In Jerusalem this week, a touching film was screened about the Jews of Iraq. In Remember Baghdad, sensitively directed by British filmmaker Fiona Murphy, five Iraqi Jewish families look back at a scarcely imaginable time when Jews lived and prospered in Baghdad before persecution and massacres drove them out of the country.
One of these exiles, London resident Edwin Shuker, has recently made the deeply quixotic gesture of buying a house in Erbil, the embattled Kurdish city. As he emotionally explains, he feels a duty to reestablish a connection, however small, with ancient Babylon, which 2,500 years ago was home to one of the most ancient Jewish communities in the world.
No less striking is the reaction to this film from Iraqis themselves.
Earlier this month, it was screened at the British Academy in London to a mainly Iraqi Muslim audience, including a senior delegation from the Iraqi Embassy.
According to David Dangoor, a prominent Iraqi Jewish exile who also lives in London, the Iraqi ambassador’s political adviser said at the screening that, with the defeat of ISIS and extremism, the country is intent on pushing tolerance and diversity. Other members of the audience, said Dangoor, made very positive comments about Iraqi Jews.
There are other straws in the wind.
Last December, the Iraq Society of London’s Imperial College held an Iraq Day sponsored by the Iraqi Embassy at which the ambassador insisted that Iraqi Jews should have a stand. Although this sported many books about their lost community and related subjects all saying “printed in Israel,” Dangoor says it was the most popular of all the displays and its books all sold out.
Some Iraqi exiles scoff at the suggestion that Iraqi Muslims are now warming toward the Jews and Israel. Nevertheless, the Arab Muslim world is changing in startling ways.
Last week Abdelhameed Hakeem, general manager of the Middle East Center for Strategic and Legal Studies in Jeddah, said on the US-based Arabic language Al-Hurra TV channel that the Arabs must acknowledge Jerusalem is “as holy to the Jews as Mecca and Medina are to the Muslims” and that Israel is “the product of the Jews’ historic right in the region.”
And although his proposal for peace was that Saudi Arabia should help manage the Islamic holy places in Jerusalem under Palestinian management, he added: “Jerusalem will be the capital of Israel” – something the UK and European governments cannot bring themselves to acknowledge.
In an interview recently broadcast by the Kuwaiti Alrai TV channel, Kuwaiti writer Abdullah al-Hadlaq declared that the State of Israel is not an occupying force but represents “a people returning to its promised land.”
“Are you aware that the history of the Israelites is ancient, predating Islam?” he said. “Therefore we Muslims must acknowledge that the Israelites have a right to that land, and that they have not plundered it.” When his startled interviewer asked him where in that case Palestine had come from, Hadlaq roundly declared: “It didn’t exist.”
Saudi Arabian Grand Mufti Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh has also issued a remarkable religious ruling. Answering a question on TV about the Palestinian riots over the Temple Mount issue last summer, he didn’t merely denounce Hamas as a “terror organization.” Much more significantly, he actually issued a fatwa forbidding war against the Jews and said fighting against Israel is inappropriate.
All such comments are obviously influenced by the no less remarkable attitude of the new young Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman.
In an interview with The Guardian, the prince, who is intent on modernizing his country to ensure its survival, said the desert kingdom had been “not normal” for the past 30 years. He blamed the extremist Wahhabi form of Islam for creating a problem around the world. “Now is the time to get rid of it,” he said.
We can all see the politics behind this. Saudi Arabia is in the fight of its life with Iran, to which end it has forged tacit alliances with Israel and America. The big question is what would happen if the Iranian threat were to be neutralized. Would Saudi Arabia then pursue harmonious relations with Israel and America or would it revert to its previous malign animosity?
Much informed opinion is certain that it would revert and it’s easy to see why. Despite the crown prince’s comments, Saudi Arabia has been symbiotically linked to Wahhabi extremism since the 18th century.
Islam is the source of Muslim antisemitism, and that culture won’t change any time soon. Despite their peace treaties with Israel, Egypt and Jordan are still poisonously bigoted toward the Jews. Muslims are disproportionately involved in antisemitic attacks in Britain and Europe.
And if the Iraqi government were serious about repairing relations with the Jews, it would agree that the Jewish archives now in the US that were saved from the secret police’s flooded basement should not be returned to Iraq as its government is demanding.
Relations with the Jews are the acid test for the Muslim world. Its antisemitism is fundamental and a principal driver of its war with the West. That war will not end, nor will the Islamic world reform itself as some courageous Muslims are urging, until and unless it makes its peace with Judaism and the Jewish people.
Incredible? Maybe. But then again, we’re living in incredible times.
Melanie Phillips is a columnist for The Times (UK).