Arab Jew, Part III

On Language

By Philologos

Published February 28, 2008, issue of March 07, 2008.
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The discussion in this column of the term “Arab Jew” has solicited two additional letters. One comes from Shaye J.D. Cohen, Littauer professor of Hebrew language and literature at Harvard University. The professor writes:

“Apropos of your column re: Arab Jews, I note that there is a category of Arabi(ic) Christians. The Christians of Muslim Spain were known as Mozarabs, and their liturgy is still known today as the Mozarabic Rite. I do not know the history or etymology of the word ‘Mozarabic,’ but I wonder if it might serve as a precedent for the concept of Arab(ic) Jews.”

And Alan Brill, a professor of the graduate department of Jewish-Christian studies at Seton Hall University, writes to point out that in “rabbinic, pietistic, and kabbalistic works…. Jews of Arab lands [are called] ‘mustarabs.’ The pietistic literature of [the kabbalistic school of] Safed often uses the term mustarabs to distinguish Sefardim from native Arab Jews. The term certainly exists. The problems are more subtle about whether it is a noun or an adjective, and how much of an affinity it implies.”

As you probably have already guessed, Professor Cohen’s Mozarabs and Professor Brill’s “mustarabs” are linguistically related. We have, in fact, three words to deal with: Spanish mozárabe (plural, mozárabes); Arabic musta’rib (plural, musta’ribun), from which mozárabe derives, and Hebrew mista’arev (plural, mista’arvim), which also comes from musta’arib. Let’s take them one by one, starting with the Arabic.

As is the case with Hebrew, Arabic morphology is based heavily on three-consonant roots, the root of musta’rib being ’-r-b, with the single apostrophe standing for the pharyngeal consonant Ayin. These are the consonants of the word arab, which means Arab, and in the Istaf’al or Tenth Form of the Arabic verbal system, they yield the verb ista’raba, which means, “to become like an Arab, to behave like an Arab, or to pretend to be an Arab.” The nominal and adjectival form of ista’raba is musta’rib, which denotes or qualifies a person who does these things.

During the long Muslim rule over the southern half of Spain that started in the eighth century, most of the region’s inhabitants converted to Islam, adopted Arabic as their language and came to be regarded as Arabs themselves. A minority, however, while also switching from Spanish to Arabic and adjusting themselves to an Arab lifestyle, clung to Catholicism as their religious faith, just as other Arabic-speaking Jews in Spain clung to Judaism. This minority became known in the predominantly Muslim south as the musta’ribun, and in the predominantly Christian north as the mozárabes.

As is the case with English “Mozarabs,” these words cannot be correctly translated as “Christian Arabs.” “Arabizing Christians” would be more accurate. And as an adjective, “Mozarab” can also denote the cultural products of the Mozarabs, as when one speaks of “Mozarab architecture” — that is, medieval Hispano-Christian churches or other buildings constructed in the Islamic style. (The opposite of Mozarab is “Mudejar,” from Spanish dèjar, “to remain” — that is, a Muslim who stayed on those parts of Spain that were re-Christianized after the Catholic re-conquest but kept his Muslim faith while adopting the Spanish language and its culture.)

As for mista’arev, it is a rare case of the Istaph’al form in Hebrew, which does not have such a verbal construction. As Professor Brill points out, the word was used in Hebrew to distinguish the Arabic-speaking Jews of the Levant from two other communities, the Ladino-speaking Sephardim and the Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazim, who lived side by side with them in such places as Safed and Jerusalem. But to call the mista’arvim “native Arab Jews,” as Professor Brill does, is a mistranslation. The verb hista’arev in Hebrew means to be like an Arab, not to be or become an Arab, and the mista’arvim were Arabizing Jews. “Arab Jew” in Hebrew would be yehudi aravi, a term found nowhere in rabbinic literature.

Ironically, mista’arev’s meaning of a Jew who is like an Arab is borne out by the word’s use in contemporary Israeli Hebrew, in which it denotes an Israeli soldier who has been specially trained to pose as an Arab for undercover work. Units of mista’arvim were first organized in the Israeli army in the early 1990s to help combat the Palestinian intifada that broke out in 1987; composed of soldiers who speak fluent Arabic, they operate in small groups in Palestinian towns and refugee camps, hunting down wanted Palestinians and suspected terrorists.

But the military sense of the word goes back further than that. It was first introduced in the Palmach, which was the elite commando unit of the Haganah, the main Jewish fighting force in British-mandate Palestine. In 1940 the British asked the Palmach to train a unit of Arabic-speaking soldiers who could be infiltrated into Vichy-controlled Syria for behind-the-lines missions. At first known as ha-yeh.ida ha-surit, “the Syrian unit,” it soon began to be called yeh.idat ha-mista’arvim, a name that it eventually passed down to the Israel Defense Forces. And with that, let us hope that our discussion of the term “Arab Jew” has reached an end.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to

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