Are there “Arab Jews?”

I’m not a terminology freak. Sometimes you have to use words or phrases whose connotations are ideologically impure, so that people will understand you. But I draw the line at “West Bank,” “Israel-Palestine,” and “Arab Jew.”

I don’t think I need to remind my readers that there was no “West Bank” before the illegal Jordanian invasion and annexation of Judea and Samaria. With the exception of those 19 years between 1948 and its liberation in 1967, the area was always Judea and Samaria. There is no reason for anyone to call it anything else; but unfortunately the media, even most of the Israeli media, can’t seem to stop.

“Israel-Palestine,” of course, implies that there is a place called “Palestine,” and that it is as legitimate as the place called “Israel.” In reality, there is a State of Israel, there is an area that Israel seems to have ceded to Hamas, and there is the autonomous but non-sovereign Palestinian Authority. Hamas has never declared Gaza a state, because it insists that all the land between the river and the sea is “Palestine.” The PA has declared a state which encompasses all of the land Israel conquered in 1967, but does not effectively control it, so it isn’t really a state. Israel is a state; “Palestine” is a word.

But I think the one that bothers me the most is the last, “Arab Jew.” It is used to refer to Mizrahim, Jews whose last exilic homes were in Arab countries. It suggests – see, for example, this 2003 essay by Ella Shohat – that Jews who came to Israel from Arab countries were culturally more connected to their Arab neighbors than to an abstract historical Jewish people on the one hand, or to the Ashkenazi Jews that discriminated against them so harshly (and stupidly) in Israel on the other. Indeed, she sees a deliberate, even malign, attempt by Zionism to “dismember” their Arab culture and inject a false historical consciousness of being part of a Jewish nation, as part of creating the “new Jew” that was supposed to be superior in every respect to the despicable Palestinian Arabs – and also to the Arab Jews.

Except in the matter of religion, she suggests, Mizrahi Jews are Arabs, Arabs who were cruelly robbed of their true culture so they could be used as soldiers in Israel’s wars and workers in her fields and industries. Rather than “a return home,” Shohat calls their aliyah (she would disdain this word) “a new form of exile.” In this, she agrees with Mahmoud Abbas, who – in order to deny our connection to the land – has always insisted that Jewishness is simply a religion, not a nationality (Abbas, of course, believes that “Palestinians” are a nation, despite their disparate origins and lack of historical connection to “Palestine”).

This fits in with the Arab and extreme leftist understanding of Israel as an Arab territory colonized by “European” Ashkenazi Jews. All this is part of the loaded meaning of the term “Arab Jew.”

Some pro-Palestinian writers even suggest that Mizrahi Jews actually have a common interest with Palestinian Arabs, their “brown” brothers, to overthrow the hegemony of “white” Ashkenazi settler-colonialists.

But there are plenty of testimonies from Jews that came to Israel from Arab countries showing that they did see themselves as fulfilling the biblical promise of ingathering of the exiles; this wasn’t just a Zionist myth to manipulate them. Most Israelis of Mizrahi origin do see themselves as part of the great Jewish people, the people whose history and provenance in Eretz Yisrael is becoming better illuminated from day to day by archaeological and historical evidence. While they recall ill-treatment by earlier arrivals, that is a far cry from pining for their “stolen” “Arab culture.” Indeed, from a political perspective, they are more nationalistic than the descendants of Ashkenazi “pioneers.”

It is becoming increasingly clear, however, that neither Shohat nor the early Zionist social engineers understood what was happening in Eretz Yisrael, when Ashkenazi Jews from pre-revolutionary Russia and Poland, Holocaust survivors, Jews from the disparate cultures of North Africa, Iraq, Yemen, India, Ethiopia, the Soviet Union, and numerous other diasporic populations, were thrown together to experience a historical process impossible to control by any social engineering. Unlike the idea that Mizrachim could be forced to assimilate to a dominant Ashkenazi culture, what actually happened was quite different. A new culture, but with ancient roots, came into being.

Ella Shohat is proud of her Iraqi heritage. But except for having spoken Arabic, her ancestors, who came from a highly developed and relatively modern culture, had little in common with the parents of my son’s wife, who immigrated to Israel from North Africa, and even less with the Yemenite Jews who had never seen indoor plumbing until they were brought here “with wings, as Eagles.” Or the Ethiopians, who came from an even more primitive culture. For that matter, how similar are the cultural origins of Ashkenazis from the former Soviet Union to the academic and media leftists of North Tel Aviv?

According to Shmuel Rosner and the Jewish People Policy Institute, the belief system of most Jewish Israelis is a mixture of Israeli nationalism and Jewish religion which is not found anywhere else but Israel. Israel is experiencing a natural process of developing her own unique culture, a process that those who consciously wanted to create a New Jew had no power to control. It’s a modern culture, although grounded religiously and linguistically in antiquity. My son’s children don’t speak either the Arabic of their mother’s ancestors or the Yiddish of their father’s. They do speak a language that is similar enough to that of the Torah that they can read and mostly understand it.

This isn’t assimilation into a dominant culture, but the creation of a new one – or better, the creation of a modern form of a very ancient one. And it is happening by the reunification of the fragments of the once unified but then scattered Jewish people.

The idea that Mizrahim are “Arab Jews” is wrong. It is also insulting, suggesting that they lost sight of their ancient heritage during their time in exile, and assimilated to the surrounding culture. And it is pernicious, implying that Jewishness is only a religion, and not also a nationality – not membership in the Jewish nation which traces itself back to ancient times in Eretz Yisrael.

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So yes, I will use the word “Palestinians,” although I’ll add the caveat that no Arab Palestinians existed before the mid-1960s. But I will never refer to Judea and Samaria as anything else, nor will I say “Israel-Palestine” or “occupied territories” or “pre-67 borders.” And I will never, ever, say “Arab Jews.”

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2 Responses to Are there “Arab Jews?”

  1. Shalom Freedman says:

    All the Jews I know from Arab countries , and I know very many, would be deeply insulted at the idea that they are ‘Arab Jews’. They are to themselves Jews for whom most often the Arabs are ‘ the other’. They are too often most often on the side of the political landscape which is most suspicious of Arab good intentions toward Israel and Jews.

  2. Cassandra says:

    This makes me think of my grandparents, all of whom immigrated to the U.S. from Poland. They were always very clear that they did not identify as Polish, because they were treated badly and therefore felt no connection with Polish identity. They were Jews.

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