Sunday, October 10, 2010

Of Tycoons, Dictators, and Would-be Exilarchs

Dr. Victor Sasson

The title Exilarch was that of the head of the Jewish community in Babylonia, modern Iraq. The office developed out of the emerging need to have an authoritative person to represent this exiled religious community to the ruling power or government at the time.

It is not my purpose here to sketch the history of the Exilarchy. There are scholarly sources that will give the reader the necessary information. What has now prompted me to discuss the issue of Exilarchy is the strange phenomenon of a modern Iraqi Jew who claims he has revived this office which survived up to some centuries ago. As a Babylonian Jew myself, I find this claim to be a preposterous anachronism.

Mr. Naim Dangoor, based in London, is of course an honourable man. For several decades he printed and published a journal, The Scribe. And he was generous enough to distribute this magazine to anyone who requested it -- free of charge. This publication was very important. It gave many dispersed Iraqi Jewish readers much joy. Archival photographs and various documents about Iraqi Jews, far and wide, were also published. Over the years (and some years ago it ceased to appear in print), the journal received many letters that showered flatteries upon its owner and his venture -- and he proudly published those letters in the journal.

For those of us who do not know, Mr. Dangoor is a millionaire. He is said to have made his millions through real estate business in England. Not being myself in any kind of business, except in the impoverishing business of reading books, doing research, teaching and writing, I really cannot tell wheat from rye, or a property developer from a slumlord. Of one thing, however, I am convinced, and it is this: Real Estate is a ruthless, highly competitive business in which only worldly, hard-nosed persons can survive, let alone make millions.

Anyway, Iraqi Jews should always be proud of having a millionaire amongst them. But the name of the foundation Mr. Dangoor has chosen for the institution he has created, to wit, The Exilarch’s Foundation, is presumptuous and does not have the active support of the Iraqi Jewish community, anywhere. But even if it did, that would not legitimize this man’s claim to holding the office of Exilarch. It is sheer pompous vanity to self-appoint oneself for this office, which is outdated and outmoded, anyway. For in this day and age of mass education, democratic states, and enlightened governments in the West, the Exilarchy is old hat, antiquated, and useless. Luckily, the vast majority of Babylonian/Iraqi Jews – now living outside Iraq -- do not care a hoot if a fellow Iraqi Jew proclaims himself the New Messiah, the Exilarch, or the Man in the Moon. Their general attitude is to ignore the phenomenon -- so long as they are left alone and nobody bothers them.

Now over the years, Mr. N. D. published a variety of his own pieces in The Scribe. It is his journal, of course, and nobody can argue about that. However, since he has distributed it far and wide, what he has written largely ceases to be private correspondence. This is so particularly because he ventured to enter into specialised, scholarly fields in which he is mere dilettante. Buffoonery is easily detected by specialists when one pretends to possess specialised, expert knowledge in the humanities. Mr. Dangoor’s pronouncements on politics, theology, history, and so on, display amateurism and superficialities. This can be dangerously misleading to the majority of the journal’s readers. In a word, Mr. Dangoor has pretended to be an all-knowing person, an authority on a vast array of subjects in our era of specialization, expert scholarship, and exact sciences. We are of course fortunate we no longer live in the Middle Ages -- a fact, alas, that has escaped this man’s attention.

Further, anyone who reads the things he has written in the journal will conclude that N.D. is obsessed with royalty, titles, and honours. There is nothing wrong with this as all of us, mortals, entertain dreams of associating with the high and the mighty. But a lifetime of business in a cutthroat world of real estate and the humility, wisdom, and tactfulness of a religious leader can never truly mix. Mr. N. D., nevertheless, on account of his great generosity of heart, has contributed millions towards education in England. This is highly commendable, of course, and the fact that he has made this contribution at the age of ninety should not detract from this act.

Now to illustrate what I have just said about his writings in The Scribe, let me relate that in 1996 I read a piece by him entitled, ‘Why Only One God?’ Here was an Iraqi Jew, living in England for decades, claiming to have resurrected the office of Exilarchy, challenging one of the most basic and sacred tenets of the Jewish Faith, uttering a blasphemy that our ancient Babylonian Rabbis would have found deserving of stoning. Outraged, I – being a biblical scholar, an observant Jew and proud of my Jewishness, and being also a specialist in Hebrew/Aramaic/Semitic Epigraphy -- wrote an article, responding to his utterances, using words rather than stones. Since I have kept a copy of it, I have reproduced it on the Web for the benefit of interested readers. The readers will find it there as I actually wrote it and submitted it to The Scribe at the time.

Upon reading what Mr. Dangoor actually published of my article, I felt injustice was done. But I had no means of redress; there was nowhere for me to respond. With the computer and the Web, it is now possible to do so. We should all be thankful for the Internet as it is one truly formidable democratic weapon that dictators, tycoons, and oppressors much fear, indeed as much as they fear weapons of mass destruction.

A comparison of my submitted article and the one that Mr. Dangoor actually printed in The Scribe (no. 68, 1997, which now appears on the Web) will show the following:
1. My academic title was chopped off.
2. My academic affiliation (at the time) was obliterated.
3. A number of sentences and phrases that show this writer to be a specialist in Biblical Studies were deleted.
4. Mr. Dangoor refers to my article as ‘letter’ when in fact it was submitted as an article.
5. With sections deleted, what was left of my article was something like half, if not less.
6. Mr. Dangoor saw fit to respond by writing and printing almost twice as much as the mutilated article he published.
7. His response did not address the issues I raised but engaged in platitudes and irrelevances.
8. His statement that what he had deleted was ‘abusive’ proves his deceptiveness, for at least my academic title (i.e. my doctorate) and scholarly affiliation (at the time) cannot in any way be considered abusive. And whatever statements I wrote in my response to his blasphemies and which he chose to delete are not for him to pronounce abusive but for the readers of the journal to read and judge.
9. There is no doubt that Naim Dangoor wanted to downsize this writer and at the same time aggrandize himself.
10. The clear impression one gets from all of this is that this man must have managed his real-estate business and accumulated his riches in the same way -- by downsizing, controlling and exploiting anyone who stood in his way.

This is, in fact, the kind of behaviour one would expect from the likes of Saddam Hussein – another Iraqi -- who was in the habit of chopping off heads and cutting off tongues. Naim Dangoor, an Iraqi Jewish millionaire, became used to flattery from all quarters, delighting in his economic power. Hence he could not and cannot take any kind of criticism. That’s what happens to dictators. Power, whether political, economic, or military, corrupts and the person in question assumes the privileges that are the prerogatives of God Almighty. Hence, he wishes to be the resurrected, revived religious Exilarch, reminding us of his fetish for titles and honours. And he challenges anyone (to use his own words) ‘better qualified’ than himself to ‘come forward’! The trouble is, there are hardly any Iraqi Jewish millionaires around, for this appears to be the most important criterion for an Exilarch – i.e. a lot of money in the bank.

Ecclesiastes, after all, is quite right: money is the answer to everything. For whereas scholars, wallowing in penury, slave for years in study and research to get their doctorate and a meager pension at old age; tycoons, notoriously contemptuous of books and scholars, supping on beef and liquor, can rightly claim the titles of ‘Exilarch’ and ‘Doctor’.

Copyright©2010 by Victor Sasson

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