Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Arabic Jews or Jewish Arabs?

A while ago, the popular weblog 'Head Heeb' featured a discussion about the identity of Jews from Arab countries which I am reproducing below. Some confusion arises, in my view, from the fact that each community was defined in Ottoman times along religious lines: there were no Arabs then - only Jews, Christians and Muslims. (Besides, before Arab states were set up, 'Arab' was often a byword for 'Bedouin').

To talk of 'Jewish Arabs' is to assume that the Middle East was ethnically homogenous when in fact it was made up of a patchwork of different ethno-religious groups many of whom spoke Arabic or were Arabic in culture, but were not Arab. A more correct term would would be ' pre-Arab' Jews, as the Jews, like Christian groups, were indigenous to the region long before the 7th century Arab-Muslim invasion.

Here's what Head Heeb had to say:

"Two ways to be an Arab Jew:Until the pogrom of 1941, Iraqi Jews were a largely middle-class community and one of the most assimilated in the Arab world, so it is probably no accident that Iraqi Jews were among the few who really considered themselves Arabs. Two professors, one Israeli and one American, demonstrate that for some this identity has died hard. In the United States, we have Ella Shohat, a cultural studies professor at the City University of New York who has questioned the "Eurocentric opposition of Arab and Jew." Israel has Professor Sasson Somekh, who has followed a similar career path in Arabic literary studies and calls himself "the last Arabic Jew."

Being an Arab Jew is something very different for the two professors. For Shohat, it is a matter of identity politics, a means of opposing what she sees as the subjugation of the Mizrahi identity by the politics of the Israeli-Arab conflict. Somekh appears much more comfortable with the synthesis of the two cultures, and has made a life's work of making Arabic literature accessible to Hebrew-speaking Israelis. Shohat is an anti-Zionist, while Somekh has come to regard his Arab heritage as part of his Israeli identity.

The difference between the two may be a matter of age as much as personality. Somekh is 70 years old, Iraqi-born and educated in the 1950s, while Shohat was educated in the 1980s at a time when identity politics held greater sway in academia. Shohat is also a second-generation, Israeli-born immigrant at one remove from the political conflict between Iraqi Jews and Muslims, and has a more idealized view of the the prewar Iraqi Jewish middle class. To a certain extent, Shohat's Arab Jewish identity is something she reinvented as a political statement while Somekh's was part of him from birth. The very process of reinvention by the second generation, however, shows that it's premature for Somekh to call himself the last of anything.

Click here to read the comments thread.


Anonymous said...

Hi. I am Palestinian and I enjoy your blog. I have to say that I no longer see the middle east in black-white extremes or Israeli/Palestinian, or Jew/Arab, etc...

After all, most Arabs like you said are Arabic-speakers and not necessarily Arabs. Most of them (in the Levant, Iraq, Egypt etc) also converted to Islam as opposed brought it with them... granted they also intermixed with Arabs and other groups at various levels.

But I think for today's middle east the key lies in reaching a way of self reflection and seeing beyond the mythology of a nation state which always tries to homogenize ethnically and culturally diverse groups forcefully into one.

The modern nation state is based on making a group of people believe they share the same mythology and the same fate... anything that is out of balance with this pseudo-homogeneous way of identification would threaten the state and push it to retaliate.

For Israel, it was the sense of a common fate for all Jewish people that was the basis of the national identification that made it ideologically necessary to expel the majority of Palestinians. In the same way, it is the fear of a shifting self-identification of the Jewish Arabic-speakers that drove many Arab nation leaders to expel their Jewish citizens.

It is horrible on both ends. But it is short-sighted and non-tolerate nationalism that caused this pain.

When I'm among nationals of Arab States, I see stark differences between Palestinians and other "Arabs" both ethnically and culturally. We even speak different dialects of Arabic that linguist consider to be different languages. In the same token, among the Israelis the Mizrahis or specific Mizrahi groups might see cultural differences from other Israelis even though in the larger context they have much in common.

I hope the solution for peace in the middle east would come out of people whose identification does not abide to the largely fictitious national illusions. For I don't see how peace could come out of the nationalists (be they Zionists or Arabists, etc.) who caused the conflict in the first place.


bataween said...

What you say is very interesting and I welcome reasoned and intelligent debate on my blog.
Nationalism need not necessarily exclude minorities or 'force culturally diverse groups into one'. The key is, to my mind, that a nationalist state should also be a liberal democracy.

The Messenger said...

Names such as jew, arab, muslim are all labels professed by man.
I believe to truth to solving the conflict in the Middle east is Idiology. If we can agree on the liniage of the Israelites and the offspring of Ishmael then we shall SEE that we are brothers of the same Babba/Abba= Father. So getting back to the idiology, in my limited scollarly knowledge, there was MYTH prepetuated by WHOM do you ask? I say the TEMPTURE or the father of lyes. There is vail over the eyes of brothers battling back and forth and no one wants to concede. But I say Pray to the Creature/Allah ask for truth and knowledge and wisdom as the BOOK says. What we as the created in HIS Image needs to do is sit down; the Rabbis, Priests and Imamms drink tea eat dates and talk about the OMNIPITANT ONE and see if progress can be made. I say abondon Violence gain tolerance and LOVE for eachother as our BROTHERS and SISTERS and let evil dwindle into ablivian.
I'm tired of taking off my shoes at the airport and ALL the like.
For once and for ALL PEACE is what we ALL stride for there are MORE good gentle people of every walk of life and WE who want be RIGHTOUS out number the evil, LETS ALL take back the WORLD created for us by HIM who created US (ALL of US) in HIS IMAGE

May The Lord Bless US ALL