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The Center for the Study of Islam Democracy

The Arab Jews : Language, Poetry, and Singularity

The Arab Jews
A joint Arab-Jewish identity seems an impossibility given the current political situation in the Middle East. And yet it was a reality, exemplified by Arabic-speaking Jews and their writers. In his extensive essay Reuven Snir investigates the complex history of Arab Jews

My parents were born in Baghdad. They immigrated to Israel in 1951, without great enthusiasm. I was born two years later. As a sabra – a native-born Israeli Jew – in the Israeli-Zionist educational system, I had been taught that Arabness and Jewishness were mutually exclusive.
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Trying to conform to the dominant Ashkenazi-Zionist norm as a child, like most if not all children of the same background, I felt ashamed of the Arabness of my parents. For them, I was an agent of repression sent by the Israeli-Zionist establishment, after excellent training, into the territory of the enemy – my family – and I completed the mission in a way that only children can do with their loving parents: I forbade them to speak Arabic in public or to listen to Arabic music in their own house.

What I remember very clearly about my father is that he was a great lover of poetry, Arabic poetry, and always quoted verses for my benefit. I’m not sure that I remember any of them now – I only know that he insisted on reciting them, even though, thanks to my Zionist education, I didn’t want to listen.

Even when I started to learn Arabic at school and then at the university, it was always part of seeing Arabic through the lens of Israeli national security needs, based on the slogan da’ et ha-oyev! (Know the enemy!). ‘One man may lead a horse to water’, says Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) in her Goblin Market, ‘but twenty cannot make him drink.’

I also completely reject the legend, carefully fostered by the Zionist establishment, that the Jews of Iraq had been in terrible danger, from which a brilliant rescue operation saved them. Without downplaying the attacks on the Jews, it is a fact that they refused to emigrate till the early 1950s, when the government passed a law allowing Jews wishing to immigrate to Israel to renounce their Iraqi citizenship. The option was available for only one year, and the response was not strong – until bombs went off in synagogues and other Jewish institutions.

Who threw the bombs in Baghdad? I do not know, in fact maybe nobody now knows, but I can safely say that many of the Iraqi Jews have no doubt about who did it and who reaped the great benefit when more than one hundred thousand Iraqi Jews hastened to immigrate to Israel.

Arab Jews, known in Israel as mizrahim, were oppressed for most of the decades of the previous century by both Zionism and Arab nationalism and by their powerful political, social and cultural agents, sometimes themselves becoming oppressors of others, mainly Palestinians.

The Baghdad Spring of 1920 was not as short as the Prague Spring, but unfortunately it fell short of providing a new point of departure for the people of the Middle East – in my view, one of the great missed opportunities in the history of this part of the world.

The aforementioned Anwar Shā’ul never declared during the 1920s ‘I am an Arab Jew’ because he had no reason to struggle for his identity: it was self-evident for him, as it was self-evident for many of his Iraqi compatriot poets. When the new state of Iraq was established the Jews had every reason to believe that the local society around them very much desired their full integration.

When the State of Iraq was created, the secular Iraqi-Jewish intelligentsia rallied as a matter of course behind the efforts to make Iraq a modern nation state for all its citizens – Sunni and Shia Muslims, Kurds and Turkmen, Assyrian and Armenian Christians, Yazidis and Jews alike. The vision and hopes of European Zionists at the time to establish a Jewish nation state in Palestine, as promised in 1917 by the Balfour Declaration, was for the Iraqi Jews a far-off cloud, something totally undesired.

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