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Book Discussion: The Dove Flyer

Book Discussion: The Dove Flyer

by Peter Shapiro
Read the review of this book in Reform Judaism magazine
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"Es is schwer zu sayn a yid --- It's hard to be a Jew". There are many demands made and sacrifices called for. The setting for Eli Amir's novel The Dove Flyer is Baghdad in the 1950's. He draws on his experience as a youth living in Iraq to tell the stories of ordinary Jews, their trials, tribulations and dreams. Amir, a social activist, made this statement in Cairo: "How can there be peace without us knowing each other?" "If we know each other can we live in peace?" and "If we know each other will we want to live in peace?" Those three questions were always on my mind when I read the book.

The primary storyteller is Kabi, a teenager from a middle class family. The narrative begins with trumped up charges against Shafik Addas, an extremely wealthy Jew, followed by a show trial. The verdict was guilty and he was hanged. Shortly thereafter Kabi's uncle Hizkel was arrested on charges of hiding and distributing firearms.  These events were unsettling and caused members of Kabi's circle as well as most of the Jewish community to consider what steps to take in addressing a potentially dangerous and uncertain future.  Each member of Kabi's circle had a different vision. His mother wanted to return to the Moslem Quarter where she felt safe, while his father wanted to immigrate to Israel and grow rice. Salim, his headmaster, wanted Arabs and Jews to be equals.  Abu Edouard,a neighbor, only wanted to continue caring for his beloved doves.

As the narrative begins the reader asks: "Will the dreams of Kabi's parents,  Salim and Abu Edouard come true or only be nightmares?" "Will Hizkel be released from jail or be hanged?"  Their journeys are interesting and suspenseful, vividly describing the difficult plight of Jews living in a Moslem country.

A crack in the relationship between the Iraqi Jews and Moslems developed with the advent of WWII. The Jews supported the British, whereas the Moslems favored the Germans. That crack became a chasm with the creation of the State of Israel. What followed was a series of violent mob attacks supported by and/or not interfered with by the State, referred to as the Farhood.

Prior to WWII the relationship between Iraqi Jews and Moslems was relatively peaceful. There were few if any restrictions on worship, business, education and travel. They lived and socialized among one another. All that changed with the creation of the State of Israel. A ghetto mentality developed, socialization was limited, restrictions were placed on commerce and education, and the borders were closed. Harassment of Jews escalated. Homes and shops were broken into, robberies and wanton destruction were commonplace , with the government turning a blind eye. Once the Zionist Movement and Communist Party gained a foothold in Iraq the government intervened. It began by raiding shops and homes as well as destroying and confiscating property. The next steps were beatings, arrests and public executions.

Previously the rabbinate and in particular the Head Rabbi (Bashi) was the spiritual and political leader of the Jewish community. He was their mediator with the Moslem power structure seeking to obtain personal and communal benefits and dispensations. The creation of the State of Israel and the advent of the Zionist and Communist Movements saw a dramatic decline in the power of the rabbinate. The Head Rabbi was no longer sought out by the Jewish community to intercede on their behalf with the Moslem power structure as it considered him ineffective and irrelevant to its needs.  It then became necessary for Individuals to obtain personal and communal benefits by bribing members of the power structure and/or other Iraqis. 

Rabbi Bashi was beset from all sides. The Zionists wanted him to publicly support Israel or resign. If he did so he was fearful it would increase the brutality being inflicted upon the Jewish community. Quoting Ezekiel and with reference to the Iraqi Jews he said, "They are a rebellious house, hard of forehead and stubborn of heart."  In expressing fear of brutal repercussions in support of Israel he states: "Pharaoh's heart must not be hardened."  See pp. 178-190 for Rabbi Bashi's poignant remarks as to the state of his rabbinate and that of the Jewish community.

All is not well with the Iraqi power structure. There are rumblings in the "street" to replace the Monarchy which was being ruled by a Regent for two more years until King Faisal II came of age. The Pasha, the most senior official and the Regent's right hand man, was compelled to take harsh actions against the Jews to keep order with his people. He also was under pressure from the neighboring Arab countries not to let the Jews leave but keep them as hostages and a "bargaining chip" with Israel and the United States. See pp. 174-180 for the Pasha's conversation bemoaning his plight with a loyal and wealthy Jewish friend and associate.

Amir vividly portrays the dilemma that faced the Jews of Iraq and those of most of the other Arab countries bordering or near Israel. This dilemma is as recent as the Shoah and old as the Exodus and Abraham. One choice was to remain in their homeland hoping and praying that their lives would improve. The other choice was to go forth to a land they did not know.
In my judgment, for a novel to be a significant Jewish book it must develop a thesis through its plot and characters that fosters conversations on important issues affecting our communities.  The Dove Flyer meets those criteria. Two of the important issues are the following:

The first relates to how we treated the Arabs during and after the first War for Independence, their right of return, and our relationship with the indigenous Arab population. What are the similarities and the differences between how we were treated in Iraq and their treatment by Israel? What accommodations do we and they need to make to facilitate a more stable relationship?

The second issue revolves around the initial question posed by Amir, "Can there be peace without us knowing each other?"  The follow up questions are "If we know each other will there be peace? "And "If we know each other will we want peace?"

I agree that as a prelude to peace we must know each other. I believe that from the Israeli point of view the answer to the follow up questions are in the affirmative.  I am doubtful that the Palestinian and Arab States would also respond in the affirmative. Amir clearly put forth the proposition that in the early 1950's the existence of the State of Israel was the primary impediment to peace. Fifty years later there have been some changes but only in form and hardly any in substance.  In the eyes of the Arab States and the Palestinians there  will be no peace until  the State of Israel ceases to exist.

I welcome your comments on the issues raised or any others that might have come to mind. Please join the conversation.

Published: 3/16/2011

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