A revealing collection of published and unpublished writings on Israel's struggle to become a nation, as documented by a young Jewish journalist recently arrived from Iraq.
In 1951, Israel was a young nation surrounded by hostile neighbors. Its tenuous grip on nationhood was made slipperier still by internal tensions among the various communities that had immigrated to the new Jewish state, particularly those between the politically and socially dominant Jewish leadership hailing from Eastern Europe and the more numerous Oriental Jews from the Middle East and North Africa. Into this volatile mix came Nissim Rejwan, a young Iraqi Jewish intellectual who was to become one of the country's leading public intellectuals and authors.
Beginning with Rejwan's arrival in 1951 and climaxing with the tensions preceding Israel's victory in the Six-Day War of 1967, this book colorfully chronicles Israel's internal and external struggles to become a nation, as well as the author's integration into a complex culture. Rejwan documents how the powerful East European leadership, acting as advocates of Western norms and ideals, failed to integrate Israel into the region and let the country take its place as a part of the Middle East. Rejwan's essays and occasional articles are an illuminating example of how minority groups use journalism to gain influence in a society. Finally, the letters and diary entries reproduced in Outsider in the Promised Land are full of lively, witty meditations on history, literature, philosophy, education, and art, as well as one man's personal struggle to find his place in a new nation.
- 1. First Impressions
- 2. Probings
- 3. Arab Affairs Analyst of Sorts
- 4. Rachel
- 5. The Levantinism Scare
- 6. The Three Divides
- 7. Barbarians at the Gate
- 8. Gentlefolk and Upstarts
- 9. Israel's Communal Problem
- 10. Freedom of Speech, Israel Style
- 11. The Mystery of Education
- 12. The Debate Intensifies
- 13. Stepping on "Very Delicate Ground"
- Afterword. Pride or Self-Effacement: On Refusing to Save Skin
Ma`bara, "Ledger Keeper," Terra Sancta
In an autobiographical fragment written in the early 1960s, Walter Zeev Laqueur, a Polish-born Israeli and formerly a Jerusalem Post contributing editor, writes of one autumn evening during an interval at a conference somewhere near Athens, when the conversation turned to the subject of "the need for roots." They were, Laqueur relates, eight around the table, and it emerged that none of them lived where he was born and that only one would be able to see again the parental home if he went back to his birthplace. In seven cases out of eight, the parental home—the house itself—was there no longer.
None of the eight, however, was physically or by law barred from going back to his birthplace had he wanted so to do—and I found myself wondering, on reading this, how these fellow emigrés would have felt had they lived with the knowledge that they were physically and permanently barred from visiting their hometowns, even if only for a brief look.
I am mentioning this because in recent years I have had reason to believe that one day I would be able to visit Baghdad, and possibly even to see some of my many non-Jewish friends of yore. As luck would have it, however, first came the long Iran-Iraq War, which lasted some eight years, then the war over Kuwait and, in its disastrous aftermath, the virtual third-worldization of Iraq.
I came to Israel together with my mother in February 1951. I was twenty-six. A twenty-year-old unmarried sister, who had arrived the previous year, was already at some kibbutz; my father had died four years earlier. We stayed for a few nights at the home of an aunt in Haifa. The husband said why, with the kind of experience you have and with your knowledge of English, you can easily find a job. He made me write four applications—to the oil refineries, the electric company, Discount Bank, and Bank Leumi. All four wrote back expressing an interest, and finally for some reason or other I chose Discount, was duly accepted, and started work immediately.
It was hell! All day long I dealt with checks signed illegibly, compared the signatures with the specimens on file at the bank, verified the account holder's balance and the identity of the person presenting the check, and ordered the cashier to pay. At the end of the day, after putting everything back in perfect order, I took the bus north to somewhere that looked like the middle of nowhere, somewhere not far from Afula, where, literally in the middle of a deserted grapefruit grove, the three of us were allotted a tent. This went on for two or three weeks until I decided I had had enough. One Friday, after asking to leave work early so I could reach Jerusalem at some reasonable hour—that was in the days when a trip from Haifa to Jerusalem took at least four hours—I took the bus to where Jacob, my friend from Baghdad, lived, miserably, at some ramshackle dorm in Musrara.
That was the last I was ever to see of the bank in Haifa; on Sunday I started the long procedure of enrolling at the Hebrew University (the whole of which, except for one largish lecture hall at the Ratisbonne compound, was housed in the Terra Sancta Building, where the excellent British Council Library was also to be found) and the even more complex procedure of finding a place in a ma`bara (transit camp) in Jerusalem. Finally we got a place in the Talpiot ma`bara, not a tent but a tin hut that was good for refrigeration in winter and baking in summer—almost.
At the university, on my friend Elie Kedourie's advice, I took courses in Islamic civilization and Arabic language and literature, and there were also quite a few other preliminary subjects grouped under the name mekhinah (preparatory year). By then I somehow managed to speak and hear Hebrew, and at the end of what must have been the second or third lecture in Islamic civilization, our teacher, the late professor Shmuel Dov Goitein, often let me accompany him to his home nearby, and we had a chat in his study—always in English.
One of the things Goitein told me was that, in case I didn't know, every one of the Iraqi students at the university was considered a communist. This being the case—and because I seemed to him so "different" (he also used the word "intelligent")—it would be sensible of me to change my family name. I don't think I responded to that, but I swear he made the suggestion. Be that as it may, he said I had better attend a Hebrew ulpan (Hebrew study center), and duly gave me a letter to the powers-that-be asking that I be admitted. That was the way it was with the Orientals (African and Asian Jews)—you had to be "intelligent," exceptional, and "clean," or whatever, to be taught the elements of the Hebrew language!
I enjoyed the ulpan because of the long-missed female company—mainly a number of "eligibles." Midway through the ulpan I managed to get a job at the Jerusalem Post as a proofreader. That was quite a break with tradition, letting a barbarian from Baghdad do proofreading for the great English-language paper, a job reserved exclusively for "Anglo-Saxons" (that was the appellation used at the paper at the time). After much agonizing, however, and a trial period, I was finally accepted. But I remained pretty hard to stomach, and the editor often referred to me as "that Egyptian Communist."
Shortly after providing conclusive proof that I could read and correct galley proofs, I approached the Post's book-page editor Dr. Eugene Meyer—a gentle soul hailing from Czechoslovakia, diligent, meticulous, and highly well-organized—with the batch of cuttings of my book and movie reviews from the Iraq Times, which I had successfully "smuggled" via Elie in Oxford, since it was somewhat risky to send printed matter to Jews abroad. I left the bunch with him, and some time later he told me he found the stuff "interesting," especially a review article on the famed Egyptian writer Taha Hussein. I considered that an encouraging sign and decided to try my hand at writing for the book page. However I foolishly failed to take what later transpired as something of a hint—namely, that I had better concentrate on the things I was supposed to know about, such as Arab authors and Arabic literature.
This was made obvious to me following the publication of a long review I wrote of a book that dealt with cultural relations, or nonrelations, between Europe and the United States. It was the lead article in that Friday's book page. The following week, friends in the editorial department told me what had happened. Gershon Agron, founder and editor in chief, had remarked in an editorial meeting, "What business has Rejwan to write about America and Europe? He comes from Iraq, and he should write about the Arab world!"
Needless to say, I was not in the least amused. Not only did I know next to nothing about the Arab world, but I am never a guy to be pushed around. So what if Agron decided to confine me to my Arab ghetto? But then, what with the book-page editor gradually persuading me to review books on the Arab world and Islam and such—and especially after the Sinai war of 1956 made Israelis more aware of their surroundings and the need to communicate with their despised neighbors—I somehow found myself dragged into the Arab affairs field.
It was like this. As a reserve soldier—and once again because of where I hail from—I was mobilized during the war period as part of the intelligence branch, and after a week or so of doing nothing, I was "lent" to Israel Radio's Arabic service. It was terribly short of Arabic-literate journalists, and suddenly realized that Israel had Arabic-speaking neighbors who needed to be addressed in that language. To cut a long story short, I worked in the radio's news department, but after a few days the Post's executive editor, Ted Lurie, who learned of my whereabouts, objected that it was irregular or illegal for the army just to donate me as a present to the radio, and that I had either to be demobbed or to actually serve in the army.
Well, Lurie had it his way, but, I no longer recall exactly how, he managed to maneuver me into accepting a job with the radio as news editor, provided the company agreed to my continuing to contribute—or starting to contribute—a weekly column and an occasional editorial for the paper. I should perhaps add that by that time I had moved to the editorial desk at the Post, but that there—though no one had any doubts about my being able to do the job—they thought I was "too slow" when the situations were hot and everyone was working against the deadline. I think that was why Lurie wanted to get rid of me as a regular employee but wanted so much to keep me as a slavelancer.
The 1951-1952 academic year went all to waste, since I had to cope with my studies as well as the following: being awakened in the very early hours of the morning by my neighbors in the ma`bara—manual laborers who had to report early to work; attending classes, which were scattered all over the day and early evening without any logic or consideration; reading, either in the British Council Library or at the YMCA reading room; having some terrible lunch at the students' mensa (dining hall)—and then either reporting to work at the Post, when I was doing the afternoon shift, or trying to rest or attending the few and far between classes that I had to attend.
Now, the afternoon shift ended on weekdays at perhaps seven or seven thirty in the evening, so I could be with one of my female friends and either go to the movies or to her room—and then finally come "home" and to bed. When I was doing the night shift I finished work always after one in the morning, sometimes two, and then waited for an editor friend who lived in Bak`a to give me a lift to the ma`bara. His name was Jake Rykus, and he was doing this voluntarily, since the paper didn't provide transportation. Incidentally, it was a six-day workweek whether you were working afternoons or nights. Pure hell, it now sounds, and certainly no life fit for study.
That was the (1951-1952 academic) year that was! I spent nearly a year and a half in the ma`bara, at the end of which time I managed to rent a tiny room on the roof of an apartment building in Princess Mary Avenue. It was one of perhaps four or five rooms, each with a tiny kitchen, that were meant for the servants. Tiny but cozy—and mine anyway. All in all it was fun—so close to the Post and downtown. After my sister Simha married and moved to somewhere in the Sharon area, we managed to squeeze a bed in the kitchen for Mother, since there was no possibility whatsoever of crowding another bed in that room of mine.
Back to school. Living in such comparative luxury, I decided the time had come to enroll, this time choosing to study, believe it or not, medieval history and international relations. It went well with both, until I discovered that Latin—which went with medieval history—was not for me. Nor was the other subject much more appealing—I don't even remember what they taught us there. Medieval history, on the other hand, proved to be a fascinating subject—and topical into the bargain.
That year, Professor Yehoshua Prawer was giving a course on the Crusades, and his lectures very often contained hints, broad enough sometimes but never specific, of a possible analogy between the Crusaders and the Zionist colonizers. A number of students, who, by the way, were mostly rather older than they would be nowadays—no doubt as a result of the war and its accompanying difficulties—regularly pleaded for him to be more specific. But the professor never budged.
And so it came to pass that I stopped going to school. Not that I didn't learn anything; I learned a great deal. But this was due mainly to the fact that I took the so-called bibliographies, which was the name given by the teachers to the list of books they claimed to be "required reading," rather seriously. I read every one of the recommended books, of which I managed to purchase and keep quite a few, and from those books I learned about more and more related literature that I sought and read, taking notes and writing down some comments and so on.
However, because of my poor knowledge of Hebrew and also because I was naive enough to think that reading the recommended bibliographies (all in English) rendered the practice redundant, I didn't take notes during lectures, as all the other students were busy doing most of the time. (Some of them, I noticed with wonder, made carbon copies so that—as it transpired—they could give them to classmates who were unable to attend and who had asked them to do it for them.)
Though I don't think I sat for any of the end-of-year exams, by the end of the year I became convinced that to take those bibliographies seriously, as I did, was to court certain failure. It was then that I thought of coining a sort of dictum: In the university you have to choose between two alternatives: either learning or getting a degree. I am sure there is a great deal of exaggeration in this—also rationalization—but I began consoling myself with the thought that, after all, I had learned a lot and to hell with diplomas.
There is a kind of follow-up to all this—my university noneducation, I mean. Some thirteen or fourteen years later, at the ripe age of forty-two and out of a job, I enrolled as a first-year student at Tel Aviv University, taking this time around sociology and anthropology (I thought I would find the root causes of the problem then claiming my whole attention, i.e., the so-called communal or ethnic problem in Israel). This time, too—only much more so—I concentrated all my attention on the bibliographies and far beyond, and as a result I wrote quite a few articles on the subject and gave a few lectures. Later, during the miniwar I declared to right some of the wrongs I thought were being done to members of what came to be called the Second Israel, I think I made the best use of sociology and, especially, anthropology, of all the subjects I pretended to be learning during my fragmented university years.
As to academic degrees and such, in the case of my Tel Aviv University venture two factors made getting a degree impossible. In the first place, the sociology discipline included a course in statistics, which, as hard as I tried, I couldn't do, mainly because I didn't have the basic mathematical knowledge needed, either because I had not acquired it at school or because I had forgotten all about it.
The other factor was the Six-Day War of 1967, which broke out smack at the end of the academic year and just before the exams. Not only was I due to be mobilized by the army, but the war itself and the famous victory it brought to Israel depressed me to no end. Rather than wait for the defeated Arabs to telephone—as did General Moshe Dayan—I decided that the war had harmed the chances for peace.
25 April 1993
A few weeks ago I suddenly felt a need to recapitulate that distant chapter in my life. So I decided to organize a kind of get-together of people who had worked in the Post building during the years I toiled there, mostly as proofreader but also as frequent contributor to the book pages and finally making it briefly to the editorial desk. After quite some organizing we managed to get nine of them, whom we invited for lunch on Independence Day. Seven came with their wives, and two were no longer with wives, and, incredible as it may sound, we managed to seat them and feed them to satiation.
All in all it was fun, but the most curious thing was that everybody kept repeating how thoughtful it was of me to organise the meeting and what a wonderful, wonderful idea it all was. So Rachel kept wondering why, if the idea was so great, none of the participants had managed to air it, let alone actually organise the get-together.
And speaking of the Post these days, every time I open the paper and glance at the editorial page, I tell myself—and Rachel—I don't believe I go on writing for that paper. But then I recall the time when charges of "pro-Arab," "Leftist," and such were hurled at me by none other than the "old guard," itself now variously dubbed, ironically enough, pro-PLO, anti-Israel, and even anti-Jewish, and start thinking. Can it be that, now that the paper is finally and safely established as right-wing, pro-Likud, or whatever, the editor is no longer vulnerable and feels confident enough to have a pariah like myself participate? Or is it a question of "balance"? Or am I just being a good boy and refraining from mixing opinion with fact or writing "think pieces"?
The other day my good friend Helen made a query. Incredible as it may sound, the fact is that I have never even thought about the question she asked—relevant and fascinating as it is—namely, why in the world was I writing in English in Iraq. Come to think of it, in the normal course of events (as they say) I should've been writing in Arabic, since, unlike my very few friends—and I can think only of Elie and Jacob—I never had attended an English school; my English, in fact, was practically non-existent when I was all of sixteen years of age! (When I was 20 my Arabic teacher, Dawood el-Sayigh, a fellow Communist sympathizer who happened to be watching over us when we sat for the English exam, actually dictated to me the right answers and thus enabled me to pass . . .) Altogether the reason why I learned English enough to read it in the first place was sheer curiosity: I wanted to know more about what was going on in the world, then at war, and particularly what the Commies were saying about it. The first English periodicals I ever read were a weekly called World News and Views and the monthly Labour Monthly, both official, bona fide communist.
I was of course soon disenchanted, and my readings began to focus on literature and the like—not just literature but avant-garde literature—Eliot, Auden, Spender, Louis MacNeice and other contemporaries in poetry; and Kafka, Joyce, Thomas Mann, Virginia Woolf, and the more recent ones in prose. (I must have boasted to you more than once that I was the proud reviewer of Saul Bellow's first novel, Dangling Man.) And so on. So what was the question again? Who knows, maybe it had something to do with my being such an incurable snob . . .
16 June 1994
The publication recently of a fragment from my autobiographical work-in-progress ("Bookshop Days," The Literary Review, Winter 1994) has provoked the usual pleas and remonstrances from friends and acquaintances—in the line of "When are you going to finish that memoir of yours?" "Are you aware that it's now ten years and more since you first confided that you were actively working on your Baghdad memoirs?" And so on.
None of these reactions, however, has been as urgent, as pleading, as detailed, as heart-warming and—let's admit it!—as flattering as the one that has just come from my friend F of Philadelphia, an acknowledged Shakespeare scholar and the wife of a political science professor.
F's letter opens with these words: "Damn, why didn't I write you four days ago when the thoughts were racing around in my brain, when I knew just what I wanted to say, before we spent three days with an ex-Russian diplomat who thinks that what Russia needs now is a strong man, who asked Al if Stalin would not be remembered as Napoleon is, i.e., for all his good things and not for his 'murders.' Al tactfully ignored the fact that Napoleon's 'murders' were not in gulags, not of his own people, etc., and simply listed Nappie's accomplishments, lasting, whereas Stalin has not contributed one positive law, government, etc. Our gentle host could see this was one point of view . . ." The relevant passages from the letter, dated June 6, 1994, are:
So, you see, all this has added layers and layers between the wonderful ones I felt on reading your article, at which time I felt so strongly that if you would like to be one smart man you would throw overboard all those other projects alluded to in the bio. at the beginning, and you would bring to completion this wonderful book. That strictly political stuff is ephemeral, passing (go see the new Bertolucci film Little Buddha, visually beautiful and a seductive way to learn—or, for the learned like you, be reminded of—the beginnings of Buddhism. One point it makes is the impermanence of everything, telling us to look around at the hundreds of people we know or see with the realization they will all be gone in a hundred years. I could almost see the screen extending down to include the seated audience in front of me, up to and including us. I found it a very calming thought . . .).
I have the thought that so will all the governments in their present form, the institutions, even values, all will disappear. And that the main contribution one can make to others is oneself—books like Sterne's Sentimental Journey, Rejwan's Passage from Baghdad—they are the way we learn what it's all about down here . . .
Your first paragraphs reminded me of Walt Whitman's "When I Heard the Learned Astronomer":
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wandered off by myself,
In the mystical moist night air, and from time to time,
Looked up in perfect silence at the stars.
And all those who read those pages of yours will be reminded or will realize that that's what they should do.
These doubtless worthless few lines which can only poorly serve you in that they kept you from what I propounded as your main task are my attempt to connect . . .
Now, though I have always enjoyed Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy I had never read his Sentimental Journey, and, what I find even more shocking, I don't have it among the English classics I have stacked in various cupboards, most of them unread, I hasten to add. Now I intend to read it—if only to find out why F has singled it for mention in the context, trusting as I do her literary judgements.
Anyway, while in truth there was no lack of prodding and of encouragement concerning the completion of that memoir, F's remarks are so touching, so elegant, and so sincerely felt and expressed that as of today I've decided to devote much more thought and time to the completion of the work, knowing however that no work of this kind can ever be complete. How can it be, with so much to include, with the difficulty of picking and choosing, with a memory that's no longer entirely reliable, with only a few jottings from the past and with such a sea of documentary material—letters, diaries, cuttings from published articles and reviews, memoirs others wrote or spoke about the same period of change and upheaval. How?
Be that as it may, this is how I reacted to F's letter:
27 June 1994
Finally a whole letter—and what a letter! Well, I am flattered, and promise to take your advice-admonition, i.e., throw overboard everything—well, almost everything—and start putting the finishing touches to that part of the story that ends with February 10, 1951, when I and my late mother boarded that rickety plane at Baghdad Airport to land four hours or so later in Lydda Airport.
But this is child's play compared to another problem I now have with these memoirs—with the title this time. A good friend of mine says she is not happy with the title Passage from Baghdad, partly in that, she says, it's suggestive of something that I am the last person in the world to want to impart. It makes your years in Baghdad, she says, so rich in experience and so "formative" of your person—it makes them sound too transitory, something that can be dismissed so easily, passed by, passed over, passed up, as quite insignificant. And I tended to agree—and the title now is The Last Jews in Baghdad: Remembering a Lost Homeland.
And speaking of difficulties, one of the difficulties I have with this autobiographical work is the shape and scope of its sequel, which is to cover the 15-16 years which follow that "exit." The difficulty is that I cannot seem to find a way in which the sequel can in any way be similar to the first volume in either style or mood.
You see, almost as soon as I was able to find my way in this country, however partially, my life and work became enmeshed in controversy—hopelessly enmeshed in a hopeless and unwieldy controversy. "The expense of spirit"—is that from Shakespeare?—that went into those fights, the sacrifices, the material losses, the toil that it took just to cope—that was what essentially comprises my autobiography since 1951. How to put all that in a readable, manageable form will be quite a tricky business.
Apropos of this, a friend of mine—a fellow immigrant from Iraq—said something the other day that set me brooding. The subject was the respective performances of the two of us in Israel. Our two careers, he maintained, were diametrically different. "You, Nissim," he said, "had everything going for you, everything I wanted to have—a standing, command of the language, talent, various publications to write for, some regularly; you became editor-in-chief of a daily newspaper; you were fast becoming a celebrity. And then, at the slightest provocation, you decided you didn't want any of it—or at least that's the impression I had of the way you behaved."
And so on. And I must admit that, factually at least, that was roughly what happened. Factually, I emphasize, because as far as motive and aspiration and emotions are concerned I am not quite sure—and that is what has been exercising my mind these past few days. One of the things that come to mind is how a reasonable solution to this dilemma can affect in a meaningful sense the thrust of my account of what happened to me and inside me these past four decades.
One possible, though rather fanciful, explanation came to mind the other day. Clive Fisher, George Orwell's latest biographer, writes at one point that Orwell "exemplified" what he, Fisher, calls "that most enduring of British qualities—the fascination of defeat, . . . the glamour of failure." Fisher also speaks of "the British cult of modesty."
Well, I couldn't be considered "British" by any stretch of the imagination—unless of course such ingrained qualities can be acquired by a deep fascination with Orwell the person and an even deeper identification with his general outlook.
21 June 1994
In a little less than six months I will be completing the 70th year of my life. Seventy years, of which the first 27 were lived in Baghdad, the remaining 43 in Israel, mostly in Jerusalem. In all honesty I cannot say it has been an uneventful life, and some sort of stock-taking has long been overdue, as friends never tire of telling me. Not that I haven't tried it myself. I've already sketched certain high points in my life, even venturing into print with certain fragments.
It was, in fact, one of these that has led a good friend of mine to volunteer the comment that provokes these reflections concerning "stock-taking." Referring to his project for an autobiographical work of his own (among other things, as professor of literature, he had taken a special interest in the genre) he marveled at what he saw as a contrast between our respective fortunes after immigrating to Israel in 1951.
He had always pondered on this "contrast," he confided to me for the first time during our long acquaintance. "I," he summed up, "worked my way in this country from the periphery into the center; you, in sharp contrast, managed somehow to work your way from the center to the periphery."
My friend didn't actually use the word, but I suspect he was saying that I virtually maneuvered myself out of the center and sideways to the margins. To be sure, I had never formulated the matter in that particular way or in those stark terms, although naturally I had given the matter a good deal of thought throughout the years.
Now, in the perspective of over three decades, I am beginning to wonder—and over the past few days I've become fairly convinced that what I had done throughout my years in "the center" was invariably if only partially consciously bound to ease me out from there and back to the periphery. I say "back" because, now that I look back at the whole matter with some measure of serenity, I had not only been "marginal" throughout—in childhood, in youth, in middle age; in Baghdad, in Tel Aviv, in Jerusalem—but had felt perfectly at home at "the margins." There is, in fact, a very valid sense in which I did work my way "out of the center and sideways to the margins," as my friend had put it.
The way this singular feat was accomplished becomes clear, I hope, as the story of my first fifteen years in Israel is told, however inadequately, in what will comprise the second volume of my autobiography—for which, for a change, I had no difficulty in choosing a title.
28 June 1994
Commenting on the acts of violence which swept some British cities in 1981, social history professor Eric Hobsbawm was quoted by Time magazine as saying that the phenomenon "might not seem altogether unhealthy." Hobsbawm had written extensively on what he calls "collective bargaining by riots"—social outbursts that were accepted as a legitimate way of putting pressure on society for change. One notable example was the countryside protests in 1688, led by Protestant parliamentarians, which helped to eject Catholic King James II in favour of Protestant William of Orange. Britain, Hobsbawm said, remembers these "riots" as the Glorious Revolution.
When my truckload of immigrants arrived in Sha`ar Ha`aliyya near Haifa, where newcomers were received, examined, supplied with the necessary papers, and sent to their various destinations, I found good examples of bargaining by riots—not quite the collective variety but something strikingly similar. Greeting the newcomers were always small crowds of fellow-immigrants who had preceded them by a few days or weeks and had already acquired some knowledge of the workings of the new bureaucracy. Some gathered there because they had nothing more useful to do, some in the hope of finding relatives or friends among the arrivals.
However, even on those rare occasions where no relative or acquaintance or neighbour arrived, the waiting ones were always ready to volunteer information and advice they thought were indispensable for the newcomers. "You better know what is awaiting you here," someone I hardly knew told me as soon as I descended from the truck. "In a few days," he continued, "after the medical checkups and the army recruitments, they will call you to tell you where and when you are going to be sent for temporary settlement. Since you do not want to go to some godforsaken desert moshav or ma`bara, ask to be settled somewhere near the metropolis, where you probably have relatives already settled there." Here came a short list of the choice ma`barot then available: Ramat Hasharon, Pardess Katz, Zakiyya, Khayriyya, Yahud, Petah Tikva, and so on. Unless, of course, you have some special reason to want to be sent to Jerusalem or vicinity.
"To be sure," I was told further, "the official will want to send you somewhere else—to the Galilee or the Negev or to some other wilderness. Under no circumstances should you agree to go—and if the son-of-a-bitch gets tough and insists there was no more room in the place of your choice, the best way to persuade him will be for you to get violent. You can seize a chair, the inkpot, any instrument you can lay your hands on, and hurl it at him. This is the only language these bastards understand around here!"
"Individual bargaining by blows"—that is what it amounted to. But I was too "civilized" for that, and I rather sided secretly with the poor Jewish Agency official who, I decided, was only trying to make ends meet in a situation I thought was extremely difficult to cope with. It took me a few months to realize how callously and heartlessly Jewish Agency officials and others dealing with the affairs of immigrants from Middle Eastern and North African lands were in reality—and a few more years to see how effective and legitimate a way for collective bargaining riots and blows could be. The instincts of those newcomers in Sha`ar Ha`aliyya—and after them the organizers of the riots in Wadi Salib in the late 1950s and the Black Panthers' demonstrations in Jerusalem in the early 1970s—were immeasurably healthier and much more effective than the understanding and moderation I often advocated in private talks.
However, while I was fairly understanding—even sympathetic—about the difficulties and hardships the new state faced coping with such a flood of newcomers, I seem to have been rather severe where "culture" and intellectual attitudes were concerned. In fact, I found the place and the people shockingly provincial, compared even to the society and the cultural milieu I had left behind. I mentioned this in a letter I wrote my Baghdadi friend Jacob a few short weeks after our arrival. "There is much truth in what you say," Jacob wrote in a letter dated March 20, 1951, referring to my letter of the 17th, "about the cultural position and the Sabra [native-born Israeli] type. I am surprised that you had no definite notion about it before. I myself remember hearing that the general atmosphere is, as you put it, 'anti-cultural.' I gathered that from the leader of the Movement (Ha-Tenu`ah, the Zionist underground in Iraq, in which Jacob was involved only as one of the many Jewish youngsters who attended the movement's clandestine Hebrew classes). People here have one notion: Work.
"There is not much hope in the Sabra, but there is hope in the new immigrants. In time you will come to realize that, generally speaking, the people here are not only uncivil and uncivilized, but downright inhuman (this is being decried by newcomers from all lands); it is as if to counteract the measure of social justice and equality that is found in this country."
Now, over 50 long years after my plane landed at Lydda Airport, I cannot help marveling at the amount of sheer chutzpa needed for me—and for Jacob—to pass such harsh judgments on a country whose official language I did not know and after a stay of only 37 days.
My first glimpses of Jerusalem were at least as uninspiring as they were disappointing. I arrived there one day in early May 1951, armed with the documents needed for registration at the Hebrew University. It was late in the afternoon, and the only person with whom I had been in touch and whose address I knew was Jacob, who had arrived in the city a few months before.
I had previously approached Jacob on the subject and asked for guidance, now that he had spent one semester at the institution. In those days almost the whole of the university was housed in Terra Sancta, and the only decent—and free—place for the likes of us to meet was the YMCA, opposite the King David Hotel and not far from Terra Sancta. Like many other new immigrant students, Jacob was a member of what I think was called the YMCA club, a status that enabled him to use the swimming pool and the showers—in addition to the library and its spacious reading room, where one could read, do some homework, and drowse of a classes-free afternoon. I made my way by foot from the Central Bus Station, then situated in the very center of town, had a long chat with Jacob in the halls of the building, went with him to the "mensa" where we were served some sort of supper, and then headed for the students' dormitory in Musrara, hardly a block from the border, where he put me up for the night.
A friend in Baghdad had asked me to inquire about relatives of his who lived "in Jerusalem." It did not take much effort to find the place; they lived somewhere in the complex generally known as Mahane Yehuda. I duly paid them a visit, having promised my friend to report to him via a London address he gave me—and what I saw taught me a great deal of what I eventually was to learn from my readings and in my anthropology classes at Tel Aviv University.
To put it simply, these Jews, whose parents and grandparents had trudged their way from Baghdad to the Holy City some three decades previously, led exactly the same kind of life they had in their hometown. None of the far-reaching, radical changes that their former neighbors and fellow Jews had undergone in the course of those long years appeared to have affected them in the least. What was even more striking, none of the habits, mores, and innovations that characterized their immediate surroundings were noticeable in their behavior and way of life. This was so much the case, indeed, that on that occasion and in years to come, I often found that I was hardly able to communicate with them, so great the gap between us had become, owing to the process of modernization that Iraqi Jews went through in their native land and that, for some reason that seemed to me mysterious at the time, had somehow bypassed them.
Years later, when taking courses in sociology and anthropology, I was to come back to this same theme in a paper I wrote under the title "Cultural Stagnation and the Workings of the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy" and for which my lecturer gave me a grade of AA. I quote it here because it represented my very first attempt at a "scholarly" approach to a problem that I thought I could be of help with.
I opened my paper with references to Robert Merton's book Social Theory and Social Structure, in which he devotes a chapter to what he calls the self-fulfilling prophecy. The thesis elaborated by Merton, as he himself states, is not a new one, and is certainly older than modern sociology. In various forms, we find it in the work of at least two older sociologists. Max Weber had already pointed out that an essential element of the interpretation of human action was the effort to seize upon the subjectively intended meaning of the participants in it. A little later, in their classic study of the Polish peasant in America and Europe, W. I. Thomas and Florian Znaniecki advanced the thesis that in our study of man it is essential to find out how men define situations in which they find themselves, because if men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.
Since the time of Thomas and Znaniecki, I added, the idea of the self-fulfilling prophecy had become one of the axioms of sociological research. One of the latest statements of the thesis was to be found in R. Dewey and W. J. Humber, An Introduction to Social Psychology, in which they formulate the hypothesis as a sort of vicious circle—the prejudices and discriminatory attitudes of the dominant groups result in restricted socioeconomic life chances for members of the disadvantaged minority group, and resentment of these burdens in turn leads to the development by the minority group of traits and attitudes that provide the dominant groups with bases for rationalizing their habitual prejudices . . . The operation of the vicious circle reveals itself in the life experiences of disadvantaged individuals and groups, very few of whom are able to avoid the consequences of this circular process.
Now, my own feeling is that this concept of a circular process, which I thought was of the highest relevance to the Israeli situation, can help us understand another phenomenon to which I once gave much thought and which I shall call cultural stagnation, but which may be given other, more "sociological" descriptions. I first noticed this phenomenon shortly after I arrived in Israel early in 1951, as an immigrant from Iraq.
This occurred when I had to visit friends who had come to Israel shortly before I did and who, in the meantime, had managed to rent a room or two in an old house in the Mahane Yehuda quarter in Jerusalem. I spent the night with my friends, and in the morning had my first real look at the quarter, the marketplace, and the people of Mahane Yehuda. As is well known, Mahane Yehuda is inhabited mainly by Oriental Jews, many of them hailing from Baghdad and Aleppo. In the late 1910s and the early 1920s there was a small-scale immigration of Jews from Baghdad, mostly, it appears, from lower-middle-class and poor families. Now the point about these Jews was that they came from roughly the same socioeconomic milieu as my own family did—lower-middle-class people who used to inhabit the poorer quarters of Baghdad, which, in those days, were a bunch of damp, drab, overcrowded, dirty, and disease-infested slums that, for the most part, lacked running water.
The way these Baghdadi Jews lived in Mahane Yehuda in the early 1950s, their behavior, their level of education, even their norms—all these struck me as being vastly different from the way of life, the behavior, educational level, etc. not only of myself, my family, and my social circle, but also of the whole socioeconomic milieu from which they themselves originally hailed. In other words, assuming that parts of the same family separated sometime in the 1920s, some staying in Baghdad and others moving to Jerusalem and Mahane Yehuda, what we find in the 1950s are two or more families belonging to, not two different cultures, but certainly two different "phases" of cultural development, acculturation, or, if you like, Westernization. And the question is what had happened in those three or four decades, socioculturally speaking, to these two parts of the same family. More concretely and personally, I kept asking myself what, approximately, would have happened to me had my own family decided sometime in the early 1920s to pack up and immigrate to Eretz Israel, most probably landing in Mahane Yehuda or the Hatikva quarter in Tel Aviv (which strongly resembled Mahane Yehuda).
It is impossible to give here an adequate idea of the manifestations of cultural stagnation that I thought I spotted in these people, but a few instances will do. While, for example, the Jews who had continued living in Baghdad had gradually adopted the use of knives and forks, cooked European dishes, worn European clothes, listened to Western music, learned one or more foreign languages, and entered into modern marriages, the same generation of Baghdadi Jews who lived in Mahane Yehuda in 1951 cooked dishes that we had almost forgotten about; they spoke the same vernacular of Judeo-Arabic as they did forty years previously, whereas ours was replete with words from Arabic and other languages; their marriages were made in the old fashion; the young among them knew no foreign languages; and their educational level struck one as shockingly low. In short, they were in a state of obvious cultural stagnation.
These were my first glimpses of the phenomenon. With the passage of years, two more related phenomena began to intrigue me.
First, as I came to know about the Meah Sha`arim quarter and the group called Neturei Karta (Aramaic for "Guardians of the City"), I wanted to find out whether the same kind of process was operating there as the one I have just described. And in fact, the Neturei Karta did show signs of stagnation. Moreover, this whole business made, and makes, me wonder sometimes whether a similar process of stagnation has been operating to varying degrees on all communal, cultural, and perhaps ideological groups in this country. (To take one example: the tenacity with which the old Eastern European Zionist establishment holds on to ways and concepts that to many younger people seem simply incomprehensible.)
Second, during my visits abroad, when I had a chance to meet people from my own generation of Baghdadi Jews—and also when they came here in the 1960s direct from Baghdad—I often find myself wondering how different I have become from these people. Whether, in other words, the same process of stagnation and fossilization apparent in the Baghdadi emigrants of the 1920s is operating on the 140,000 Jews who immigrated into Israel from Iraq in 1951-1952?
I concluded the paper in the form of a plainly rhetorical question: "Assuming," I asked, "that this process is at work, in what way has it originated, been helped or accelerated by what Merton calls the self-fulfilling prophecy and what Dewey and Humber term the vicious circle?"