Iraq 1948-Armageddon:
Let's Get This Party Started

The nation of Israel began forming in 1947 and became an officially recognized sovereignty in 1948.

This event precipitated the Great Arab Freakout of 1948™. Arab armies were mobilized against now-legendary Jewish defenses. Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria!

I'm not literally suggesting there was human sacrifice; that was a line from the film, Ghostbusters. Normally, I wouldn't annotate such an obvious pop-culture reference, but the Arab/Israeli conflict is so polarized, I'm likely to be deluged with mail from idiots outraged by the suggestion that human sacrifice was somehow involved in the formation of Israel. Sad, but true.

Again, I'm not going to go in depth into the Arab/Israeli conflict. If you want an authoritative analysis, go to your nearest synagogue and ask about the founding of Israel. If you want a second, equally authoritative answer — a second answer that seems utterly unrelated to the first answer — go to a mosque and ask about the same thing.

Until recently, I couldn't fathom the appeal of emigrating to Israel. From the images I've seen, it looks dusty and desert-like. It's beset by angry Arabs, both inside and outside its borders. A militant fringe of angry right-wing Jews seems determined to prevent anyone from making those Arabs any less angry, either.

All told, it seemed to me that there are much more desirable destinations where Jews are welcome. Like Miami, for example.

After learning a bit about the Iraqi Jews, I realized that it's not necessarily being in Israel that makes them happy, it's escaping alive from wherever they departed.

As the anti-Jewish violence in Iraq escalated prior to 1948, Jews had been leaving steadily — going to Holland, Iran, and the US. After 1948, a safe haven — Israel — was just a few hours away by bus. Additionally, the violence was getting much, much worse. The Iraqi Jewish community cranked up the leaving from "steadily" to "in droves."

Obviously, the creation of Israel fostered a new sense of Jewish cultural and ethnic unity.

It also resulted in a newfound sense of cultural and ethnic unity among the Arabs. This sense of common purpose compelled the Arab states to unite for a simple and common goal: to cleanse the stain of Israel from the Arab Peninsula.

Unfortunately for the Arabs, Israel turned out to be one of those stains that you just have to accept as indelible.

Iraq, in particular, found that there was a downside to anti-Semitism, aside from the fact that being racist makes you a complete fuckstick. The emigration of Iraqi Jews meant that a large percentage of the wealthiest Iraqis were leaving the country; this was creating a serious strain on the Iraqi economy. It's bad enough when wealth drains out of a national economy, but Iraq had additional economic problems, also resulting from the aggression against Israel.

As the Arab states waged war on the Jews, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were displaced and thus refugees poured into Iraq. I have to say, trading a community of wealthy Jews for a refugee camp full of pit toilets and people who haven't bathed for weeks seems like a pretty stupid trade — and they fought for this.

Another economic setback for Iraq occurred when the Israelis shut down the oil pipeline that ran from Kirkuk to Haifa. The loss of this pipeline drastically reduced Iraq's oil revenues.

Michel Aflaq: Renaissance Man

Of all the things that happened in April of 1947, there are two that are almost never mentioned. One was that Saddam Hussein turned ten years old, and the other was that Syrian Michel Aflaq became head of a political party ostensibly based on his ideas.

Aflaq had some rather ambitious ideas that envisioned a new-model Arab world — one brought into step with the 20th century. If the emergence of such progressive politics in the Middle East seems unlikely, then the ascendance of a man like Michel Aflaq is even more unlikely.

Aflaq was born in 1910 into a Greek Orthodox family in Damascus, Syria. In the early 1930s, Aflaq attended the prestigious Sorbonne University in Paris. He returned to Damascus where he became a secondary-school teacher. In 1940, he began a discussion group with some fellow intellectuals. They called this group the Movement of Arab Renaissance.

In a nutshell, the group envisioned an Arab world that was a confederacy of states that were each basically just like France — except with funnier jokes and bread you wouldn't chip a tooth on. This was actually a pretty auspicious start, seeing as how it had also been the approach used by Jefferson and Hamilton to create the United States of America.

Aflaq envisioned a French-style socialism, as well as Franco-American egalitarianism. The American freedoms embodied in the First Amendment, those being freedom of religion, association and expression, were also important to Aflaq.

That's all fine and good, but what catapulted Aflaq's salon into the political limelight was the nationalists' call for Arab unity. Their view was that the Arab world could not assert itself effectively while it was fragmented by borders and infighting.

Like most people who invoke nationalism in pursuit of constructive unity — including many recent examples in the United States — Aflaq mainly succeeding in spurring the kind of me-too mob psychology that invariably gives nationalism a bad name.

While very few people seem to have heard of Michel Aflaq, the idealistic Christian from Damascus, everyone has heard of the Movement of Arab Renaissance, although it is better known by its Arab name: Hizbu I-Ba'th or, the Ba'th party.

The Renaissance of Stalinism

Saddam Hussein is frequently compared to Stalin, the Russian dictator that Hussein himself tried to emulate. If Hussein were Stalin, then Aflaq would be Trotsky — the eternal idealist who watched his dream become twisted by a totalitarian regime.

Actually, Aflaq reminds me less of Trotsky and more of the celebrated Russian Anarchist, Mikhail Bakunin. Bakunin was honored by the Marxists, although he criticized them relentlessly. They pretended not to notice and generally ignored anything he had to say.

This sidebar isn't all that amusing, but I'm hoping it will interest you in learning more about Bakunin, who was a very interesting and brilliant political philosopher.

Aflaq moved around a bit, primarily due to disputes with party factions. He eventually settled in Baghdad in 1974, where he expected to head the National Command of the Ba'th party. Although he was treated with great respect, he discovered that he had little to no actual effect on Iraqi government — note that by 1974, Saddam Hussein had essentially taken control of the country.

Aflaq died in 1989. Although Iraq was one of the few Arab countries where it was explicitly legal to be a Christian, the eternally ironic Iraqi Information Ministry claimed that Aflaq had converted to Islam shortly before his death.

The Ba'th party has national branches in half a dozen Arab countries, but its most famous instantiation, is also its most embarrassing — the now-defunct regime of Saddam Hussein.

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