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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

So-called "Arab Jews"

So-called "Arab Jews"

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").

Though my ancestors were born in Turkish Palestine, their ancestors had come from Europe. I am not personally affected by this term, but it seems jarring and out of place to me, just as it does to Bataween (see Reject the Expression "Arab Jew" ) , and to Philologos (see Reject the 'Arab Jew'). As I do not have any personal experience or history to rely upon, I can only reason by analogy from the experience of Jews in Europe, which is understood far more clearly.

Ella Habiba Shohat asserted:
"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?

The question can perhaps be answered in Jewish fashion, by asking two or three other questions. "What do we mean by 'Jew?'" "What do we mean by 'Arab'"? But first let us ask, "Why aren't Arabs who live in Israel called 'Jewish Arabs'"?

Ella Shohat, David Shasha, Prince Turki al Feisal and others may immediately object that "Jew" refers to a religion and not to a people. Therein lies the first part of the problem. Many of the Arabs of Israel, or as many prefer to call themselves, Palestinians, refuse to accept the validity of our nationhood, and would not like to be associated with the Jewish "religion." But I define my own identity. I do not try to define that of Prince Feisal or that of Mahmoud Abbas, but I don't want them to tell me that I am a member of a religion, or perhaps an "Arab Jew," just because I live in the Middle East.

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.

In times past in the Middle East, there were ethnic groups, but for a long time there were no real nation states or national movements. Therefore, there perhaps was not much occasion for opposing Arabness and Jewishness as antonyms in the past. Jew can refer to a person of a particular religion, or a person belonging to an ethnic group, people or nation. It has only in more recent times consciously assumed the full political and social implications of "nation," because the modern consciousness of nationhood is only a few hundred years old at most. Arab originally referred to the people of the Arabian peninsula, an ethnic and tribal grouping, as well as a language and culture group. They included Jews undeniably, who could in some cases quite properly be called "Arab Jews."

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?"

In modern times, the division became more acute. Arab nationalism arose and became a political force. The Ba'ath party was created as an expression of Arab nationalism. In theory, all 'Arabs' could join this party, but it seems that while it was created by a Christian and a Muslis and had a Christian and Muslim membership, the Ba'ath party did not include many Jews, if any. How was it that the "Arab" Jews were excluded from such a central and defining "Arab" undertaking? Following the Ba'ath party, Gamal Abdel Nasser developed Pan-Arabism. Isn't it peculiar that the Jews, so active in other progressive movements in Europe and even in the Middle East, were not prominent players in the most important Arab nationalist movements? The Baath party had an unfortunate habit of hanging certain "Arabs," just because those "Arabs" were Jews. Why did they distinguish between one sort of Arab and another? The term "Arab Jew" cannot explain this very well.

The obvious truth is that unlike the term "European," which is descriptive of a culture and geographic location, "Arab" today refers to a political and national movement that excludes the legitimacy of Jewish nationality. This is especially the case when the term is used by anti-Zionists. So a part of the answer to Ella Shohat's innocent quesion is, "It's the politics, stupid." But of course, she is not stupid and knows very well that the "Arab Jew" canard is trying to make a political point, and to create a political reality where none existed and none ever did exist. In the original countries of their Diaspora, Ella Shohat's ancestors, and David Shasha's ancestors were not "Arabs" when it came to assigning national allegiances, and they weren't included in real Arab national movements. They might have been prominent journalists and even politicians, but they remained on the periphery and found themselves advocating causes that were really alien to their own reality. They might be mistaken for "Arabs" by USA immigration officers, not by Arabs.

Ella Shohat's family in Iraq were Iraqi Jews, just as Theodor Herzl's family were Austrian Jews. But just as Hitler did not include these "Austrians" in his vision of the greater German Reich, so the Arab nationalists who started the Farhud pogrom in Baghdad did not include Ella's family in the Arabic Ouma. Ella's problem with identity is really the same as that of many European Jews, who tried so hard to be good Germans or good Poles or good Ukrainians or Russians or Communists and to advocate the national and political aspirations of their host country or society. In some rare cases this adopted Jewish nationalism succeeded, but very often in ended in tragedy, rejection and murder. With the rise of nationalism, almost every Diaspora community experienced the same problem. They found that despite adopting the language and some of the culture of their host countries, they could not really be "part of the action" in most cases. Sooner or later, many were vomited forth from their adopted societies whether they liked it or not. This produced the deeply conflicted feelings of many Jews toward their "old countries" - whether the "old country" was Germany or Iraq or Egypt. Jews were well off in Iraq, but they had also been well off in Germany and Austria. The rise of nationalism threatened Jewish existence everywhere in the Diaspora. There is nothing new in that statement and no big discovery.

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.

Nonetheless, the terms "German Jews" "French Jews," "Egyptian Jews," "Iraqi Jews" or "Yemeni Jews" all have a reasonable meaning, either because they denote the culture of the group of people in question, or their place of residence or their nationalities. "European Jews" makes sense in several contexts. "Europe" is not a nationality opposed to Judaism, and the northern European Jews had in common their own jargon language (Yiddish). set of customs and social network. "Arab Jews" does not make sense in the same way, since Yemenite Jews do not have the same customs as Iraqi Jews and neither are similar to the Jews or Turkey (descendants of Spanish Jews) or those of North Africa. There is only one country called Arabia, and there are no Jews living in it. There is only one national movement called "Arab" and Jews are excluded from this movement as a national group. Exceptions might be made for "token Jew" individuals to "prove" a perverse political point. Turki al Feisal may talk about "Arab Jews" but he will not let any of them become citizens of Saudi Arabia in the foreseeable future. Why would it be desirable or necessary for Israeli Jews, all of us, to become "Arab Jews" in order for there to be peace in the Middle East? Are there Arab Turks and Arab Persians? If someone suggested that all the Arabs must become Jewish Arabs or Zionist Arabs in order for there to be peace, Turki al Feisal would be very angry indeed.

"Arab Jews" might have been a logical possibility 200 years ago, when "Arab" referred only to culture and language, just as "German Jews" were German speaking Jews who lived in the various principalities where German was spoken, but that is no longer a reality."Arab Jews" as a term today seems to have a logic similar to "mice of the feline persuasion." The mice are not invited to the cat party except as dinner, and the Jews are not invited to the Arab party except in a capacity analogous to that of the mice.

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.

Ami Isseroff

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