When arguing with her first grade teacher about the Arab-Israeli conflict, Ceen Gabbai didn’t realize she was taking a huge risk.
It was around September of 2000, and the second Intifada, the outbreak of Palestinian violence in Israel, was underway. Gabbai was one of the few Jewish students in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
Standing up for Israel in a Baghdad elementary school was not advisable. “Saddam was all crazy about Palestine,” she recalls. “I go to school and they’re talking about … how Israel was horrible. And I go and I’m like, ‘I think that’s a lie.’”
Gabbai was called to the school office, took a letter home and her parents had a meeting with the principal. They soon moved away, and she switched schools. Following the episode, her parents did not talk with her about Israel or Judaism.
Born a Jew under an Arab dictatorship, Gabbai endured constant anti-Semitism from a young age, then survived the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the years of war that followed.
In 2015, she received asylum in the United States and now lives in an Orthodox enclave in Brooklyn, N.Y., raising a child, teaching at an elementary school and writing children’s literature.
Gabbai doesn’t look back fondly on the hardships she endured in her homeland, but feels they taught her to persevere.
“I was born as an Arab Jew for a reason: to take this thing — the fact that I’m an Arab Jew — and make the best out of it and be good at it,” she says. “That’s what I do, be good at things that I’m in.”
Sense of Not Belonging
Iraq’s Jewish community dates back more than two-and-a-half millennia, and the principal edition of the Talmud originated in study halls in what then was known as Babylon. Iraqi Jews held prominent positions in government and commerce until the 1930s, and there were approximately 150,000 Jews in Iraq before the State of Israel was established in 1948.
But conditions deteriorated in 1941 when Iraqis attacked their Jewish neighbors in what is called the Farhud, a two-day pogrom in which some 180 Jews were killed. By the early 1950s, most Iraqi Jews had left in an Israeli mass emigration operation.
Today, only a handful of Jews remain in Iraq.
Gabbai says while Iraqis claim to be opposed to Zionism but tolerant of Jews, she never felt accepted there. Teachers gave her a hard time in class, she says, despite her good grades. One even gave her a copy of “Mein Kampf,” Gabbai says.
“It was hard being Jewish because I felt like, if you’re Jewish, you don’t really have anywhere to belong to,” she says.
Gabbai’s family hid their Judaism from friends and neighbors, letting others believe they were Christian or agnostic. When her peers found out, they often mocked her. While Gabbai was growing up, the family had to move five times because of anti-Semitism.
“I was always saying, ‘Give me a chance to do something bad and then hate me,” she says. “I would be OK about that, but don’t just hate me for no reason.”
There were bright spots. Gabbai was anxious about telling one of her close friends, a devout Muslim, that she was Jewish. But the friend accepted her, and the two remain close. Also, shortly before Gabbai left Iraq, her non-Jewish friends recorded themselves in private singing “Hatikvah,” Israel’s national anthem.
“I felt comfort in that, because I knew they’re not using me as propaganda,” she says. “They’re not being like, ‘Hey, we’re friends with a Jew, we’re OK with a Jew.’ No, they were OK with me being Jewish, with me belonging to Israel in one way or another. So they did something for me. The fact that it was dangerous made it even more beautiful.”
Blood and Broken Glass
Along with anti-Semitism, Gabbai had to deal with another danger while growing up — the Iraq War. She recalls huddling with her family in a basement during the U.S. invasion, as well as coming to school one day to find the building bombed out.
Gabbai also remembers riding in a taxi with her father one day as a bomb blew up right in front of them.
“I remember the glass from the window in the car all breaking, and I remember there was blood coming out of my dad’s head, and I think he fainted,” she says.
As the war raged, Gabbai managed to get a bachelor’s degree in law at age 19, the youngest in her class. Soon after, she was given asylum in the United States with the help of HIAS, the Jewish refugee aid group. She now lives amid Brooklyn’s Syrian Jewish community and enjoys seeing the things she missed out on — big, happy Jewish families hanging out freely with their neighbors and cousins.
After coping with so much in Iraq, Gabbai says the move to the U.S. has not been so hard on her. She says a number of Americans have even apologized to her for the Iraq War.
Gabbai now teaches fourth grade and is a published children’s book author. Her work focuses on upending stereotypes. For instance, in one of her stories, a girl becomes a knight. But instead of slaying a dragon, she realizes the dragon is nice and befriends it.
“If the world tells you you’re bad and you’re wrong, maybe the world is wrong,” Gabbai says. “Maybe you’re not the wrong one, maybe they’re the wrong ones. Maybe you should be proud of who you are.”
Ben Sales writes for the JTA global news source.
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