The Jews of Iraq, zionist ideology, and the property of the Palestinian refugees of 1948: An anomaly of national accounting

Yehouda Shenhav*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

39 Scopus citations


The focus of this article is on two intersecting claims that faced the Israeli government between 1948 and 1951. One was the demand, put forward by the United Nations and by the governments of the United States and Britain, that Israel compensate the 1948 refugees for property of theirs that had been impounded by the state's custodian-general; the other was the expectation of the former Iraqi Jews to be compensated for their property frozen by the Iraqi government in 1951. I will draw on archival sources to show that the Israeli government turned this bind into a system akin to double-entry accounting with regard to the two sets of property-of the 1948 Palestinian refugees and of the Iraqi Jews-and thereby neutralized the claims of both. The government of Israel cited the injustice that the Iraqi government had done the Jews of Iraq to explain its refusal to compensate the Palestinians, but told the Iraqi Jews in Israel to apply to that same Iraqi government if they sought restitution. This accounting logic was created by exploiting circumstances; it was not necessarily a pre-planned scheme. However, when implemented as raison d'etat, it enabled the Israeli government to absolve itself 'legitimately' of responsibility for compensating both the Iraqi Jews and the Palestinian refugees. Moreover, Israel's nationalization of the identity and property of Iraq's Jews in the relentless drive to articulate Jewish nationalism served as a bargaining policy with which to deny Palestinian nationality. The Jews of Iraq, this article shows, became an instrument in a decision-making process from which they were excluded and which rested on basic assumptions they did not necessarily share. The present case shows that the transition from (Jewish) ethnicity to nationalism is neither natural nor self-evident. While naturally concerning itself with the continuum between 'ethnicity' and 'nationalism', the empirical description will also shed light on the manner in which Israel played an active role in the Middle Eastern arena. Throughout the analysis, the Israeli government is conceptualized as a political broker acting to construct 'national interests' and 'ethnic categories' in order to fulfil its own objectives (raison d'etat). State political actors formed a common Zionist identity for Jews of very different backgrounds, and simultaneously formed common oppositional identity for all 'Arabs.' The paper demonstrates that by symbolizing the property of each group as collective rather than individual, the state helped construct these national identity categories as antagonistic.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)605-630
Number of pages26
JournalInternational Journal of Middle East Studies
Issue number4
StatePublished - Nov 1999


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