‘Arab’ Jew? It’s like saying ‘Hispanic’ countryside…

Following his column of two weeks ago, Philologos in The Forward has a second go at explaining why the expression ‘Arab’ Jew is not a legitimate one.

“I have received two long letters arguing with my column of two weeks ago, in which I objected to the term “Arab Jew.” Here are parts of them.

“From Jack Warga of Boynton Beach, Fla.:

My family lived for at least 150, and probably several hundred, years in Poland. I spoke Polish and attended a Jewish school that taught Hebrew, Bible, and Jewish history in Hebrew but all the other subjects in Polish. Now, seventy years after leaving Poland, I still continue to read Polish books and correspond with a Polish fellow-mathematician in his language. This does not make me a Pole, but it does make me a Polish Jew. So why should the term Arab Jew not be analogous to the term Polish Jew? It should just refer to one’s previous residence in a particular country or part of the world.

“And from David Shasha, director of Brooklyn’s Center for Sephardic Heritage:

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 term was isolated under strong Zionist influence from the standard Jewish nomenclature that had little difficulty identifying other Jews by their places of origin, such English Jews, French Jews, Polish Jews, Russian Jews, and the like. Even after the Holocaust, Jews from Germany are still identified as German Jews. To object to the term Arab Jew is yet another attempt to break off the ties of Jews from the Middle East to their lands of origin and cultural traditions.

“Both Mr. Warga and Mr. Shasha have fallen victims to a linguistic confusion whose nature I perhaps failed to explain clearly enough in my original column. I suggest they consider the following terms and tell me which make sense and which don’t:

“The French countryside. The Hispanic countryside. Russian citizens. Celtic citizens. English weather. Arab weather.

“The answer is obvious. One can speak of the French countryside, Russian citizens and English weather, because these things can be restated as the countryside of France, the citizens of Russia and the weather of England. One cannot speak of the Hispanic countryside, Celtic citizens or Arab weather, because these cannot be restated as the countryside of Hispania, the citizens of Celtland or the weather of Arabia. Words like Slavic, Celtic and Arab denote linguistic, cultural and ethnic affinities, not nationality or discrete countries or geographical areas. And for this reason, too, although one can logically speak of French Jews, Russian Jews and English Jews, one can’t really speak of Hispanic Jews, Celtic Jews or Arab Jews.

“Let’s take the case of Polish Jews, a term no one would quarrel with. How are we to understand the adjective Polish in it? Not linguistically, because for most of their history, Polish Jews did not speak Polish as their first language and often did not know it at all. Not culturally or ethnically, because, again for most of their history, Polish Jews had a cultural and ethnic identity totally different from that of Polish Catholics. And not in terms of nationality, because for most of its history, Poland was not a sovereign state and had no nationals. The word’s use is geographical. A Polish Jew was a Jew who lived in Poland. If asked whether they identified as Poles, nearly all Polish Jews prior to the late 19th century, and most 20th-century Polish Jews up to the time of the Holocaust, would have given the same answer that Mr. Warga gives.

“One can grant Mr. Sasha that, ethnographically, the Jews of Arab lands were far more acculturated to their Arab environment than the Jews of Poland were to their Polish environment. And yet these Jews were exactly like the Jews of Poland in having their own strong sense of group identity and drawing a clear line between themselves and their Arab neighbors, who drew a similar line. In the countries of the Arab world, a Jew was a Jew and an Arab was an Arab. Jews and Arabs never intermarried; as a rule, they did not mix socially, and they led separate communal lives. No Jew could be an Arab because, unlike “Polish,” “Russian” or “German,” the words “Arab” and “Jew” could not be restricted to a geographical, juridical or even cultural meaning; they denoted one’s deepest allegiances and sense of self.

“This is not a matter of Zionism or Eurocentric Judaism, as Mr. Sasha seems to think. The modern Middle Eastern equivalent to Polish Jew, Russian Jew and English Jew is not Arab Jew, but Iraqi Jew, Egyptian Jew and Syrian Jew. No one could possibly object to such terms, because Iraqi, Egyptian and Syrian Jews did not object to them either and used them self-referentially. They lived in Iraq, Egypt or Syria; they had Iraqi, Egyptian or Syrian citizenship, and they were even capable of being Iraqi, Egyptian or Syrian patriots. But they never, never thought of themselves as Arabs. To come along now and tell them they were wrong is inaccurate at best and insulting at worst.”

Read article in full


  • My $.02 on this topic:

    Here, from Wikipedia, is the current, generally accepted academic definition of “Arab”:

    “An Arab is a member of an ethnic group which identifies as such on the basis of either genealogical or linguistic grounds, sometimes including Arabized populations.”

    On this basis (i.e., linguistic heritage and self-identification), there is nothing wrong whatsoever with Jews with roots in Arabic-speaking countries calling themselves “Arab Jews” or “Jewish Arabs,” subject to the following conditions:

    1) That it be recognized that identifying Jews as “Arabs” is ahistorical. Other than small intellectual circles—particularly in Baghdad and Cairo—virtually no Jews in the Arab World identified themselves as “Arab,” nor did the Muslim Arab majority regard them as such;

    2) That only INDIVIDUAL Jews with roots in Arabic speaking countries be identified as “Arab Jews” until such time that there should be a communal consensus to identify thus. (Given the definition of “Arab” and fact #1, above, this is only logical. Such a consensus clearly does not currently exist.);

    3) That it be recognized to be equally legitimate for Jews with roots in Arabic-speaking countries to chose—as individuals or as a community—not to identify themselves as “Arabs.” Since Jews in Arabic-speaking countries were not historically identified as “Arabs,” there is no logical reason that the history of discrimination against them in Israel should dictate that they MUST identify as “Arab”;

    4) That it be recognized that Jews are not the only indigenous Arabic-speaking, non-Muslim minority in the Middle East that have not—as a community—chosen to regard themselves as “Arabs.” Arabic-speaking Middle Eastern Christian minorities include the Copts of Egypt, Maronites of Lebanon, and Chaldeans of Iraq. The Assyrians of Iraq have preserved a form of Syriac (Aramaic) as a living, spoken language, but, for the purposes of this analysis, I would include them in this list. Taken together, these communities well outnumber Arabic-speaking Christians who typically self-identify as “Arabs” (Christian Palestinians, Catholic and Greek Orthodox Lebanese, Syrian Orthodox Christians, etc.). These communities, like the Jews of Arab Lands, preserve important elements of the pre-Islamic Conquest/pre-Arabization culture of the Middle East. Furthermore, it should be recognized that Arab Nationalist regimes have adopted coercive Arabization policies against these minorities, officially labeling them—against their wishes—as “Christian Arabs” (as in Ba’athist Iraq); and

    5) That it be acknowledged that ethnic group identification is not “set in stone,” but subject to change, and that this change MAY be legitimate. The questions to ask are whether the identity is reasonably justified, and whether it is adopted without outside coercion.

  • Very interesting. However, just for the record, you can indeed speak about Hispanic Jews. I am one – one of many that is, not just the one and only.

    I was born in south america to a ashkenazi family, and I moved to the states a couple of yrs ago to go to college. Hispanic is a term that was tossed to spanish speaking people in the united states. Never growing up I ever made used of such term.
    Jewish people have always been present in latin america (both ashkenazim and sepharadim) more so after the Holocaust (my grandparents were survivors). They learned the language and did undergo an acculturation process. My parents were brought up in latin america, and so was I. we are 100% traditional jewish families. Attending jewish schools, and practicing judaism.. (you can find orthodox, conservative and reform synagogues). Just like jewish american kids grow up learning slang, listening to rap or whatever else it’s popular, jewish kids in latin america also dance salsa and merengue and eat plantains and whatever else there is that is Kosher.
    Once I came to the US I was labeled hispanic by the people around me.. because of where I come from and how I sound. Yet, i can tell you that I think I got the best of two worlds.. the jewish world.. and the so called hispanic world.

  • Many younger Mizrahi Jews that I’ve met in Irsael self-identify as “Arab Jews.” The older generation, not so much.

  • > for most of its history, Poland was not a sovereign state and had no nationals.

    Where did you learn history? National Enquirer? The minutes of you moma’s knitting club? For about 800 years (966-1750) or 80% of its history, Poland was as sovereign as it gets in Europe, including a century-long stint as the largest state in Europe. Throughout that time Poles were governed by either home dynasties or freely elected kings. The meddling of foreign powers did not start until the egress of the Saxon Wettins, mid 18th century. The 3rd Partition of Poland, which your mind is presumably straining hard to recall, lasted a “whopping” 123 years (1795-1918), or 12% of Poland’s history. What do you mean Poland had no “nationals”? This term is a nonsensical anachronism. None of the pre-Enlightment states in Europe had “nationals” in the modern sense, because the concept of a state citizenship (as opposed to burghership of a particular city) did not arise in Europe until the 19th century. How was the average inhabitant of pre-Enlightment Poland different in his “national” status vis-a-vis Poland from the equivalent inhabitant of France or Spain? Did those “nationals” of France or Spain get official potato stamps on their foreheads that marked them as French or Spanish? Do everyone a favor and crack open an actual history book once in a while, instead of spewing out the random dross accumulated over time between your ears.

  • I quite understand with your need to refer to your ethnicity rather than the place you came from. But even ‘Ashkenazi’ is a geographic signifyer. The writer AB Yehoshua says we should refer to Jews from Western countries v. Jews from Eastern countries. Even this is not satisfactory, as Morocco is to the West of Poland, and a person can be of western culture (educated in French, keen on jazz,etc) and still come from an Arab country.

  • Because my grandparents were born in three different European countries, I tend to identify myself as an Ashkenazik Jew if speaking to my ethnicity as opposed to my citizenship, which is Canadian.

    That some Jews with origins in Arabic-speaking countries wanting to wanting to identify as Arab Jews is curious, given that such groups as the Berbers, although Muslim, are seeking to be recognized as a separate and distinct ethnicity as they are. It gets particularly curious if the “Arab Jew” is from Morocco or Algeria, they may be the descendents of Jews of the Iberian peninsula who fled to North Africa to escape the Inquisition, hence they speak Ladino or other Latin-based dialects, and not because they wanted to identify with the European colonizers as was suggested by some of the commenters on the Forward site in response to Philosemite’s article.


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