The British Institute for the Study of Iraq – The Jews of Iraq Conference ~ 16-18 September 2019

Panel 1 – Linda Abdulaziz Menuhin speaks on her memoires, memories and personal history.

The conference aimed to evaluate the many contributions of the Jewish community in Iraq within the spheres of the arts and culture, social policy, education, government and the economy in the early modern and modern period. Iraqi Jews constituted one of the world’s oldest and most historically significant Jewish communities and were in Iraq for over 2,500 years. There is a widening academic interest in the history and contributions of the Jewish community as well as growing interest in Jewish history in contemporary Iraq. This conference brought together UK, Iraqi and international scholars interested in exploring and researching the contributions of this important community to modern Iraq.

Day 2 – Prof Zvi Ben-Dor Benite (NYU) and Prof Orit Bashkin (UofChicago) give a historical overview on the Jews of Iraq.

Conference 16-18 September 2019 at SOAS, London. The conference was organised by the British Institute for the Study of Iraq in collaboration with The Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Chicago and the Department of History, Religions and Philosophies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London.

Please visit the YouTube Channel of The British Institute for the Study of Iraq for more uploads:

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Iraqi-Jewish Oral History | Ghetto In Diwaniya, Iraq 1941: Lynette’s interview With Daniel Sasson

Jan. 15, 2020 ראיון עם דניאל ששון בעברית עם כתוביות באנגלית: הגטו בדיווניה, עיראק

I had the honor of interviewing Daniel Sasson about his book, “The Untold Story” (available in Hebrew). Inspired by the ghettos in Europe during the Holocaust in 1941, then Iraqi Prime Minister Rashid Ali set up a Nazi-like ghetto for over 600 Jews in the small city of Diwaniya, located just outside Baghdad.

Daniel was only 5 years old, and his family was one of the most prominent Jewish families in Iraq at the time. A couple days after the ghetto’s release came the ‘Farhud’, a pogrom in which hundreds of Jewish homes were looted and destroyed, 200 Jews murdered, thousands injured, and Jewish life in Iraq forever changed. Its 79th anniversary was a few days ago.

Daniel was one of my first interviewees last summer, when I was conducting interviews for my Master’s thesis. I spent the entire Fall semester processing the things he and other interviewees told me– stories I couldn’t get out of my head for months. I am honored to have met such a resilient person like him, and I believe that English-speaking communities have so much to gain by learning about the stories and experiences of Iraqi Jews.

(If the English translations don’t come up automatically, press “CC”)

היה לי כבוד להיפגש עם דניאל ששון ולדבר על הספר שלו, “הסיפור שלא סופר,” על הגטו הראשון (והאחרון) בעיראק. אין לי מספיק מילים להודות לו על ההזדמנות הזאת. למדתי על ההשפעה של הנאציים בעיראק, חיים שלו בבגדד, ומה קרה בתוך הגטו. הקהילה היהודי העיראקית חזקה מאוד, עשירה, ומלא עם סיפורים מדהימים– זה כדאי לשמוע, להבין, וללמוד מהם.

אם אין כתוביות באנגלית, לחץ על “cc”

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The Art of Cooking – Kubba Shawandar

This dish reminds me of my grandmother in Israel. Whenever I visited my grandmother as a kid this was what I was looking forward to the most.
And my grandmother knew this and always made sure to fill my plate with kubba!

The smell of cooking this dish gives me a great feeling of nostalgia.
Kubba Shawandar looks more difficult to make then it is and I hope you will try it out yourself.
The ingredients are very easily obtained and the flavour is a classic Iraqi Jewish taste.


For the soup:
3 medium sized onions
4 medium sized red beets ( or 2 cans )
1 small can tomato paste
1 lemon
2 dried bay leafs
salt & pepper
paprika powder
olive oil
1 liter of chicken broth

Beef mixture:
lean ground beef
1 onion
fresh parsley
ras el hanout

Kubba dough:

Making the kubba balls:
Start with mixing the beef with minced onion and minced parsley in a bowl.
Add the salt, ras el hanout and turmeric and mix well.
(make a small patty and pan fry it, taste this for salt and seasoning make sure it is not too bland)

In another bowl add 2 cups of semolina with salt and 1 cup of water mix until it is a sticky dough.
Do not over mix it and make sure it stays sticky and does not become a dry dough.

Next let’s make these kubba balls. In your hand take a small ball of dough and press a hole in it with your thumb.
Add the beef mixture into the dent and start folding the rest of the dough around it.
Once the beef has been covered squeeze the ball lightly and roll it around in your hand to form it into a ball shape.
When done place it on a non-stick surface and continue making the rest, do not let them touch each other!!!
(you can be a bit rough with making these balls)

Making the soup:
In a big pot we start with caramelizing diced onions with olive oil.
When the onions become translucent add all the dry ingredients.
(bay leafs, salt, sugar & pepper, paprika powder)
Give a quick mix and when all the dry ingredients have become a single mixture add the bite size diced red beets.
Fry for a couple of minutes on low heat, when it starts to become dry add the tomato paste, chicken stock and lemon juice.
Mix well!

Wait until the soup starts simmering on low heat.
Once the soup starts simmering gently place the kubba balls we made to the soup. These solidify very quickly once they go into the soup.
Add all the balls to the soup. You can make small meatballs with any leftover meat and throw them to the soup as well.
Make sure everything is covered with liquid and simmer for 45 minutes.

Always taste for salt before serving!
Garnish with some fresh parsley.

Kubba Shawandar has a neutral taste and works well with some salad, bread or rice.

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Eleonore Merza ~ The Israeli Circassians: Non-Arab Arabs

Bulletin du Centre de recherche français à Jérusalem (2012) One day, I was at the tahana merkazit [central bus station] in Jerusalem with Mussa and we went through the metal detector. They let him go through but when it was my turn, they asked for my identity card. They saw that we kept talking together so they asked for his I.D. too. He is a redhead and has blue eyes so they thought he was Ashkenazi. But they saw his name ‘Musa’ – that sounds quite Arabic and they asked him if he was Arab, but then his family name doesn’t sound Arabic at all so he explained that he was Circassian. Then, they asked him what religion he was and he said ‘Muslim’. They were dumbfounded…

The 4,500-odd Israeli Circassians, who arrived during the second half of the 20th century in what was then part of the Ottoman Empire, have an unusual identity: they are Israelis without being Jews and they are Muslims but aren’t Palestinian Arabs (they are Caucasians). Little known by the Israeli public, the members of this inconspicuous minority often experience situations like the one reported above; indeed, many of them have a fair complexion and light-colored eyes that don’t match the widely spread (and expected) clichés about Muslims’ physical traits. At the same time, many Circassians – men, in particular – bear a Muslim name, which immediately causes them to be classified as “Arabs.”

Until 1948, the Zionist project’s exclusive aim was the establishment of a Jewish state – not the establishment of a state where Jews could finally live far from the anti-Semitic threat. In The Jewish State, Theodor Herzl had already stated that “the nations in whose midst Jews live are all either covertly or openly Anti-Semitic”2 and the establishment of a Jewish state was the future as Zionism saw it. In fact, when the State of Israel was declared, it was defined as the state of the Jewish people, inheritor of the Biblical land of Israel and of the kingdom of Judah. This exclusive definition has made the creation of citizenship categories quite arduous. Actually, some figures of Zionism opposed Herzl’s political Zionism even before the creation of the state. One of them was Asher Hirsch Ginsberg, better known under his pen name Ahad Ha’am. Even though Ahadd Ha’am received the Zionist circles’ moral support, he was convinced that the future state could not ingather all the Jews and he fought Herzl’s political Zionism. After his visits in Palestine, the author wrote down his impressions and criticized the functioning of settlements. In his essay Emet me-Eretz Yisrael [A Truth from Eretz Yisrael], he denounced the myth of the virgin land conveyed by the Zionist leaders and reminded them that their analysis did not take into account the Arabs:

From abroad, we are accustomed to believe that Eretz Israel is presently almost totally desolate, an uncultivated desert, and that anyone wishing to buy a land there can come and buy all he wants. But in truth it is not so. In the entire land, it is hard to find tillable land that is not already tilled […] We are accustomed to believing that Arabs are all desert savages, like donkeys who do not see or understand what is going on around them. This is a serious mistake.

The complete essay:

Référence électronique
Eleonor Merza,The Israeli Circassians: non-Arab Arabs, Bulletin du Centre de recherche français à Jérusalem [En ligne], 23 | 2012, mis en ligne le 20 février 2013, Consulté le 10 juin 2020.

Eleonore Merza is a political anthropologist; she completed her doctorate at the EHESS. She is an associate researcher in the Anthropology of Organizations and Social Institutions Research Unit at the Interdisciplinary Institute for the Anthropology of Contemporary Societies (IIAC-LAIOS: CNRS-EHESS). She currently pursues post-doctoral studies at the French Research Center in Jerusalem (CRFJ). Her doctoral thesis focused on the identity of the Circassian minority in Israel and her current research deals with non-Jewish citizens, minorities, and co-existence in today’s Israeli society. She taught at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (EHESS) where she was a lecturer on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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Träume ich von Israel

Mati Shemoelof. Ills. Joseph Sassoon Semah

Träume ich von Israel
frag ich mich, was kann noch werden
ich will bessere Nachrichten in der Zeitung lesen
mein Arabisch aufbessern, mit ihm Frieden schließen

ich will in Gaza meine Gedichte lesen, dann in den Nahostzug steigen
in Haifa halten (‘n paar Kleider und Bücher nehm ich mit)
und zur Überraschungsparty meiner Großmutter fahren
in Bagdad

Denk ich an Israel,
an ihren Beitritt in die Nahostunion,
die, wie die europäische –
Israel, was lachst Du mich aus,
Wirklichkeit zeugt doch für das unsichtbare Ringen der Träume

Ich will dahingleiten, frei in der Luft, die sich zwischen Haifa und Beirut erstreckt
will, wie die Wandervögel, ganz Europa durchwandern, Asien und Afrika,
ohne Paß, ohne Nationalität wissen sie mehr über uns,
als wir je wissen werden

unsere Konflikte und Probleme kennen sie
und kommen doch jedes Jahr aufs Neue zurück
(muß leider gerade lesen sie werden weniger)

Träume über Israel, ganz gewöhnliche,
ich phantasiere über Möglichkeiten,
Dich neu zu dichten.

Mati Shemoelof – Bagdad, Haifa, Berlin. Gedichte. AphorismA Verlag, Berlin, 2019. ISBN 978 3 96575 076 1

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Mati Shemoelof & Joseph Sassoon Semah ~ How to Explain Hare Hunting To A Dead German Artist

Joseph Sassoon Semah, How to Explain Hare Hunting to a Dead German Artist, February 24, 1986. Photography: Olaf Bergmann. Courtesy of Joseph Sassoon Semah

Tohu Magazine, February 6, 2019. Joseph Sassoon Semah, a Baghdad-born artist who now lives and works in Amsterdam, is about to embark on an extensive multi-site project, in Amsterdam, Jerusalem, and Baghdad. Berlin-based poet and author Mati Shemoelof talks with him about his years living as an artist in Israel versus being a Babylonian Jew and an artist in Europe. They discuss Judaism, diaspora, exclusion, and acts of concealment and building.

The artist Joseph Sassoon Semah has never before given an interview to an art publication in Israel. The Israeli art world has not adequately recognized his work. Although he showed in several important institutions in Israel and worked with key curators, it was negligible compared with the scope of his oeuvre, especially following his move from Israel to Europe. What would have happened had he stayed in Israel? Was he stumped by his diasporic state or was he ahead of his time in dealing with the Jewish component of his art? It is not merely an objective issue to be measured by the number of exhibitions, but rather the artist’s subjective sense of his position in the art field. I gather from Semah that he has remained on the outside, beyond the walls of Jerusalem. In Europe, too, and especially in the Netherlands, his work is not widely known yet. This interview stems from my own interest in Semah’s identity (we are both of a Jewish Iraqi descent) and his work, but also as an intra-European process of an artistic, inter-generational analysis attempting to formulate the role of Jewish culture in Europe.

Semah was born in Baghdad, Iraq, in 1948. His grandfather, Hacham Sassoon Kadoorie, was the chief rabbi of Baghdad’s Jewish community until his passing in 1971, even after they had all emigrated. In 1950, Semah and his family were uprooted from Iraq, and they moved to Israel. He grew up in Tel Aviv. Traumatized by his military service in the 1967 and 1973 wars, he chose exile and has been living in the Netherlands since 1981. The grandfather’s continued residence in Baghdad, along with some 20,000 more Jews, brings to mind Semah’s own position in Amsterdam (his grandfather did not immigrate to Israel, and Semah emigrated from Israel – both had chosen a diasporic existence as a Jewish minority under a Muslim/Christian majority), where he now lives with his partner, Linda Bouws. She runs the institute they co-founded, Metropool – Studio Meritis MaKOM: International Art Projects. My grandmother, Rachel Kazaz, had also been among the displaced Baghdadi Jews. My acquaintance with the pain and the uprooting enabled me to write about the mysterious affair that drove the Jews of Iraq to abandon their property, their culture, and their way of life within just a year; the affair that involved bombing Jewish centers in Baghdad, including the synagogue of Semah’s grandfather.[1]

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