Forgotten Jews

Awesome Article About Yemeni/ Arab Relations In The Yemen from WZO Site

More About Arabic Jews

Proud Of My Yemenite Jewish Heritage

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Reflections of an Arab (Iraqi) Jew 

THE POLITICAL VIEWS IN THIS ARTICLE DO NOT REFLECT THE VIEWS OF CHAYAS.COM

April 17th 1999

Dr. Ella Habiba Shohat

I am an Arab Jew. Or, more specifically, an Iraqi Israeli woman living,
writing and teaching in the U.S. Most members of my family were born and
raised in Baghdad, and now live in Iraq, Israel, the U.S., England, and
Holland. When my grandmother first encountered Israeli society in the '50s,
she was convinced that the people who looked, spoke and ate so
differently--the European Jews--were actually European Christians.
Jewishness for her generation was inextricably associated with Middle
Easterness. My grandmother, who still lives in Israel and still communicates
largely in Arabic, had to be taught to speak of "us" as Jews and "them"
asArabs.

For Middle Easterners, the operating distinction had always been "Muslim,"
"Jew," and "Christian," not Arab versus Jew. The assumption was that
"Arabness" referred to a common shared culture and language, albeit with
religious differences. Americans are often amazed to discover the
existentially nauseating or charmingly exotic possibilities of such a
syncretic identity. I recall a well-established colleague who despite my
elaborate lessons on the history of Arab Jews, still had trouble
understanding that I was not a tragic anomaly--for instance, the daughter of
an Arab (Palestinian) and an Israeli (European Jew). Living in North America
makes it even more difficult to communicate that we are Jews and yet
entitled to our Middle Eastern difference. And that we are Arabs and yet
entitled to our religious difference, like Arab Christians and Arab Muslims.

It was precisely the policing of cultural borders in Israel that led some of
us to escape into the metropolises of syncretic identities. Yet, in an
American context, we face again a hegemony that allows us to narrate a
single Jewish memory, i.e., a European one. For those of us who don't hide
our Middle Easterness under one Jewish "we," it becomes tougher and tougher
to exist in an American context hostile to the very notion of Easterness.

As an Arab Jew, I am often obliged to explain the "mysteries" of this
oxymoronic entity. That we have spoken Arabic, not Yiddish; that for
millennia our cultural creativity, secular and religious, had been largely
articulated in Arabic (Maimonides being one of the few intellectuals to
"make it" into the consciousness of the West); and that even the most
religious of our communities in the Middle East and North Africa never
expressed themselves in Yiddish-accented Hebrew prayers, nor did they
practice liturgical-gestural norms and sartorial codes favoring the dark
colors of centuries-ago Poland. Middle Eastern women similarly never wore
wigs; their hair covers, if worn, consisted of diffrent variations on
regional clothing (and in the wake of British and French imperialism, many
wore Western-style clothes). If you go to our synagogues, even in New York,
Montreal, Paris or London, you'll be amazed to hear the winding
quarter-tones of our music which the uninitiated might imagine to be coming
from a mosque.

Now that the three cultural topographies that compose my ruptured and
dislocated history--Iraq, Israel and the U.S.--have been involved in a war,
it is crucial to say that we exist. Some of us refuse to dissolve so as to
facilitate "neat" national and ethnic divisions. My anxiety and pain during
the Scud attacks on Israel, where some of my family lives, did not cancel
out my fear and anguish for the victims of the bombardment of Iraq, where I
also have relatives.

War, however, is the friend of binarisms, leaving little place for complex
identities. The Gulf War, for example, intensified a pressure already
familiar to the Arab Jewish diaspora in the wake of the Israeli-Arab
conflict: a pressure to choose between being a Jew and being an Arab. For
our families, who have lived in Mesopotamia since at least the Babylonian
exile, who have been Arabized for millennia, and who were abruptly dislodged
to Israel 45 years ago, to be suddenly forced to assume a homogenous
European Jewish identity based on experiences in Russia, Poland and Germany,
was an exercise in self-devastation. To be a European or American Jew has
hardly been perceived as a contradiction, but to be an Arab Jew has been
seen as a kind of logical paradox, even an ontological subversion.

This binarism has led many Oriental Jews (our name in Israel referring to
our common Asian and African countries of origin is Mizrahi or Mizrachi) to
a profound and visceral schizophrenia, since for the first time in our
history Arabness and Jewishness have been imposed as antonyms. Intellectual
discourse in the West highlights a Judeo-Christian tradition, yet rarely
acknowledges the Judeo-Muslim culture of the Middle East, of North Africa,
or of pre-Expulsion Spain (1492) and of the European parts of the Ottoman
Empire. The Jewish experience in the Muslim world has often been portrayed
an an unending nightmare of oppression and humiliation. Although I in no way
want to idealize that experience--there were occasional tensions,
discriminations, even violence--on the whole, we lived quite comfortably
within Muslim societies.

Our history simply cannot be discussed in European Jewish terminology. As
Iraqi Jews, while retaining a communal identity, we were generally well
integrated and indigenous to the country, forming an inseparable part of its
social and cultural life. Thoroughly Arabized, we used Arabic even in hymns
and religious ceremonies. The liberal and secular trends of the 20th-century
engendered an even stronger association of Iraqi Jews and Arab culture,
which brought Jews into an extremely active arena in public and cultural
life. Prominent Jewish writers, poets and scholars played a vital role in
Arab culture, distinguishing themselves in Arabic-speaking theater, in
music, as singers, composers, and players of traditional instruments. In
Egypt, Morocco, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Tunisia, Jews became members of
legislatures, of municipal councils, of the judiciary, and even occupied
high economic positions. (The finance minister of Iraq in the '40s was Ishak
Sasson, and in Egypt, Jamas Sanua--higher positions, ironically, than those
our community had generally achieved within the Jewish state until the
1990s.)

The same historical process that dispossessed Palestinians of their
property, lands and national-political rights, was linked to the
dispossession of Middle Eastern and North African Jews of their property,
lands, and rootedness in Muslim countries. As refugees, or mass immigrants
(depending on one's political perspective), we were forced to leave
everything behind and give up our Iraqi passports. The same process also
affected our uprootedness or ambiguous positioning within Israel itself,
where we have been systematically discriminated against by institutions that
deployed their energies and material to the consistent advantage of European
Jews and to the consistent disadvantage of Oriental Jews. Even our
physiognomies betray us, leading to internalized colonialism or physical
misperception. Sephardic Oriental women often dye their dark hair blond,
while the men have more than once been arrested or beaten when mistaken for
Palestinians. What for Ashkenazi immigrants from Russian and Poland was a
social aliya (literally "ascent") was for Oriental Sephardic Jews a yerida
("descent").

Stripped of our history, we have been forced by our no-exit situation to
repress our collective nostalgia, at least within the public sphere. The
pervasive notion of "one people" reunited in their ancient homeland actively
disauthorizes any affectionate memory of life before Israel. We have never
been allowed to mourn a trauma that the images of Iraq's destruction only
intensified and crystallized for some of us. Our cultural creativity in
Arabic, Hebrew and Aramaic is hardly studied in Israeli schools, and it is
becoming difficult to convince our children that we actually did exist
there, and that some of us are still there in Iraq, Morocco, Yemen and Iran.

Western media much prefer the spectacle of the triumphant progress of
Western technology to the survival of the peoples and cultures of the Middle
East. The case of Arab Jews is just one of many elisions. From the outside,
there is little sense of our community, and even less sense of the diversity
of our political perspectives. Oriental-Sephardic peace movements, from the
Black Panthers of the '70s to the new Keshet (a "Rainbow" coalition of
Mizrahi groups in Israel) not only call for a just peace for Israelis and
Palestinians, but also for the cultural, political, and economic integration
of Israel/Palestine into the Middle East. And thus an end to the binarisms
of war, an end to a simplistic charting of Middle Eastern identities.

Dr. Ella Habiba Shohat is Professor of Cultural Studies and Women's Studies
at CUNY-City University of New York.A writer,orator and activist, she is the
author of Israeli Cinema: East/West and the Politics of Representation
(Univ. of Texas Press, 1989) and the co-author (with Robert Stam) of
Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media (Routledge 1994).
Shohat co-edited Dangerous Liaisons: Gender, Nation and Postcolonial
Reflections (University of Minnesota Press, 1997) and is the editor of
makeshift Dwellings: Multicultural Feminism in the Age of Globalization,
forthcoming from MIT Press/The New Museum. This piece was first published by
Nasawi News & Arts Quarterly which concerns itself with Sephardic and Middle
Eastern Culture www.ivri-nasawi.org. The Oasis gratiously thanks Dr. Shohat
for consenting to share this important reflection on the identity of Iraqi
Jews; the victims of the first mass exodus in recent Iraqi history.



 

 




 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

More About Arabic Jews

Beshem E-lohim hajadhol weharahum

The term I used in as the subject, Mustarabim, refers to Jews from

lands that are home to Arab culture. Many of us speak not only

Hebrew and Arabic, but also regional dialects of Juedo-Arabic, which

we call al-Yahudayyah (during Pesah, I did the arbah she'iloth in al-

Yahudayyah). I hear Arabic quite a bit at my synagogue since roughly

half of the congregants are Moroccan (the other half is Persian, so

it is very commonplace to hear Farsi). While Arabic is spoken by

most of the older Maghrbebim, the younger generation does not always

keep up with its traditions. Among the Adhoth haMizroh, you will

find Arabic, Farsi, Georgian, and several other languages, depending

on which country the specific adha is from.

 

While I do not speak much in the way of Arabic, I try to use what I

know so that I can, in my own way, stay in touch with my traditions.

The same goes for Amharic (which, egzare Kale [with the help of God])

I will learn to speak once I master Hebrew and Arabic.

The only time I have come across any siddurim in Arabic has been

among older Tamoni crowds. The siddur of Sa`adhyoh Ga'on, I believe

is available in Hebrew and Arabic. Perhaps some of the Lebanese and

Egyptian siddurim are. I don't know. Several Tamoni texts, however

are written in Arabic. The Moreh Nebukhim (Guide for the Perplexed)

of moranu, the RMb"M, was originally written in Arabic. So too were

many texts by moranu Sa`adhyoh Ga'on. Tamoni diwon (liturgical

poetry - Ofra Haza has put a lot to music) are in al-Yahudayyah.

Some phrases are comonly spoken by Mustarabim and Muslims, such as

inshallah (God willing)and alhamdullah (by the Grace of God). You

can also find similar greetings (i.e. "in the name of God the great

and merciful - which I used as the opener to this post).

E-l Hai moram al kerubim

(the living God is above [between] the kerubim)

Shema`ryohu Yisroal ben Abrohom

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Proud Of My Yemenite Jewish Heritage

Hi, my name is Miriam Avraham an I am from Yemenite origin. I live in the

States in New York City. I have always been proud of my Jewish Yemenite

heritage which has been overlooked by many and blurred to a certain degree

in Israeli society. I grew up in a home where both Yemenite and Arabic were

spoken by both my parents. As a result, I regard myself as a Yemeni who was

raised Jewish. I think its really unfortunate that many Jews are turning away

from Judaism and forgetting their rich, sacred heritage. And those who

don't, don't really recognize the Jewish experience in the middle-east an

arab countries as an equally valid way of approaching Judaism. To many 

Jewish=Ashkenazi and Yiddish. I'm not generalizing or judging anyone but this

is what I feel. I feel that we Yemenites, wherever we are, should take great

pride in our Yemeni history, culture, language and religion. That's why I

felt it necessary to e-mail you and also send you a copy of a powerful

article written by an Iraqi jew, Ella Habiba Shohat, that speaks of her

experience as an Arab Jew. I hope you can read it and maybe even post it on

your website. It might not be a strictly Yemenite experience, but I feel its

very relevant to me.