Remainders Revisited: An Exilic Journey from Hakham Sasson Khdhuri to Joseph Sassoon Semah

By Ella Shohat

The significance of place (makom in Hebrew, makan in Arabic) is especially meaningful in the narration of a displaced community—the Jewish-Iraqi community in this case—particularly in the wake of overpowering political forces that, in one form or another, generated a historical vortex that rendered impossible a millennial existence in Mesopotamia. The enormous task of shepherding a Jewish community massively impacted by internal and external political pressures after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the establishment of the state of Iraq fell largely on the shoulders of the Hakham Bashi (the Chief Rabbi and also the President of the Jewish community) Sasson Khdhuri.1 The conflicting ideologies and political forces of British colonialism, communism, and Nazism, as well as of Zionism and Iraqi/Arab nationalism, had to be navigated by Hakham Sasson throughout five turbulent decades, until his death in 1971. His figure condenses, as it were, the story of a community pulled in opposite directions and consequently torn into pieces, becoming the collateral damage of warring ideological zones. 

Although the majority of Iraqi Jews were dislocated in the wake of the partition of Palestine and the establishment of the State of Israel, the Hakham stayed to safeguard those who remained in Iraq, living through wars, revolutions, and a dictatorial regime that rendered hellish the situation of all Iraqis, but especially of Jews, existing as they did under the unrelenting suspicion of disloyalty. At the same time, some of the Hakham’s children moved to Israel where the Iraqi Jews, along with Sephardi/Middle Eastern Jews more generally, experienced exclusion, rejection, and otherization as Arabs/Orientals in a place that had been viewed at least as a refuge. Although the 1950s Iraqi-Jewish exodus is conventionally narrated as the end of the Babylonian Exile and the fulfillment of the promised messianic return to Zion, dislocated Iraqi Jews have continued to pine for their lost homes in a distant place some called homeland. What is often recounted as the “ingathering of the exiles” and the restoration of “the Diaspora” to Jerusalem has been in fact a painfully complex experience, an ongoing multigenerational trauma engendering an ambivalent sense of belonging for Arab Jews/Mizrahim, both within and outside of Israel. 

Against this backdrop, one can appreciate the self-exiling of some Mizrahim, including that of the grandson of the Hakham Bashi, artist Joseph Sassoon Semah, who left Israel in 1974 and has been living in Amsterdam since 1981. Tracing the familial passage from the Hakham’s decision to remain in Iraq to his grandson’s decision to depart from Israel encapsulates the fraught trajectory of a shattered community. These simultaneously in-place and out-of-place figures allegorize the unsettled story of Jewish-Iraq. This essay explores some of the motifs in the work of Joseph Sassoon Semah to illuminate the twinned loci of “Zion” and “Babylon” in the present-day formation of contradictory affiliations and paradoxical notions of “exile” and “diaspora.” The emphasis on a “third galut” (or “third Exile”) in particular will serve to unfold a tale of a Jewish rupture from an accustomed Arab cultural geography, as re-membered by the descendants of those forced to abandon the land between two rivers, resulting in a lingering feeling of at once homelessness and at-home-ness.

Out of Babylonia

Contemporary cultural practices can raise seminal questions about the notions of home, exile, and belonging. Within Jewish tradition Babylon is narrated as a Diasporic space, the ultimate exilic condition epitomized in the Biblical phrase “by the waters of Babylon we laid down and wept, when we remembered Zion.” Aliya (literally “ascent”) to Israel is celebrated by official ideology, and sometimes has been seen by Sephardim/Mizrahim themselves as a return to the true homeland. Yet this return, within a longer historical perspective, can also be viewed as simply a new modality of exile. After their dislocation from Arab countries, Mizrahim in Israel for decades have been marginalized and excluded due to their Arab/Middle Eastern culture. A Eurocentric national vision has generated a deep sense of alienation among Mizrahim resulting, at times, in a kind of self-exiling.Joseph Sassoon Semah’s ending up in Amsterdam, the city of the titular “Third GaLUT,” is thus not simply a matter of a personal journey across three geographies; it is also a diasporization born out of larger colliding forces.

The third exile is in many ways a consequence of a shifting set of geopolitical circumstances in the post-World War I era, especially the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the subsequent rule of British colonialism, and the emergence of Jewish and Arab nationalist movements. The 1917 Balfour Declaration and the 1947 U.N. vote for the partition of Palestine, along with the 1948 establishment of the State of Israel and the massive dislocation of Palestinians to neighboring Arab countries, placed indigenous Middle Eastern Jews in an acutely vulnerable position. A product both of colonialism and nationalism, the regional conflict situated Arab Jews between crushing opposing forces, while the community as a whole had little control over circumstances that had colossal bearing on their very existence. Arab Jews had to pledge allegiance to two clashing movements—“Jewish” and “Arab”—both newly defined under a novel historical banner of ethno-national affiliation. In the post-1948 era, with the deteriorating conflict in Palestine, this push-and-pull pincer movement became more intense. The Zionist pressure to dislodge Jewish communities and end “the gola” (Diaspora) on the one hand, and the Arab nationalist gradual equation of Judaism with Zionism on the other, brought about the eventual parting of Arab Jews from their homes.4 

To this day, discussion of the circumstances that led to the departure of Iraqi Jews provokes a heated political quarrel.5 Referring to the revocation of the citizenship of Iraqi Jews, the tasqit has been subjected to contradictory interpretations and marshalled for radically divergent purposes. Each historical reading has serious legal, political, and cultural implications. In the international public arena, the discourse on the mass departure from Iraq is linked to the 1948 Palestinian refugees in a kind of contestation of the nakba (the catastrophe). The two exoduses are seen as part of the rhetoric of “population exchange,” which has attempted to assuage Israeli responsibility for “the Palestinian Exodus” by pairing it with the tasqit, the presumably equivalent case of “the exodus of Jews from Arab countries.” Nationalist paradigms hardly capture the complexity of this historical moment of rupture for Arab Jews. The idiosyncrasies of the situation of a community trapped between two nationalisms—Arab and Jewish—have generated a proliferation of terms to designate the dislocation. In fact, each term used to designate the displacement seems problematic precisely due to the ambiguity of its circumstances. None of the terms—“‘aliya” (ascent), “yetzi’a” (exit), “exodus,” “expulsion,” “immigration,” “emigration,” “exile,” “refugees,” “ex-patriots,” and “population-exchange”—are adequate. In the case of the Palestinians, the forced mass exodus easily fits the term “refugee,” since they never wanted to leave Palestine and have maintained the desire to return. In the case of Arab Jews, the question of will, desire and agency remains much more ambivalent and ambiguous.6

 The very proliferation of terms suggests that it is not only a matter of legal definition of citizenship that is at stake, but also the issue of mental maps of belonging. The push-and-pull circumstances generated a rather anomalous situation that to my mind was neither that of the refugee nor of the paradigmatic immigrant story. Could the departure of the Iraqi Jews be seriously regarded as an exercise of free will and a matter of straightforward agency? And once out of Iraq and unable to go back, even for a visit, did they regret the impossibility of their return? In the post-1948 climate of uncharted anxiety about their Iraqi future, the various competing forces steered many into the tasqit. Indeed, Joseph Sassoon Semah’s “Between Graveyard and Museum’s Sphere: Model Based on Synagogue Meir Tweig, Baghdad, Iraq” alludes to one of the sites for the registration of the departing Jews, namely the Meir Tweig synagogue inaugurated in 1942 and located in the affluent district of al-Bataween. As a tasqit point, the synagogue was no longer merely a gathering place for worship and socializing, but a site of rupture—of giving up Iraqi citizenship in exchange for a laissez-passer stipulating that the document holder is definitively not permitted to return.7 The virtually overnight cross-border movement was thus not only a physical dislocation but also a cultural and emotional displacement, a defining traumatizing event in the recent history of Iraqi Jews.

Mesopotamia, traditionally the Biblical locus of Babylonian Exile, was after all also a millennial home for Jews whose notion of “Return to the Promised Land” was premised on a set of messianic beliefs. Hence the historical opposition to Zionism among traditionally observing Jews, for whom the formation of Jewish nationalism signified a rupture with traditional Judaism, advancing a blasphemous idea, a kind of false messiah. The various statements against Zionism made by religious leaders, including by Hakham Sasson Khdhuri, have been the subject of much political debate and historiographical interpretation. Was the antagonistic stance toward Zionism a result of deep religious beliefs as indicated by the traditional leaders themselves, or of the leaders’ effort to maintain their grip on power as Zionist activists claimed? Were the petitions signed by the Hakham across several decades, before and after the departure of most of Iraq’s Jews in 1950-1951, a result of the various Iraqi regimes’ coercion, or of a desire to shield and protect the vulnerable community, or of a sincere theological rejection of a sacrilegious nationalist idea? 

Although for the most part the Jewish-Iraqi community was not involved in political activity—whether Iraqi nationalist, Zionist or communist—it was involuntarily and dangerously implicated in the clashing nationalist ideologies. For example, in 1936 with the escalation of the conflict between the Jewish Yishuv and Palestinians in Mandatory Palestine, the Hakham, in his capacity as the president of the Jewish community in Iraq, published a statement on behalf of Iraq’s al-ta’ifa al-Isra’iliyya (the Israelite community) whose purpose was to clear the Jews of Iraq of any suspicion cast on their possible association with the Zionist movement. “None of the members of the Israelite community of Iraq,” wrote the Hakham, “have any relation, contact, or joint activities with the Zionist movement, in any respect.” The Hakham’s declaration also insisted that the members of the community never “supported or adopted this movement neither inside nor outside of Palestine,” since the “Jews of Iraq are Iraqis and they are part of the Iraqi people” who are their “Iraqi brothers” and with whom they share “everything through thick and thin.” The declaration insisted that the community’s members “share the same feelings as all Iraqis, whether in joyful or troubled times.”9

Yet, a decade later, in the post-1948 era, the circumstances of Iraqi Jews were to transform dramatically engendering a general state of insecurity. The ideological tension concerning the future of the community (whether in Iraq or in Israel) and the concomitant tensions between the traditional leadership of the community and the Zionist underground movement reached an unprecedented paroxysm. Mediating between the regime and the community, the Hakham pursued a conciliatory approach which was regarded by some Jews as unproductive, and by others, especially Zionists, as appeasement of a persecutory regime.12 With the increasing number of arrests of youths accused of Zionist affiliations, a demonstration organized against his leadership led to the Hakham’s resignation from his position as the head of the Baghdad Jewish community in December 1949.13 14

Remaining in Babylonia

Diasporic cultural practices are thus born out of two contradictory exilic/homecoming narratives: on the one hand, the Zionist translation of the Biblical redemptive restoration— “kibbutz galuiot”—into a modern nation-state formation; and, on the other, the uprooting of a community from its millennial homeland geography in Mesopotamia/Iraq. Despite the tasqit, a minority of the community’s members did not register and stayed for various reasons, including because they saw themselves first and foremost as Iraqis, and/or believed the storm would pass, and/or simply did not want to abandon their lives. Hakham Sasson Khdhuri also remained in Baghdad in spite of the departure of most of his children, including Marcelle Semah, the mother of the artist.15 Separated until the end of his life from most members of his family, the Hakham resumed his leadership position.16 He continued to practice a flexible approach to Jewishness that accommodated shifting social mores. Deeply involved in the remaining community’s life, in celebration and in mourning, the Hakham was a vital symbolic figure for its Jewish identity. 

After the tasqit and the exodus of the majority of Iraqi Jews, the cataclysmic atmosphere subsided. Although the anxiety linked to the Israel/Arab conflict persisted, this period is nonetheless characterized by relative stability in comparison with the following decade of the post-1963 coup d’état and especially with the violence of the post-1967 War era. With the 1968 coup d’état, the dictatorial Baathist control of Iraq had a devastating impact on Iraqis of all denominations. The terrorizing measures taken to crush the regime’s real or imagined adversaries led, as we know, to the imprisonment, torture, kidnapping, and killing of many innocent Iraqi citizens generally, but the repression became exacerbated in the case of the Jewish community, now under a blanket suspicion of treason. The surveillance of all Iraqis became for Iraqi Jews a ready-made accusation of collaboration with the Zionist enemy, carrying dangerous implications for the very existence of a Jewish community in Iraq. Those who remained in Iraq after the tasqit were now facing a terrifying reality that forced them to flee. In the early 1970s, the numbers of the already dwindling community continued to shrink; a dispersal from a millennial existence in Mesopotamia that has taken Iraqi Jews largely to the U.K., Israel, Canada, the U.S., and the Netherlands.

As the president of Iraq’s Jewish community, Hakham Sasson Khdhuri tirelessly defended his community in highly dangerous situations when Jews were being disappeared, detained, tortured, or publicly hanged.18 And in the words of the Hakham’s son, Shaul Hakham Sasson: “For the Ba’ath regime, every Jew was a dangerous spy.”19 The 1999 biography of the Hakham, written by his son Sha’ul Hakham Sasson who stayed with his father in Iraq, vehemently attempts to contest the negative image of the Hakham whose reputation tended to be rather maligned within the Zionist narrative.20 Entitled in Arabic Ra‘ wa-ra‘eeyya (A Leader and his Community), and published in Jerusalem by the Association of Jewish Academics from Iraq, the book  passionately argues that the Hakham was without a shadow of a doubt a generously dedicated leader. For the author, the Hakham acted responsibly and did not abandon his community, staying in Baghdad to shepherd the Jewish life of those who remained. Fearing for the community’s welfare, and indeed for its very existence, the Hakham altruistically defended it under extraordinary pressures and at high personal cost. Indeed, in the turbulent post-1967 era, the Hakham’s son Shaul was himself detained in Saddam Hussein’s prison, apparently in an attempt to exert pressure on the Hakham to make pro-regime declarations in the face of growing international protestations.21

The experience is vividly captured in Shaul Hakham Sasson’s book, written while in his nineties in London, entitled In the Hell of Saddam Hussein: 365 Days in the “Palace of the End”—the quotation marks in the subtitle referring to the acerbic epithet describing the prison from which many did not come out alive.23 After his release, Shaul made a decision to leave Iraq, which he calls in his prison memoir “my homeland, my birthplace.”24 But he stayed by his ailing father’s side and only left after the death of the Hakham on March 24th, 1971. “I could not imagine,” writes Shaul, “leaving my father alone at his age and with all the pains and illnesses he was going through.”25 Only after the Hakham’s passing, Sha’ul testifies, “I uprooted myself and moved to England where my son Samir lived.”26 He continues: “I still live in this country with sad memories, wishing for God to liberate Iraq from its oppressors the Baathists.”  Sha’ul expresses his hope for Iraq “to live in peace and prosperity” and for Iraqis to take advantage of “the tremendous resources of the country.” He concludes by wishing that all those “obliged to leave would be able to return to a free and democratic Iraq where all communities and citizens of different religions could coexist in tolerance and equality.”27

Alphabet as Exilic Iconography

The trials of the Hakham’s family encapsulate the story of the Jewish-Iraqi community now dispersed in multiple geographies. In this sense, Joseph Sassoon Semah’s “The Third GaLUT” as a whole forms a quest into the meaning of belonging in the wake of these multiple dislocations. More specifically, in “Joseph / YOSef / Yusuf: Based on the National Birds of Iraq / Israel / The Netherlands,” the artist has each of the framed drawings of a bird inscribed with the name “Joseph,” in the alphabet of three languages, echoing three different pronunciations. On the right, the chukar partridge, Iraq’s national bird, contains Arabic script reading “Yusef”; in the middle, the hoopoe, Israel’s national bird, contains Hebrew script reading “Yosef”; and on the left, the black-tailed godwit, the Netherlands’ national bird, contains Latin/Dutch script reading “Joseph.” The juxtaposition of the three different birds, wrapped as it were in three distinct orthographies, is embedded in a biography and a communal history across multiple spaces over the second half of the 20th century. 

When viewed in Europe’s normative orthographic direction, from left to right, the images are read chronologically back from the Dutch present to the past in the Middle East. But when read in the opposite direction, in the common right to left eye-scanning movement of the Arabic and Hebrew scripts, the series has “the Semitic linguistic family” as its foundational narrative. Iraq/Arabic is evoked on the right, thus positioned as the primary location that forms the beginning of the Yusuf/Yosef/Joseph’s story; Israel/Hebrew is in the middle, as the passage from the artist’s birth country to his third place of affiliation, the Netherlands/Dutch. When the three juxtaposed images are viewed from left to right, the Dutch pronunciation of the artist’s name, “Joseph,” exerts the dominant presence. But when viewed from right-to-left, the artwork privileges the gaze—and by implication the voice—of the native Arabic and Hebrew speaker, in an order beginning with Arabic, followed by Hebrew and ending with Dutch. 

For the eye accustomed to scanning the alphabet from left to right, trying to follow the artist’s biographical itinerary by reading from right to left is very challenging; beginning to decipher in the opposite direction involves a process of defamiliarization. The viewing experience itself becomes a mode of graphological displacement that generates a measure of distance toward the object of the gaze. Forced to look at “undecipherable” letters, furthermore, the non-Arabic and non-Hebrew speakers/readers are confronted with seemingly empty signifiers enveloping the Iraqi and Israeli symbolic birds. Yet the consciousness of the legibility of the scripts for the Arabic and/or Hebrew speakers dislocates the non-speaker/non-reader from his/her comfort zone, offering a sense of what it might feel like to exist out of place. The act of viewing against one’s own habitual linguistic grain becomes an enactment of exiling that reflexively encapsulates the artist’s exilic journey—Iraq, Israel, and the Netherlands. And in this sense, “Joseph / YOSef / Yusuf” destabilizes the relationship between the object and the subject of the gaze.  

Raised in the linguistic domains of Arabic and then Hebrew, Joseph Sassoon Semah’s transition into Dutch has involved a distressed dislocation into a novel linguistic ambiance. By following the biographic chronological direction from right to left, uttering the artist’s name first as “Yusef,” continuing to “Yosef,” and ending with “Joseph,” the viewer is placed within the visual and acoustic subjectivity of the artist. The Baghdad-born artist is now inviting the Amsterdam-based spectator to experience alien linguistic signifiers and implicitly reflect on the experience of out-of-placeness. Thus, while the two Middle Eastern birds, the chukar partridge/Yusuf and the hoopoe/Yosef face each other, their gazes virtually transcending the borders of their respective frames, the Dutch bird, the black-tailed godwit/Joseph, faces away from the other two. The Dutch bird is visually isolated from the two co-regional birds, suggesting an existence within another realm, distanced from both the Arabic and Hebrew zones. The presence of the Arabic and the Hebrew words in the framed birds’ drawings in an Amsterdam gallery, meanwhile, reverses and complicates the twinned notions of “guest” and “host.” It is after all the Iraqi-Israeli-Dutch displaced artist who hosts the guests of the Lumen Travo Gallery in Amsterdam. The boundaries between “the guest” and “the host” and between “home” and “exile” are blurred when viewers of different backgrounds share an experience of various degrees of belonging and un-belonging.  

Despite their status as national symbols, the birds themselves journey across regions and even continents, flying beyond the nets of the borders of a single nation-state. By juxtaposing three exilic sites, “Joseph / YOSef / Yusuf: Based on the National Birds of Iraq / Israel / The Netherlands,” meanwhile, tells a post/colonial migratory story which could not be contained within the boundaries of one nation and one place.28 Instead, the reading/viewing—whether from right-to-left or from left-to-right—of the multilingual scripts that envelope the framed birds is itself embedded in a multidirectional narrative movement. The concept of the “third galut” thus has to be decoded not only within the borders of each frame but also in the space between them. Yet in contrast to the seasonal migratory patterns of the birds, dislocated communities in the wake of violent political crisis pass on an intergenerational trauma of loss and impossibility of return.29 In Joseph Sassoon Semah’s “The Third GaLUT” the iconography of national birds, imprisoned as it were by their respective frames, can be read allegorically as illuminating the artificiality of flags, borders, and passports as the modern impediment to the freedom of movement. In contrast to birds, dislocated populations in the wake of partitions have faced the impossibility of return; hence the exilic condition simultaneously in relation to three distinct sites—Baghdad, Jerusalem, and Amsterdam.

National birds, like all national symbols, offer an iconic representation associated with the place of the birth of the nation. Joseph Sassoon Semah’s drawing of the national birds of Iraq, Israel, and the Netherlands, in this sense, constitutes a representation of a representation. Indigenous flora and fauna are transmuted into a language of nation-states, defining the presumably essential properties of a people. The very notion of a national bird points, then, to more than a category of Aves commonly found in a specific area; it symbolizes the unique characteristics associated with the imagined spirit of the nation. Yet national symbols ironically can also unmask the manufacturing of these very symbols, calling attention to “the invention of the nation.” Birds themselves are hardly unique to a single country. Iraq’s national bird, the chukar partridge, for example, is a Eurasian native to the Middle East and southern Asia.30 Its onomatopoeic name, Chukar, apparently derives from the Sanskrit chakor, i.e. “bird that loves the moon.”31 Mentioned in the Bible, the chukar partridge can also be found in Israel/Palestine, and it is also the national bird of Pakistan.32 The species has been introduced into other arid regions in North America and New Zealand.33 The non-secretive lives of the birds, therefore, reveal a complex network of movement and the intermingling across regions, which would seem to offer a counter-allegory to the 19th-century separatist ethno-national paradigm still reigning through the 21st century. 

It was, after all, the remapping of nation-states premised on partitioned ethno-national identities that engineered the massive waves of population transfers (Greeks and Turks, Indians and Pakistanis, Palestinians and Arab Jews) beginning in the post-WWI era. These internationally sanctified cases of “population exchange” have involved immeasurable suffering—the collateral damage of a presumably inevitable solution. Indeed, the euphemistic concept of “collateral damage,” today firmly associated with the Gulf Wars, is a symptom of the dehumanization of Iraqi civilians, and is partly responsible for Europe’s current refugee crisis. In the cold algebra of suffering, the bodies washed up on the shores of Europe are computed into earlier dislocated Middle Easterners. Joseph Sassoon Semah’s related project,On Friendship / (Collateral Damage) II – The Guardians of the Door” (2017) ultimately questions the complex relationship between the Eastern guest, in this case a Babylonian/Iraqi Jew, whose community, to evoke one titular element, has been the collateral damage of violent partition and population transfer, ending up in the West. Yet in what is traditionally considered a “Christian land,” the Biblical cultural formation of monotheism is rooted in the land of “the guest,” thus, in a friendly reminder, blurring the historical, cultural and epistemological boundaries that separate “East” and “West.”

Between Departures and Returns

 Although the titular name “Joseph” refers to the artist, it also evokes the Biblical Joseph, alluded to in another work inscribing the names “Joseph / Yosef / Yusuf” in “3 x women’s nightwear” in “SeUDAT HaVRaAH (The Meal of Recovery).” This time, in a gendered reversal, the name is embroidered in color on three female white gowns. In the Biblical Joseph story, the iconic ornate robe (“ktonet ha-passim”) concerns motifs of displacement, betrayal, and scapegoating, but also forgiveness and resumed brotherly love. Born to the Patriarch Jacob and the Matriarch Rachel in Haran in northern Mesopotamia (today located in Turkey), Joseph and his family journeyed back to the land of Canaan, settling in Hebron. But the more familiar dislocation narrative, as we know, concerns the moving from Canaan to Egypt as a result of the betrayal of innocent Joseph by his brothers, who stripped him of his ornate robe and threw him into the cistern. They dipped Joseph’s robe in the blood of a goat they slaughtered, only to tell their father that a ferocious animal had devoured his son when in fact they sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites who took him to Egypt.34 Joseph forgives his brothers—an act that blesses him with the adjective “ha-tzadik” (the righteous one) within the Jewish tradition, highlighted in Joseph Sassoon Semah’s allusion to the “lamed vav tzadikim” (36 righteous people). A kind of foundational scapegoat story, Joseph ends up in a foreign land enduring false accusation and imprisonment.

In this sense, Joseph Sassoon Semah’s multilingual utterance of the same name, “Joseph / Yosef / Yusuf,” must also be considered in relation to the thematization of the scapegoat in his 1986 work “SAIR La-AZAZeL (The AZAZeL Goat).” While on one level referring to the traditional animal sacrifice as a form of atonement, the scapegoat parable of betrayal and exile, I suggest, emerges as an allegory for a contemporary epic-scale cross-border movement between enemy zones. In the wake of their exodus from Iraq and the shock of arrival in Israel, Iraqi Jews often gave expression to their sense of betrayal by both Iraq and Israel.35 Referring to the rumors about the (still disputed) placing of bombs in synagogues and the secretive deal between the Iraqi and Israeli governments under the auspices of the British, they pointed to the Iraqi regime’s benefiting financially from their property left behind and to Israel from turning them into cheap labor. The phrase “ba‘ona”—“they sold us out”36—gave expression to an embittered sense of a no-exit situation, from a pre-departure fear of persecution if they were to remain in Iraq to a post-arrival encounter with Euro-Israeli racist attitudes and discourses. Joseph Sassoon Semah’s 1979 exhibition entitled “Eretz Ahavti Eretz Oti Lo Ahavah” (“I Have Loved a Country, a Country Did Not Love Me”) gives expression to the sentiment of rejection, frustration, and alienation. The modern Jewish-Iraqi exodus has turned in this sense into a tale of a scapegoat sacrificed on the altar of the Arab/Jewish conflict.

Associated with the dislocation from Canaan to Egypt, the Joseph story could nonetheless illuminate the ambiguity of the notion of “exile” as always-already intertwined with the no less challenging concept of “home” that informs the “The Third GaLUT” project. Despite initial hardships in exile, Joseph flourishes only to encounter his family years later when they migrate to Egypt due to a famine in Canaan. As the site of forced exile, Egypt is traditionally remembered more for a subsequent chapter in the Israelites’ experience, for the Pharaoh “who did not know Joseph” and enforced enslavement—“embittered with harsh labor at mortar and brick,”37 leading to the miraculous Exodus of “yetzi’at Mitzrayim”—annually commemorated in the Passover reading of the Haggadah. Yet Egypt is also the place of an earlier Pharaoh who did know Joseph, declaring: “‘The land of Egypt is open before you: settle your father and your brothers in the best part of the land; let them stay in the region of Goshen.’ … So Joseph settled his father and his brothers, giving them holdings in the choicest part of the land of Egypt, in the region of Ramses.”38 Here one could propose a shift in emphasis to what could be called “knissat Mitzrayyim,” i.e. the entrance into Egypt, accentuating at least the ambiguity of Egypt as a site not only of exodus but also of entrance, of finding refuge in another land. 

Joseph Sassoon Semah’s “The Third GaLUT” is haunted by the ambivalent narration of exile and home in the Bible itself not only with regards to Egypt but more significantly to Babylon. To begin with, Mesopotamia is traditionally considered the location of Gan Eden (Garden of Eden)—a phrase literally inscribed in the artist’s sketch of “Between Graveyard and Museum’s Sphere:  Model Based on Synagogue Meir Tweig, Baghdad, Iraq.” It is the site of the foundational narrative of expulsion from Paradise. Babylon, meanwhile, is the ultimate site of the galut, but it is also the place in which Jews remained for millennia despite their remembering of Zion. After the fall of Babylon in 539 BC, Cyrus King of Persia offered the exiled the possibility of return to Jerusalem and to rebuild the Second Temple. And while some returned, most Jews remained in their homes.39 The temporary place became a millennial site of creativity, most notably of the Babylonian Talmud and on to 20th-century Iraq.40 But on another level, the very region of Mesopotamia—Aram Naharayyim—could hardly be seen as simply an alien place; after all, Ur of the Chaldees in Mesopotamia was also the birthplace of the patriarch Abraham. It was, furthermore, the generative site of the first iconoclastic revelation, which prompted the divine imperative of abandoning it for another place—the Promised Land. Thus, the alien land, Canaan, is conceived as the telos place of the descendants of the “seed of Abraham.”

In such instances, the Biblical narrative itself contains inherent ambiguity concerning the notions of birthplace and homeland, of origin and thus return. The Mesopotamian birthplace of the progenitor Abraham, in a turnabout of events many generations later, is conceived as the exilic place for his descendants, while the land to which he migrated, Canaan, becomes the Land of Israel—a place imbued with the idea of the “Return to Zion.” Yet these Biblical crossings in various directions complicate any purist genealogy of a people, while also complicating the very concept of return. Joseph Sassoon Semah’s “The Third GaLUT” project can then be understood as revisiting the nationalist narrative of “Exile” and restoration to “the Promised Land.”41 His “Study Based on the Tomb of the Prophet Ezekiel, al- Kifl, Iraq” alludes to the Exilic lament associated with the Biblical text, but it also evokes the annual festivity associated with the pilgrimage to the tomb’s site, especially during the holiday of shvu‘ot (as known in Hebrew) or ‘eed al-ziyyara (as commonly called in the Arabic idiom of the community); thus rendering Babylon/Iraq of the scriptural Exile as a palpable millennial home/land. Within this reading, all of the three places that comprise the artist’s biographical itinerary are simultaneously sites of home and exile.

Indeed, for Joseph Sassoon Semah, Amsterdam encapsulates the foreign landscape that became the site of quotidian intimacy; and in his own words: “Amsterdam is my city of refuge.”42 Yet even this contemporary arrival to Amsterdam is itself preceded first by the arrival of the Bible from the East, and secondly by the arrival of an earlier exilic Jewish community from Sefarad/Al Andalus. Amsterdam, lest one forget, was the city that offered refuge to the exiled Sephardi Jews already following the 1492 fall of Granada and the Edict of Expulsion and more significantly in the wake of the formal installation of the Portuguese Inquisition in 1536. In Amsterdam, Sephardis could practice their religion free of the surveillance of the Inquisition, allowing conversos to return to Jewish practices; witness Beth Haim cemetery in Amstel dating back to 1614 and the Portuguese synagogue dating back to 1674 as well as the continuous intellectual impact of such figures as Menasseh Ben Israel (1604–1657)—including in the Institute for Jewish and Social Cultural Studies named after him—and Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677).

The Spinoza bronze monument erected by the sculptor Nicolas Dings in 2008 in front of the city hall, at the entrance to the old Jewish Quarter where Spinoza grew up, has the philosopher’s cloak decorated with roses (“Spinoza” deriving from the Portuguese “thorn”) and with two type of birds, sparrows, an archetypical bird no longer ubiquitous in the city, and rose-ringed parakeets, the once “exotic bird” that adapted to the local climate.43 These visuals take us back to Joseph Sassoon Semah’s iconography of birds as allegorizing cross-border movement. But while the birds dotting Spinoza’s cloak “translate” his philosophical pantheism into visual language, in “The Third GaLUT,” the birds, as a representation of a representation, come to signify the interstitial space between “home” and “exile.”

Remainders Revisited

In “The Third GaLUT,” Joseph Sassoon Semah links Mesopotamian natural history with Jewish Baghdadi cultural chronicles. In a series of drawings of skulls “based on wildlife of Iraq” shrouded with threads based on “Jewish Lost Civic Architecture from Baghdad,” the artist stitches together two usually isolated types of documentation—the natural and the civilizational. In doing so, the work roots the Jewish community not only in the longue durée of Mesopotamian ecology but also in the modern urban cartography of Baghdad. The depiction of the remains of the fauna come to visually resonate with the threaded “skeletons” of buildings. Through the artwork, however, moribund civilizational architecture is revitalized. As with the threads that conjure up absent Jewish-Baghdadi edifices, Joseph Sassoon Semah’s work on Baghdad evokes the cityscape as a site of flexible negotiation between tradition and modernity, for example in: “Between Graveyard and Museum’s Sphere: Model Based on Synagogue Meir Tweig, Baghdad, Iraq,” “Architectural Model Based on a Train Station in Baghdad, 1930,” “Architectural Model Based on Tigris Palace Hotel, Baghdad 1930,” “Architectural Model Based on Al Zawra Cinema,” and “Architectural Model Based on The Baghdad Museum, 1926.” The dispersal of the Jewish-Iraqi community and its lack of access to its past turns this act of re-membering of Babylon/Baghdad into a diasporic aesthetic imperative.

Joseph Sassoon Semah’s various sculpted models are themselves based on archival photographic images, whether of a synagogue (“Between Graveyard and Museum’s Sphere”), a train station (“Architectural Model Based on a Train Station in Baghdad, 1930”), a cemetery (“Architectural Model Based on the mass Grave of Jews in Baghdad – Farhud 1941”), a movie theater (“Architectural Model Based on Al Zawra Cinema”), or a museum (“Architectural Model Based on The Baghdad Museum, 1926”). These artworks thus constitute a document of a document. As such, these reconstructed models only accentuate the exilic locus of the artwork itself. With the impossibility of returning to his birthplace, the Baghdad-born artist is also denied the possibility of conjuring up a more direct documentation or representation of the remnants. At the same time, the present-day subjugation of Iraq to decades-long devastating Gulf Wars has turned the once-thriving cultural geography into a ghost of its own past. Here the drawings of wildlife skulls could be viewed in relation to the contemporary carnage in Iraq. Indeed, in his 2016 “A Brief History of Abstract Painting” the images are based on airstrike footage captured via a thermal camera; the human collateral damage is shielded behind the abstraction. In this sense, not only dislocated Iraqis—of all denominations—are unable to access their cities, towns and villages, but also those who stayed, continue fighting against all odds to re-member, revitalize and reconstruct a place out of its ruins.

Images 19 and 20. Joseph Sassoon Semah‘s “Architectural Model Based on Tigris Palace Hotel, Baghdad 1930” (left) and the source archival photo (right)47

Images 21 and 22. Joseph Sassoon Semah’s drawing of “Architectural Model Based on Al Zawra Cinema” (left) and the source archival photo (right)48

Images 23 and 24. Joseph Sassoon Semah’s drawing of “Architectural Model Based on The Baghdad Museum, 1926” (left) and the source archival photo (right)49

With their cross-border movement, Iraqi Jews left a world behind which now often appears under the melancholic rubrics of “lost,” “last” and “disappearing.” The exit under troubling circumstances resulted in their leaving behind the movable and the unmovable. The graves of the beloved (and of their ancestors) had to be abandoned, including of those killed in the 1941 farhud, thematized in Sassoon Semah’s “Architectural Model Based on the mass Grave of Jews in Baghdad – Farhud 1941.” Vestiges of houses, schools, synagogues, and cemeteries, along with quotidian artifacts and liturgical objects, as well as photo albums, recordings and home movies—all now form part of a contested arena over the narration of the past. In fact, in the wake of the 2003 Gulf War, the debate has only intensified when the U.S. Army removed thousands of books and documents from the flooded basement of the mukhabarat, the Intelligence Headquarters. The Washington-based National Archives and Records Administration conducting the preservation project initiated an exhibit entitled “Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage.”50 The “Jewish-Iraqi Archive,” as it came to be known, has triggered a controversy over its possession and permanent housing—should “the treasures” be returned to Iraq, given to Israel, or stay in the U.S.? This archive ownership dispute underlines the seeming close of a chapter, marking the “entry” of a once thriving community into the entombment rooms of the museum.

Nowhere is “the preservation of a vanishing world” more ironic than in the Israel Museum’s showcasing of the “Clothes of Rabbi Sasson Kadoorie, the Last Chief Rabbi of Iraqi Jewry.” Deeply engrained in the persistent exoticization of “edot ha-mizrah” (the Oriental communities), the description informs the viewer/reader:

These garments belonged to Chief Rabbi Sasson Kadoorie (1880-1971), who held his post from the 1920s until his death. With its multiple robes, this outfit was typical of the attire worn by Iraqi rabbis from the late 19th to the mid-20th century. The first, striped robe is cut in traditional ottoman fashion, the middle one is machine-made, and the upper one was worn by eminent individuals throughout the Middle East. The most distinctive feature of this outfit is the headdress—a fixed turban made of a soft fringed fez surrounded by an embroidered cashmere shawl.51

The description also details the material makeup of each segment of the garment. The robe is made of “silk and cotton satin from Damascus” while the upper robe is of “machine-made wool” and the uppermost robe of “camel hair with couched silk cords.” The headdress consists of the “felted wool, silk tassel” fez and the “wool, cashmere weave, wool embroidery” of the turban.52 The Hakham’s attire forms part of the museum’s history of displaying items of “the Oriental communities” which includes quotidian relics and liturgical artifacts.53 In this ethnological version of Judaica, the museum invites the visitor to “explore” the collection of “Jewish dress and jewelry.”54 The Hakham’s attire, more specifically, appears as an item in a series of Oriental garments and ornaments such as “Groom’s Attire, Late 19th–Early 20th Century, Bukhara, Uzbekistan,”55Georgian Woman’s Attire, Late 19th–early 20th century, Tbilisi,”56 and “Algerian woman’s ceremonial outfit, Mid-19th Century.”57

Within this persistent Orientalist gaze, the artifacts of a complex cultural geography are fetishistically reduced to mere vestiges of a vanishing world, now rescued by the pedagogical mission of the museum. In contrast with Sassoon Semah’s trilingual robes dotted with the embroidered calligraphy of Joseph’s name, the Hakham’s attire is subjected to what I have elsewhere called “the last-of-the Mohicans syndrome.” Premised on the museum as a salvage site, the ethnological gesture of preservation elides Israel’s own role in the dislodging of Jews from Muslim spaces and in programmatically assimilating them into Euro-Israeli culture. The Judaica exotica naturalizes the rupture from places like Iraq and Morocco and the arrival to the modern nation-state as nationalist telos. But in contrast to the anonymous “Oriental dresses,” the display of the Hakham’s attire disembodies a significant figure of his agency. More specifically, given the historical Zionist hostility to the Hakham, the Israel Museum’s showcasing of his attire has the effect of a symbolic victory for the nationalist side of the debate vis-à-vis the traditionalist opposition. Remaining in Baghdad, the Hakham’s stance is implied to be proven wrong, especially since the attire itself was donated by the son, Sha’ul, who stayed until his father’s death, and testified, as we have seen, to the horrors of Baathi Iraq. At the same time, the ghostly presence of the Hakham also offers a reminder of the feeling of out-of-placeness of the community in the wake of its dislocation; now underscored by his grandson’s finding refuge in the Netherlands and authoring of a project named “The Third GaLUT.”

Inherent in the “the preservation of a lost world,” then, is a discourse that elides cultural continuities across geographies; a salvage paradox of simultaneous recovery and mummification. Indeed, the very title of Joseph Sassoon Semah’s architectural model of a Baghdadi synagogue, “Between Graveyard and Museum’s Sphere,” resonates with the burden of this paradox. The public arena tends to promote a false binarism between the disappearance/burial of the past on the one hand and its rescue/preservation on the other. But as a metonym and metaphor for the Jewish-Baghdadi fragmentation, the archival remnants also form part of an active engagement by the diasporic descendants. As a project of both rupture and continuity, “The Third GaLUT” can be seen as deconstructing the museological salvage paradigm just as the artwork’s emphasis on a multi-sited exile deconstructs the redemptive Zionist version of “ketz la-galut,” of ending “Exile.”

Mapping Un/Belonging

Joseph Sassoon Semah’s “Between Graveyard and Museum’s Sphere: Model Based on Synagogue Meir Tweig, Baghdad, Iraq” embodies the fraught negotiation of here and there and of past and present. The artist’s bronze model reproduces the distinct rectangular-layered façade of the synagogue’s upper section while displaying a triangular-shaped roof within the interior section. The base is surrounded by protruding ten ram’s horns, shofarot. As a sound instrument, the shofar is associated with rituals of the Days of Repentance, but here the number of the ram’s horns corresponds to the minyan, the traditional quorum of ten men required for a Jewish public worship. Despite the thematization of a Baghdadi-Jewish worship site, the artwork touches on a history of cultural syncretism both inside and outside Baghdad. The interior triangular shape mimics the European tile roof uncommon in a city of flat, terraced rooftops. But it is also reminiscent of the triangular shape of the clay-based tombs in Baghdad’s old Jewish cemetery. In this visual resemblance between two modes of housing—for the living and for the dead—the artwork likens the museumification of heritage sites to an entombization. The ritual of blowing the shofarot, meanwhile, is mainly performed during Rosh Ha-Shana and Yom Kippur, but here the shape of the ram’s horns corresponds not to the Sephardi but rather to the Ashkenazi tradition. This juxtaposition highlights the major encounter between Sephardi and Ashkenazi traditions, not in Iraq, but in Israel and Europe.

Finally, the architecture of the Meir Tweig synagogue testifies to Baghdad’s modernist aesthetics at the time of the opening of its doors in 1942. While principally reproducing the interior architecture of the traditional Baghdadi synagogues, the spacious Meir Tweig building also reverberated with al-Bataween district’s display of art deco façades.59 The modernist abstract geometric stylization—as in the rectangular shapes of the building accentuated in Sassoon Semah’s work—can be said to encounter the longue durée of the mainstream Judeo-Muslim prohibition on graven images. Modernist abstract aesthetic thus comes full circle to the birth place of Abrahamic iconoclasm. In prosperous al-Bataween, where families of diverse religious backgrounds moved, syncretism took the form of an architectural design that simultaneously signified “East” and “West.” The newly-developed 1930s neighborhood displayed wider streets, and its houses incorporated the European-style front yard instead of the traditional central inner courtyard (hosh). They were also devoid of the shanashil façade with its ornate latticed wood fitted around the protruding windows that faced the narrow lanes. But as an artifact of an architectural hybrid design, the houses did tend to maintain the traditional flat rooftops. Sassoon Semah’s “Between Graveyard and Museum’s Sphere: Model Based on Synagogue Meir Tweig, Baghdad, Iraq” in this sense generates a parallel  between the subject of the artwork—the actual Meir Tweig synagogue—and the conceptual sculpture based on the Meir Tweig Synagogue, since both testify to an East/West aesthetic syncretism. But they also testify to different hybridity formations and uneven aesthetic developments: one associated with 1940s post/colonial Baghdad, and the other with the post-partition dislocation.

“Between Graveyard and Museum’s Sphere: Model Based on Synagogue Meir Tweig, Baghdad, Iraq,” privileges a specific synagogue out of the many that once dotted Baghdad, at a time when one third of the city’s population was Jewish. With the further dwindling of the community in the post-1970s era, the Meir Tweig Synagogue has been the last functioning worship place and the center of Jewish culture in Baghdad, including in the post-2003 period of the invasion of Iraq.62 The very act of sculpting in bronze the aesthetically modern synagogue accentuates the metamorphosis of the synagogue from a place of vital communal gathering into a remnant of that vitality. But rather than a reproduction of a relic, Sassoon Semah’s artwork, as suggested earlier, is embedded in a palimpsestic syncretism. Indeed, the sketches for “Between Graveyard and Museum’s Sphere:  Model Based on Synagogue Meir Tweig, Baghdad, Iraq” as well as for the “Architectural Model Based on the Tomb of the Prophet Ezekiel, al- Kifl, Iraq” in “On Friendship / (Collateral Damage) III -The Third GaLUT: Baghdad, Jerusalem, Amsterdam” underline a process of “modification of architectural forms” seeing it as “the only way left to come close to the Gates of Eden.” With their cross-border movement, Iraqi Jews left a world behind but which nonetheless continues to breathe elsewhere in the descendants’ continuing cultural practices.

“The Third GaLUT” project testifies to a desire to reconnect with the Babylonian/Baghdadi past more than half a century after the dislocation. Although Hakham Sasson Khdhuri stayed in Iraq, his daughter Marcelle, the mother of Joseph Semah, ended up moving to Israel, but now the grandson is reflecting on the Baghdadi remainders in Amsterdam. The project straddles past and present, between inside and outside, shuttling back and forth in the never-ending suspension between home and exile. Displaying a version of the last active Baghdadi synagogue in an Amsterdam site illuminates the paradoxes of post/colonial displacement. An ethno-nationalist project which ultimately began with “the Jewish question” in Europe transmuted into a Zionist version of the Biblical ketz la-galut, of ending the Exile, but which ultimately engendered the epic-scale dispersal of Jews from Arab/Muslim spaces. Sassoon Semah’s project, meanwhile, dynamically engages in a present-day dialogue with Amsterdam’s Muslim diaspora, as seen in the very act of placing the “Architectural Model Based on the Tomb of the Prophet Ezekiel, al- Kifl, Iraq” in the Faith Mosque located in Rozengracht, Amsterdam. The tomb of the Prophet, whose trajectory embodies the Exile from Jerusalem to Babylon, is also a shrine for Muslims who consider Ezekiel as one of the Prophets of Islam. The history of shared venerated sites by both communities attests to a convivencia that existed not only in Sefarad/Al Andalus but also within other Muslim spaces. In Semah’s “Architectural Model Based on the Tomb of the Prophet Ezekiel, al- Kifl, Iraq” its potentiality is also invoked in relation to the European present. 

Within a critical exilic imaginary, the notion of “return,” then is hardly unidirectional. In an Amsterdam map deployed in Joseph Sassoon Semah’s various exhibitions since his 1999 “Measurement in Time [MOED],” Museum Jan Cunen, Oss, the Netherlands, the artist calls attention to the layout of the canals of Amsterdam as bearing a resemblance to the Judaic menorah form. In this cartographic hermeneutics, Semah’s three places of un/belonging are fused, evoking, in his words, the “magic of the two rivers in Babylon; the sacred mountains of the city of Jerusalem; and the common layout of the Canals of the city of Amsterdam.” Thus, rather than the single Exilic itinerary with a definite national point of origin and telos, the notion of the “third galut,” as we saw, offers a multi-layered map of criss-crossing routes and passages, and a genealogy of dis/placement without a definitive homecoming.

Footnotes

  1. The spelling of the Hakham’s name in this essay corresponds to its pronunciation in the Jewish-Baghdadi dialect rather than the various transliterations, including in the Hakham’s official seal of the “President of the Jewish Community” (or “Israeli Community,” as defined in Arabic — “Isra’iliyya” — and in Hebrew — “Yisra’elit” — at a time when the word did not yet connote the State of Israel.)
  2. A family album photo, courtesy of Joseph Sassoon Semah
  3. For an interview concerning Joseph Sassoon Semah’s trajectory, including in regard to the Israeli art world, see Mati Shemoelof’s conversation with the artist, “How to Explain Hare Hunting to a Dead German Artist,” Tohu, February 6, 2019.
  4.  The rigidity of both paradigms has produced the particular Arab-Jewish crisis, since neither paradigm can easily contain crossed or multiple identities and affinities.
  5.  To this day, discussion of the circumstances that led to the displacement of Iraqi Jews provokes a heated political quarrel. The dominant Arab nationalist discourse has represented the mass departure as an indication of the Jewish betrayal of the Arab nation. The dominant Israeli discourse, meanwhile, has narrated the exodus from Arab countries as a story of expulsion. More recently, the emphasis on “Jewish refugees from Arab and Muslim countries” tends to be linked to the 1948 Palestinian refugees in an effort to contest Palestinian claims of dispossession. Pairing the nakba with the tasqit, a discourse of a presumed equivalence between the two cases of refugees, has been circulating as part of the rhetoric of “population exchange.” The linkage in this sense has tended to assuage Israeli responsibility for the Palestinian exodus. Some versions of the “population exchange” rhetoric, furthermore, embed the assumption of Muslims as perennial persecutors of Jews, in what could be called a “pogromized” version of “Jewish History.” In its most tendentious forms, this rhetoric incorporates the Arab-Jewish experience into the Shoah, evident for example in the campaign to include the 1941 farhud attacks on Jews in Iraq in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. One can denounce the violence of the farhud, and even connect it to Nazi propaganda in Iraq coming out of Berlin, without instrumentalizing it to equate Arabs with Nazis, or forge a discourse of eternal Muslim anti-Semitism. Apart from the fact that during the farhud some Muslims also protected their Jewish neighbors, the designation of the violent event as a pogrom has shaped a Eurocentric narrative for Iraqi Jews, projecting the historical experience of Jews in Christian Europe onto Muslim spaces.
  6.  The “ingathering” then seems less natural and inevitable when one takes into account the intricate circumstances that engendered the departure, to wit: 1) the efforts of the Zionist underground in Iraq to denigrate the authority of the traditional Jewish community leaders, such as Hakham Sasson Khdhuri, who did not subscribe to this new vision of Jewishness; 2) its attempts to place a “wedge” between the Jewish and Muslim communities; 3) the Arab institutionalization of discriminatory practices toward Jews; 4) the vehement anti-Jewish propaganda, especially as channeled through the Istiqlal (Independence) Party, circulating in the public sphere; 5) the reticence on the part of many Arab intellectuals to spell out the distinction between “Jews” and “Zionists”; 6) the failure of the Arab political leadership to actively secure the place of Jews in Arab countries; 7) the persecution of communists, among them Jews, who opposed the Zionist idea; 8) the secretive agreements between some Iraqi and Israeli leaders concerning the departure of Jews to Israel; and 9) the misconceptions, on the part of many Arab-Jews, about the differences between their own religious identity, affiliation, or sentiments and the nation-state project of Zionism, premised on a Eurocentric secular vision even while invoking a quasi-religious messianic rhetoric.
  7. Stamped in the Arabic as “la yasmahu li-hamilihi bi-l-‘awda illa al-‘Iraq batatan.”
  8. Photo sourced from Youth Movements Photos, “Jews of Baghdad gathered beside the Meir Tweig Synagogue, that served as the registration point for legal immigration to the Land of Israel.” Ghetto Fighters House Archive, Catalog No. 10766,   https://www.infocenters.co.il/gfh/notebook_ext.asp?item=69546&site=gfh&lang=ENG&menu=1
  9. The declaration was published in Iraq’s Al-Istiqlal newspaper on October 8, 1936. (The Arabic and Hebrew declaration is located in the Archive of “Vaad ha-Eda ha-Sefaradit” in Jerusalem.) See Shaul Hakham Sasson, “Son of the Former Head of the Jewish Community of Iraq,” Ra‘ wa-ra‘eeyya: Sirat hayat al-Hakham Sasson Khdhuri, ra’is al-ta’ifa al-Musawiyya fi al-‘Iraq (A Leader and his Community: A Biography of the Late Hakham Sasson Khdhuri, Head of the Mosaic Community in Iraq) with an Introduction by Shmuel Moreh, Association of Jewish Academics from Iraq, Jerusalem, 1999, p. 398.
  10. The photo which was taken on the occasion of the visit of King Faisal I to the Jewish community in 1924 is included in Shaul Hakham Sasson’s Ra‘ wa-ra‘eeyya (A Leader and his Community) with the following identifications: Front row from right to left: Ruben Zluf, Salim Ishaq, Yehuda Zluf, Hakham Sasson Khdhuri (the president of the court), Hakham Bashi Ezra Dangoor, Mahmud Nadim al-Tabaqcheli, King Faisal I, Safwat Pasha al-‘Awa, Senator Menahem Daniel, Abraham Nahom, Sion Gurji, Tahsin Qadri. Second row from right to left: Dr. Gurji Rabi, Eliyahu al-‘Ani, Sasson Mrad, Saleh Shlomo, Yussuf Mrad, Gurji Bahar, Karek Menashi Gurji. p. 263.
  11. Photo courtesy of Joseph Sassoon Semah
  12. On the Zionist views of Hakham Sasson see for example Moshe Gat, Khila Yehudit be-Mashber: Yetz’iat ‘Iraq, 1948-1951 (A Jewish Community in Crisis: The Exodus from Iraq, 1948-1951), The Zalman Shazar Center for Jewish History, Jerusalem, 1989; Esther Meir, Ha-Tnu‘a ha-Tziyonit ve-Yehudei ‘Iraq, 1941-1950  (Zionism and the Jews Iraq, 1941-1950), Am Oved Publishers, Tel Aviv, 1993.
  13. Emile Marmorstein, “Baghdad Jewry’s Leader Resigns,” The Jewish Chronicle, December 30, 1949. Republished in Middle Eastern Studies with an introduction by the editor, Elie Kedourie, Vol. 24, No. 3 (July 1988), pp. 364-368. Kedourie suggests that the opposition to the Hakham’s views by “a small, secret group of Zionist activists may have led to his downfall,” p. 364. For a contextual examination of Elie Kedourie’s historical work and academic biography see Haya Bambaji-Sasportas, My Heart is in the West and I Am in the Chains of the East: Reviewing the Middle Eastern Canonical Historiography of Elie Kedourie, Doctoral Dissertation, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, 2013.
  14. Even if a growing number of Jews in countries such as Iraq were expressing a desire to go to Israel, the question is why, suddenly, after millennia of not doing so, would they abandon their lives and leave virtually overnight?
  15. Some of the Hakham’s children, like the oldest and the family’s matriarchal figure, Victoria, were hardcore Zionists. Joseph Sassoon Semah’s mother, Marcelle, for her part, moved to Israel following her communist husband, Edward Semah, who believed that Israel would be a safer place than Iraq, where communism was outlawed. This former lawyer for the Iraqi military became a lawyer for the Histadrut (the General Organization of Workers) in Israel. In Iraq, Edward had naively believed in “the kibbutz’s propaganda” about equality but after arrival to Israel he became deeply disillusioned, “feeling badly mistreated.” On his deathbed, Edward confessed to his son Joseph that if he had had the chance, he would have done it all differently and not moved to Israel. [Based on a conversation between the artist, Joseph Sassoon Semah, and the author, Ella Shohat, Amsterdam, December 1, 2019.]
  16. In the late 1950s, as Joseph Sassoon Semah recalls, the Hakham’s family in Israel received a message from the Israeli government that indicated the prospect of the Hakham’s imminent arrival to Israel via Istanbul. The family was hoping to reunite with the Hakham but, as it turned out, he did not use the occasion of his permit to travel to Istanbul to make the further move to Israel. [Based on a conversation between the artist, Joseph Sassoon Semah, and the author, Ella Shohat, Amsterdam, December 1, 2019.]
  17. Photo courtesy of Joseph Sassoon Semah
  18. See Shaul Hakham Sasson, Ra‘ wa-ra‘eeyya (A Leader and his Community). Rather than a leader only invested in maintaining his power, Hakham Sasson Khduri is depicted as a leader protecting his community in ways that mostly correspond to the historical assessment of Elie Kedourie. See Introduction, Middle Eastern Studies Vol. 24, No. 3 (July 1988), pp. 364-368.
  19. Shaul Hakham Sasson, “Son of the Former Head of the Jewish Community of Iraq,” Fi jaheem Saddam Hussein: Thalathmi’a wa-khamsa wa-sittun yawman fi “qasr al-nihayya” (In the Hell of Saddam Hussein: 365 Days in the “Palace of the End”), edited by Shmuel Moreh and Nissim Kazzaz. Association for Jewish Academics from Iraq, Jerusalem, 1999, p.15.
  20. Shaul Hakham Sasson’s biography of the Hakham and his prison memoir were published in Arabic by the Jerusalem-based Association of Jewish Academics from Iraq, which at the time had already published a number of books written by Jews who stayed in Iraq after the mass exodus of 1950-51. Along with Shaul Hakham Sasson’s two books, the list included publications by such figures as Anwar Shaul and Meer Basri, who, like the Hakham’s son, ended up leaving Iraq during the reign of Saddam Hussein. From the editorial perspective of Shmuel Moreh and Nissim Kazzaz the departure serves as evidence to the failure of “the Iraqi orientation” of the Jewish leadership. The publication of Shaul Hakham Sasson’s biography of his father thus signifies a certain shift in the attitude toward the Hakham, even a kind of a Zionist recuperation of the image of the once vehemently denounced head of the community. The Hakham can be represented positively but now only as part of the metanarrative of the failure of “the Iraqi orientation.” (Eli Amir’s 1992 Hebrew novel Mafriah ha-Yonim — The Dove Flyer — depicts a character based on the Hakham also within an overall critical stance that nonetheless offers sympathy for the Hakham vis-à-vis the anti-Jewish Iraqi regime). Within this framing, the Hakham’s anti-Zionist declarations are arguably not being read as signifying a theological perspective or a political reading of the regional map, but are seen as a result of a no-choice situation of a Diasporic traditional leader appeasing brutal even anti-Semitic Iraqi regimes.  
  21. Sha’ul, as the Hakham’s son had symbolic value for the regime’s efforts to counter the international protest. In contrast to some Iraqi Jews in Israel, who accused the Hakham for only intervening on his son’s behalf, Sha’ul suggested in his writing that decisions about his release from prison were all the doing of the regime, since his father was ultimately powerless to influence Saddam Hussein’s maneuvers. In 1969, Sha’ul was included on the regime’s list of Jews to be hung but he was released the following morning while the others accused of spying for Israel were condemned to death. The exceptional status that saved the son’s life prompted anger among some Iraqi Jews who cursed and threw stones at Marcelle’s house in Ramat Gan for months. [Based on a conversation between the artist, Joseph Sassoon Semah, and the author, Ella Shohat, Amsterdam, December 1, 2019.]
  22. Book Cover of Shaul Hakham Sasson’s book Ra‘ wa-ra‘eeyya: Sirat hayat al-Hakham Sasson Khdhuri, ra’is al-ta’ifa al-Musawiyya fi al-‘Iraq (A Leader and his Community: A Biography of the Late Hakham Sasson Khdhuri, Head of the Mosaic Community in Iraq), Published by the Association of Jewish Academics from Iraq, Jerusalem, 1999.
  23. Shaul Hakham Sasson, Fi jaheem Saddam Hussein (In the Hell of Saddam Hussein.)
  24. Fi jaheem Saddam Hussein, p. 59.
  25. ibid
  26. ibid
  27. ibid
  28. For a different discussion of Joseph Sassoon Semah’s theme of migration within the context of Israeli art, see Sarit Shapira, Routes of Wandering: Nomadism, Journeys and Transitions in Contemporary Israeli Art, The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, 1991, p. 190. See also Shlomit Lir, “Pantera Sh’hora Qubiya Levana” [in Hebrew], Sivan Shtang & Noa Hazan eds. Visual Culture in Israel, Hakibbutz Hameuchad, Tel Aviv, 2017. 
  29. However, given climate change, the catastrophe inundating nature’s habitat offers another calamitous allegory of movement in search of refuge, this time not simply about the past but also about the future.
  30. “National Animal of Iraq,” Einfon, https://einfon.com/nationalsymbols/national-animal-of-iraq/
  31. Eriduenki, “Soaring high with the Chukar Partridge,” WordPress, August 10, 2016. https://eriduenki.wordpress.com/2016/08/10/soaring-high-with-the-chukar-partridge/
  32. “Alectoris chukar (Gray, 1830),” in Döring M (2019). Global Biodiversity Information Facility, https://www.gbif.org/species/144095942 
  33. Kenn Kaufman, “Chukar,” Audubon, https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/chukar
  34. Genesis 37:23-28, 31-33
  35.  The same year of the Hakham’s death in Baghdad coincided with the founding of the Black Panther movement which protested the discrimination of the Mizrahim in Israel. Indeed, for decades after the tasqit, Iraqi-Jews often gave expression to their frustrated sense of betrayal by both Iraq and Israel. They invoked the rumors about the (still disputed) placing of bombs in synagogues and the secretive deal between the Iraqi and Israeli governments under the auspices of the British. They also spoke of both countries as benefitting materially from their departure—Iraq, from their property left behind, and Israel, from turning them into cheap labor.
  36.  The phrase formed part of the conversations in my family’s circle.
  37. Exodus, 1:14
  38. Genesis 47:5–6, 11
  39. Ezra 2:64-65.
  40. In his 1979 “An Introduction to the Principle of Relative Expression” (Black oil sticks on pages from TaLMUD BaVeLY, Tractate PeSaChIM 55 Parts), Joseph Sassoon Semah concealed portions of book pages of the Babylonian Talmud in black ink. Reminiscent of the craft of architectural reprography, the work also evokes the practice of censorship of Hebrew books in early modern Europe. (On the impact of Catholic censorship on the publication and dissemination of Hebrew texts in the early modern period, see Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin, The Censor, the Editor, and the Text: The Catholic Church and the Shaping of the Jewish Canon in the Sixteenth Century,University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 2007). At the same time, the series could be seen as visualizing the Judaic concept of “opening of the gates of interpretation” as well as the Muslim notion of “the gate of ijtihad,” or the jurist’s effort of reasoning within the legal interpretative tradition. (See also Almut Shulamit Bruckstein, “The ‘Perfect Text’: Jewish-Muslim Congenialities with Modern European Art” in Aaron W. Hughes and Elliot R. Wolfson, eds., New Directions in Jewish Philosophy, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2010). Semah’s Babylonian Talmud work, furthermore, forms part of his aesthetics of deploying Judaic themes and objects within abstract aesthetic practices.
  41. For discussion of a different notion of “the Third Exile” in relation to Jewish history, see Zvi Ben-Dor Benite, “The Jewish State as an Aryan State: Michael Selzer, the Oriental Jews, and the ‘Third Exile’” [in Hebrew], Theory and Criticism, no. 26 (2005): 255-60.
  42. Mati Shemoelof’s conversation with the artist, “How to Explain Hare Hunting to a Dead German Artist,” Tohu, February 6, 2019.
  43. Spinoza Monument Foundation, “The purpose of the state is freedom,”  http://nicolasdings.nl/spinoza/making/spinoza.pdf  
  44. Ibid
  45. The archival photos in this essay correspond to the same sources used by the artist for his drawings and architectural models. Here, the 1946 photo of the mass grave for the farhud’s victims is sourced from Haim Saadoun, ed. ‘Iraq, Israel’s Ministry of Education and the Ben-Zvi Institute, Jerusalem, 2002, p. 17, scanned by The Jews of Islamic Countries Archiving Project, Tel Aviv University. Accessed 18 Jan. 2020.
  46. Old Iraq, “Kirkuk City train station Year 1951.” Facebook, 17 Jan. 2018, https://www.facebook.com/oldiraq/photos/a.135939339934173/500283050166465/?type=1&theater. Accessed 18 Jan, 2020.
  47. Baghdad Tigris Palace Hotel Photo Card Middle East,” Worthpoint, https://www.worthpoint.com/worthopedia/baghdad-tigris-palace-hotel-photo-521927437
  48. @IraqiPic, “Baghdad, Al-Rasheed Street, picture shows Al Zawra Cinema and part of  Al-Muraba’ah Casino in the late 1940s.” Twitter, 5 Sep. 2016, https://twitter.com/IraqiPic/status/772847168466059265.  For more on the significance of the Cinema, see Adnan Abu Zeed, “Can Baghdad’s Rasheed Street save its name, glory?,” Al-Monitor, https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2019/04/baghdads-rasheed-street-to-be-revamped.html 
  49. Photo sourced from “A History of the Baghdad School of ASOR 1923-1969,” Boston University, Jan 9, 2004, https://www.bu.edu/asor/overseas/baghistory.html.
  50. See the National Archives site: https://www.archives.gov/exhibits/ija/. The exhibit drawn from the archive’s documents, “Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage,” opened at the Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery, National Archives, Washington, DC, November 8, 2013 – January 5, 2014
  51. See the Israel Museum site:  https://www.imj.org.il/en/collections/362789#. Some of these items appear in Esther Juhasz, ed., The Jewish Wardrobe from the Collection of The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, 5 Continents Editions, Milan and The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, 2012.
  52. The museum site indicates that the attire is a “Gift of Rabbi Kadoorie’s Children: Shaoul Sassoon, London, Victoria Nissim and Marcelle Semah, Givatayim, Dr. Meir Sassoon, Tel-Aviv Salman Sassoon, California. Accession number: B82.0346, B82.0345, B83.0205, B82.0342Jewish Art and Life.” https://www.imj.org.il/en/collections/362789
  53. With the completion of its renovation in 2010, the Israel Museum changed the name of its ethnographic section to the broader rubric of “Jewish Life,” apparently in response to some criticism of its Orientalist approach. The Hakham’s attire is now included in the permanent collection entitled “Costume and Jewelry: A Matter of Identity” which aims at presenting “rich, and fascinating Jewish culture from different communities, mostly from Islamic countries, and a few from Central and Eastern Europe, from the late 19th to mid-20th century.” https://www.imj.org.il/en/wings/jewish-art-and-life/costume-and-jewelry-matter-identity. For a critique of the visual rhetoric of Israel’s major museums which, despite the curators’ awareness of a multicultural society, still separate between the departments of art, ethnography, and archaeology, failing to question ethnic power relations, see Noa Hazan, Rav Tarbutiyut ba-Moze’on: Mabat ‘al Geza‘, Migdar ve-Tzuga be-Yisra’el (Multiculturalism in the Museum: Race and Gender on Display) Theory and Criticism: 49:39-66.
  54. See the Israel Museum site:  https://www.imj.org.il/en/wings/jewish-art-and-life/costume-and-jewelry-matter-identity.
  55. https://www.imj.org.il/en/collections/380505
  56. https://www.imj.org.il/en/collections/362772
  57. https://www.imj.org.il/en/collections/362822
  58. The attire is displayed under the caption “Clothes of Rabbi Sasson Kadoorie, the Last Chief Rabbi of Iraqi Jewry.” Photo by Elie Posner, Israel Museum, Jerusalem, https://www.imj.org.il/en/collections/362789
  59. See Caecilia Pieri, Baghdad Arts Deco: Architectural Brickwork, 1920-1950, The American University in Cairo Press, Cairo, 2011.
  60. Photo by Richard Chesnoff (“The ‘Meir Toeg’ synagogue, Baghdad, Iraq 1989”) is sourced from the Photo Archive of the Museum of the Jewish People at Beit Hatfutsot. https://dbs.bh.org.il/image/the-meir-toeg-synagogue-baghdad-iraq-1989
  61. Photo from David Solomon Sassoon, A History of the Jews in Baghdad, published by his son, Solomon D. Sassoon, Letchworth, England, 1949, p. 156.
  62. Guy Raz, “The Last Jews of Baghdad in Post-Saddam Iraq, a Disappearing Cultural Legacy,” NPR News, May 22, 2003. https://www.npr.org/news/specials/iraq2003/raz_030522.html
  63. Photo sourced from David Stanley, “Dhul Kifl Shrine.” flickr. April 8, 2016 https://flic.kr/p/NJQrSN
  64. Photo from American Colony (Jerusalem), Photo Dept., photographer. “Ezekial’s Tomb at Kifel,” Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington,LC-M33- 14508 [P&P]. 1932. www.loc.gov/item/mpc2005007859/PP/

This is essay is a republication of Ella Shohat’s “Remainders Revisited: An Exilic Journey from Hakham Sasson Khdhuri to Joseph Sassoon Semah” in Joseph Sassoon Semah’s On Friendship / (Collateral Damage) III -The third GaLUT: Baghdad, Jerusalem, Amsterdam, Joseph Sassoon Semah & Linda Bouws, eds., Amsterdam: Stichting Metropool Internationale Kunstprojecten, 2020, pp. 26-55.

© Ella Shohat 2020. All rights reserved. 


Ella Shohat is Professor of Cultural Studies at New York University, and since the 1980s has written extensively on Orientalism, Eurocentrism as well as with postcolonial, transnational and diasporic approaches to cultural politics. Her books include: On the Arab-Jew, Palestine, and Other Displacements: Selected Writings(Pluto, 2017, Recipient of the 2017 Middle East Monitor Palestine Book Award); Taboo Memories, Diasporic Voices(Duke University Press, 2006); Israeli Cinema: East/West and the Politics of Representation(University of Texas press, 1989; Twentieth Anniversary Edition with a New Postscript Chapter, I.B. Tauris, 2010); Talking Visions: Multicultural Feminism in a Transnational Age(MIT & The New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1998); Dangerous Liaisons: Gender, Nation and Postcolonial Perspectives (co-edited with Anne McClintock & Aamir Mufti, The University of Minnesota Press, 1997); Between the Middle East and the Americas: The Cultural Politics of Diaspora (co-edited with Evelyn Alsultany, The University of Michigan Press, 2013; Honorable Mention in the 2014 Arab-American Book Award); And with Robert Stam: Unthinking Eurocentrism (Routledge, 1994, Katherine Kovacs Singer 1994 Best Book Award; Twentieth Anniversary 2nd Edition with a new Postscript Chapter, 2014);Flagging Patriotism: Crises of Narcissism and Anti-Americanism (Routledge, 2007); Race in Translation: Culture Wars around the Postcolonial Atlantic(New York Univ. Press, 2012); and Multiculturalism, Postcoloniality and Transnational Media (Rutgers University Press, 2003). Shohat has also served on the editorial board of several journals: Critique; Interventions; and Social Text, coediting several special issues: “911-A Public Emergency?” (2002); “Palestine in a Transnational Context” (2003); “Corruption in Corporate Culture” 2003; and “Edward Said: A Memorial Issue” (2006).  She is a recipient of a number of fellowships, including: Rockefeller Foundation; The Society for the Humanities, Cornell University, where she also taught at The School of Criticism and Theory; NYU Humanities Initiative fellowship (with Sinan Antoon) for “Narrating Iraq: Between Nation and Diaspora;” Fulbright research/lectureship on the “Cultural Intersections between the Middle East and Latin America,” the University of São Paulo, Brazil; and nominated/awarded a Fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin (Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin), 2020-2021. Her publications have been translated into various languages, including: Arabic, Hebrew, Turkish, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Polish, Japanese, and German.