Arab Jews

Arab Jews (Arabic: اليهود العرب al-Yahūd al-ʿArab; Hebrew: יהודים ערבים Yehudim `Aravim) is a term referring to Jews living in the Arab World.[1]

The term was not commonly used until the modern era. Most of the population was either forced out, fled or voluntarily left after the founding of Israel in 1948, for the new Jewish state or to Western Europe, and a few went to the United States and Latin America. They spoke Arabic, using one of the many Arabic dialects (see also Judeo-Arabic languages) as their primary community language, with Hebrew reserved as a liturgical language. They usually followed Sephardi Jewish liturgy, making them one of the largest groups among Mizrahi Jews.

In recent decades, the term has come back into some usage by Jews who self-identify as Arab Jews, such as Ella Shohat, an anti-Zionist, who uses the term in contrast to the Zionist establishment's categorization of Jews as either Ashkenazim or Mizrahim; the latter, she believes, have been oppressed as the Arabs have.[2] Other public figures who refer to themselves as Arab Jews include David Shasha, Director of the Center for Sephardic Heritage, Jordan Elgrably, director of the Levantine Cultural Center,[3] and Ammiel Alcalay, a professor at Queens College in New York who began emphasizing the importance of his identity as an Arab Jew in the 1990s.[4] André Azoulay, Jewish adviser to Moroccan King Mohammed VI, also defines himself as an Arab Jew,[5] as does Sasson Somekh in a recent memoir.[6] Ilan Halevi described himself as "100% Jewish and 100% Arab."[7]


The term "Arab Jews" was used during the First World War by Jews of Middle Eastern origin living in western countries, to support their case that they were not Turks and should not be treated as enemy aliens.[8] Today the term is sometimes used by newspapers and official bodies in some countries, to express the belief that Jewish identity is a matter of religion rather than ethnicity or nationality. Most Jews disagree with this, do not use the term and, where it appears to them to be calculated to deny the existence of a distinct Jewish identity in favour of reducing the Jewish diaspora to a religious entity, even consider it offensive.[9] However, some Mizrahi activists, particularly those not born in Arab countries or who emigrated from them at a very young age, define themselves as Arab Jews. Notable proponents of such an identity include Naeim Giladi, Ella Habiba Shohat, Sami Shalom Chetrit and David Rabeeya.

Proponents of the term "Arab Jews" argue that "Arab" is a linguistic and cultural rather than an ethnic, racial or religious term; that the Jews in Arab countries fully participated in that culture; and that all ethnic minorities who did so are "Arabs". On this view, the correct distinction is between Jews, Muslims, Christians and other religious groups, rather than between groups such as Jews and "Arabs". Similarly the Christian population of countries such as Egypt, Lebanon or Syria are often described as "Arabs", even though most are (like most of their corresponding Muslim counterparts) descended from the pre-Islamic pre-Arab-culture population of each individual country. However, the use of the term "Arab" to define Christian Copts (Egypt), Maronites (Lebanon), or Assyrians (Iraq) is controversial among those communities. Others may regard "Arab Jews" as simply shorthand for "Jews of Arab lands" or "Arabic-speaking Jews", and identify as "Arab Jews" while definitely not regarding themselves as "Arabs".

According to Salim Tamari, the term Arab Jew generally referred to a period of history when some Eastern Jews (Sephardic and Mizrahi) identified with the Arab national movement that emerged in the lead up to the dismantlement of the Ottoman empire, as early as the Ottoman administrative reforms of 1839, owing to shared language and culture with their Muslim and Christian compatriots in Greater Syria, Iraq, and Egypt.[1]

David Rabeeya, a self-identified Arab Jew, extends that identification back even further, noting the long history of Arab Jews in the Arab world that remained in place after the dawn of Islam in the 7th century until midway through the 20th century.[10] He writes that Arab Jews, like Arab Muslims and Arab Christians, were culturally Arab with religious commitments to Judaism.[10] He notes that Arab Jews named their progeny with Arabic names and "Like every Arab, Arab Jews were proud of their Arabic language and its dialects, and held a deep emotional attachment to its beauty and richness."[10]

In his book, The Arab Jews (2006), Yehouda Shenhav, an Israeli sociologist, traced the origins of the conceptualization of the Mizrahi Jews as Arab Jews. He interprets Zionism as an ideological practice with three simultaneous and symbiotic categories: "Nationality", "Religion" and "Ethnicity". In order to be included in the national collective they had to be "de-Arabized". According to Shenhav, Religion distinguished between Arabs and Arab Jews, thus marking nationality among the Arab Jews.[11]

Criticisms of the term "Arab Jews"

The principal argument against the term "Arab Jews", particularly among Jewish communities descended from Arab lands, is that Jews constitute a diaspora and ethnic group,[12] not simply a "religious" group, and that use of the term "Arab" suggests otherwise.

A related argument is that Jewish communities in Arab lands never referred to themselves as "Arab Jews" and that it is only after the exit of most Jewish communities from such lands that the term has been proposed. In fact, in traditional texts composed by Middle Eastern Jews before the modern age, the name used for "Arabs" is usually "Ishmaelites", and the repeating motif is the view of the "Ishmaelites" as a foreign nation. For example, Maimonides, one of the most prolific and influential Jewish intellectuals of the Middle Ages, wrote in the Epistle to Yemen:

"God has hurled us in the midst of this people, the Arabs, who have persecuted us severely, and passed baneful and discriminatory legislation against us, as Scripture has forewarned us, "Our enemies themselves shall judge us" (Deuteronomy 32:31). Never did a nation molest, degrade, debase and hate us as much as they."[13]

The Jews were regarded and regarded themselves as an ethnic as well as a religious minority, similar to other ethnic minorities such as the Assyrians, Copts, Berbers or Kurds (although the latter two are not defined by religion either, as they may include members of all faiths), and none of these are today referred to or refer to themselves as "Arabs". Indeed, some of these communities referred originated as early as the Babylonian captivity (6th century BCE), antedating the Arab Muslim conquest by a millennium. (To underscore this point, Iraqi Jews on some occasions prefer to call themselves "Babylonian Jews"). Rather, "Arab Jews" as a term was created no earlier than the rise of secular ethnic nationalism in the early twentieth century, when many Jews sought integration into the new national identities (Iraqi, Tunisian etc.) as an escape from their previous minority status, in much the same way as some nineteenth century German Jews preferred to identify as "Germans of the Mosaic faith" rather than as "Jews" and, even then, identification in national terms (with respect to the country) was far more common among Jews of this intellectual stream than was affinity to a pan-Arab identity.

Edith Haddad Shaked, Adjunct Faculty at Pima Community College in Arizona, has criticised the concept of the Arab Jew, arguing that there are Arab Muslims and Arab Christians, but there was not such a thing as an Arab Jew or a Jewish Arab, when the Jews lived among the Arabs.[14]

These are false terms and false notions, according to Tunisia born expert on Maghrebien Jews, Professor Jacob Taieb, Sorbonne University, France. Tunisia born historian, Professor Paul Sebag, stated that “these terms were never used in Tunisia, and they do not do not correspond/coincident to the religious and socio-historical context/reality of the Jews in Tunisia/the Arab world.” Nowadays, one distinguishes between a Moslem Arab and a Christian Arab, and I think this caused some to invent, to facilitate matters, the terms: Arab Jew or Jewish Arab = Juif Arab or Arabe juif. The historical fact is, that the Arab component of the North African society was introduced during the conquest of the seventh century, after the establishment of North African Jewish communities.[14]
In Arab countries, there are Jews among the Arabs, like in European and other countries, there are Jews among the French, Italian, Polish, German, American ... people. In North Africa, some Jews are arabophone, speaking a Judeo-Arabic language, and others are francophone, speaking French; and in some areas there are “arabized” Jews who dress quite like Arabs. The fact is that even when the Jewish community was culturally quite embedded in its Muslim Arab environment, Jews were always considered members of a socio-religious community minority, different and distinct from the Arab population, because of their Jewish cultural tradition, their common past, and the Judeo-arabic language - all of them separated them from the Arabs. And the Arabs saw the Jews, even the ones who spoke only Judeo-Arabic, as members of a socio-linguistic religious cultural community, different from theirs.[14]
The Jews in Tunisia were able to maintain and reproduce their autonomous administrative, cultural and religious institutions, preserving intact their religious and communal identity. ... a cohesive, well-organized and structured Jewish community, who remained a separate entity from the Arabs and the French.”[14]
For the generation born under the protectorate, the French language replaced Judeo-Arabic as the Tunisian Jews' mother tongue, causing, maybe, Memmi's daughter to ponder her own and her parents' identity when asking, "are you Arab father? Your mother speaks Arabic. And I, am I Arab, or French, or Jewish?[14]
Clearly reflecting the Tunisian reality of three distinct social identity groups— les Français, les Arabes, les Juifs— which are, at the same time, national and religious.[15]

In 1975, Albert Memmi wrote: "The term "Arab Jews" is obviously not a good one. I have adopted it for convenience. I simply wish to underline that as natives of those countries called Arab and indigenous to those lands well before the arrival of the Arabs, we shared with them, to a great extent, languages, traditions and cultures ... We would have liked to be Arab Jews. If we abandoned the idea, it is because over the centuries the Moslem Arabs systematically prevented its realization by their contempt and cruelty. It is now too late for us to become Arab Jews."[16]

Proponents of the argument against "Arab Jews", including most Jews from Arab lands,[17] do not seek to deny the strong Arabic cultural influence on Jews in those countries. In North Africa, some Jews spoke Judeo-Arabic languages while others spoke French; and in some areas there are still Jews who dress quite like Arabs. Their argument is that “Arabness” referred to more than just a common shared culture. One could therefore legitimately speak of “Arabized” Jews, or "Jews of Arab countries", just as one can speak of "English Jews" or "British Jews" or "Polish Jews", whereas many Jews would object to terms such as "Saxon Jews", "Celtic Jews", or "Slavic Jews" as the latter refer to ethnic groups and therefore, implicitly, deny the existence of a distinct Jewish ethnic identity. The term "Arab Jews" is seen as more akin to the latter, both by those who oppose it and, on occasion, by those who affirm it as a manner in which to deny so-called "Arab Jews" a distinct ethnic or national identity. A better translation of the traditional term Musta'arabim (Arabizers), used to distinguish the older Arabic-speaking communities of those countries from post-1492 Sephardim, would provide those who wish to refer to Jews from Arab lands with respect to linguistic and cultural markers, but do not wish to assert that there exists no Jewish diaspora or Jewish people.

Finally, a third view is that the term "Arab Jew" has a certain legitimacy, but should only describe the Jewish communities of Arabia itself, such as the Banu Qaynuqa of the time of Muhammad and, possibly, the Yemenite Jews: see Arab Jewish tribes. This view is typically put forward as stemming from the view of Arab identity as a geographical rather than ethno-linguistic or cultural but, because it refers to a far more restricted understanding of "Arab" geography as referring to the Arabian peninsula, comes into conflict with the modern pan-Arabism exemplified by the Arab League.

Jews of Arabia before Islam

Main article: Arab Jewish tribes

Jewish populations have existed in the Arabian Peninsula since before Islam; in the north where they were connected to the Jewish populations of the Levant and Iraq, in the Ihsaa' coastal plains, and in the south, i.e. in Yemen.

See also


  1. 1 2 Salim Tamari. "Ishaq al-Shami and the Predicament of the Arab Jew in Palestine" (PDF). Jerusalem Quarterly. p. 11. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2007-09-28. Retrieved 2007-08-23.
  2. Ella Shohat, "Dislocated Identites: Reflection of an Arab Jew," Movement Research: Performance Journal #5 (Fall-Winter, 1992), p.8; Ella Shohat, "Rupture and Return: Zionist Discourse and the Study of Arab Jews," Social Text, Vol. 21, No. 2 (Summer, 2003), pp. 49-74
  3. "We Are Not the Enemy", 28 February 2011, Jordan Elgrably, Al-Jazeera
  4. Lynne Vittorio (2002-10-16). "The Jews of the Arab World: A Community Unto Itself". Aramica. Archived from the original on 7 August 2007. Retrieved 2007-08-22.
  5. Yoav Stern , ‘Morocco king's Jewish aide urges Israel to adopt Saudi peace plan,’ Haaretz 29/10/2008
  6. Adam Shatz review of Sasson Somekh. Baghdad, Yesterday: The Making of an Arab Jew, in 'Leaving Paradise', London Review of Books, Nov 6 2008.
  7. Marina da Silva, "Aller retours" review, Le Monde Diplomatique.
  8. Collins, Pedigrees and Pioneers: The Sephardim of Manchester.
  9. Philologos [Hillel Halkin]. "Rejecting the 'Arab Jew'". Retrieved 27 December 2015.
  10. 1 2 3 David Rabeeya (2000). The Journey of an Arab-Jew in European Israel. Xlibris Corporation. pp. 49–50. ISBN 0-7388-4331-8.
  11. Shenhav, Yehouda (2006). The Arab Jews: A Postcolonial Reading of Nationalism, Religion, and Ethnicity. Stanford University Press. p. 280. ISBN 0-8047-5296-6.
  12. John A. Shoup III (17 October 2011). Ethnic Groups of Africa and the Middle East: An Encyclopedia: An Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. p. 133. ISBN 978-1-59884-363-7.
  13. Maimonides, Epistle to Yemen/XVIII, translated by Boaz Cohen, notes by Abraham S. Halkin
  14. 1 2 3 4 5 Edith Haddad Shaked. "The Jews in Islam – Tunisia". Presentation at the 19th International Congress of Historical Sciences, University of Oslo, Norway. Retrieved 8 December 2015.
  15. "On the State of Being (Jewish) Between "Orient" and "Occident"." In Jewish Locations: Traversing Racialized Landscapes, Edith Haddad Shaked, Lisa Tessman and Bat-Ami Bar On, eds., Rowman & Littlefield, 2001; pp. 185–199, at
  17. Vered Lee. "Conference Asks: Iraqi Israeli, Arab Jew or Mizrahi Jew?". Retrieved 27 December 2015.

External links

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