The term "Arab Jews" (eg see "The Mizrahi('Arab') Jews: The Forgotten Refugees" where the word "Arab" is used ironically) is used in many advocacy articles, such as those of David Shasha, Ella Habiba Shohat and others, referring to Jews who lived in Arab countries, and often extended to Jews who lived in Muslim countries. The term was also used by Prince Turki al Feisal of Saudi Arabia, provoking a debate.
Usually "Arab Jews" is employed by anti-Zionists, who are trying to create a mythical Jewish-Arab society where Jews and Arabs lived in peace and harmony, enjoying the benefits of Islamic tolerance and Arab culture that was destroyed by Zionism, as if the Golden age of Harun al Rashid and Muslim Spain had extended throughout Arabdom and Islamdom in space and time. Some pro-Zionist sources have used this term as well, (eg. "Hundreds of thousands of Arab Jews fled Arab states").
"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…"
Shohat does seem to have a point at first glance. Of course, if Ella Habiba Shohat wants to call herself an "Arab Jew" it is her privilege, but it seems to to me that most Jews from Arab countries object to this term. As an outsider, I have been trying to explore why the term "Arab Jew" turns my stomach, and why it is objectionable to so many Jews whose ancestors came from Arab countries. After all, we do not object to "European Jew" or "American Jew" or "Egyptian Jew." What is the difference? Why is Ella Habiba Shohat wrong?
My ancestors came to the land from Europe, over 100 years ago. Some of my cousin's ancestors came to the land from a different part of Europe, Spain to be exact, several hundred years ago. Even if I spoke fluent Arabic and wore a kaffiyeh, I would not be mistaken for an "Arab Jew," and neither should my cousin's ancestors be called "Arab Jews." If there are "Arab Jews" then the statement, "I am an Arab and you are a Jew" would not make much sense. Nor would it make any sense to say that the Arab Arabs attacked the "Arab Jews" of Hebron and Jerusalem in 1929, yelling "Idbah al Yahoud" - "Murder the Jews." Perhaps they should have yelled, "Murder the Arabs." If there were were really Arab Jews, it would make no sense for Arabs to say "Kulu al ard Arabi" (All the land is Arab) or "Filastin Arduna wa'al yahud kilabuna" (Palestine is our land and the Jews are our dogs) in order to assert that Israel does not belong to the Jews.. If we are all different types of Arabs, there would be no quarrel here and no problem. There would not be an Israel-Arab conflict. At most there would be a conflict between the Muslim Arabs of Palestine and the Jewish Arabs of the Land of Israel. We can see immediately that the whole line of reasoning is utterly absurd.
In the anti-Zionist narrative, the "Old Yishuv" Jews of Palestine were "Arabs," while the Zionists were all Europeans. The "Arab Jewsm" so the fiction goes, lived in wonderful harmony with their Muslim neighbors, save for a few pogroms here and there that can be excused on the grounds of Arab exuberance. But the new Zionist European Jews did not fit in. In reality of course, Zionism was "invented" by Sephardi as well as European Jews, and was heralded by the writings of Rabbi Yehudah Alkalai before Theodor Herzl was born, but "narratives" reinvent their own historic reality for their own political purposes.
If all that were required to end the Israeli-Arab conflict would be that the Jews of Israel integrate into Arab culture, we could learn Arabic, eat even more humus, tehina, olives, ful and barud, and learn to play the oud and the ney and dance the debka. The early Shomrim did precisely that. They dressed as Bedu and spoke Arabic and did horse tricks better than the natives. They played the ney and sang Arabic songs and danced Arabic dances. Nonetheless, no Arab would call them Arabs or Arab Jews. We would also have to ask why, If Jews living in the Arab countries were "Arab Jews," these particular "Arabs" were summarily expelled from Iraq, Egypt, Libya and other "Arab" countries.
However, after the rise of Muhammad, the Arabs forcibly converted or spewed out all the Jews from among them, beginning infamously at Khaybar. From then on, the existence of "Arab Jews" within Arab society was tenuous at best, just as the existence of "German Jews" in German society was a contradiction that had to resolve itself. "Arab Jews" could never fully participate in Arab society. They could not go to war with Arabs, or take part in all aspects of Arab culture, which were built for the most part on Islam. The Arab empire spread over the Middle East, North Africa and Europe, and the term "Arab countries" was applied indiscriminately to Egypt and to Morocco and Tunisia and Algeria, because the conquered inhabitants of these countries adopted the Arabic language. The so-called "Arab Jews" might occasionally be ministers in these countries or advisers, but they could not, by law, be knights or rulers, and their political successes very often ended in disaster and Pogroms.
These "Arab Jews" moreover, were very unlike the German Jews or the French Jews in a significant way. European Jews came to a host country with a majority culture. The Jews of Persia, later called Iran and Iraq, were there before these countries were Arab countries. In Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey there are also Kurds and in North Africa there are native Amazigh peoples. None of these call themselves "Arabs" and nobody calls them "Arabs" except perhaps in propaganda. Only Jews are given this "honor."If the term "Arab Jews" was based on reality, and expressed the great identification of the Jewish people or religion with surrounding Arabic society and of the Arabs with their Jewish brethren, then we have to ask why the Jews of Sana in Yemen were expelled in the 17th century for example. Why did one group of Arabs take it upon themselves, for no reason, to persecute a different group of "Arabs?"
It is too bad that the Shashas and the Ella Shohats of the world didn't yet come to terms with that frustrating and depressing aspect of Jewish existence -- rejection from a host group with which you may want to identify -- but there is no reason for them to invent a false narrative that portrays a perfect Diaspora extence that never was. German Jews could invent a similar tale, if they left out a few unpleasant details. Wasn't the Lorelei written by a Jew? After all, didn't they have their Heine and their Walther Rathenau and their Fritz Haber? Of course, Rathenau was assassinated by the Nazis and Haber died broken hearted after being disgraced and expelled. But they were very very German, these Jews, with all their heart and soul. Only the Germans didn't think so.
Whatever the connotation of "Arab Jews" might have been two or three centuries ago, today the term must represent something between a fiction and an oxymoron. Through my admittedly non-Mizrachi Jewish eyes, it seems to be an absurd attempt at make believe, no less absurd and dangerous than the term "Germans of the Mosaic faith" coined by Reform Jews in 19th century Germany. Just as there are Jews who insist that they are "Arab Jews," so there are Jews who insist, even after all the horrible history of the last century, that they want to be Germans or Poles who are incidentally "of Jewish origin." It is their right to call themselves whatever they like. At best, it will mean giving up and forgetting their Jewish origin. At worst, it will end in tragedy. The tuition for understanding the depth of that folly was prohibitively high, and should not be paid again.
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