RAMALLAH — “When I read your father’s book about the Jews who left Iraq, I cried,” said Mahmoud Abbas. The Palestinian president was addressing an Israeli visitor who had come to Ramallah at his invitation. “It was 1975 and I was living in Syria. I felt as if he was describing my life, our lives as Palestinians.”
Abbas was referring to the work of Ishaq Bar-Moshe, an Iraqi-Jewish author who began to write novels in Arabic more than 20 years after he immigrated to Israel from his native Iraq. After announcing he would assist with the publication of a new edition of Bar-Moshe’s book, “Leaving Iraq,” Abbas brought the author’s family to his Ramallah office for a meeting last Saturday.
“I always felt more comfortable with Jews from Arab countries. You’re like us,” Abbas said. “You are our bridge to peace. We have a common culture, language and heritage.”
The meeting takes place in Arabic and Hebrew, with the assistance of an interpreter. “We don’t speak Arabic at home,” acknowledged Bar-Moshe’s daughter, Tami Bezaleli. She expressed regret that she could not read her father’s books in their original language.
This is the first time in Ramallah for Abbas’s Jewish-Israeli visitors, and some of them are visibly nervous. Once they arrive and see an atmosphere of normalcy, though, they relax. Their Palestinian Authority escorts take them to visit the tomb of Yasser Arafat before meeting Abbas, who greets Bar-Moshe’s grown daughters and their families, shaking the hands of each one.
“Leaving Iraq,” the book that made Abbas weep with recognition 40 years ago, describes how Iraqi Jews — who were, in Baghdad, an integrated and respected elite — ended up being persecuted and losing their rights. The government forced them into exile, but they never stopped loving their place of birth.
‘It’s sad that my father was never respected in Israel’
This is not the first time Abbas has expressed his admiration for Iraqi Jews. “The behavior of Arab regimes toward their Jewish citizens is indescribably saddening and painful, and must be repudiated,” he wrote in 1977, not long after reading Bar-Moshe’s book. “We turned them into enemies and made them stand against us without giving them another choice. We forced them to choose between emigrating to Israel and imprisonment or death,” he continued.
Abbas has also written about discrimination against Mizrahim in Israel, labeling Zionism “an Ashkenazi movement” whose “crazy obsession” with Arab Jews has embittered their lives. He once called on the Arab states to offer financial aid to Arab Jews as an enticement to bring them back from exile.
Given that the return of Jews to Lebanon, Iraq or Syria is now impossible, why is Abbas so interested in distributing “Leaving Iraq” to Arab leaders?
“I want them to read it, because it tells the truth,” he says. “And also because they don’t know that there is a large, peace-seeking Arab-Jewish public — Jews who listen to Umm Kulthum at home and who write in Arabic.”
Ishaq Bar-Moshe, who died in 2003, had no readership in Israel. He began to write novels in Arabic during the 1970s, by which time the language was associated with the enemy, and reading or speaking it felt like a taboo act. Now he is receiving recognition and praise from the Palestinian leadership, but he is still ignored in Israel. He and other Israeli writers who wrote in Arabic have been almost entirely erased from the country’s history.
“It’s sad that my father was never respected in Israel,” Shemer says. “I wish he knew that after his death, his most important book brought us and Palestinians together.”
A version of this article was originally published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.