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Jews From the Arab World or Arab Jews? What Do We Know About Them?
‘Mizrahim’ Jews — Jews coming to Israel from countries where their roots were deep in Arab culture and language
By: John Mason/Arab America Contributing Writer
Many Jews lived for centuries in what long ago had become part of the Arab World. They no longer live there, except for a very small number. We don’t generally think of Jews as Arabs. In fact, it’s quite the contrary—our impression is that these two groupings are vastly different, often at loggerheads. This has not always been the case, however. When Jews are considered “Arab,” it is because of the people themselves who had lived in Arab countries, where they shared with the Arabs the latter’s language and culture.
Jews living in Arab regions often spoke Arabic as their primary language, Hebrew, serving as the language used in religious services. Many of these Jews from Arab countries left voluntarily or were forced out when the Israeli state was founded in 1948. Many, not all Jews, find the term “Arab Jew” to be controversial, while some, especially those who lived in Arab societies, believe the term is accurate and they are even proud of their Arab heritage.
Personal experience with Arabized Jews
Jews living under Ottoman rule until it was shattered in World War I had fared about the same as Christians and other minorities. This applied to Egypt as well as other Arab countries. However, by the time I arrived in Cairo to teach in college for several years in the 1970s, most Jews in Egypt had already fled the steadily more authoritarian state to live in Israel, Europe or the U.S. One exception was three Jewish siblings, who were my students. Their family had escaped the especially harsh treatment of Jews under Gamal Abdel Nasser. By the 1970s the number of Jews in Cairo was down to a few hundred.
A synagogue in downtown Cairo
I’ve met Jews in Morocco, where several thousand still live and are accepted. Though they have accommodated to the dominant Arab culture, their position is tenuous. In Tunisia, the number of Jews is down to just hundreds. On the Isle of Djerba in Tunisia, I was pleasantly surprised to find little Jewish boys dressed just like little Arab boys, except for the Jewish yarmulke head cap, happily playing next to their synagogue.
One town in the Algerian Sahara, Ghardaia, where I’d done research, had a long history of Jews living there. One of the last major populations of Jews in North Africa were protected for centuries by the majority Berber population. The so-called M’zabi Berbers there had harbored Jews, in part, because these Ibadi Berbers (a minor Shia’ offshoot of Islam) were themselves a small religious minority that had been discriminated against over centuries by the Sunni majority. As far back as the 10th century, these Berbers built walled towns to fortify themselves against attacks. Perhaps coincidentally, like the Jews, the Ibadis of Ghardaia were known for their strong mercantile tradition. The Jews in Ghardaia persevered in Algeria for several years after the founding of Israel. They eventually migrated to Israel and France in the 1960s.
Jews in Ghardaia Oasis, Algeria, where they were long-protected by the majority Berbers
Origin of Jews in the Arab World
Different terms define Jews of the Arab World, depending on where they resided in that vast geographic entity. Those who inhabited places such as Iraq, Syria, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Yemen are called ‘Mizrahim,’ or ‘Oriental’ Jews. Those living in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco are labeled ‘Sephardim.’ (Not to complicate matters, Sephardim are technically Jews expelled from Spain in the 15th century.) For the purpose of clarity, we will call all Middle Eastern and North African Jews Mizrahim.
Jews of European origin — Ashkenazim
These labels, however, get confused in the actual identification of ethnic Jews in Israel itself. Labeling what kind of Jew one becomes an issue of whether being Jewish is a matter simply of one’s religion or also ethnicity or nationality. In the minds of some Israeli Jews, ethnic identity seems to undermine the notion of Jewish identity. This argument is similar to one taken by Christians in Egypt, Lebanon or Iraq, some of whom emphatically state that they are not “Arabs.” These populations: Copts in Egypt, Maronites in Lebanon, and Assyrians in Iraq are descended from pre-Islamic and pre-Arab ancestors and thus, not historically at least, Arabs.
Number of “Arabized Jews” who sought refuge in Israel following its establishment
Once Islam became dominant in the Arab Middle East, such populations as Jews and Christians became minorities and many were treated differently by Muslims. A head tax was levied on them if they hadn’t converted to Islam and they found it difficult to get jobs in some Arab governments. While their status of ‘infidel’ was certainly negative, Muslims, Jews, and Christians were able to coexist. This was the case at least until 1948. Then, with the Israeli occupation of Arab/Palestinian territory in 1967, continuing until today, the tolerance for Jews in Arab countries rapidly plummeted. (Perhaps ironically, fiercely Shia’ Iran still has a small yet vibrant Jewish community, approximately 8-9,000.)
The Status of Arabized Jews in Israel
Once Jews from Arab countries immigrated to Israeli, their identity became an issue. ‘Ashkenazim’ or Jews with European roots make up a significant part of the Israeli Jewish population. Many Jews in newfound Israel found the term “Arab-Jewish” identity unacceptable. They wanted to erase Arabness from Jews arriving from Arab countries. This situation has become even more complicated when we consider that Israel, including the Israeli-occupied Palestinian areas, is now demographically more Arab than Jewish.
With the advent of Israel, the Mizrahim and Ashkenazim Jews did not get along especially well, given their cultural and language differences. Assimilation of European Jews was easier since they were part of the same ethnic group as the Zionist founders of the state of Israel. Initially, there was a degree of segregation among East European and Middle Eastern Jews. Mizrahi Jews felt inferior to their European brethren. This was reaffirmed in the area of housing, where such segregation was a problem.
Another difference was that the Mizrahim Jews did not share the same fervor for Zionism as the Ashkenazim. Of course, the Ashkenazim had so suffered under the Holocaust that the survivors looked forward to moving to Israel, even though it was mostly a desert. Mizrahim actually came to Israel from the desert, so the topography was not new to them at all. They had been part of the fabric of the Arab societies in which they had lived. And, thus their lifeways were very different from the more modern, technologically- sophisticated Jews from Europe. Ashkenazim Jews discriminated against the Mizrahim in part because they were perceived as looking like Arabs and speaking like Arabs. Thus, the Mizrahim reminded them too much of the Arabs who lived in the surrounding countries, whom they did not tolerate. It was even reported that some Mizrahim, once they landed in their new home of Israel, were sprayed with disinfectant as if they needed to be shorn of their “Arabness.”
Life for the Mizrahim has improved over the decades. Now there is a significant level of intermarriage among the two groupings. While European Jews still have a higher socioeconomic status than Middle Eastern Jews, children of inter-ethnic marriages have begun to catch up.
Even before the ink on the United Nations 1948 agreement of Israel’s establishment was dry, war with its Arab neighbors broke out. Seven decades later, there is still no peace in the region. Israel’s overall social and political picture is complex, to say the least. The cultural division between its Ashkenazim and Mizrahim Jews may now be the least of Israel’s concerns. Israel’s Arab citizens have themselves never had all of the same rights as their Jewish compatriots. In this case, the absence of an Israeli constitution does not help its Arab citizens, in fact, the most recently passed Nation-State Law in Israel gives Jews in Israel exclusive rights over any Christian and Muslim Arab/Palestinian citizens in that country, which makes Israel’s democracy very questionable.
More critically are the Palestinian Arabs who reside in the occupied areas, whose future is uncertain. On all of these counts, Israel has a significant challenge to fulfilling its role as the self-proclaimed “sole democracy” in the Arab Middle East.
John Mason, an anthropologist specializing in Arab culture and its diverse populations. society is the author of recently-published LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, 2017, New Academia Publishing.