On the Use of the Term “Arab Jew”

On the Use of the Term “Arab Jew”

by David Shasha

Since the emergence of multiple Diasporas over the course of two millennia Jews have found themselves assimilating in various degrees to the cultures of their adopted homelands.  While the Jewish religion contains many proscriptions regarding ritual life and the details of human behavior, there is a tremendous amount of cultural variation that Jewish law does not speak to.

Jews, for instance, are required to maintain laws of ritual purity when it comes to food that may be eaten and even how that food might be prepared.  But nowhere in the Kosher laws does it state how the permissible food may be combined.  There are no recipes for Kosher food that are mandated, no ways to require that once a food product is deemed fit to determine its proper use in a specific way.

The same value applies to language use.  Jews in their sojourns through places all over the world have been successful in maintaining and propagating the study of Hebrew, the Holy Tongue, and yet we know that within the two major Jewish sub-ethnic culture blocks, the Sephardi and the Ashkenazi, there have been a number of languages that have served as vernaculars ? not supplanting Hebrew, but adding to it.  These languages, Yiddish for the Ashkenazim, Judeo-Arabic and Judeo-Spanish for the Sephardim, have themselves taken on a quasi-sacred status.  These languages, and I would include Greek and Aramaic here from earlier stages of the Jewish history, served as conduits for many unlettered Jews to understand the language of Scripture as they all at one time or another have served to render the Bible in the vernacular.

Indeed, today we see the almost complete anglophonization of Western Jewry with English becoming a major force in Jewish expression.  In the 19th century we saw the same thing taking place among German-speaking Jews who produced a major Bible translation, done by Martin Buber and Franz Rosezweig.  This sense of cultural assimilation through translation has been major facts of Jewish life in the Diaspora.  The tradition of translation goes back to the earliest Aramaic renditions of the Bible, continued with the Greek Septuagint, peaking with the pioneering translations of Se’adya Ga?on into Arabic and on through history.

Judaism has from its very inception not been averse to finding ways to bring its native Hebraic culture into line with other non-Hebrew cultures and to find ways to exchange its ideas and texts with non-Jews.

Ethnic identification is a complex yet completely transparent thing.  There are cultural ties, religious ties and other ties such as class and gender that make up the various parts of an individual?s relationship with his or her surroundings.

Jews throughout history have taken on as a moniker the name of their lands of birth or adopted homelands as a way to identify their culture.  In spite of the fact that Jewish life was displaced into Europe after the dispersion from Roman Palestine, there was an identification of Jews as European that has gone on to this day.  Jews were not native to Europe and yet such a term is widely used without objection.  This was early on codified by the term “Ashkenazi” which is a Biblical identification that was utilized to apply in a wide sense to Jews who had gone from the Middle East to the European continent.  The term “Ashkenazi” was then used to apply to the cultural traditions of its adherents.  Specific rabbinic schools and ways of learning were associated with the term Ashkenazi Jew.

So too did there emerge the term “Sephardi” in the wake of the efflorescence of Jewish cultural life in Islamic Spain.  Though Jews had lived in Visigothic Spain, there was no type of Hispano-Jewish culture that could be seen as unique.  But with the development of Jewish life in a pointed way after the Arab conquest of Spain a sense of something special was noted and identified.  This term “Sephardic,” another Biblicism, spread throughout the Middle East.  For instance, the famed rabbi Moses Maimonides, whose family was prominent among the Spanish Jewish elite, moved to Egypt and continued to utilize the moniker Sephardi when signing his name.  The movement of Jews from the Eastern Mediterranean to the Western Mediterranean and back was fairly fluid during the 9th-15th centuries when we can rightly identify a fairly homogeneous cultural entity that would rightly be termed “Arabic.”

The term “Arab” would historically have been used to mark the nomadic tribes of a place called “Arabia” but with the emergence of the Islamic religion the conception of ?Arab? was greatly expanded to include those who lived and developed culturally under the umbrella of Arabo-Islamic civilization.

This civilization was one of the great world cultures forming a bridge between the dying Greco-Roman culture and the European Renaissance and Enlightenment.  Arabic civilization was not seen as limited to the Muslim people, nor was it now marked only by those nomadic tribes in the Arabian peninsula.  The Arabic language had become a lingua franca not only in the Middle East, but throughout Spain, Sicily and the many educational institutions emerging in Christian Europe that looked to profit from the cultural and scientific inroads of Arabic civilization. 

Arabic was thus seen as the language of culture at a time when Europe had largely been under the sway of disparate barbarian tribes which had overrun the last remnants of the Roman Empire.  Under the rule of tribes like the aforementioned Visigoths, Gauls, Saxons, and the like, Jewish life in Christian Europe during the Middle Ages was a relentless hell and frequent persecutions and expulsions from European countries, culminating with the Spanish Expulsion in 1492, took place.

In the Arab world, the situation was far different.  Jews were able to make their mark on Arabic culture in a number of different ways: With the adoption of Arabic as the language of culture, Jews found themselves immersed in the scientific and philosophical educational system of the Arab world.  Figures like the aforementioned Maimonides, Se?adya Ga?on, the poets Moses ibn Ezra and Solomon ibn Gabirol, the statesman Samuel ibn Nagrela and so many others marked this transition into a Judeo-Arabic cultural universe that quickly established itself as the cutting edge of Jewish self-expression.  Even when the poet Judah Halevi composed a biting critique of this Judeo-Arabic culture in its elitist philosophical formation in his classic book The Kuzari (written in Arabic, its original title was Kitab al-Radd w-al-Dalil fi al-Din al-Dhalil), he did so using the same Arabic language and couched his arguments in the same academic terms that would only be intelligible to a student well-versed in the philosophic rationalism of the time.  And it should be well-noted that Halevi continued to produce Arabic-style verse until the very end of his life; never relinquishing the profane themes of the erotic and sensual that typified this cultural school.

In the main, Ashkenazi culture had developed in isolation from the dominant cultures in Europe.  And for good reason: The Jews of Europe had been denied the basic autonomy and cultural freedoms that were commonplace in the Arab world.  They were carefully monitored by the Christian authorities and were frequently the object of persecution, ridicule and a deep cultural intolerance.  There was no comparable equivalent to Maimonides or Samuel ibn Nagrela among the Ashkenazi Jews.  It would have been nearly impossible to imagine an Ashkenazi Jew producing a work such as Moses ibn Ezra’s Kitab al-Muhadara w-al-Mudhakara, a treatise on Hebrew poetics as its author contextualized it within the Arabic literary system. 

Ashkenazi Jews had developed a deeply hermetic Talmudic scholasticism that had little if any room for extraneous influences.

The clash between the two value-systems, the Judeo-Arabic and the Ashkenazic, took its most pronounced form with the emergence of what has been called The Maimonidean Controversy; a bitterly fought intra-Jewish battle over the philosophical oeuvre of Maimonides after the publication of his Judeo-Arabic masterpiece Dalalat al-Ha’iran, better known as The Guide of the Perplexed.  This controversy exposed the fault lines that separated the Sephardi and Ashkenazi cultures: Maimonides’ openness to the Arabic appropriation of Greco-Roman rationalism and his use of this culture in trying to understand the very foundations of a Jewish metaphysics was deeply disconcerting to Ashkenazi rabbis who had completely circumscribed the inclusion of non-Jewish influences within their cultural system.

But as we know, culture is a permeable construct and the Ashkenazim who rejected any overt cultural borrowing, were somewhat unsuccessful in shielding their Jewish culture from taking on many of the mental and social conceptions of the surrounding Christian cultures of Europe.  Ashkenazi Judaism developed a keen sense of the mystical at the very time that mystical writings permeated European Christian religious thinking.  The sense of rigidity and intolerance and exclusionary elitism that had characterized European Christianity and was to prove so damaging to Jews there was unwittingly adopted by many Jewish clerics in an Ashkenazi civilization which presented a much stricter and less open form of Jewish self-perception than that developed and promoted in Judeo-Arabic civilization.

The Maimonidean Controversy of the 13th and 14th centuries, already begun with attacks on Maimonides during his own lifetime and to which he was forced to respond to defend his doctrinal orthodoxy, exemplified the split that had separated the Ashkenazi form of Judaism from its Sephardic counterpart.  Maimonides had combined an exacting Talmudism which he learned from the traditions emanating from the academies of the Judeo-Arab universe stretching from the Arab East to Spain through North Africa and Southern Europe along with the new Arabic learning.  Maimonides? own thought-patterns were similar to those of his Muslim peers, Ibn Rushd and al-Ghazali who also sought to systematize their traditional religious teachings within a larger intellectual context having opened their minds to the new sciences and trends of the Arabic reading of Aristotle and the Greco-Roman traditions.

The Ashkenazim had frozen the Jewish tradition back into its Talmudic variant.  Having lacked any substantial human or intellectual contact with the Talmudic academies of Babylonia as the Islamic era was developing, the Ashkenazim, as the great Sephardic political theorist Daniel Elazar had pointed out some years ago, were in the process of congealing a ?Romantic? form of Judaism that was based on a novel reading of the traditional rabbinical sources that became suspended in time, thus forcing the Talmud into a limiting vise that lacked the ability to truly evolve and develop new ideas and assimilate into different and differing cultural contexts.  Ashkenazi Judaism was thus caught in a bind that forced it to remain static.

The challenge of Maimonides and his incipient cultural creativity was a stark challenge to this Ashkenazi fundamentalism.  What Elazar termed Sephardi “Classicism” was not a conservative reactionary understanding of the Jewish tradition, but was a free-flowing and dynamic symbiosis with the surrounding cultures in the places where Sephardim lived.  This Classical form of Judaism was not a forced replication of an ideal past, but was an elegant series of reformulations of the Jewish tradition with a pronounced bent of rational ethics, an embrace of scientific currents, an adoption of an aesthetic system all combined with a deep reverence for the inherited wisdom of the ages.

Sephardic Jews in Spain, North Africa, Sicily, Syria, Provence, and elsewhere in the Mediterranean found themselves participating in a unique cultural system that was organized under the unifying umbrella of the Arabic language and Arabo-Islamic culture.  Because of Islam’s embrace of the most pronounced ecumenical values at that time—though they were by no means perfect, they permitted to participation of non-Muslims in the larger society—Jews were able to produce a culture of great intellectual, aesthetic and ethical worth that had clearly eclipsed the dogmatism of an Ashkenazi culture that had lacked any facility with the Gentile world.

After the Spanish Expulsion, the Hispanic Jews returned to the Islamic world, this time as immigrants to the Ottoman Empire.  Jews found themselves in Ottoman Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, the Balkans and other locales of the Empire.  The Ottomans had taken the Arab world by storm and had adopted its Islamic faith.  There was little difficulty in the transition from the old cultural world of Mediterranean Arabo-Islam to the new Ottoman universe.  Royal courts adopted the traditional Arab cultural values and literary standards, while intellectual thought and pluralism thrived in the Ottoman society.

After many centuries of cultural pluralism, the Ottoman system was brought to a crushing end after the destruction of the Empire at the hands of the European powers.  Emerging from the collapse of the Ottoman Empire were individual Arab states.  With the emergence of these states, Jewish statesmen like Haim Nahum Effendi sought to confirm Jewish loyalty to their Arab hosts and continue to maintain the cultural relationship that had tied Jews to Arabic civilization as we have already pointed out.

With the emergence of political Zionism, the Arab Jews were placed in a precarious situation: Having been deeply tied to and immersed in Arabic culture and civilization for many centuries and seeing themselves as a part of that civilization, they were now being forced to choose between their Jewish identity and their Arab culture.

Traditionally in the Arab world, culture was a unifying factor and religion a divisive one.  Having used the term divisive, I do not mean to imply that the division was in any way seen as illegitimate or intrusive.  Each faith community in the Arab world was provided with communal autonomy while the maintenance of Islam as the dominant and dominating religion was clearly affirmed.  But under this system Jews were able to conduct their intra-communal affairs in relative ease having established internal institutions and entities to administer the affairs of the community without the interference of the Islamic authorities. 

Haim Nahum had been a founding member of the Arabic Language Academy, a prestigious cultural organization that chose its members from the cultural and political elites, and became a crucial figure linking the Jewish community to its Arab host.  Nahum was deeply troubled by the emergence of an exclusionary Zionist movement whose primary aim was to remove Jews from their lands of birth, physically and culturally, in order to have them return to the Biblical land of Israel.  Nahum correctly understood that life for Jews in the Arab world was going to be shaken to its very foundation and he counseled the Jews of Egypt to take the formal steps of becoming citizens of the emerging independent country when they were given the opportunity.

But the machinations of Zionists and Arab nationalists conspired to begin a process that would lead to the destruction of the old pluralistic Levantine culture in the wake of the emerging mono-ethnic cultures that were soon to take over the region and lead to a tremendous amount of violence and bloodshed.

It was here that the Jewish identification with Arabic culture began to tear apart. 

The use of the term “Arab Jew” as a means of identifying those Jews who had adopted the cultural system of the Arab civilization became a political football.

Though it is completely clear that Arab Jews are identified as such because they speak the Arabic language, eat Arabic-style food, listen to Arabic music and generally exhibit the many cultural traits common to all Arab peoples, the term was isolated from the standard Jewish nomenclature—under strong Zionist influence—that had little difficulty identifying other Jews by their places of origin.

Indeed, Ashkenazi Jews continued to be identified as such with sub-divisions of German Jews, English Jews, French Jews, Polish Jews, Russian Jews, and the like continuing to be utilized as a means to name the various Jewish communities in the Ashkenazi world.  In spite of the many tragedies experienced by these Ashkenazi Jews, they continued to identify themselves by their countries of origin.  It is telling that even after the Holocaust Jews from the Rhineland could still be identified as German Jews. 

The only nomenclature that had changed was that of the Arab Jews.

The term that was created after 1948 to identify Jews of the Middle East was “Jews from Arab lands.”  There seemed to be a very careful elision of Jews from the Arabic cultural system that was marked by a strong political bias.  Arabs had now become the enemy par excellence of the Jewish State which was now seen as the sole legitimate representative body of the Jewish people.  With the traditional antipathy of the Ashkenazi Jews—and it should be remembered that Ashkenazi Jews dominated the Zionist movement and had once even considered making Yiddish the national language of Israel—towards the classical Sephardic culture in place, the adoption of a new anti-Gentile animus towards the Arabs similar to that sense of exclusion that had animated Ashkenazi culture for many centuries, caused the Arab nature of Jewish identification to find itself singled out for extinction.

It is for this reason that the only Jewry that has been forced to remove its adjectival prefix is that of Arab Jewry.  There is no other Jewry that is called “Jews from such-and-such lands.”

All sorts of petty and pedantic arguments attach themselves to this issue but it is quite clear that Jews participated in and were a part of Arabic civilization.  They did not live in isolation from their Arab neighbors and had adopted many of the folkways and civilizational patterns of the Arabic culture.  In an ethnographic sense the Jews who lived in Arab lands were ARAB JEWS just as Jews who live in the United States are American Jews.  The modifying adjective “Arab” does not signify that Jews are not Jews but simply means that Arab Jews are a part of a larger cultural system that may be termed “Arab.”

It is clear why there is an objection to my use of the term “Arab Jews.”  The attempt by the Zionists to oppose Arabs in every way possible, a value that was deeply embedded in the very foundations of the Jewish State of Israel, trapped Arab Jews and forced them to decide how they were going to see themselves and identify themselves.  Such is not a linguistic or cultural consideration, but a political consideration that cares little about the historical facts at hand.  In fact, such an elision of Arab Jewish identity is a completely specious falsification of the historical record.

At the very time that it would seem advisable for Jews—even Ashkenazi Jews—who live in Israel in the midst of the surrounding Arab world to reconnect with the regional culture—which is Arabic, we have a complete cultural disconnect.  Rather than using the Arab Jewish traditions as a bridge back into the Arab world, Zionism has sought to occlude this Judeo-Arab culture and suppress any possible sense of its continuity.  It has used language and naming to help it achieve this goal.

But it cannot change the cultural realities of the Arab Jewish tradition. 

Arab Jews in Paris, Brooklyn, Tel Aviv, Montreal and elsewhere continue to sing Arab songs, continue to eat Arab food and continue to study the Judeo-Arabic texts of their progenitors.  And while we have traced the ways in which this culture is dying out, one can still find its manifestation within the various markets in Israel and Brooklyn where the sounds, smells and attitudes of the Arab world continue to make themselves felt.

So while you can try and play games with names, and names are indeed very important, the external reality of the Arab Jewish communities remains what it is—any outsider would walk through Brooklyn’s Kings Highway and its many Arab Jewish food shops and restaurants—all Kosher—and without any doubt identify these places as part of Arab culture.

You can continue to browbeat me over my use of the term “Arab Jew” if you so choose.  The historical and existential record is plain for all to see: Jews were not simply inert figures who came from ?Arab lands? as the current politically correct Ashkenazi Jewish/Zionist nomenclature would have it.  Jews were Arabs insofar as they developed their culture using the Arabic language and the civilization of the Arab world.

I understand all too well the reasons that lay behind the objections to the use of the term “Arab Jew.”  It is yet another attempt to break off the ties of Jews to their nativity in the Arab world and replace that affiliation with a new non-Arab affiliation that would serve to tear asunder the links of native Middle Eastern Jews to their lands of origin and the cultural traditions that are so crucial a part of their heritage.

David Shasha        


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