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The Outsider

In Baghdad, Nissim Rejwan distanced himself from other Iraqi Jews. In Israel, he became a fierce advocate for their disappearing culture.

David B. Green
January 26, 2007

If you haven’t heard of Nissim Rejwan, it may be because this Iraqi-born Israeli writer—a longtime contributor to The Jerusalem Post and a fixture at Hebrew University, where he is a research fellow at the Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace—has always swum against the current. Rejwan’s genre, the literary and political essay, has a limited audience to begin with, but Rejwan has also made a career out of taking “incorrect” positions, with the result being that he has been derided, misunderstood or—more often than not—just ignored.

Still, this relative anonymity has not secured Rejwan the quiet life he desired, he explains in The Last Jews in Baghdad, his 2004 account of coming of age in that fabled city. Last year, he published two further installments, Outsider in the Promised Land, which covers his emigration to Israel in 1951 and his first decade (or so) as a journalist in that country, and Israel’s Years of Bogus Grandeur, which follows the increasingly politicized Rejwan through the turbulent period following the Six Day War and into the 1980s. Now 82, and still cranky as ever, he began compiling these memoirs as an antidote to the standard heroic tale of Israel’s “ingathering of the exiles”—to demonstrate how a society he views as arrogant and small-minded beat down and wasted the talents of hundreds of thousands of new arrivals in its early years, while convincing itself and the world that it was giving them a new and better life.

Like so many other Jews who came of age in the first half of the 20th century, Rejwan found himself tossed and turned by political and geographical upheaval. In World War II-era Iraq, growing Arab nationalism and identification with the Axis—the country was then ruled by an unpopular British mandate—led to frequent attacks on Jews, the most dramatic of which was the Farhud, two days of anti-Jewish rioting in 1941 that left some 200 dead. Conditions for Jews worsened in 1947, when the British left, and again in 1948, with the establishment of the state of Israel. In 1950, the monarchy announced that Jews had a year to renounce their Iraqi citizenship and leave. Subsequently, in a rescue mission known as Operation Ezra and Nehemiah some 110,000 Iraqi Jews were flown to Israel. Rejwan, then 28 and not even remotely affiliated with Iraq’s Zionist movement, was among them, landing in Tel Aviv with his mother in 1951.

Not a nationalist, and not religious—Rejwan is one of those Israelis for whom Orthodoxy is the only authentic brand of the Judaism he doesn’t practice—he immediately felt like an “outsider in the Promised Land,” as he called the second volume of his memoirs. In Baghdad, however, he hadn’t necessarily been an insider either. “Now that I look back at the whole matter with some measure of serenity,” he writes in Outsider, “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.’”

At the time of his birth, in 1924, the city was closer in spirit to the thriving capital of the First Century Abbasid caliphate than to the battle zone we see on the news each night. The city was waking to the intellectual and political trends of the modern age, and the Jewish community, which made up a full third of the city’s population, was thriving.

In his teens, Rejwan became part of Baghdad’s intellectual crowd, an urbane group of Muslims, Christians, and Jews who read Lawrence, Joyce, and Eliot, sympathized with Marx and Lenin, and hung around Baghdad’s English-language bookshops. Among them was Elie Kedourie, who would go on to become one of the most important scholars of modern Middle Eastern history. Rejwan and Kedourie became friends when the latter, also in his teens but still dressed in shorts, told the manager of the MacKenzie Bookshop that he desperately wanted to talk with the regular purchaser of the store’s lone copy of Horizon, Cyril Connolly’s then-influential literary monthly.

Like most Iraqi Jews the Rejwans were traditional—Sabbath and kashrut observant, if not Orthodox by today’s standards—and not particularly well-off. Some years before Rejwan’s birth, his father, a carpenter, had gone blind. Without a steady income, the family was forced to make frequent moves from one shared quarters to another, sometimes living with extended family, sometimes as subtenants with other impoverished residents of the city. Nissim, the youngest of six, grew up quickly, working odd jobs from a young age, and never received a formal education, although he enrolled at university several times. In the end, Rejwan syas, he convinced himself that he could either “learn about the subjects and widen my horizons or get a degree.” He chose the former.

But his knack for English—he’d taught himself the language—led him into journalism, and he began writing book and film reviews for English-language papers, such as the Iraq Times, some of which he includes in an appendix to The Last Jews of Baghdad. Six decades later, they still read as provocative and insightful, revealing a keen and mature understanding of human history—especially for someone who was no older than 25 when he wrote them.

He arrived in Israel with not much more to show for himself than a portfolio of these reviews. While studying Hebrew at a Jerusalem ulpan, and living in crude housing for new immigrants in the capital, he found work as a proofreader at The Jerusalem Post. “That was quite a break with tradition,” he writes, with typical acerbity, in Outsider, “letting a barbarian from Baghdad do proofreading for the great English-language paper, a job reserved exclusivly 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.’”

Soon, he was reviewing books for the paper. But it wasn’t long before his editors decided their Egyptian Communist was too catholic in his tastes. As he explains in Outsider, being an Arabic speaker, he was expected to write exclusively about the region he’d emerged from. “What business has Rejwan to write about America and Europe?” Gershon Agron, the paper’s founding editor, reportedly asked in an editorial meeting in the mid-1950s, after the author had reviewed a book called America and the Mind of Europe. “He comes from Iraq, and he should write about the Arab world!” Rejwan obeyed—though he bristled (and continues to bristle) at being pigeonholed—offering up regular commentary on the plight of Israel’s Sephardi immigrants.

What he had to say, however, wasn’t exactly what Agron had in mind. In the first years of statehood, when the Zionist ethos had pretty narrow boundaries, Israelis tended to regard Sephardi immigrants—be they from Morocco, India, Iraq, or other lands—as unfortunates rescued from backward countries ruled by intolerant regimes. They were, went the narrative, refugees no less than the battered remnants of European Jewry, who had arrived in similar droves during the previous decade. And they—or at least their children—were to be given the opportunity to transform themselves into the “new Jews” of the Zionist state, whose culture was post-Enlightenment, secular, and assimilationist.

Pointing out the fallacy of this approach is, of course, fashionable today in Israel. Not so in 1953, when Rejwan wrote in The Jerusalem Post that the real danger facing new immigrants like himself was having “to adopt [the] primitive ways” of their new home. Moreover, it would be “foolish and redundant to assert…that the Iraqi aliyah is self-sufficient in doctors, teachers, etc., because it is measurably more than self-sufficient.” Nor so in 1964, when Rejwan, in a favorable review of a novel by fellow Iraqi Jew Shimon Ballas, writes of his fellow refugees:

[T]he cause of the[ir] disillusionment was not the material conditions in which they suddenly found themselves, indescribably squalid though these certainly were. Rather, it was the rude discovery that they suddenly became nameless, faceless, indistinguishable human beings with no past, no culture, no dignity and little future to speak of. The hostility and prejudice with which they felt they were received cut very deep indeed.”

By 1964, Rejwan’s reputation as an iconoclast was well established. Two years earlier, he’d got into a public tussle with Abba Eban, then Israel’s minister of education, over this same issue. When Eban told the Jewish Observer that Jews from Muslim countries arrived in Israel with “no educational history or environment,” and that their children were “the first generation for centuries to be educated at all,” Rejwan contended that Israel itself was largely to blame for the poor academic performance of young Sephardi children and that Eban, in his comments, had revealed his own racism. (Eban, in turn, responded by accusing Rejwan of offering “a flippant treatment of a grave national issue.”)

At the time, Rejwan seemed merely provocative. Why, Israelis wondered, was he picking on the donnish Abba Eban, whom even Rejwan himself described as “enlightened, tolerant.” Four decades later, it’s clear that while Rejwan may have been too hard on Eban, he was right about the larger issues.

But while many of Rejwan’s once-unpopular assertions—captured in Outsider, perhaps the most compelling volume of the memoirs—now seem incontrovertibly true, Rejwan himself still comes off as touchy and embittered, abandoned by friends and lovers, all of whom he seems to have found stupid or hypocritical or histrionic in the first place. “And after that ludicrous performance I never saw Hasan again,” he says about a male colleague who threatened to kill himself when Rejwan didn’t return his affections. The woman who became his wife barely warrants a mention—”I did not know—and never bothered to ask—about Rachel’s previous experiences, or whether she had had any suitors.” He reveals, however, intimate details about the many who preceded her in his affections, along with a bevy of passing acquaintances.

Though he now defines himself through his politics—and though these memoirs ostensibly set out to chronicle his life—Rejwan is at his best when writing about his first loves: literature, and the friends, such as Kedourie, who shared his passion for words and ideas. “Najib and I could talk about Kafka, whose books we read concurrently, for hours on end,” he writes in The Last Jews, of the poet and novelist Najib al-Mani, a friend from adolescence, “or about Sartre’s Nausea, which had just come out in English, making analogies between the situation described there and our own situation as some sort of caged intellectuals.” Al-Mani, who was not Jewish, stayed in Iraq and served in the foreign ministry, before going into exile in London in 1979. For decades, Rejwan could only follow his career from afar. After his death, in 1994, Rejwan sent a letter of condolence to his old friend’s sister, who had also emigrated to England. “He died in the company of someone he loved,” al-Mani’s sister wrote back, “his open book was on Najib’s chest. Is there anyone better than Proust in situations like these!”

Rejwan is, at heart, still the man we can imagine sitting in Baghdad cafes 65 years ago reading Proust and Eliot, already alien to the culture whose destruction he fled. His passages from Iraq to Israel and across the years have simply exchanged literature for politics as that which sets him apart. “Confronted by the concentrated assault of a materially superior dominant culture,” he writes, “people coming from supposedly less ‘advanced’ cultures may have no choice but to submit. This, however, would be disintegration rather than integration.” Rejwan could never integrate if the cost was disintegration—he remains an outsider, as he repeatedly insists, but the question is whether it’s a role he’s chosen or had thrust upon him.

David B. Green is an editor at Haaretz English Edition, and writes its “This Day in Jewish History” column.