Thursday, September 27, 2007

How Arab are 'Arab' Jews?

A young law student at Cornell recently had an article published in the university newspaper entitled Arab Jews - an oxymoron?

'Many people in the West have never heard of Jews from Arab countries," J. R. Rothstein writes. "They do not know that Jewish roots in Iraq, Syria, Egypt and other 'Arab' countries stretch back thousands of years. "

Indeed. It is as well to point out to the legions of well-meaning peace and interfaith groups around the world that Jews and Arabs need no instruction in how to live together: they have done so for hundreds of years.

Others do know that Jews lived in Arab and Muslim countries, but they might think they were 'Jewish Arabs'. Anti-Zionists and Jewish communists add to the confusion. ( Ella Shohat and David Shasha talk about Arabs of the Jewish faith. They deny that the Jews are a separate people, and imply they are not entitled to a state of their own.)


In search of enlightenment I reached for my yellowing copy of Jews and Arabs by the late, eminent Princeton scholar SD Goitein (first published in 1955). Goitein made a speciality of studying those most genuine Jews living among the most genuine Arabs - in Yemen.

From Arabia in the 7th century the Arabs spread their language and religion - Arabic and Islam. But the Arabs did not necessarily always rule the areas they conquered, ceding that role to foreign soldiers from Central Asia and the Caucasus.

Was Israel just another Arabian tribe? After all, both peoples are said to be semitic. Goitein dismisses the myth of the semitic race: "The fact that negroes in the US talk and think exactly like other Americans does not prove they once formed a single race."Among the affinities between Jews and Arabs was a certain primitive democracy, a similar concept of the 'slave' and the existence of women in public life.

But the differences in values are considerable. The Jews grant more freedom to their women. The Arabs cling to appearances, and would be polite even if they felt like insulting you. Sabra Israelis can be rude, even if there is every reason to be polite.

Ancient Israel was an agricultural people to whom the desert, except for a short Biblical sojourn between Egypt and Canaan, was alien. Their calendar was agricultural. Yes, their social structure was tribal, but this does not mean that Israel was of Bedouin origin. Goitein points out there is a difference between sheep and cattle-raising semi-nomads - as the Patriarchs would have been - and camel-breeding Bedouins. The Israelite ideal was that each man should sit under his own vine or fig tree. This changed in Islamic times when the Jewish people, most of whom were living under Arab rule, transformed themselves into a nation of artisans and merchants.

The Jews tried to do everything to minimise the transfer of property, while to Arabs, everything was sellable. Their laws of inheritance differed. The Jews followed the law of 'primogeniture'. The Jews passed as much as property as possible to as few as possible, whereas Arabs divided property among as many as possible. A daughter inherited half as much property as a son. The central unit to Jews was the family; to Arabs it was the clan.

Although Judaism and Islam have much in common, there are also differences: for example, the Jewish Sabbath is a Day of Rest. The Bedouin, being on the move and working irregularly during the week, had little use for a Day of Rest but retained it as a day of assembly and prayer.

Arab classical literature was written down in sedentary environments, but 'its every page betrays the origin of its people in the Arabian desert. Nothing of that kind is to be found in the Bible', says Goitein,' where everything breathes the fragrance of the Palestinian soil and reflects the life of farmers and shepherds.'

Another big difference was the Arab attachment to language, and the emphasis on elegance and form. The Jews concentrated on ideas and paid very little attention to form. They readily gave up their own language, translating the Bible into other languages, including Arabic, while the Arabs clung tenaciously to theirs. Goitein describes Arab poetry as like an ornament, rigidly traditionalist. The fact that literary Arabic has not been allowed to evolve has led to spiritual stagnation. But Goitein also points out that without the influence of Arab Muslim language and literature, medieval Jewish philosophy, poetry and Hebrew grammar would not have developed in the way they did.

By adopting the Arabic language, however, the Jews did not become Arabs. They exchanged one language, Aramaic, for another, Arabic.

Can a Jew also be Arab? By Naim Kattan

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