The anti-Zionist academic Ella Shohat, who is no expert in this field, is politicising the study of linguistics by denying the existence of separate ‘Judeo-Arabic’ languages. To her they are all Arabic, with minor variations. Lyn Julius blogs in The Times of Israel following Shohat’s lecture at SOAS in London:
Ella Shohat: advancing an agenda
‘A language is a dialect with an army and navy’.
How best do you delegitimise a nation whose existence you despise?
The answer, according to Ella Shohat, an academic from New York University, is to downgrade a language to a dialect.
Ella Shohat is the high priestess of ‘Mizrahi
anti-Zionism’. In London recently to give a talk at the School of
Oriental and African Studies, she has made her name by applying the
theories propagated by the Palestinian author of ‘Orientalism,‘
Edward Said, to Jews from Arab lands. She is best known for inventing
the expression ‘Arab Jew’ to denote a creature torn from its natural
habitat by Zionism – itself deemed an extension of western colonialism.
Thus Jewish nationalism stands accused of destroying what she terms
To follow Ella’s logic, an ‘Arab Jew’ does not
speak a separate Jewish language called Judeo-Arabic: he or she speaks
Arabic, albeit with minor variations. In order to reinforce her argument
she downplays these differences. The only real distinction, according
to her, is that Judeo-Arabic is written in the characters of
It is possible to argue that a speaker of
Judeo-Arabic uses enough Hebrew, Aramaic, Turkish, Persian and English
terms, as well as idiosyncratic syntax and proverbs, to make himself
unintelligible to a regular Arabic speaker. And then there is the Jewish
accent, which would not only make a Jew a figure of fun to the Muslim
listener, but instantly give his ethnicity away.
In her eagerness to assimilate the Jewish
dialects to ‘regular Arabic’, Ella is forced to minimise the differences
in the ‘regular’ Arabic spoken across the Arab world. From a
linguistic standpoint, it is often said that the various spoken
varieties of Arabic differ from each other about as much as French
differs from other Romance languages. Moroccan Arabic is as
incomprehensible to Arabs from the Middle East as French is
incomprehensible to Spanish or Italian speakers ( but relatively easily
learned by them). It is even suggested that the spoken varieties of
Arabic may linguistically be considered separate languages.
In Israel, the last generation of Jews who
were born in Arab lands are dying off and their children and
grandchildren have all shifted to speaking Hebrew. You would have
thought that Ella, who deplores the ‘suppression’ of Arabic in Israel’s
early years because it was the ‘language of the enemy’ – would welcome
the revival of interest in, not just Ladino or Yiddish, but Judeo-Arabic
( eg Iraqi-Jewish or Moroccan-Jewish). A Facebook page called
‘preserving the Iraqi-Jewish language’ has over 30, 000 followers.
But no. To Ella, there is no need to consider
Iraqi-Jewish endangered or to preserve what is still living and spoken
by the non-Jewish neighbours. Emphasising the ‘Jewish’ character of
these dialects becomes a distasteful political act. Not only – as the
controversial academic Shlomo Sand claims – has a separate Jewish
people been invented, Israel has invented ‘Jewish languages’.
But it is Ella who is manipulating language to
advance an agenda. As the saying goes,’ dialect is just politics.’ And
this is the abysmal level to which the teaching of Middle Eastern
studies in our universities has sunk today.
Postscript: during her lecture Ella Shohat quoted from Naim Kattan’s book Farewell Babylon to illustrate an episode when Jews and Muslims began speaking the same Jewish dialect together, indicating that there was no difference between them. In actual fact, Shohat was misquoting the passage (p27 in Adieu Babylone) : the Jews did the speaking and the Muslims listened with respect.
‘At the end of the evening, we’d won. We were wearing our own clothing…we were not assimilated by force to a collectivity with vague contours. We were not poured into a mould.. the masks had fallen. We were there in our luminous and fragile difference. And it was neither a sign of humiliation nor a symbol of ridicule…Our traits were emerging from the shadows and their outlines discernible. They were unique. Our faces were uncovered for all to see and recognise.’
Not only did Ms Shohat misquote Naim Kattan, but he wrote the complete opposite to what she claimed.