Are Syrian Jews Arab?

Are Syrian Jews Arab? Some may be arabised, but they are not Arab. Dan Shapira cuts through this thicket of linguistic confusion in Tablet magazine, and concludes that ‘Syrian Jews’ is a construct for the benefit of outsiders:

The Jobar synagogue, site of Elijah’s grotto – intentionally destroyed in 2014

Syria’s name has nothing to do with the Arabic language (add to the list Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt or Misr/Masr, Tunis, Mauritania, and Iraq). In Arabic and in Syria, there is ongoing dispute about how to spell and where to stress the name of Syria. Syriac (cf. sursi in the Talmud) is a kind of Christian Aramaic with a huge literature; the speakers called their Aramaic language by the Greek name, and, apparently, their country, that of biblical Aram.

The point is, Syria was called Syria by Aramaic-speaking Christians prior to it becoming linguistically Arabicized (the process still noncompleted and even reversed sometimes, with some Israeli Christians learning Syriac again and even attempting to speak it).

Before the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, the Western usage of “Syria” or “Syria and Palestine” included the Eastern-Mediterranean Ottoman possessions, or the Levant proper. The corresponding Arabic name was and is Bilād al-Shām (pronounced belaad ash-shaam), the lands of Sham. Al-Shām may mean Damascus, the North, Great Syria, or even Jerusalem and the Land of Israel, in medieval Judeo-Arabic usage.

Thus, Jews of Jerusalem and the Land of Israel along with the Jews of Damascus were called Shāmīs in Yemen and elsewhere; the pro-Nazi mufti of Jerusalem began his anti-Zionist and pro-French career as an upholder of the idea that “Palestine is Southern Syria”; and in the Israeli Knesset sat people opposed to the Israeli state who also denied the existence of a “Palestinian people,” confessing themselves to be “Syrians” or “pan-Arabists.”

Now let us try to define “Arabs”—we will need it when we’ll talk about the mustaʿrib, or Arabized Jews. Most people tend to think that every Arabophone is an Arab. Jews used to speak and still speak many non-Jewish languages, and most of them know that there used to be or still are Arabic-speaking Jews.

The vast majority of speakers of Arabic elsewhere are not Arabs, not only in historical terms, but simply by the conventions of the Arabic language. In the Arabic language and in the culture connected with this language, speakers of Arabic are grouped into three groups:

“Ancient Arabs”, or al-’umam a’-bā’idah, the vanished nations, like ʿĀd by the sand dunes who disappeared in the Empty Quarter or ‘Amaliq. They don’t exist anymore.

“Pure Arabs”, or al-‘Arab al-‘āribah, “the Arab Arabs” of South Arabia, descending from Qaḥṭān.

The “Arabized Arabs” (mustaʿribah) of Najd, Jordan, Syrian Desert, and other parts of North Arabia. Even the word “Arabic” in the Qur’an might be a South Arabian (not Arabic!) loan word.

In the Middle Ages, mustaʿrib or Arabized referred to people speaking Arabic but lacking tribal reference, with the word ʾaʿrāb referring to pure tribal Bedouins (in geographic names, ‘Arab-XXX means that the place is populated by tribal Bedouins). The speed with which Jews Arabicized themselves everywhere in the wake of Islamic conquests is somehow astonishing—in the course of 100 to 300 years Jews became mustaʿrib, except in Iran, Kurdistan, and the Berber valleys of Morocco.

In the course of most of the 20th century, governments tried to make their subjects Arabs, in the sense of 19th-century European nationalism, with little effect. Now this project seems to be shelved, as evident from the death of pan-Arabism, the failed Arab Spring, the civil wars in Syria and Iraq, and the fall of the Islamic State. In place of Arabism, the Levant is home to a new particularism.

One Comment

  • When Israelites were forcibly exiled from the land of Canaan in 586 BCE by the Babylonians, they established the new identity in Babylon of ‘Jew’. That new identity is an ethnographic-religious identity. This identity has travelled the world. Consequently you have the word Jew preceded by every geographical identity you can think of (Russian, Chinese, American, European etc etc).
    That’s it !


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