Israel to offer degrees in ‘Jewish Arab’ literature

Almog Behar

Two new bachelor’s degree programs in the culture of Jews in the Arab
world will get underway at the start of the 2017-2018 academic year at
Ben-Gurion University and Tel Aviv University, reports Haaretz. All well and good. However, the decision to call the programs ‘Jewish Arab’ rather than ‘Mizrahi’ smacks of a political agenda, in spite of assertions to

Shimon Adaf

the contrary. The danger is that far-leftist academics will hijack the government’s campaign to raise awareness of Jews from Arab countries for their own ends (with thanks: Lily):

Among the subjects to be taught in the programs, the first of their
kind, are Jewish literature written in Arab countries, literary Arabic
and Judeo-Arabic (an Islamic-world counterpart to Yiddish in Europe).
There will also be comparative literature studies
looking at Jewish literature in Arab countries and Jewish literature in

“The idea for the program came up in a conversation in the car about
three years ago,” recalled Hadas Shabat Nadir, a literature researcher
at Ben-Gurion. “Dr. Hana Soker Schwager [of Ben-Gurion], [poet] Shimon
Adaf and Dr. Haviva Yishay [of Ben-Gurion] were
there, and over time the poet Almog Behar and Prof. Galili Shahar [of
Tel Aviv] also joined. It started with our wondering why there were
programs for the study of Yiddish and other similar programs, but no one
was teaching Jewish Arab culture.”

The program became a reality after a request for funding to the Yad
Hanadiv foundation, which represents the Rothschild family philanthropic
trusts, got a positive response and after the committee responsible for
the funding insisted that a full bachelor’s
degree program be created.

Why ‘Jewish Arab,’ not ‘Mizrahi’?

Although Jews from Arab countries are commonly referred to as “Mizrahim”
in Hebrew, Shabat-Nadir explained the decision to call the subject of
the program Jewish Arab culture and not Mizrahi studies:

“We wanted to present the entire story. We all were uncomfortable with
the definition ‘Mizrahim,’ because when people use it, they forget an
entire history, important people, accomplishments and writing over the
generations. We wanted to link the Mizrahi concept
to its history, to where it comes from. The concept of Mizrahim
developed in Europe and ultimately those who sought Westernization
called the Jews from Islamic countries Mizrahim. The field and the
dialogue that we are talking about is Jewish Arab.”

Behar said, “In the coming year, we will build the syllabus and plan the
three years of the degree studies and actually the first five years [of
the program]. From our standpoint, as doctoral students in literature
at the time, we very much felt the absence,
including in the academic treatment, of Israeli Mizrahi literature and
within Arabic literature. Jewish Arab literature didn’t have a presence
and in particular, there was no link among all of the fields and

At this point, there is five years of funding for the program. Although
it will only start in a year, it is already clear that the departments
at the two universities will collaborate and hold joint conferences and
courses. At Tel Aviv University, the program
is under the administration of the literature department and at
Ben-Gurion University, it is part of the department of multidisciplinary

Behar added, “There is attention in academe to the Golden Age [of
Spanish Jewish history]. There is a certain presence in Jewish studies,
but there was no link. In our view, it’s a field of one historical
continuity and we want to give students the ability
to see and understand this continuity – both secular and religious
literature, historical and contemporary. Up to now the field was
splintered and from now on we are going to teach [it] as a discipline,
as one field, one [field of] linguistic continuity and

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  • A really bad precedence is being foisted on the Mizrahi community. The terminology of Jewish Arabs (or Arab Jews) has the connotation not only of cultural association but political as well.

    I have written in this forum about how Jewish revisionists have used "Arab Jews" to imply Jewish sympathies with Arab causes to the exclusion of Israel's aspiration for a nationhood of Jewish decent.

    That is where the dangers lie.

  • When Jews were living in lands under Muslim rule before European conquest, if such took place, they were not considered the equal of Muslims under the dhimma, the part of Islamic law, shari`ah, that deals with non-Muslims. That was true in Arab lands, in Persia/Iran, in Morocco, and in the Ottoman Empire [where by the way many Ashkenazim were Ottoman subjects, as in Rumania up to 1878]. It is too late, too post-facto, to all of a sudden decide that those Jews were Jewish Arabs or Arab Jews or Jewish Turks, etc., but nobody recognized that 150 years ago.

  • Fernando and Mara,
    I couldn't agree more with both of you: this is an attempt to subsume Jews from Arab countries into the 'Arab world' and to suppress their indigenous identities and languages – other than literary Arabic – in which they wrote their literature. And it excludes not only the heritage of Berber Jews, for example, but Persian and Kurdish Jews, who wrote in Judeo-Farsi and Aramaic. The entire government campaign to raise awareness of Jewish refugees from Arab countries could thus backfire.

  • I am of Mizrahi descent, and will not respond to being called an "Arab Jew". Honoring a Conquest and Colonization by Arabs, when our Mizrahi Communities pre-date that Conquest by millenia isn't only a glorification of "dhemmitude", it disallows for any teaching of our Eastern Jewish History, Culture and Tradition prior to 1434 years ago. Further it will not even begin to touch on the Mizrahi Communities that are not from Arab Ruled Countries. They never recognized us as Arabs, because we were not. Why this program is renaming us with European style names is simply stupid.Like calling Arabs "Palestinians", misleading and untruthful.

  • If the term Jewish-Arab is more appropriate than the term Mizrahi (eastern) to describe the cultural and historical background of Jews living in "Arab countries" due to that the term "Mizrahi "obliterates the complete history, achievements and literature for generations " then peoples such as the Berbers and Kurdish (invaded and subdue by the Arabs) should be called "Bereber-árabs " and "Kurdish-Arabs" However, these people (as well as the Assyrians, many Maronites and Copts,who like Jews, precede the Arabs invasion – because they are indigenous people in the regions of North africa, Mesopotamia and the Eastern Mediterranean – do not considered themselves as Arabs. Also you must not forget that Jews established in areas invaded by the Muslim Arabs not only wrote and created in Arabic but also in Aramaic, Hebrew, ladino, jaquetia, and in languages other than Arabic spoken in currently Muslim countries.
    The Arab League established the following definition of Arabic: "an Arab is the one whose language is Arabic, lives in an Arab country and that is in harmony with the aspirations of the Arab people ". While Israel considers himself a Jewish State and therefore is not part of the Arab world, could be considered that the Arab citizens of Israel is part of that conglomerate. Obviously refer to Arab Muslims and Arab Christians. But, according to the approach which is being promoted, the Jewish Arabs would also fall in this category; they would have a double identity: Jew-Israeli and Arab-Israeli
    The effect of establishing an Jew-Arabic identity for the Oriental Jews (Mizrahies) who are Israeli citizens is dangerous for the consolidation of a global and unitary both religious cultural, national and psychological Israeli identity.


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