My dissertation “Watching Whiteness Work?: The Racialization of Jewish Women in Iraq and Israel/Palestine,” intervenes in scholarship on Jewish belonging in Iraq, Iraqi Jewish belonging in Israel, and studies of race in the modern Middle East. It reveals that multiple conceptions of racialization existed in the worldview of Iraqi Jews which were then carried with them upon the community’s mass emigration to Israel in 1950-51. A sustained effort to leave Iraq had not arisen until the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. As the Iraqi nation officially aligned itself with Palestinians in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, life became increasingly precarious for many Jews in the country who began to face unemployment, threats to their physical security, and a lack of educational opportunities. Of the roughly 150,000 Jews residing in Iraq by the mid-twentieth century, 123,000 would immigrate to Israel. Most left after the March 1950 passage of a Denaturalization Law that allowed Jews to emigrate if they relinquished their citizenship. Half of these Jews were women. Informed by a past that did not racially subordinate them, Iraqi Jewish immigrants were shocked by Israel’s more bifurcated racial logics wherein they were subordinated by Ashkenazi (Western) whiteness. My dissertation departs from Iraqi histories that commonly view Jewish existence in the region through the lens of religion, ethnicity, or nationalism. It also departs from Israeli histories that view Iraqi Jewish and more broadly Mizrahi (Eastern) Jewish problems with acclimation as mostly an ethnic issue. Instead, my work insists that thinking through the lens of race increases scholarly understanding of Iraqi Jewish belonging and identity in both Iraq and Israel.
I focus on women’s racialization in particular, due to the fact that racialization is always gendered, and women are often mentioned in a secondary fashion in most other histories of Iraqi Jews. In the dissertation’s first chapter “The Race and Gender Logics of Iraqi and Arab Nationalisms in 1940s Iraq,” I discuss Jewish racialization vis-à-vis Arab and Iraqi nationalism and scientific racism. In the second chapter “’What Kind of Agreement Was Even Possible’: The Battle Between Zionist Imperial Whiteness and The Iraqi Communist Party,” I note how Zionist and Communist opposition in Iraq was not due only to ideological opposition but was also racial wherein Zionists longed for white racialization and Communists eschewed race as divisive. Chapter Three “Zionist Racism from the Standpoint of its Jewish Victims: Iraqi Jews, Israeli Immigration Camps, and the Construction of Racial Difference,” discusses Iraqi Jews in Israel in their first site of racialization: the immigration transit camps. Chapter Four “Noticing the White Gaze: Women’s Spaces in Kibbutzim and their Effects,” notes how Iraqi Jews were further racialized in another uniquely Israeli site: the kibbutz (cooperative living arrangement). I base my findings on memoirs, British Foreign Office documents, biographical dictionaries, personal letters, and Arabic newspapers from archives in London, Tel Aviv, New York, and Jerusalem. My most comprehensive primary sources are Hebrew memoirs from the Iraqi Jewish women: Tikva Agasi, Shoshana Almoslino, Louise Cohen, Nuzhat Katsab, Esperance Cohen and Shoshana Levy. These memoirs typically follow the women, born in many different Iraqi cities and holding varying political persuasions, from birth until the time of their writing in Israel. Functionally speaking, women’s memoirs have been chosen for the platform they give to women’s experiences in all their variety. The breadth contained in them allows me to trace racialization and gendering from roughly 1941 through the 1950s.