‘Arab Jew’ advocate confuses culture with politics

We’ve had Rachel Shabi. We’ve had Massoud Hayoun. Here comes the latest person to identify as an ‘Arab Jew’ : Hadar Cohen. The post-Zionist  +972 magazine  has found space for her article: ‘Zionism has no space for an Arab Jew like me’.

Hadar Cohen’s grandparents holding her father as a baby

Colonization works with our minds to distort our understanding of identity and perpetuate its own agenda. Because of this, my identity has been a great source of internal confusion that has taken me years to unpack and untangle. Recently, I began to understand how this internal self-dialogue represents a political dilemma born through the colonization of Palestine.

“I identify as an Arab Jew. My family has lived in Jerusalem for over 10 generations, and my other ancestral cities include Aleppo in Syria, Baghdad in Iraq, and Shiraz in Iran, along with a small village in Kurdistan. I grew up with primarily Syrian-Palestinian traditions and cultures. My grandmother was a feminist painter and cultural lover of film and literature. My grandfather was a prayer leader skilled in the art of maqamat, a unique Arab melodic framework, who recited prayers in the Syrian-Jerusalemite tradition. My family prayed in Hebrew and Arabic, with a thick accent rolling off our tongues as we pronounced Jewish blessings. I grew up with Mohamed Abdel Wahab and Shabbat piyyutim, Jewish liturgical poems, sung together. Until my parents’ generation, Arabic was the predominant language in my family.

In our traditional Jewish home, observing our Syrian-Palestinian heritage and culture came with ease. Jewishness and Arabness fit together cohesively — there was no contradiction. But outside our home, my faith and culture clashed. The State of Israel conditioned me to see the intersection of “Jewish” and “Arab” as non-existent or impossible, even though Arab Jews have lived at this intersection for years. I learned that in order to belong to Israeli society and participate in the Zionist project, I had to reject parts of myself — the Arab parts. Zionism teaches that “Arabs” are the enemies of the Jews, and, in doing so, it completely fragmented my identity.”

When Hadar  complains that Zonism stifles her Arab culture it is tempting to ask which planet she is living on. Arabic music has never been more popular in Israel. It is being performed in Israel’s most prestigious venues.  There is a  thriving piyyutim scene in Israel, much of it influenced by Arab popular culture. Has she ever heard of paytanim like Moshe Habusha, who sings tunes made famous by Mohammed Abdel Wahab? Has she heard that national treasure  Sarit Haddad sing ‘Unta Omri’, the Um Kalthoum classic? Has she heard of the Yemenite girl band A-WA, who sing in Arabic?  And it’s not just music. Iraqi Arabs are buying the book ‘Pictures on a wall’ written in Arabic by an Israeli called Tsionit Fattal-Kuperwasser.

Hadar labours under the false assumption that Jews in Arab countries only absorbed cultural influences from the Arabs. Yes they did,  but they also created ‘Arabic’ culture. The Jewish al-Kuwaity brothers  modernised the maqam  in Iraq. The Jew Yaakov Bilbul wrote the first novel. The Jew Yaakov Sanua wrote dozens of plays in Egypt.

Hadar confuses culture with politics. You can be an Arabic Jew without  being an ethnic Arab. The communities kept apart to the point that they spoke different dialects, had different values, and never intermarried.

The ‘Arab Jew’ concept did not exist until the invention of Arab nationalism, an artificial identity based on culture and language. However, Jews were never considered anything other than belonging to a faith  under the protection of Islam. They were never allowed into the public square.

‘Arab Jew’ is a recent construct popular with far-leftist anti-Zionists who abhor the idea of Jewish power.

Most Mizrahi  Jews would object  strenuously to being called ‘Arab Jews’.

Hadar’s family lived for 10 generations under Ottoman Turkish  rule. Does this make them Arab? Did the members of her family from Kurdistan or Shiraz identify as Arabs? Sadly, Hadar has got the ‘colonialism’ paradigm back-to-front.  Indeed, using the term ‘Arab Jew’ is an act of colonisation. It is indigenous peoples like Kurds, Berbers and Jews who have been subjugated by Arab and Muslim imperialism and colonialism.

Finally,  Hadar  manages to confuse culture with politics. The two are quite separate. Mizrahi Jews were victims of Arab politics – that is why they were driven out. That is why most now live in Israel, where for the first time they can rely on the state to protect them as Jews. Even the most acculturated Jew was forced out because of antisemitism.

One is  reminded of Albert Memmi’s seminal essay,’Who is an Arab Jew?’ ‘We would have liked to be Arab Jews,’ he writes, ‘but the Arabs prevented it through their contempt and cruelty.’

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3 Comments

  • I’m not sure that Zionism doesn’t have a place for non-European Jews. While the Old Yishuv were not among the most prominent proponents of Zionism, Israel has had two presidents from this community – Yitzhak Navon and Reuven Rivlin. The Old Yishuv quickly understood that Zionism was their only option after the 1929 Hebron massacre.

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  • I’ll be honest, I’m conflicted about this article. on the one hand, Zionism truly doesnt have a place for Jews who are not of European descent, ESPECIALLY for jews that have lived in Israel for generations. That goes against their story of the 2000 years of exile crap. on the other hand, the fact that 972 magazine actually printed an article from a 10th generation Israeli is sort of surreal to me. Usually, those kind of venues don’t acknowledge such people exist and only believe that Holocaust Survivors “stole Arab lands in Palestine in order to create Israel”. In addition, I would consider Hadar Cohen to be racist. she mentions that much of her culture was arab. but Arab culture is foreign to the Middle East outside of Arabia. It is a culture of occupation and colonization. So it’s a shame she calls herself an “Arab jew”.

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