Debunking the myth of the ‘ Arab Jew’

Anyone who keeps abreast of the growing academic field of Mizrahi/Sephardic studies cannot help noticing that the vast majority of papers focus on the purported “discrimination” or “racism” of the Ashkenazi establishment. The expression ‘Arab Jew’ is widely used too, but is rejected by Jews born in Arab countries themselves, argues Lyn Julius in JNS News:

The 650,000 Jews who overwhelmed Israel in its early years were sent to languish in tent camps or deliberately consigned to the country’s periphery – development towns in the far north or south of the country with little employment and prospects, their culture disparaged as ‘primitive’.

Typical is this paper by one Sarah Louden, Israeli Nationalism: the Constructs of Zionism and its Effect on Inter-Jewish Racism, Politics, and Radical Discourse. It has 455 views, more than any other paper of its genre. It pulls no punches in attacking the ‘racism’ of Zionism. But its sources are drawn almost entirely from Mizrahi anti-Zionists like Ella Shohat.

Shohat, a professor at New York university, made her name by applying Edward Said’s theory of ‘Orientalism’ to Israel,  claiming that both the Mizrahim and the Arabs are victims of the West (Ashkenazim). Mizrahi Jews and Arabs are assumed to have more in common with each other that Jews from the East have with Jews from the West. The former, they contend,  were ‘torn away’ from their comfortable ‘Arab’ environment by Zionism and colonialism.

 These academics widely assume that the
Mizrahim support the Likud and rightwing parties  to
‘get their own back’ on the Labour-dominated Ashkenazi establishment. According to Sarah Louden, “Mizrahim support the rightwing in Israeli politics as a means of affection and maltreatment by the ruling left-wing Ashkenazi elite, and then set out to promote their own cultural and ideological thoughts.”

 But Louden  and those like her hardly mention, or downplay, the  elephant in the room – the subliminal memory  of Arab and Muslim persecution experienced by parents and grandparents driven  from the Arab world. Is is not plausible that   Mizrahi Jews view the rocket  attacks and bombings afflicting Israel as just the latest chapter in a long history of Arab and Muslim antisemitism?  Do they vote Likud  because  they believe that only the right can deliver the necessary tough response?

Western academics almost invariably use the expression ‘Arab Jew’. The term  figures in the title of a book by Professor Sasson Somekh – The Last Arab Jew.

Professor Sasson Somekh died last week. Far left media sites like +972 proceeded to mourn him as an ‘Arab Jew’.

Born in Baghdad in 1933, Somekh (pictured) published two autobiographies, the first “Baghdad, Yesterday: The
Making of an Arab Jew,
” about his life in Iraq and the second, “Life
After Baghdad: Memoirs of an Arab-Jew in Israel.”

Somekh was the guru of Arabic Literature studies at Tel Aviv University and spent two years in Cairo where he became a close a friend of the Egyptian Nobel prizewinning author Naguib Mahfouz, whose work he claims to have introduced to a wider audience.

Some of Somekh’s disciples in the  Arabic Literature department of Tel Aviv university were anti-Zionists in the Shohat mould. But Somekh never thought of himself as an Arab Jew in their terms.

He told Almog Behar, one of his former students: ” The tendency among leading Mizrahi intellectuals of the younger
generation to speak of themselves as Arab Jews is first and foremost a
political position, that is, their desire to protest sharply against the
sense of discrimination that they feel has been directed at Mizrahim.
They are, in fact, seeking to highlight their reluctance to be part of
the Zionist existence of the state. I do not have a problem with these
positions, but for me this is not how the Arab-Jewish identity is

 For Somekh, Arab Jew is a “cultural definition of a Jew who speaks
Arabic and grew up in a Muslim environment.” He wanted to
emphasize that “his identity stemmed from his point of view as a person who
grew up in an Arab culture and continues to engage with that culture.”

Iraq was one of the few Arab countries where Jews took a leading role in the Arabic cultural and literary renaissance of the 1920s and 30s.  “I am the last Arab Jew,” Somekh said. “That is why I wrote Baghdad, Yesterday: to
document the life of a Jewish Arab child. Anyone who defines himself as
an Arab Jew to attack others but who does not speak Arabic… does not
count as such. While I do not define myself as a Zionist, if being
Zionist means all Jews should come here, I am an Israeli patriot.”

In other words, Somekh saw himself as being an Israeli Jew of Arab culture,  not of Arab ethnicity. Another professor of Iraqi origin, Reuven Snir of Haifa University, concurred: Jews who wrote literary works in Arabic in the early twentieth century felt no need to declare themselves as Arabs.

A conference held some 10 years ago among Iraqi Jews resoundingly rejected the expression ‘Arab Jew’ as a badge of identity. The vast majority of Jews from the Arab world have not historically  identified as Arabs – in fact many would be offended to be so labelled.

But post- and anti- Zionists academics continue to turn a deaf ear to what most Jews raised Arab countries themselves say and feel,  as long as ‘discrimination’ against Mizrahim can serve as a useful stick to bash Zionism.

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