Culturally Arab, Religiously Jewish, 100% American

Culturally Arab, Religiously Jewish, 100% American

Rabbi David Rabeeya

This is really my turn. When I arrived in the United States in 1970 many Americans had only a vague idea of who the Arabs are and what constituted Islam, both the religion and the culture. I am a Jew who was born in Iraq and all my attempts to explain to people that I am culturally an Arab and religiously a Jew fell on deaf ears because no one could comprehend this unique symbiosis. Many European Jews found my symbiosis to be a contradictory and unacceptable dual identity which was often responded to with both suspicion and distrust. I was neither completely accepted by Arabs or Jews because of this incongruous identity. The irony of all ironies is that in the United States Christians from various denominations always accepted me as an Arab-Jew and as an American.

Among the many twists and turns that my life has taken in my doctorate in the Arabic language which resulted in my teaching Arabic at Bryn Mawr College in PA as well as at Valley Forge Military Academy in PA to both American and non-American students, many of whom are Arabs and Muslims. At Bryn Mawr College I taught the language of the Qur’an to Muslim students in addition to teaching the Arab culture to students in both institutions. By chance I found myself teaching Arabic grammar to the daughter of Sheik Yamani, past oil minister of Saudi Arabia. I also taught Hebrew for 34 years. In the world of academia I was accepted and appreciated for my knowledge and the unique perspective I could offer for both the Arab and the Jewish cultures, religions and languages.

Because of recent events in the world which affect the United States, I found myself to be even more of an enigma, but I also realize in my heart that I, and others like me, can be a bridge to facilitating an understanding of another culture and mindset.

One of the best ways to bridge the gap between people is to meet people face to face and to recognize each other’s humanity beyond the mythology, the politics and the stereotypes. In this context we need to listen carefully to what we may not want to hear but what we need to know about the other person’s feelings of injury and injustice.

For example, for many Westerners who live in a democratic society freedom is essential. For many Muslims justice is critical. Therefore, we have to appreciate the vocabulary with its various nuances. One crucial lesson to learn is to investigate not only the meaning of words and expressions but also their specific connotation and how the power of these words can affect a person to act in a way that Westerners may not like or be able to understand.

An example of misunderstanding of the meaning of a word can be found in Shalom vs. Salam (peace). Peace in English connotes the idea of lack of hostility. Shalom in Hebrew means to complete a process. Salam, in Arabic, as a political term, may represent the highest level of peaceful co-existence between opponents. In Arabic there is also a specific term for armistice and another specific term for “cold peace.”

Another important and timely example is the meaning of honor in the Arab culture. This involves self-respect which is profoundly vital to the Arab persona who will never tolerate being degraded in public. Most Westerners do not take honor to this degree.

One method to implement this on a practical level is to target teenagers, who are both curious and interested. Recently I conducted a class about Judaism and Islam together with a Muslim teacher for both Jewish and Muslim teenagers. We spoke about the ideas of God, community, family and the Holy Texts in both religions and cultures to facilitate the various understandings and interpretations of cultural and religious terms for both groups. Both groups left the course with a better understanding of the rituals and their meanings in both the synagogue and the mosque. They also received a better appreciation of family life, beliefs and mores taught in the homes of each group.

As an American I was able to teach this course. As an American I have been allowed to be different and to be appreciated for my differences. America offers democracy, pluralism, economic opportunity, freedom of expression and freedom of religion to all who live within its borders. Because of this, America is the prime location for Jews, Muslims and Christians to pursue the unique opportunity to be an example for the rest of the world.

After all, I am an Arab-Jew, but I am first and foremost an American and I am proud of it.

Many fascinating articles are available in the Sephardic Heritage Update, A collection of current Essays, Articles, Events and Information impacting the Sephardic community and culture.  This is available by email from the Center for Sephardic Heritage.  If you wish to have an e-mail address added to our list please contact .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)