Tuesday, June 23, 2009

More Cambridge capers about 'Arab Jews'

An ancestor of mine left Baghdad, converted from Judaism to Islam and became an ayatollah in Iran. Some years later, he came back to his family. It hadn't worked out. He hadn't been accepted in his new milieu.

The main protagonist in Shimon Ballas's novel Outcast is also a Jew who converted to Islam - based on the true case of an Iraqi Jew called Ahmed Soussa. But, as in the case of my ayatollah ancestor, the conversion does not resolve his conflicted identity. At the Cambridge conference Jews of Arab culture, I listened to two young Israeli Jewish students of literature wrestle with their identity as 'Arab Jews' . Yuval Evri (original family name before Hebraicisation: El-Arab) felt he inhabited a frontier land of hyphenated identity; Almog Behar had gone so far as to learn Arabic so that he could write poetry in that language.

Behar's model here appears to be the late Samir Naqqash, who as an 'Iraqi writer in exile' resolutely continued to write in Arabic after arriving in Israel.

What these young Israelis of Arab origin fail to realise is that the Arabic culture and language of their grandparents is not the same culture and language as practised by their Arab Muslim and Christian brethren in Israel. Samir Naqqash's references were profoundly Jewish, and the language he wrote in - Iraqi Jewish-Arabic dialect - was not wholly intelligible to an Arab audience. (Attempting to help out the poverty-stricken Naqqash, the author Khaled Kishtainy once suggested Naqqash place his writings in the Arabic newspaper Al-Sharq- al Awsat. But Naqqash had to give up as no reader could understand his pieces).

Ironically enough the last repositories of Arabic culture in Israel turn out to be the synagogues. As Meyrav Rosenfeld-Hadad explained at the Cambridge conference, the Tiferet haMizrah orthodox male voice choir turns popular songs by Um Kalthum and other famous Arab singers into paraliturgical songs of devotion to God.

It is one thing to have an affinity with Arabic culture and language; it is another for Jews to embrace an Arab identity - and the conference deliberately, and for ideological reasons, blurred the distinction between Jews and Arabs in Israel. But to no avail. The problematic expression 'Arab Jew' has already been the focus of this blog here, here and here. Aside from the fact that most Jewish communities predate the Arab- Muslim conquest and that many Middle Eastern communities do not consider themselves Arabs (Berbers, Kurds, Assyrians, Copts), an Arab identity seems so passe now that the era of pan-Arabism is dead and that so many 'Arabs' now identify, first and foremost, as Muslims.

The bottom line is that Jews are not Arabs. Young Israelis given to romanticism about Arabic literature and language have been insulated from the Arab and Muslim antisemitism their grandparents experienced. This is why even the children of a Jewess married to a Muslim are still taunted as 'children of a Jew'. That is why my ayatollah ancestor returned to the fold.

A Jew is a Jew is still a Jew.


Anonymous said...


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Anonymous said...

I find the musings about the Cambridge conference very odd. Even so, I'm glad to see that the second page at least seems to be thought through slightly, unlike the conclusions jumped to in the first blog, which was written before the conference took place and is replete with baseless accusations.

What is the problem with a conference on Jews of Arab culture? Even with all the difficulties you point out, you still cannot deny that there are today Jews that speak Arabic and were influenced, somehow, by Arab culture, can you?

bataween said...

Hello anonymous
I stand by my initial comments - the issue of how and why Jews came to have left Arab countries was totally ignored in this conference.
Equally bizarre was this attempt to include Arabs in Israel on the agenda, as if Jews from Arab countries and Arabs from Israel had more in common than they had differences.
Yes, certainly, Jews were influenced by Arab culture and language but to identify them in this way is like defining a Peruvian as a Hispanic or a Quebecquois as a Frenchman, merely because they speak the same language.