‘Arab Jew,’ Part II

On Language

By Philologos

Published February 13, 2008, issue of February 15, 2008.
  • Print
  • Share Share

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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.