s ongoing debate on the subject.]

The Iraq Times, November 5, 1938

CORRESPONDENCE: America and the Problem of Palestine

To the Editor.

Sir, – May I be permitted a word of comment on the recent announcement in your columns that a certain number of American Senators, Representatives, and State Governors have petitioned in favour of the National Home in Palestine?

The Jews in Europe to-day are mostly the descendants of unwilling emigrants carried away from their original homeland, whether at the time of Pompey, the Ptolemies, Titus, or their successors, by two European Powers on whose inheritance present-day Europe is founded.  The Jewish problem is part of that inheritance and has come to be a family heirloom which has passed from one generation or one State to another.  As it stands to-day it is the product of more than two thousand years of European history, and is therefore of European creation.  It is destined to remain on Europe’s hands or on its conscience.

Twenty years ago, by a very risky piece of political acrobatics, an attempt was made to shift the problem to this part of the world.  The attempt was bound to prove a tragic failure, because, apart from the forbidding bare facts of the situation, the scheme was founded on a manifestly unworkable partnership.  The pact of partnership was obscure, and a rift could be detected from the beginning in the declared intentions of the two parties.  What is more important, however, is that the motives and ultimate aims of the two parties lay in different directions.  For the Mandatory Power policy in Palestine had necessarily to fit into the wide network of political relations of a world Empire, relations which are changing in definition and are not always conditioned by Whitehall.  And in this part of the world those relations happen to be rather delicate and connected with certain vital Imperial interests.

On this foundation of quicksand, and with a blind and deliberate disregard of surroundings, the Zionist partner came to build with a different end in view.  His object was, at the outset, expressed with as much caution as would be expected, but the developments with which it was pregnant were sufficiently hinted at through certain indiscretions from Zionist quarters.  At any rate, to a student of political history – or to anyone who is alive to the elementary fact that ideas, once released, tend to assume an autonomous life and have a course and momentum of their own – it was already quite plain that the basic idea of Zionism was, by its potentialities and repercussions, bound to have a catastrophic destiny and a disastrous end.  There was an easily discernible ratio between the rate of its progress and that of the growth of all the elements, local and general, which would in the end destroy it.  And so, with Dr. Weismann mistaking stagecraft for statecraft and Lord Balfour quite understandably incapable of foreseeing that a brilliant piece of political work in the best nineteenth century tradition would be so fast out of fashion in the post-war world, an adventure was lightly embarked upon which will probably rank as one of the greatest downright gambles in contemporary history.

The irony of the situation is that the Jewish problem in Europe remains the same essentially, and much worse contingently, and was so at the time when Zionism was still going with all sails out.  The problem is, and remains, a European problem both by origin and present incidence.

This being the case, the meaning of the intervention of the gentlemen from America is not easily understandable. Is it a sidelight on the inner history of Anglo-American understanding which has now, for many years, been on the point of being achieved?

Is the intervention actuated by humanitarian motives?  If so, there would be far more political wisdom in responsible opinion in America supporting the really generous proposals of President Roosevelt at the Evian Conference last summer regarding refugees generally.  The proposals were sabotaged by European diplomacy under the stress of urgent political difficulties, but if anything constructive is to be done about refugees it will be through a sustained effort in that direction.  The formula should be comprehensive enough to include the great number of Jews who are to-day actual refugees in many European countries, and those who are virtual refugees in others.

If no efforts are forthcoming coming in that direction, and if, after a first attempt, isolationist opinion in America inclines again to wash its hands of this part of European business, then it does not seem that the intervention is consistent.  If this world consists of a brave new one lying West, and an old, pestilential one cordoned off on this side of the Atlantic, it seems that the latter ought to be left alone in every respect.  If, however, human conscience revolts, and urges the isolationist, whether merely disgusted or punitive or utilitarian, to do something for individual human beings as distinct from political Europe as such, then one can only point out with much regret that the choice of solution resorted to by the petitioners is unhappy.

Europe, with all its turmoil, has so far been more helpful to refugees than America.  Certain European countries have opened their doors to a fairly large influx of refugees when America did not abate its immigration restrictions by a jot.

The United States have an area of 7,839,000 square kilometres and a population of 125,000,000.  Their density of population is 17 per square kilometre.  They have practically all the resources necessary for an economy which is not only autonomous but which can impose itself on foreign markets.

Palestine has an area of 26,000 square kilometres and a population of 1,250,000.  Her density of population is 48.  I do not know what she has that can be called an economy capable of sustaining an independent State of any consequence or future.  She has inhospitable land in greater proportion than the United States.  These figures are, of course, too crude for a real comparison between the two countries, but are nevertheless enough to show that, if nothing can be done for Jews or other refugees in America or elsewhere, and Palestine is regarded as the only place of paltry home for them, the only conclusion that one can come to is that man in isolationist America is the same as elsewhere, and when he has some trouble with his conscience he seeks to whitewash his moral self at the expense of others for as cheaply as possible.

I cannot visualize American public men of high standing as being actuated by religious motives in a matter which requires the best that earnest and objective statesmanship can have at its command.  But I know well that the subject of Palestine is one where the religious extremist, on both sides to the dispute, has free play.  To him it is enough to point out that two thousand years of history cannot be undone, that the wheels of time cannot be made to turn so far backward, that after two thousand years a situation has arisen in Palestine with which political Zionism in its essence and ultimate aims is irreconcilable, and also that in the meantime international relations have come to be ruled by principles one of which is that the fate of a country must be determined by the wish of its indigenous population.

In deciding which is the indigenous population one must take the present situation; one cannot go back to reconstruct historical geography because otherwise we land instantly into incalculable danger.  Reconstruction of historical geography, if accepted as a practical theory, would for instance bring the case for Ulster to the ground, and provide a recognized legal basis for German claims on Eastern Europe.  In a certain influential section of the German press the theory is now being held out that Eastern Europe up to the Volga, was in some remote time wholly occupied by Germans.  If the legal basis for a reoccupation is conceded, there will remain nothing but to work out history in detail for a suitable epoch, and everyone knows that modern science can do anything.  Moreover, if one goes reconstituting history two thousand years back, there is no reason why one should not go still farther back, say four or five thousand years, and presently have the world ruled by militant archaeology.

There remains, of course, the possibility that the petitioners’ intervention was solicited as additional chorus for Zionist propaganda, but this seems hardly conceivable as a suitable approach to a problem of such complexity by persons in such responsible situations.  – Yours faithfully, J. S. ELKABIR


November 3rd, 1938

3 thoughts on “An Iraqi Jewish Voice on Zionism in 1938

  1. Michael Rabens

    What happened to Mr. Elkabir in subsequent years? Did he live long enough to go through the Farhud in 1941, or the essentially forced dissolution of the Iraqi Jewish community in 1950?

    1. Thomas A. Carlson Post author

      I really do not know his subsequent life. Orit Bashkin at the University of Chicago has written on the Iraqi Jewish community recently; her book might be a place to find the information.


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