In Memoriam

Nissim Rejwan, 1924-2017.


In many ways, Nissim Rejwan was my closest Israeli friend. To start with he was a hero in my eyes, a relentless fighter for the dignity and value of Jews who came to Israel from majority Arab and Muslim countries. Born in Baghdad in 1924, he immigrated to Israel with his mother in 1951. He was a journalist and historian who had close relationships with Iraqi Muslims, Christians and Jews of a literary bent in Baghdad. Like almost all the Mizrahi—Oriental Jews–, Nissim’s experience was a major culture shock starting with the practice of Oriental and Sephardic Jews being dusted with DDT before being permitted to disembark from their aircraft in Tel Aviv.

Nissim’s story was one of a continuous struggle to win the respect of his Ashkenazi (European) supervisors. He was a gifted essayist and from a very poor family, he taught himself English and   ultimately made a living writing film and book reviews for The Iraq Times. When he worked in Israel for the Jerusalem Post, he wrote reviews of new books from England. One time a vexed Ashkenazi editor, demanded to know why “this Egyptian Communist “was reviewing European books. He said Rejwan should stick to Arabic publications.

In 1997, Nissim won the (American) National Jewish Book Award for his historical monograph, Israel’s Place in the Middle East: A Pluralistic Perspective. The award citation said, “In a very engaging manner, Rejwan points out the error of those who think that Jews and Arabs stand in opposition representing two clashing cultures, mentalities and temperaments. From the standpoint of history, religions, and ethnicity, Israel is an integral part of the Middle East.” Nissim had tried to promote the idea that Israel could strengthen its roots and therefore its security if it accepted the reality psychologically that it was in and historically part of the Middle East.

The persistent theme in Rejwan’s writings was the rejection of the dominant narrative of the European Zionists that Sephardi or Mizrahi immigrants from Arab or Muslim countries were primitive people from primitive cultures. With smoldering irony, he wrote in the Jerusalem Post in 1953 that the danger confronting new immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa came from having “to adopt the primitive ways” of their new home.

In 1985, in a very deliberative attempt to reject the Israeli rejecters of the dignity of Jews from Arab and Muslim countries, Nissim published The Jews of Iraq: 3000 Years of History and Culture. When I first met him in Jerusalem, he showed me his last copy of the book whose title excited me because my first Foreign Service assignment was in Baghdad. The book was fetching more than $400 in the secondary market, and I told him I wanted to get it reprinted. Fons Vitae of Louisville, Kentucky did a beautiful job. I helped Nissim publish his To Live in Two Worlds: The Pains of Displacement: Memoires, Diaries, Letters, Writings: Baghdad-Jerusalem: 1924-2013, also with Fons Vitae.

Thus my deep admiration for Nissim was both intellectual as well as emotional. He was again my hero even if his weapon was just a typewriter. His lifetime of defending the good self-concept of Iraqi Jews and their Muslim and Christian countrymen was a metaphor for the task of Israeli Jews, the Palestinian Arabs of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, and all of Israel’s Arab (and Iranian) neighbors to learn to recognize, accept, and, especially, respect each other.

Nissim left his devoted wife, Rachel, and three sons and their wives and children.

Goodbye, my friend. May you rest in peace.