‘Arab Jew,’ Part II

On Language

By Philologos

Published February 13, 2008, issue of February 15, 2008.
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I have received two long letters arguing with my column of two weeks ago, in which I objected to the term “Arab Jew.” Here are parts of them.

From Jack Warga of Boynton Beach, Fla.:

My family lived for at least 150, and probably several hundred, years in Poland. I spoke Polish and attended a Jewish school that taught Hebrew, Bible, and Jewish history in Hebrew but all the other subjects in Polish. Now, seventy years after leaving Poland, I still continue to read Polish books and correspond with a Polish fellow-mathematician in his language. This does not make me a Pole, but it does make me a Polish Jew. So why should the term Arab Jew not be analogous to the term Polish Jew? It should just refer to one’s previous residence in a particular country or part of the world.

And from David Shasha, director of Brooklyn’s Center for Sephardic Heritage:

In an ethnographic sense the Jews who lived in Arab lands were Arab Jews just as Jews who live in the United States are American Jews. The term was isolated under strong Zionist influence from the standard Jewish nomenclature that had little difficulty identifying other Jews by their places of origin, such English Jews, French Jews, Polish Jews, Russian Jews, and the like. Even after the Holocaust, Jews from Germany are still identified as German Jews. To object to the term Arab Jew is yet another attempt to break off the ties of Jews from the Middle East to their lands of origin and cultural traditions.

Both Mr. Warga and Mr. Shasha have fallen victims to a linguistic confusion whose nature I perhaps failed to explain clearly enough in my original column. I suggest they consider the following terms and tell me which make sense and which don’t:

The French countryside. The Hispanic countryside. Russian citizens. Celtic citizens. English weather. Arab weather.

The answer is obvious. One can speak of the French countryside, Russian citizens and English weather, because these things can be restated as the countryside of France, the citizens of Russia and the weather of England. One cannot speak of the Hispanic countryside, Celtic citizens or Arab weather, because these cannot be restated as the countryside of Hispania, the citizens of Celtland or the weather of Arabia. Words like Slavic, Celtic and Arab denote linguistic, cultural and ethnic affinities, not nationality or discrete countries or geographical areas. And for this reason, too, although one can logically speak of French Jews, Russian Jews and English Jews, one can’t really speak of Hispanic Jews, Celtic Jews or Arab Jews.

Let’s take the case of Polish Jews, a term no one would quarrel with. How are we to understand the adjective Polish in it? Not linguistically, because for most of their history, Polish Jews did not speak Polish as their first language and often did not know it at all. Not culturally or ethnically, because, again for most of their history, Polish Jews had a cultural and ethnic identity totally different from that of Polish Catholics. And not in terms of nationality, because for most of its history, Poland was not a sovereign state and had no nationals. The word’s use is geographical. A Polish Jew was a Jew who lived in Poland. If asked whether they identified as Poles, nearly all Polish Jews prior to the late 19th century, and most 20th-century Polish Jews up to the time of the Holocaust, would have given the same answer that Mr. Warga gives.

One can grant Mr. Sasha that, ethnographically, the Jews of Arab lands were far more acculturated to their Arab environment than the Jews of Poland were to their Polish environment. And yet these Jews were exactly like the Jews of Poland in having their own strong sense of group identity and drawing a clear line between themselves and their Arab neighbors, who drew a similar line. In the countries of the Arab world, a Jew was a Jew and an Arab was an Arab. Jews and Arabs never intermarried; as a rule, they did not mix socially, and they led separate communal lives. No Jew could be an Arab because, unlike “Polish,” “Russian” or “German,” the words “Arab” and “Jew” could not be restricted to a geographical, juridical or even cultural meaning; they denoted one’s deepest allegiances and sense of self.

This is not a matter of Zionism or Eurocentric Judaism, as Mr. Sasha seems to think. The modern Middle Eastern equivalent to Polish Jew, Russian Jew and English Jew is not Arab Jew, but Iraqi Jew, Egyptian Jew and Syrian Jew. No one could possibly object to such terms, because Iraqi, Egyptian and Syrian Jews did not object to them either and used them self-referentially. They lived in Iraq, Egypt or Syria; they had Iraqi, Egyptian or Syrian citizenship, and they were even capable of being Iraqi, Egyptian or Syrian patriots. But they never, never thought of themselves as Arabs. To come along now and tell them they were wrong is inaccurate at best and insulting at worst.

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


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