As we saw in part one of this post, on May 31st Oxford professor Avi Shlaim appeared on the panel of BBC World Service radio’s ‘Newshour Extra’. There – unhindered by host Owen Bennett-Jones – Shlaim was given a platform from which to promote assorted inaccurate and politically partisan versions of Middle East history as well as the risible notion that the root cause of the absence of peace, security and stability in the entire region is the Arab-Israeli conflict. In addition, the BBC platform was used to mainstream to millions of listeners around the world the notion that the only way to achieve peace in the Middle East is by dismantling the Jewish state and denying Jews the right to self-determination.
No less insidious was Shlaim’s idealisation of Jewish life in Iraq – all the more pernicious given Shlaim’s title of ‘historian’.
“My family had lived in Iraq all these years. There were very good harmonious relations between Jews and Muslims in Iraq. The Jewish community was very well-integrated. We were Jewish Arabs. We spoke Arabic. We had no interest or understanding of Zionism. Zionism was a European idea and a European project and very few Iraqi Jews had any interest in going to live in a Jewish state in Palestine. But then there was the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. The Iraqi army fought against the Israelis in that war and there was a wave of hostility towards the Jews in all the Arab lands, including Iraq. Life became insecure and unsafe in Iraq and we moved to Israel in 1950 along with about one hundred thousand Iraqi Jews because there was a backlash after the Arab defeat in 1948 against the Jews. That’s why we ended up in Israel – not out of commitment to the Zionist project.”
So according to Shlaim the historian, all was sweetness and light for Jews in Arab lands in general and Iraq in particular until the Arabs lost the war they initiated against the newly declared Israeli state in 1948. One might have thought that a historian would have remembered to mention the one of the most important events in the Iraqi Jewish community’s modern history – the Farhud of 1941 – especially as that event’s anniversary was marked just one day after this programme was broadcast.
Of course anyone familiar with Avi Shlaim’s record will be well aware of the fact that more often than not his political views – along with his self-awarded role of “judge and jury” – shape his accounts of history and his portrayal of Zionism as “a European idea and a European project” in this broadcast is a classic example of Shlaim’s seemingly unlimited ability to ignore inconvenient facts such as the First Aliyah wave of immigrants from Yemen and the event – the Farhud – which signalled that relations between Iraqi Jews and their neighbours were not quite as “harmonious” as Shlaim would have listeners believe.
The trouble with this BBC programme is that the vast majority of those listening to the radio show will not be familiar with the prolific political activities of the learned professor and will not be able to apply the necessary context of his underlying agenda to the ostensibly neutral and academic analysis he provides. And of course the real issue is that Owen Bennett-Jones and his BBC colleagues made no effort whatsoever to provide audiences with the information necessary for them to appreciate that any application of context and critical thinking was required at all.