Emily L. Hauser’s recent blogpost for the Forward, “How ‘De-Arabizing’ Christians Serves Israel” is another example of liberal Ashkenazi Jews showing their concern for Palestinian Arabs while at the same time ignoring Arab Jews.
The process of “De-Arabization” that is discussed in the article is actually one that began with the immigration of Jews from the Middle East in the 1950s. As I wrote in a discussion of the Yehouda Shenhav’s important book The Arab Jews:
It was here that the Jewish identification with Arabic culture began to tear apart.
The use of the term “Arab Jew” as a means of identifying those Jews who had adopted the cultural system of the Arab civilization became a political football.
Though it is completely clear that Arab Jews are identified as such because they speak the Arabic language, eat Arabic-style food, listen to Arabic music and generally exhibit the many cultural traits common to all Arab peoples, the term was isolated from the standard Jewish nomenclature – under strong Zionist influence – that had little difficulty identifying other Jews by their places of origin.
Indeed, Ashkenazi Jews continued to be identified as such with sub-divisions of German Jews, English Jews, French Jews, Polish Jews, Russian Jews, and the like continuing to be utilized as a means to name the various Jewish communities in the Ashkenazi world. In spite of the many tragedies experienced by these Ashkenazi Jews, they continued to identify themselves by their countries of origin. It is telling that even after the Holocaust Jews from the Rhineland could still be identified as German Jews.
The only nomenclature that had changed was that of the Arab Jews.
The term that was created after 1948 to identify Jews of the Middle East was “Jews from Arab lands.” There seemed to be a very careful elision of Jews from the Arabic cultural system that was marked by a strong political bias. Arabs had now become the enemy par excellence of the Jewish State which was now seen as the sole legitimate representative body of the Jewish people. With the traditional antipathy of the Ashkenazi Jews – and it should be remembered that Ashkenazi Jews dominated the Zionist movement and had once even considered making Yiddish the national language of Israel – towards the classical Sephardic culture in place, the adoption of a new anti-Gentile animus towards the Arabs similar to that sense of exclusion that had animated Ashkenazi culture for many centuries, caused the Arab nature of Jewish identification to find itself singled out for extinction.
It is for this reason that the only Jewry that has been forced to remove its adjectival prefix is that of Arab Jewry. There is no other Jewry that is called “Jews from such-and-such lands.”
The question of Arab culture and identity has largely taken a back seat to that of religion with Islam becoming the focus of the Interfaith Dialogue movement, rather than the shared Arab culture of members of the region. In my discussion of the great Arab singer Umm Kulthum I note the close ties between Jews, Muslims, and Christians of the region and present this cultural model as a more relevant paradigm for the ongoing attempt to bring a more human dimension to what has largely been a stiff and formal exchange of religious ideas. It is an approach that was adopted by Trude Weiss-Rosmarin in her article “Towards Jewish-Muslim Dialogue.”
In the context of unfolding events in the region it is important to note the reversion to a racist proclivity among Muslim religious extremists to reinforce restrictive laws and practices against non-Muslims and circumscribe Dhimmi statutes in a particularly limiting and often humiliating manner. We have seen this emerge in the ongoing oppression of Coptic Christians in Egypt (see this article by Louis Raphael Sako). There is a complex set of issues unfolding that makes this matter difficult to parse. On the one hand we have a serious threat emerging that affects non-Muslims in the contemporary Arab-Muslim world. That threat is real and should not be ignored. And yet we have the continuing Israeli oppression against the Palestinian community, and the attempt to exacerbate religious and ethnic tensions in a Palestinian context also represents a danger to the stability and well-being of that community. Israel’s aim is to peel off the Palestinian Christian community from the Muslim community by using the religious radicals as a wedge.
There are real and actual issues that are involved in this process that speak to nationalist chauvinism in both the Jewish and Muslim spheres. The process of “De-Arabization” is a classic ploy used by Colonialists that seeks to decouple the native culture of the region from the socio-religious communities who throughout Arab history were given what was called “Millet” status; each faith community functioned in an autonomous manner while remaining part of a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious society.
Leaving Arab Jews out of the discussion of “De-Arabization” gives us a misleading sense of just how pervasive this strategy was in Zionist thought and how the rejection of Arab culture by what was essentially a Eurocentric Ashkenazi elite served to undermine native Middle Eastern culture in Israel.
Adopting an Orientalist perspective, the Zionist cultural elites sought to both stigmatize and suppress this indigenous culture, largely based on the principles of Religious Humanism, social pluralism, and hybrid concepts of identity. While European nationalistic thought sought to homogenize peoples and ultimately oppress aliens, and in the case of Germany violently eliminate certain ethno-religious identities, the Arab-Muslim world over many centuries held to an inclusive process that, though certainly favoring Islam, sought to include non-Muslims in the larger body politic.
What Israel is now doing to Palestinian Christians is what it has already done to the Arab Jews and it is crucial for us to be aware that this cultural cleansing process is part of a larger Orientalist strategy meant to affirm Israel’s alienation from the historical culture of the region it resides in.