The Jews of the Arab world:
A Community Unto Itself
Wednesday, 16 October 2002
They speak Arabic. They listen to Arabic music. They eat Arabic food. Were you to pass by an Arab Jewish synagogue during prayer, you would hear strains of music by Om Kolthoum, Mohamed Abdel Wahab, and Sayed Darwiche. And yet, here in New York, they are not considered a part of the Arab American community – by Arab Christians, Arab Muslims, or even by themselves (for the most part). Why not?
In an effort to understand another fragmented community of people from Arab lands here in New York, we have chosen to delve into a subject matter that, for many members of this community, is very sensitive and provocative. It is not our intent to provoke, rather, to illuminate so as to satisfy our own curiosity and, in so doing, provide our readers with food for thought.
Locating statistics which detail Arab Jewish immigration to New York proved extremely difficult, so much so that even the individuals we interviewed could not give us figures as to how large this community is. We know that approximately 800,000 Arab Jews lived in the Middle East prior to 1948 and that, today, there are approximately 8,000 Arab Jews left in those countries.
We know that there was an Arab Jewish community in New York prior to the establishment of Israel and that the Arab Jews who managed to emigrate here from Israel were absorbed by that community. These two groups, however, have completely different experiences and memories of their lives in Arab countries prior to coming to New York.
Professor Ella Shohat is an Iraqi Jew who teaches in the Department of Middle Eastern Studies at New York University.
- Why don’t we hear about Arab Jews?
I hold responsible both Zionism and Arab nationalism. Zionism has always looked at the people of the East as inferior, including Jews from Arab countries. From the turn of the century, Zionists tried to bring Arab Jews to Palestine as cheap labor. Up to now, there are Arab Jews in Israel who are discriminated against within the Jewish population. It is largely the European Jews who set the tone. The rise of Arab nationalism and the forceful rise of Islam did not create a less problematic condition for diverse minorities, who have also suffered, but for the Arab Jews, it has been one of the most complicated stories, precisely because of the establishment of the state of Israel. For the first time in their history, Arab Jews had to choose between being Jews and being Arabs.
- How would you describe the position of the Arab Jews in the Arab American community?
There’s tremendous fragmentation. There are people who have been here for several generations, who speak Arabic at home, pray in the synagogues in Arabic, have Arabic culture, speak to each other in Arabic, yet, it is a community unto itself. There isn’t much exchange. It happens through the cultural realms: video stores, music stores. But there isn’t much interaction. They are very much separated, just as Arab Jews are also separated from the European Jewish community.
- What was the backlash of September 11th on Arab Jews?
If people are around their neighborhoods, or in the synagogue, they’ll speak Arabic without fear, but outside, or if they’re in their stores and customers come in, they’ll stop speaking Arabic. The immigration policies affect some of them, when their place of birth isn’t Israel.
I read in the local Hebrew paper of New York, there were many Mizrahim who were arrested or detained because they thought they were terrorists. This happened often in Israel, when Arab Jews were confused with Palestinians.
There are consequences to their looks. There is some fear there but it’s still different than being a Muslim.
David Shasha is an American born Arab Jew living in Brooklyn with a Master’s Degree in Jewish/Middle Eastern Studies from Cornell University. He is an activist, an educator, an author and an archivist and the Director of The Center for Sephardic Heritage.
- What has the impact of your different opinions been on you?
I have been called “Arab lover,” “terrorist,” I get the emails. It’s a very ugly situation right now. We just found out that there’s something called “Campus Watch.” Jewish organizations are monitoring Arab professors, or professors sympathetic to the Arab position. My library in itself is expressive of my guilt. The fact that I have a full shelf of Mahfouz already makes me guilty of being an Arab sympathizer and it has hurt my ability to make a living.
- How important is it for Arab Jews to be associated with Arab Americans?
Their relationship to the Arab American community is extremely negative. Their hatred for Arabs, I don’t think has peaked yet. The people who initially immigrated here, they did not experience great persecution. As the years went by, and they became more and more removed from the Arab world, they began to forget. Then, the people who did have experiences of persecution at the hands of Arab governments, Muslims, etc., began arriving in the 30s, 40s, and 50s. Things began to develop without the intellectual structure of really understanding what the history was, as the Ashkenazi did, which is how they were able to come to terms with the experience of the Russian persecution of the late 19th century, the Communist Revolution, and the Holocaust, etc. All of these things have been examined, ad nauseum. You can get books and articles and movies and documentaries on every facet of their culture. With our culture, zero. Nothing was produced. You have very little information as to what Jewish life was like in those places. People didn’t write about it, there are no historians that have come out of the community.
- What are you hoping to accomplish?
I’m an activist within a community that despises what I do. This is a very peaceful community and I am stirring up elements that they would much rather not hear about. Everybody would much rather that Syria became something far, far away, in another galaxy. People are not interested. We live in America; they just want to be Americans and fit in and do whatever it is that’s necessary to be able to continue the lifestyle that they have. I’m concerned with cultural issues that are not addressed, or are addressed by a very small group of people.
Professor Ammiel Alcalay was born and raised in Boston and is of Bosnian origin. He teaches at Queens College and is the author of numerous books on Arab Jews
and Levantine culture.
- Why do you think they’re such an isolated community?
Traditionally, the way that Arab Jews have related to their environment is to completely integrate themselves into it and you can see this during the periods of their greatest cultural creativity, in Spain and Iraq. You can see it through the music, through the poetry. What happened when they came here they faced an Ashkenazi community that did not understand who they were and because of the political situation in the Middle East, their own sense of their Arabness eroded more and more and they were left adrift, relating neither to one or the other.
- If this is the case, why the radical refusal to call themselves Arabs or associate themselves with Arab Americans?
There are several factors. If you ask most Arabs, they would identify with the plight of the Palestinians, more or less. Furthermore, a lot of Arabs believe that Americans don’t really understand what’s going on in the Middle East.
I think that part of the reason they’re less willing to associate themselves with Arabs is because of the ‘ism’ associated with the politics in Israel. They need to identify themselves as Jewish and it’s very hard, culturally, except in a few places, to be Arab and Jewish at the same time. In America, it seems very strange to people that you can be both an Arab and a Jew.
These are excerpts from Aramica’s larger story. For the whole story, please contact Aramica at
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This article appeared in Edition 38 of Voices That Must Be