Rejecting the ‘Arab Jew’

On Language

By Philologos

Published January 30, 2008, issue of February 01, 2008.
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‘A senior Saudi royal has offered Israel a vision of broad cooperation with the Arab world if it signs a peace treaty and withdraws from all occupied Arab territories,” a Reuters dispatch reported last week, citing an interview with former Saudi ambassador to the United States Prince Turki al-Faisal. In the course of this interview, the prince was quoted as saying, “We will start thinking of Israelis as Arab Jews rather than simply as Israelis.”

Some vision of cooperation!

Needless to say, Prince Turki’s use of the term “Arab Jews” reflects either a comically naive misunderstanding on his part of who Israelis are, or the more sinister hope that they will one day cease to be who they are. In the best case, the prince’s remarks are ignorant and patronizing, and they reveal how even many supposedly sophisticated Arabs haven’t a clue that Israelis, although they live in the middle of an Arab expanse, are a people with a unique language, culture, history and identity of their own. If Prince Turki thinks that once peace is declared, Israelis will cheerfully agree to become another ethnic minority in the Arab Middle East, he is living in a cloud of nargileh smoke.

On the whole, however, one doesn’t come across the term “Arab Jews” in this context. Rather, it is used — mostly by Arabs but also by some anti-Israel and anti-Zionist intellectuals in the West — for the close to 1 million Jews who lived in Arab lands prior to the establishment of Israel, after which they left or were expelled from their native countries and immigrated to Israel or elsewhere. Thus, for instance, Ella Habiba Shohat, a professor of cultural and women’s studies at New York’s City University, writes of herself in an essay titled “Reflections by an Arab Jew”:

“I am an Arab Jew. Or, more specifically, an Iraqi Israeli woman living, writing and teaching in the U.S…. To be a European or American Jew has hardly been perceived as a contradiction, but to be an Arab Jew has been seen as a kind of logical paradox, even an ontological subversion [leading to] a profound and visceral schizophrenia, since for the first time in our history Arabness and Jewishness have been imposed as antonyms…. The same historical process [that is, the establishment of Israel] that dispossessed Palestinians of their property, lands and national-political rights was linked to the dispossession of Middle Eastern and North African Jews of their property, lands, and rootedness in Muslim countries….”

There is, of course, a cynical absurdity in blaming Israel for the wholesale plunder of Jewish property by Arab regimes in Iraq, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Algeria, Morocco and other countries that forbade Jews to take money or possessions with them when they emigrated from or were thrown out of these places. But apart from this, what is it that makes one wince at the term “Arab Jews”? After all, don’t Ms. Shohat and others like her have a point? If a Jew living in America is an American Jew, and a Jew living in Europe is a European Jew, why isn’t a Jew living in an Arab country an Arab Jew? Is not the objection to calling him that a form of Arabaphobia?

I think not. Anti-Arab prejudice has nothing to do with it. Historically speaking, Ms. Shohat is simply dead wrong.

It’s true that Jews lived for hundreds and even thousands of years throughout the Middle East, and that after the Arabization of the region that started with the spread of Islam in the seventh century, they became linguistically and culturally Arabized, just as Jews in America have become linguistically and culturally Americanized. But it’s also true that, in the course of these centuries, no Middle Eastern Jew, if asked whether he was an Arab, would have said yes, no matter how at home he felt in his environment. And for that matter, no Arab would have called his Jewish neighbor an Arab either. Jewishness and Arabness were perceived as antonyms in the sense of denoting two mutually exclusive ethnic identities, just as “Jew” and “goy” were antonyms in Eastern Europe. It was only in the 20th century that small numbers of Jews — most of them communists or on the Anti-Zionist political left — in cosmopolitan Arab cities like Cairo and Baghdad began to argue on behalf of an “Arab Jewish” identity as a way of repudiating Jewish nationalism and justifying their participation in Arab revolutionary politics.

One speaks of “American Jews” and “European Jews” rather than of “Jews living in America” or “Jews living in Europe,” because Jews in these places think of themselves as Americans and Europeans. But traditionally, Jews living in Arab lands never thought of themselves as anything but Jews living in Arab lands, and I challenge Ms. Shohat to produce a single pre-20th-century text that suggests otherwise. To refer to these communities as “Arab Jews” is not only to imply that Zionism tore them away from their true homelands for the false lure of a Jewish state; it is to demean them by denying them their own sense of themselves. It’s a term that justly deserves to be rejected.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.


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