Reject the expression ‘Arab Jew’

Philologos in the Jewish Daily Forward offers up this resounding rejection of the expression ‘Arab Jew’. But he/she fails to make the point clearly that Jews were among the indigenous inhabitants of the Middle East, preceding the Arab conquest by 1,000 years:

‘A senior Saudi royal has offered Israel a vision of broad cooperation with the Arab world if it signs a peace treaty and withdraws from all occupied Arab territories,” a Reuters dispatch reported last week, citing an interview with former Saudi ambassador to the United States Prince Turki al-Faisal. In the course of this interview, the prince was quoted as saying, “We will start thinking of Israelis as Arab Jews rather than simply as Israelis.”

Some vision of cooperation!

Needless to say, Prince Turki’s use of the term “Arab Jews” reflects either a comically naive misunderstanding on his part of who Israelis are, or the more sinister hope that they will one day cease to be who they are. In the best case, the prince’s remarks are ignorant and patronizing, and they reveal how even many supposedly sophisticated Arabs haven’t a clue that Israelis, although they live in the middle of an Arab expanse, are a people with a unique language, culture, history and identity of their own. If Prince Turki thinks that once peace is declared, Israelis will cheerfully agree to become another ethnic minority in the Arab Middle East, he is living in a cloud of nargileh smoke.

On the whole, however, one doesn’t come across the term “Arab Jews” in this context. Rather, it is used — mostly by Arabs but also by some anti-Israel and anti-Zionist intellectuals in the West — for the close to 1 million Jews who lived in Arab lands prior to the establishment of Israel, after which they left or were expelled from their native countries and immigrated to Israel or elsewhere. Thus, for instance, Ella Habiba Shohat, a professor of cultural and women’s studies at New York’s City University, writes of herself in an essay titled “Reflections by an Arab Jew”:

“I am an Arab Jew. Or, more specifically, an Iraqi Israeli woman living, writing and teaching in the U.S…. To be a European or American Jew has hardly been perceived as a contradiction, but to be an Arab Jew has been seen as a kind of logical paradox, even an ontological subversion [leading to] a profound and visceral schizophrenia, since for the first time in our history Arabness and Jewishness have been imposed as antonyms…. The same historical process [that is, the establishment of Israel] that dispossessed Palestinians of their property, lands and national-political rights was linked to the dispossession of Middle Eastern and North African Jews of their property, lands, and rootedness in Muslim countries….”

There is, of course, a cynical absurdity in blaming Israel for the wholesale plunder of Jewish property by Arab regimes in Iraq, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Algeria, Morocco and other countries that forbade Jews to take money or possessions with them when they emigrated from or were thrown out of these places. But apart from this, what is it that makes one wince at the term “Arab Jews”? After all, don’t Ms. Shohat and others like her have a point? If a Jew living in America is an American Jew, and a Jew living in Europe is a European Jew, why isn’t a Jew living in an Arab country an Arab Jew? Is not the objection to calling him that a form of Arabaphobia?

I think not. Anti-Arab prejudice has nothing to do with it. Historically speaking, Ms. Shohat is simply dead wrong.

It’s true that Jews lived for hundreds and even thousands of years throughout the Middle East, and that after the Arabization of the region that started with the spread of Islam in the seventh century, they became linguistically and culturally Arabized, just as Jews in America have become linguistically and culturally Americanized. But it’s also true that, in the course of these centuries, no Middle Eastern Jew, if asked whether he was an Arab, would have said yes, no matter how at home he felt in his environment. And for that matter, no Arab would have called his Jewish neighbor an Arab either. Jewishness and Arabness were perceived as antonyms in the sense of denoting two mutually exclusive ethnic identities, just as “Jew” and “goy” were antonyms in Eastern Europe. It was only in the 20th century that small numbers of Jews — most of them communists or on the Anti-Zionist political left — in cosmopolitan Arab cities like Cairo and Baghdad began to argue on behalf of an “Arab Jewish” identity as a way of repudiating Jewish nationalism and justifying their participation in Arab revolutionary politics. (..)

To refer to these communities as “Arab Jews” is not only to imply that Zionism tore them away from their true homelands for the false lure of a Jewish state; it is to demean them by denying them their own sense of themselves. It’s a term that justly deserves to be rejected.

Read article in full

NB The comments are worth reading too. They make the point that the term ‘Arab’ is an ‘ethnic’ not a ‘geographic’ signifier; that nobody used the term ‘Arab’ before the emergence of Arab nationalism in the 19th century; that people used to identify each other by religion; and that the term ‘Arab’ usually referred to Bedouin from the desert.

Ami Issseroff’s essay


  • Most of arab countries population are ethnically not arabs. North african are berbers, lebanese are phenician, many syrian are in fact kurds or assyrian, iraqis are babylonian or chaldean ect… What we call arab mean arabic speakers. The only arabs are the people from the north part of the arabic peninsula. So I could admit that Yemenite jews are more arab than any algerian or lebanese muslim.

  • Ami Isseroff's excellent essay on the expression "Arab Jew" (with refer-back to Bataween) is here.

    [Please excuse any duplication.]

  • I agree. How can one characterise Jews in Egypt as ‘Arab’ Jews when many Egyptian non-Jews are not comfortable being described as ‘Arab’? The same goes for Berbers in the Maghreb countries.

  • Arab Jews or Egyptian Jews?

    Usually I am not keen to participate in debates. But here I make an exception.
    Following the recent debate on whether the Jews from Arab countries are considered Arab Jews or else, I couldn’t help but write my thoughts on the subject. I am writing in particular where Egyptian Jews are concerned, and this may also apply for Jews from other Arab speaking countries.

    The Jews in the Middle East existed in the lands of this region long before the Arab conquest after Islam began. Being a descendant of a an old Jewish community in Egypt, it is claimed that this community was in existence in Egypt before the conquest of the Arabs by Amr Ibn Al’As عمرو بن العاص in 640 CE. Most of the Jews of Egypt identified themselves with Egypt and spoke the Arabic language which is the language of the land. This doesn’t make them Arabs. The notion of Egypt being an Arab country started only after the Gamal Abdel Nasser coup in 1952 when he aspired to join with Syria as one country and changed the name of Egypt to “The Arab Republic of Egypt”. The change had also a personal ambitious motif to claim the leadership of other Arabic speaking countries in the region.

    Most of the intellectual Egyptians at that time expressed their opposition to the change knowing that the change meant the denial of the rich ancient and modern civilisation of Egypt.

    The prominent writer and thinker Taha Hussein (1889-1973) vigorously opposed to the notion of associating Egypt to Arabism. I quote below Hussein’s writings in Arabic in this regard:
    إن الفرعونية متأصلة في نفوس المصريين ، وستبقى . بل يجب أن تبقى وتقوى . والمصري فرعوني قبل أن يكون عربيا . ولا يُطلب من مصر أن تتخلى عن فرعونيتها ، وإلا كان معنى ذلك : اهدمي يا مصر أبا الهول والأهرام ، انسي نفسك واتبعينا . لا تطلبوا من مصر أكثر مما تستطيع أن تعطي .. مصر لن تدخل في وحدة عربية ؛ سواء أكانت العاصمة القاهرة أم دمشق أم بغداد . وأؤكد قول أحد الطلبة القائل : لو حال الإسلام بيننا وبين فرعونيتنا لنبذناه ” .

    “Pharaonism is rooted within the Egyptians and it should stay and enforced. The Egyptian is a Pharaoh before being Arab. It is inconceivable to ask Egypt to renounce her Pharaohnic roots because that means: Demolish O’Egypt the Sphynx and the Pyramids, forget your past and follow us. Do not ask Egypt more that she can give.. Egypt will not enter into an Arab Unity; regardless whether the capital is Cairo, Damascus or Baghdad.”

    In short, I conclude that there is no basis for the claim that Jews of the Middle East who lived in Arab lands were Arab Jews.


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