The debate rages on: are you a Jew from an Arab or Muslim country, an Arab Jew, a Jewish Arab, or none of the above? Sephardi Voices UK have explored identity in their oral history project: this video illustrates different views.
In this extract from her book Uprooted, Lyn Julius discusses the issue of identity, with particular reference to ‘Arab Jews’:
Widespread is the notion among Arabs and on the radical left, that Jews from Arab countries are not distinct people, but Arabs of the Jewish faith. In other words, the Jews cannot be defined as a people with a right to self-determination.
Anti-Zionists claim that a Machiavellian Zionist conspiracy forced these Jews out of their countries of birth. They buy into the myth that Jews are interlopers from Europe and the US – white Westerners who came to ‘colonise’ and ‘steal land’ from the ‘native’ Palestinian people to whom it rightfully belongs. This myth, drawing on Marxist terminology, gained increasing legitimacy after 1967 when Israel annexed East Jerusalem and ‘conquered’ the West Bank. The notion of ‘occupation’ and the use of the word ‘settlers’ reinforce the concept of Israeli ‘colonisation’ of ‘Arab’ land.
The colonialism myth supports the idea that Jews are merely adherents of a religion. At the time of the French Revolution, Clermont-Tonnerre said of the emancipation of Jews: ‘We must refuse everything to the Jews as a nation and accord everything to Jews as individuals.’ This would lead to the Jewish community somehow disappearing, leaving only French citizens of Jewish religion or ancestry.
With the rise of nationalism this concept of the Jew was replaced by a racial stereotype. However, the pendulum has swung back to viewing Jews as a faith community: thus anti-Zionists habitually talk about US citizens of the Jewish faith, Germans of the Jewish faith and now Arabs of the Jewish faith. Mizrahi leftist academics, like Ella Shohat in New York, borrow heavily from Edward Said’s post-colonialist bible Orientalism, which divides the world crudely into ‘the West versus the Rest’, viewing both Mizrahim (‘Arabs of the Jewish faith’) and non-Jewish Arabs (the Rest) as victims of Zionism (the West).
Ella Shohat features prominently in a film made in 2002, called Forget Baghdad, by the son of an Iraqi non-Jewish communist. The film- maker interviews four protagonists, Jewish members or ex-members of the Iraqi Communist Party including Shimon Ballas, who wrote Ma’abara, the first book to describe the experience of refugees in the tent camps. All were forced to flee to Israel, where they suffered varying degrees of cultural alienation. In a study, Professor Shohat finds that Israeli cinema depicts orientalist cultural stereotypes, casting Mizrahi Jews as ‘boors or buffoons’.
Anti-Zionist Mizrahim like Ella Shohat and Rachel Shabi see their people as conflicted between their binary ‘Jewish and Arab’ identities and despised by Israel’s Ashkenazi establishment. Rachel Shabi writes: ‘If Israel could find a way to reconnect with its own Middle-Eastern self, the chances are that this would result in the country having entirely different relations with the region. Because long before they were apparent arch-enemies’, she claims, ‘Arabs and Jews were culture collaborators, good neighbours – and friends.’
Shabi interviews Naima, who was seventeen when she left Iraq. Naima declared of her family’s relations with their Arab neighbours: ‘We got along, and how. Believe me, it was a pleasure.’
Nevertheless, the concept of ‘Arab-Jewish’ identity remains controversial. As one wag put it, ‘Mizrahim are not interested in being Arabs – except for the music and the food; a lot of Ashkenazim are not interested in being Jews, period.’
Furthermore, many Jews living in Arab countries in the twentieth century were influenced by Western – specifically French – culture, bore European first names, and many had a marked preference for the chan- sons of Edith Piaf over the ballads of Um Kalthum. No-one stole pure Mizrahi-Arab culture from the Jews of the Maghreb, ‘because most of them had lost it long before they came to Israel’.
North African Jews arriving in Israel were nicknamed Frenkim. ‘France was my soul home’, writes André Aciman. There are Arab-born refugees in the West who still say they are French so as to avoid having to explain their accents and convoluted life-story. The writer Jacqueline Kahanoff coined the term Levantinism to describe the multiplicity of identities she enjoyed, growing up in cosmopolitan Egypt. Based on her personal experiences, she advocated a ‘Mediterranean’ model of coexistence between Jews and Arabs. Egyptian Jews were famously multilingual, speaking an average of 4.5 languages, but often only rudimentary Arabic. It was not unusual for them to have a foreign nationality, go to French schools, be cared for by a Balkan nanny, and a minority were the products of mixed Ashkenazi-Sephardi marriages.
Ellis Douek, an Egyptian-Jewish doctor uprooted to the UK (whose family had been British subjects since the eighteenth century) said that he had never pretended to be British, but that nowadays he felt more at home in Britain – not because he became more British, but because Britain had become more foreign. To tell his patients that he was Egyptian confused them: the Arabs among them did not believe that Jews had ever lived in Egypt. Ellis Douek avoided describing himself as Jewish to British people, since they were embarrassed by religion.
One Algerian-born Jewess who had lived in France before coming to England described her identity as Jewish. All through her perambulations, it was the one consistent thread of her identity. ‘I’ve been Jewish all the time, the rest has changed’, she said.
A 2008 conference of Iraqi Jews – the most ‘arabised’ of Middle Eastern Jewries, resoundingly rejected the expression ‘Arab Jew’ as a badge of identity. Purists define an ‘Arab Jew’ as one who is steeped in, or familiar with, literary Arabic. University of Haifa professor Reuven Snir, however, emphasised that the Jews who wrote literary works in Arabic in the early twentieth century felt no need to declare themselves Arabs. It might be more appropriate to describe as ‘Arabic Jews’ those who speak Arabic and have assimilated Arabic culture.
Even if Jews from Arab countries were willing to identify as such, where does the expression ‘Arab Jew’ leave Babylonian, Must’arab, Karaite, Kurdish, Persian or Berber Jews? It is clearly an inadequate description of Haketia-, Ladino- and Aramaic-speaking Jews, not to mention Persian, Afghan, Bukharan and other Jews from the ex-Soviet Muslim republics, who speak Judeo-Farsi dialects and also form part of the ‘greater Babylonian diaspora’ dating back to the First Exile.
‘Who am I?’ the Iraq-born author Eli Amir asked rhetorically. ‘I’m a bird wandering between two worlds, sometimes I’m in the West, and sometimes in the East. I’m a man whose dual roots allow me to stand strong. My legs still get confused between two worlds, but I’m a Jewish Zionist Israeli.’
The vast majority of Jews have not historically identified as Arabs – in fact most would be offended to be so labelled. Moreover, to talk of ‘Arab Jews’, when Jews predated the Arab conquest by 1,000 years and lived for the most part under non-Arab Muslim rule, is ahistorical – strictly speaking, it ought only to describe Jews from the Arabian peninsula. Elsewhere the word ‘Arab’ meant, to many city dwellers, Bedouin – someone who roamed the desert and wore traditional robes.
As well as being an ethnic signifier of comparatively recent vintage, ‘Arab Jew’ gives equal weight to both elements, an equivalence that neither existed under sharia law nor Arab nationalist rule. The ‘Arab world’ is a community of language and culture, but Arabs have never achieved political union, despite efforts to unite various states into Arab federations. It is legitimate to talk of Egyptian and Iraqi Jews, citizens of nation states. But in the same way we could talk of Spanish Jews – citizens of Spain – we cannot do so of Hispanic Jews of Spanish language and culture, an imaginary construct.