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Towards a new understanding of Arab-Jewish culture

The severed ties between Arab-Jewish culture and the wider history and culture of Judaism and the Arab world are being repaired by a groundbreaking new university degree in Israel.

By Hadas Shabat-Nadir and Almog Behar

Egyptian Alexandria Jewish girls during Bat Mitzvah. (photo: Nebi Daniel Association public photo collection / Maurice Studio CC BY 3.0)

Egyptian Alexandria Jewish girls during Bat Mitzvah. (photo: Nebi Daniel Association public photo collection / Maurice Studio CC BY 3.0)

In the 1950s, Professor Shlomo Dov Goitein suggested establishing a chair of Arab-Jewish culture at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. But what place does Arabic-Jewish culture have at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem? What does a school for Jewish studies have to do with Arab-Jewish tradition? Or with a course on Arabic literature, classical Arabic from the pre-Islamic period, the Quran and the Caliphate, and the Judeo-Arabic language?

Professor Goitein’s suggestion was rejected in line with the spirit of the age and its desire to build a west-facing Hebrew-Jewish-Zionist-Israeli national culture, while in parallel engaging in classical studies of Arabic and Judaism. Neither of these topics gave much standing to Arab-Jewish heritage, either as a language, a culture, or a linguistic-theological dialogue that stretched over many years — and in particular not to the later Arab-Jewish culture that came after the expulsion from Spain.

Like in Goitein’s time, the encounter between Jewish and Arab culture today can seem strange, threatening or undesirable. But with a 60-year delay, we are now in the founding year of the Program for Arab-Jewish Cultural Studies as a bachelor’s degree, which will begin in October 2017 at Ben-Gurion University in Be’er Sheva and at Tel Aviv University.

We began our studies around 15 years ago in various literature courses. We gradually noticed two things: a lack of academic engagement with Mizrahi literature in Israel, and a fixed discussion that featured Mizrahi representation solely in relation to Israeliness and Zionism, while being disconnected from the writing and tradition of the past. We also felt a lack of connection and continuity between the different creative works of Jews from across the Arab, Muslim and Ottoman worlds — whether between religious and secular, between Jewish languages (e.g. Judeo-Arabic, Ladino, Judeo-Persian etc) and Hebrew, or between Rabbinic and modern Hebrew.       

Ha-Haim (1922-1925), a Judeo-Persian newspaper published by Samuel Haim. The right section is in standard Persian and the left is in Judeo-Persian. (Copyright expired)

Ha-Haim (1922-1925), a Judeo-Persian newspaper published by Samuel Haim. The right section is in standard Persian and the left is in Judeo-Persian. (Copyright expired)

Literary works from entire periods of Eastern Jewish history, such as the lengthy stretch between the Spanish Golden Age and the beginning of the 20th century, have disappeared and are barely taught in literature courses. Even major works such as those of Rabbi Israel ben Moses Najara, Rabbi Shalom Shabazi and Rabbi David Buzaglo do not have courses dedicated to them. Twentieth-century writers who chose to pen their works in literary Arabic, such as Samir Naqqash and Isaac Bar-Moshe, have also vanished, appearing neither in courses on Hebrew literature nor on Arabic literature. The history of Jews from Arab countries is parceled out between courses on the Israeli people, which cover (albeit narrowly) Eastern Jewish communities, and sociology courses, which teach about (also narrowly) Mizrahim in Israel — as if there was no connection between these two topics.

Choosing memory

Our feeling that the culture of Jews from Arab countries has disappeared from university curriculums and is disconnected from the conversation on Mizrahi culture in Israel led us to think about righting the discourse. Mizrahi heritage is taught only inasmuch as it relates to the State of Israel, as if Mizrahim were born in the West and have internalized the Israeli-Zionist worldview. We felt the need to break out of the fixed categories of identity and look at Mizrahiness not just in connection to Israel but also in relation to the Arab-Jewish culture and writing that developed over so many years. We sought to release “the Mizrahi” from the reductive and often negative context in which he is connected to Israel, and to offer up a deeper and broader cultural, historical and linguistic context.

Alternative Israeli banknote designs featuring Arab-Jewish writers, singers and poets. (Design: Eitam Tubul)

Alternative Israeli banknote designs featuring Arab-Jewish writers, singers and poets. (Design: Eitam Tubul)

At times it seemed as if our new program of Arab-Jewish cultural studies might be shelved, overcome by resistance as was Goitein’s idea. Even today, the thought of mixing the study of Hebrew literature with that of Arab-Jewish literature arouses intense emotions and often fierce opposition. Ultimately, however, we were able to surmount the opposition and could feel the enthusiasm of those around us who had been anticipating this moment.

Our program combines the study of Arabic literature with classical Judeo-Arabic and the many Arab-Jewish dialects of later periods. The courses will cover Arab-Jewish culture from different aspects: historical, literary and philosophical, with the aim of bringing together poetry, song, Jewish law, Talmudic literature and the philosophy of Jews from the Arab world as well as of Mizrahim in Israel — in Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic and colonial languages. The program will also look at secularism and tradition; affiliations between Judaism, Christianity and Islam; and the ties between different cultures.

From our point of view, the program seeks to address a profound lack in Israeli and worldwide academia, and to anchor Arab-Jewish cultural studies in the cultural, linguistic and historical ties that are currently missing from most curriculums. Arabic is Judaism’s third language, after Hebrew and Aramaic, and we want to bring it into the academic and public spheres, in Israel and the Arab world. In this way, we seek to bring together anew Hebrew and Judeo-Arabic literature, and Arabic and Judeo-Arabic literature.

We see in this program an invitation to generate community, creativity, research, reading, writing; an invitation to an alternative Israeli experience in which there is a place for Arab-Jewish culture; an invitation to Arabic culture whose Arab-Jewish element is remembered. We choose memory, even if it is too late. We choose a renewed contact with Arabic, which was never completely cut off but which became a source of shame. And we choose creation, in which there is lamentation and hope, a past and a future. 

Hadas Shabat-Nadir is a literary researcher. Almog Behar is a poet and literature critic. A version of this article was first published in Hebrew on Haokets. Translated by Natasha Roth.

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    1. Subway1EightyNine

      And people wonder why less money is going into the humanities these days. It might have something to do with politicized, ideological and ultimately useless departments of study which provide jobs to useless professors to study dead and irrelevant topics to students that will never be able to use the knowledge gained to find employment. Research into the culture of Jews in Arab countries could be done within other departments, specifically those that study Jewish history and those that study Arabic language and literature, of which there is no shortage.

      Arabic is Judaism’s third language? Really? How so? Neither the Torah nor the Talmud are written in Arabic. It has about as much a claim to such status as Yiddish or Ladino. And all these claims would be baseless.

      And my money is being wasted on this politicized nonsense? The next time I hear a complaint about how little funding is going to the humanities I’ll smile because I’ll know that this is the kind of garbage that the money is being wasted on.

      Reply to Comment
      • Bruce Gould

        @Subway: “Arabic is Judaism’s third language? Really? How so? Neither the Torah nor the Talmud are written in Arabic.” Well, if you follow one of the links in the article, http://www.bintjbeil.com/E/occupation/arab_jew.html ,

        “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.”

        Reply to Comment
        • Subway1EightyNine

          Congratulations. You have just elevated Arabic to the same level as Yiddish. That doesn’t make it “Judaism’s third language”.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            The Rambam wrote most of his works in Arabic. It counts for something. A quarter of Israel’s citizens, Muslims and Christians and Jews, speak it as their native language. As the article Bruce links to shows, as the article above shows, Arabic is a crucial thread in (non-Ashkenazi) Jewish history. Arabic predates Yiddish. So, Judaism’s third language? Yes. I’ll be happy to make Ladino fourth and Yiddish fifth. To be so niggardly and obstinate in denying Arabic its proper role in a living Israeli state is to work extra hard to denigrate both Arabic and Mizrachi culture.

            Reply to Comment
          • Subway1EightyNine

            That is just a stupid conflation of multiple things. There was no such thing as Mizrahi culture. There was no such thing as Arab culture. Both are labels invented in the 20th century with the former being invented in Israel. There were local cultures in various parts of the Muslim world. Joining them together into some sort of overriding culture and then try to connect it to the experience of Jews from Muslim countries in Israel is an ideological/political choice. There is no reason for the departments these two leeches on my taxes have brought to life at two Israeli Universities. It is just a vehicle to give jobs to useless academics and allow them to brainwash generations of graduates to regurgitate their ideologies in screed after screed written in their copious unemployed free time. It is a complete waste of my tax shekels.

            Arabic is not Judaism’s third language. It is an official language in Israel. The two things are not related. I have no idea why it matters what percentage of Israel’s population speaks Arabic for the purpose of determining whether it is “Judaism’s third language”. Perhaps we should ask the Arab-speaking Muslim and Christian citizens of Israel to determine Judaism’s languages for us. Or perhaps we should throw Russian and English in there too as Judaism’s 7th and 8th languages and hell lets just throw all the rest in for sport.

            Judaism has only two languages – Hebrew and Aramaic. These are the two languages that were/are studied in pretty much the entire Jewish world for the purpose of understanding the religion. That Rambam couldn’t be bothered to write his works in Hebrew is neither here nor there.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            “There was no such thing as Mizrahi culture.”

            No? Because it’s all what? Ashkenazi culture? All Jewish monoculture without any meaningful distinctions? Tell that to the Mizrahim who experience the distinctions Ashkenazim make.

            “There was no such thing as Arab culture.”

            While at the same time you flip the coin on its head and you want to say that “there is no such thing as Palestinians, they are all just Arabs.” Heads you win, tails they lose. From the very same people who constantly subsume Palestinians under “the Arabs,” there is no such thing as Arab culture. All of this points to the fact that these statements about Arabs and Jews are ideology-driven distinctions, having it both ways, meant only to further Jewish nationalism and any other nuance is discarded.

            “leeches on my taxes…a complete waste of my tax shekels”

            A familiar cry the world over but I’m gonna guess you have no complaints about your tax shekels going to fund the settlers and the massively wasteful occupation. The settlers are leeches par excellence, but that’s fine.

            Reply to Comment
          • Bernie X


            Yeah, writing in Arabic counts, for nothing. It’s what Rambam said, that counts.

            “Remember, my co-religionists, that on account of the vast number of our sins, God has hurled us in the midst of this people, the Arabs, who have persecuted us severely, and passed baneful and discriminatory legislation against us, as Scripture has forewarned us, “Our enemies themselves shall judge us” (Deuteronomy 32:31). Never did a nation molest, degrade, debase and hate us as much as they.”–Epistle to Yemen.


            Reply to Comment
          • i_like_ike52

            No, Arabic does NOT ‘predate” Yiddish as languages the Jews spoke. They both entered the Jewish world at about the same time, kn the early Middle Ages. Yiddish came out of the Jewish exile in the German/French/Slavid exile, and Arabic was imposed on the Jews living in the Middle Eastern countries conquered by the Arabs/Muslims in their mass, imperialist invasions of the early Middle Ages.

            Reply to Comment
      • Mark

        I must say it also sounded to me like an ideal subject for community education rather than study by a small number of academics who then move onto careers elsewhere.

        Assuming there are any copyright issues my first step would be to get a body of the relevant works available online and kick start with online book clubs engaging a wider public.

        I’m fascinated whether the divergence between Judeo-Arabic of Morocco, Egypt, Yemen and Iraq is so great as the colloquial Arabic spoken there. I’m supposing there isn’t much by way of Judeo-Arabic literature emanating from Palestine but willingly stand corrected if that’s false.

        Provided it’s in Latin script I’ve found texts in Ladino, or one of its variants, quite accessible but limited in range.

        I’m guessing the small number of native speakers of these languages isn’t helpful.

        Reply to Comment
    2. Mark

      “Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic and colonial languages”

      Isn’t Arabic a colonial language too? It may have wholly displaced Aramaic in Palestine but aren’t there survivals, such as Berber languages in North Africa?

      Reply to Comment
    3. Mark

      Great link, Bruce. It confirms my opinion that Jews of all traditions are bound up with “we are hard done by”. It’s quite astonishing how this appears to be totally embedded in the Jewish psyche.

      Reply to Comment
    4. AJew

      We are all Israelis and Hebrew is our language as it was as long as 5000 years ago.

      Yiddish? Arabic? No. those were languages during our exile. When we used to live in Ghettos. I am not nostalgic for our time in exile nor for the languages that we spoke then.

      Let the academics and historians feel teary for those times.

      Reply to Comment
    5. i_like_ike52

      It is incorrect to say that Arabic is the 3rd Jewish language, just as it would be to say that English is the 3rd Jewish language simply because half of world Jewry has English as its main language of communication. In recent centuries, far more Jews spoke Yiddish than Arabic. However, it is also incorrect to say that Yiddish or Arabic were important in defining Jewish thinking. They were merely the vehicle for transmitting Jewish thought in the Galut-Exile which we were forced into against our will to Jews who were no longer conversant in Hebrew or Aramaic.
      It is true that RAMBAM wrote most of his works in Arabic but that does not mean he identified with the non-Jewish Arabic speaking world, even if he did respect a few non-Jewish Arabic-speaking philosophers. He never would have considered himself “an Arab Jew”. He was simply a Jew, period. The idea that Arabs considered Jews as fellow members of some mythical Arab nation is laughable, any more than saying Englishmen and Irishmen would consider themselves the same people simply because they both speak English.
      Yes, Jewish culture emanating from the Arabic-speaking countries should be studied, just as Jewish culture from other Exilic communities, including the Yiddish speaking one or the Persian speaking one or the Chinese speaking one (yes, that existed as well) but to claim that means Jews coming out of such places have some ethnic/national ties with the non-Jews in those countries is to miss the mark regarding Jewish identity.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Ben

      Looks like Ella Habiba Shohat’s poor benighted grandmother never got the memo and had to be “reeducated.”

      ‘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” as Arabs. 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.’

      Reply to Comment
      • Subway1EightyNine

        Sounds like she would have no problem understanding them as being Muslim and Christian Arabs. Even if her grandmother is having a hard time with it, the Arabs have demonstrated to her quite clearly that what matters is that she was a Jew, not that she thought that she was an Arab, when they drove the overwhelming majority of Jews from the Arab countries on the basis of what “non-Arabs” were doing elsewhere.

        Reply to Comment