The term 'Arab-Jew' is an expression that is increasingly popular in the universities and in the media. One hears of hyphenated Arab-Jew identities, binary antonyms and oxymorons. (In the media, headline writers may prefer 'Arab Jews' to 'Jews from Arab countries ' simply because it's shorter.)
Point of No Return takes Ella Shohat - one of the originators of the expression 'Arab Jew' - to task:
The 'queen of the antonym' is Ella Habiba Shohat, a professor of cultural and women’s studies at New York’s City University of Iraqi-Jewish origin.
Shohat writes of herself in an essay titled “Reflections by an Arab Jew”, reprinted on a Palestinian website:
“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….
The same historical process [that is, the establishment of Israel] that dispossessed Palestinians of their property, lands and national-political rights was linked to the dispossession of Middle Eastern and North African Jews of their property, lands, and rootedness in Muslim countries….”
Shohat is saying that one can be both an Arab and a Jew, but the war in the Middle East between the two groups has made a dual identity impossible.
If the Arab-Israeli conflict is a 'football match' between Jews and Arabs, Shohat would suffer divided loyalties: torn between cheering for the Jewish team and the Arab team.
However, there are several problems with Ms Shohat's world view.
The lie of harmonious coexistence: Shohat lives in a fantasy world of harmonious Jewish-Arab coexistence.
This is a lie, writes the great Tunisian-Jewish philosopher Albert Memmi:
must one remain an Arab Jew if, in return, one has to tremble for one's life and the future of one's children and always be denied a normal existence?
Jews have been forced to choose - by Arabs - and have come down on the Jewish and Israeli side. As Albert Memmi puts it: "we would have liked to be Arab Jews, but the Arabs prevented it through their contempt and cruelty." Cultural affinities have never guaranteed security.
What does it mean to be Arab? 'Arab' is an ethnic signifier of comparatively recent vintage. Strictly speaking, the expression applies to someone originating in Arabia. The word 'Arab' meant, to many citydwellers, Bedouin - someone who roamed the desert and wore traditional robes.
Secondly, talk of an 'Arab' identity is relatively recent. It is a community of language and culture, but Arabs have never achieved political union, despite efforts to unite various states into Arab Federations. It is legitimate to talk of Egyptian and Iraqi Jews, citizens of nation states. But in the same way we could talk of Spanish Jews - citizens of Spain - we cannot do so of Hispanic Jews of Spanish language and culture, an imaginary construct.
Eastern (Mizrahi) Jews belong to ancient communities predating the Arab conquest by a millennium or more. These Jews were Middle Eastern and North African long before they were Arabised in language and culture - that is to say, they speak Arabic and enjoy Arabic cooking and music. Shohat charges, with good reason, that Israel, which took in most of the Jews from Arab countries, has worked to deny these Jews their history and culture.
Here Shohat has a point: Israel's Eurocentric establishment failed to encourage Middle Eastern culture in its early days and teach the 'narrative' of the Jews from Arab countries. Mesmerised by the pursuit of peace with the Palestinians, Israel has failed to fight for justice for its dispossessed Mizrahim.
Shohat is right to emphasise that Jews did not come willingly - but out of necessity - to Israel. Jews came to the Jewish state as dispossessed refugees. But it is disingenuous of her to infer that Israel is to blame for Jewish displacement. All faiths did not always live peacefully together 'before Zionism came and ruined the party'.
Why can't Jews be like Arab Christians? Why can't people talk of Arab Jews, in the same way as we talk of Arab Muslims and Arab Christians, she asks?
Before the rise of Arab nationalism in the late 19th century, people defined themselves by the religious community they belonged to. In Ottoman times, the boundaries between the communities were strict, and there was almost no intermarriage between them. The communities were ethnically separate.
These Christians who were the most staunch proponents of 'secular' 19th century Arab nationalism and the notion of "Arab Christians" have been either Antiochian Greek Orthodox or Melkite Greek Catholics, two sects found mainly in Syria, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories. The current Melkite Greek Catholic patriarch Gregory III Laham has been heard to say, "we are the Church of Islam."
Among Assyrians, Maronites and Copts, however, matters are less clear-cut. Some Maronites subscribe to "Phoenicianism," which traces a link between the ancient Phoenicians and the Lebanese of today. Among Copts, the notion of "Pharaonism," emphasises Egyptian identity as a combination of descent from the Ancient Egyptians, Egypt's historically close links with the Mediterranean world, and individual nation-state patriotism. Finally, the Christians of Iraq virtually all reject the term "Arab Christian." Instead, Christians in Iraq identify as ethnic Assyrians. Some Chaldean Catholics prefer a distinct Chaldean identity.
Who is an Arab Jew? The expression might go down well among the literati at New York university where Ella Shohat teaches, but it insults Mizrahi Jews themselves, who might be tempted to knock your teeth out if you called them 'Arabs of the Jewish faith'.
At a conference in 2008 about Iraqi Jewry, the delegates overwhelmingly rejected the term 'Arab Jew'.
This term, they pointed out, is commonly used by members of the radical left fringe group the Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow Coalition and a minority of anti-Zionist Sephardi Jewish intellectuals.
At the time, Professor Sasson Somekh said:"Those who proclaim themselves 'Arab Jews' rather than Jews with an Arab background are doing so to be fashionable and to express a political stance.... everyone using the term 'Arab Jew' is doing so incorrectly, because they never learned Arabic, never spoke Arabic and cannot read Arabic."
Ella Shohat belongs to that category. She may have been born in Iraq, but never lived there for any length of time. Most likely, she has spent her life in Israel and the US.
Shohat is behaving as a Jewish counterpart to the post-colonial guru Edward Said, alleging that eastern Jews are victims of western orientalism, alongside Arab Muslims. In her view, both groups must unite to fight western (and in Israel, Ashkenazi) dominance.
A cheerleader for Arab nationalism and colonialism: Shohat does not recognise that not all Muslims are Arabs. On the contrary, by flaunting the expression 'Arab Jew', Shohat is actually acting as a cheerleader for Arab nationalism and colonialism. Since the 8th century conquest, Arab colonialism and imperialism swept ancient non-Arab cultures, languages and traditions away. The indigenous peoples of the Middle East and North Africa lost much of their distinctiveness as they became submerged into an Islam-influenced monolith. Shohat would not find herself very popular among Kurds and Berbers striving to assert their separate identities in the post-Arab Spring.
And so it is with another ancient indigenous Middle Eastern people - the Jews. To describe them as Arab Jews is to negate their separate identity and, ultimately, their right to self-determination.
Other Sephardi 'mavericks':
Sensible Sephardim have their self-haters too (Steven Plaut)
Why leftist Jews and Arabs ignore Mizrahi rights (Loolwa Khazoom)
Arab Nationalism: mistaken identity by Martin Kramer (with thanks: Sylvia)