The Arab Jews

Language, Poetry, and Singularity

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

Arab miniature painting, 16th century (source: Wikipedia)
"What is Arab-Jewish identity?" In his essay Reuven Snir takes a look back at Jewish life in Arabia

​​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.

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.

And it was not only the problem of Arabness – my father was also a Communist activist at a time when to be a Communist in Israel was like belonging to a terrorist organisation.

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.

But probably because I was so dumb that he had to recite them again and again I think I have managed, many years later, to reconstruct one verse: because I remembered that it had something to do with camels and water, and because I had some sense of the music, which is the melody of the kāmil Arabic meter. It is a verse that has been attributed to the blind ascetic medieval poet Abū al-'Alā' al-Ma'arrī (973-1058 CE), who, it has been argued, influenced Dante Alighieri (1265-1321 CE) in his Divine Comedy. Mine proved later to be a tragedy, not at all divine.

Like camels in the desert, suffering from thirst, while the water is on their back

A deep feeling of regret

When I started to investigate the history of the Arab Jews, paying particular attention to the deep-rooted Arabness of the Iraqi Jews, the aforementioned verse tortured me deeply. This torture became unbearable when I read for the first time that wonderful poem by the Palestinian poet Maḥmūd Darwīsh (1941-2008), 'Anā Yūsuf Yā Abī' ('O Father, I Am Joseph'), from Ward Aqall (Fewer Roses), and when I listened to Marcel Khlife (b. 1940) singing it.

The repeated questions of Joseph 'fa-madhā fa'ltu anā yā abī?' ('What did I do, O Father?') and 'hal janaytu 'alā ahadin?' ('Did I wrong anyone?') evoked and still evoke in me a deep feeling of regret. The latter question is almost the same wording as the second part of that verse by the same Abu al-'Ala', which he wished to have inscribed on his grave:

This wrong was done by my father to me, but never by me to another

Because al-Ma'arri's ascetic proclivity made him angry at his father for having sired him, he abstained from sexual congress so as not to spawn any offspring of his own. But of course in my case I felt that I should read the verse as:

This wrong was done by me to my father, but never by him to another

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.'

Discovering the Arab-Jewish identity

My tawba, my repentance, was very slow and gradual. In Bab al-Tawba of al-Risala al-Qushayriyya, it is said that the most important component in any repentance is regret (nadam). It started (or perhaps that is one of the invented traditions of my current identity) on 14th December 1984, about five years after my father passed away, when I was sitting in the news department of the Voice of Israel, Arabic section.

I was already fluent in Arabic, working as a news editor for my living, and in my academic studies I was investigating Zuhdi (ascetic) and Sufi texts as part of my training at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, but the culture of the Arab Jews in modern times, in fact any modern Arabic topic, were not at all among my favourites. The conception at the time at the Hebrew University (there are those who argue that it still is) was that the contemporary Arabs are somehow a 'dead nation' (umma bā'ida), a nation that had a glorious past, but nothing of value in the present.

On that wintry December day, our correspondent had just informed us that the poet Anwar Shā'ul (1904-1984) had passed away, in Kiron, near Tel Aviv. We broadcast the news with a short biography. Over the internal system, I called the news editor at the Hebrew section; it was important, I thought, despite my strict Zionist education, to let Israeli citizens know that one of the last Arab-Jewish poets had passed away.

'Anwar who?!' I heard her screaming. I explained briefly. Ze lo me'anyen et ha-ma'zinim shelanu ('That doesn't interest our listeners'), she said. I did not try to convince her, but two years afterwards, in 1986, another Arab-Jewish poet, Murād Michael (1906-1986) died, and over the following years other Arab-Jewish poets and writers passed away in total anonymity:

Shalom Darwīsh (1913-1997), David Semah (1933-1997), Ya'qūb Balbūl (1920-2003), Isḥāq Bār-Moshe (1927-2003), and also Samīr Naqqāsh (1938-2004), in my view one of the greatest Arab writers of our generation – I say Arab and not Arab-Jewish, and I ask anyone who considers my judgement exaggerated to express reservations only after reading his panoramic Iraqi novel Nzūla wa-Khayṭ al-Shayṭān (Tenants and Cobwebs) published in 1986.

When Samīr Naqqāsh passed away he did not have even the most elementary means for honourable survival. 'I don't exist in this country [Israel],' he said, some years before his premature death; 'not as a writer, nor as a citizen, nor as a human being. I don't feel that I belong anywhere, not since my roots were torn from the ground in [Baghdad].' Since the death of Samīr Naqqāsh, two more outstanding Arab-Jewish writers have passed away: Mir Baṣrī (1910-2006) in London and Ibrāhīm Ovadia (1924-2006) in Haifa.

Furthermore, the Arab Jews who immigrated to Israel after its establishment were exposed to a hegemonic Hebrew-Zionist establishment, which imposed its interpretive norms on all cultural communities under the umbrella of leftist liberalism, and at the same time despised and feared the Orient and its culture. The policy of remodelling the identity of Arab-Jewish immigrants in an Ashkenazi image and cultural identity was no different from the British policy in India, which Thomas Babington Macaulay defined in a speech he made in 1834 before the General Committee on Public Instruction.

Speaking on the educational objectives of the British in India, he called for the creation of a new type of person who would be 'Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.' The Zionist movement succeeded where even the British had failed: in creating a new model of an Israeli who is Oriental in blood and colour, but Zionist and Ashkenazi in taste and in opinions. Also, the Israeli educational system forced the offspring of Arab-Jewish families to accept the Holocaust as their own – sometimes, I can add, as their sole – history and decisive marker of identity.

Questioning Western identity

Advocates of Western-oriented cultural identity also bewailed the 'danger' of the 'Orientalisation' and 'Levantinisation' of Israeli society. The journalist Arye Gelblum wrote in Ha'aretz on 22nd April 1949: 'We are dealing with a people whose primitivism is at a peak, whose level of knowledge is one of virtually absolute ignorance, and worse, who have little talent for understanding anything intellectual.'

One of those to whom Gelblum referred as having 'little talent for understanding anything intellectual' was Nissim Rejwan, who in the 1940s was a regular contributor in Baghdad to the English newspaper Iraq Times, especially on issues of English literature. Nevertheless, after his immigration to Israel he has frequently been considered, for example when writing in English for the Jerusalem Post, as lacking the intellectual abilities to write on non-Arabic matters. Now, Rejwan does not hesitate to state:

It is the ruling political-cultural [Zionist] establishment, whose leaders and cultural leading lights hailed predominantly from the shtetls and ghettos of Russia and Russian Poland – and who masqueraded as accomplished 'Westerners' – who subjected the Oriental immigrants to a systematic process of acculturation and cultural cleansing that caused them to abandon their culture, language, and way of life. This was how Israel managed to miss what was a singular chance to integrate into the area and accept, and be accepted, by the neighbouring world – instead of being looked upon as an alien creation in the heart of the area in which it was established.

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.

Concluding the aforementioned historical survey, interwoven with my personal memories, it is beyond doubt that we are currently witnessing the demise of Arab-Jewish culture and identity. Up to the twentieth century, the main factor in the Arab-Muslim-Jewish 'creative symbiosis' – the term was coined by Shlomo Dov Goitein (1900-1985) – was that the great majority of Jews under the rule of Islam adopted Arabic as their language. This symbiosis does not exist in our time because Arabic is now disappearing as a language mastered by Jews.

If you meet now in Israel a Jew who is fluent in Arabic, you can be sure that he was either born in an Arab country (and their number, of course, is constantly decreasing) or works with the military or security services (and their number, of course, is always increasing). The canonical Israeli-Jewish elite does not see the Arabic language and culture as an intellectual asset. In the field of literature, there is not even one Jewish writer on record born after 1948 who writes in Arabic.

Extinction of Arab-Jewish culture

A tradition that started more than one thousand five hundred years ago is disappearing – sorry, is being extinguished – before our eyes, based on an unspoken agreement between the two national movements – Zionism and Arab nationalism – each with support from an 'exclusivist' divine source, to perform the total cleansing of Arab-Jewish culture. Arab-Jewish identity has become a disease that is to be contained; the few people still infected are to be quarantined for fear of contamination.

The role of Arab nationalism in that cultural cleansing should be acknowledged by Muslims and Christians, and we have started to see signs of that, but there is still a long way to go. As for Zionism, it was only about twenty years ago, in the late Eighties, that I asked myself whether I could refer to the sophisticated society in which I was living in the terms conceptualised in 1940 by Walter Benjamin (1892-1940): 'There is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.'

Defining identity

But what is Arab-Jewish identity? And, also, who needs it now, ba'da kharab al-Basra (after the destruction of Basra), as the Iraqis use to say?

First, I should mention that my interest in theories of identity is relatively new and started when I saw many scholars discussing Arab-Jewish identity without having any direct access to the original texts, simply because they did not read Arabic. I could not accept this division of labour, where we, the people of the texts, are left with the task of discovering, collecting and publishing the documents, while the people of cultural studies come to prove to us how we have been limited in understanding the deep structures of meanings only because we have over-indulged ourselves with philological and textual issues.

Unfortunately, Muslim-Arab culture is one of the few fields in which many scholars are writing while not only hardly knowing Arabic, but also strongly arguing that there is no need to know the language.

It is easy to respond to the second question mentioned above: there is a need to discuss the notion of Arab-Jewish identity in the Zionist, Israeli, Jewish and Arab contexts, at least as much as there is a need to discuss ethnic, gay and lesbian identities in universal contexts. 'Once it is understood', says feminist theorist Joan Scott, 'that subjects are formed through exclusionary operations, it becomes necessary to trace the operations of that construction and erasure.'

Andrew Edgar argues that 'the recognition that identity is not merely constructed, but depends upon some other, opens up the theoretical space for marginal or oppressed groups to challenge and re-negotiate the identities that have been forced upon them in the process of domination. Ethnic identities, gay and lesbian identities and female identities are thus brought into process of political change.'

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 difficult question is: what is Arab-Jewish identity? I would like to suggest some insights, based on what has been argued in theoretical discourse in recent years: that identities are never singular but multiply constructed across different, often intersecting and antagonistic, discourses, practices and positions.

Also, identities are about questions of using the resources of history, language and culture in the process of becoming rather than being: not 'who we are' or 'where we came from' so much as what we might become, how we have been represented and how that bears on how we might represent ourselves. Identities arise from the narrativisation of the self, but the necessarily fictional nature of this process in no way undermines its discursive, material or political efficacy.

I would like to begin with the notion of identity suggested by the Syrian poet and critic 'Alī Aḥmad Sa'īd Adūnīs (b. 1930). In his recent book al-Muḥīṭ al-Aswad (The Black Ocean) he argues that 'identity never emerges exclusively from the Dākhil (the inner self), as it never emerges exclusively from the Khārij (the external): it is the constant dynamic interaction between both of them... [but] identity is also a creation: we create our identity, precisely as we create our life and thought'.

The 'politics of singularity'

Everyone who studies the identity of those intellectuals who have recently been adopting the Arab-Jewish identity – we may call them the Neo-Arab-Jews – can observe that idea of creation, sometimes a creation ex nihilo – out of nothing, at least with regard to the most important component of that identity: the Arabic language. The major current activists of Arab-Jewish identity are not fluent in standard Arabic.

For example, the poet Sami Shalom Chetrit (b. 1960) is of Arab origin but cannot express himself in Arabic. He has no problem in declaring, 'I'm an Arab Jew!' In a Hebrew text he published called 'Who Is a Jew and What Kind of a Jew', there is a conversation between the persona and an American female friend. She asks him whether he is a Jew or an Arab. 'I'm an Arab Jew,' he responds. 'I've never heard of that,' she says. He tries to convince her that just as there is an American Jew, a German Jew, or an English Jew, one can imagine the existence of an Arab Jew.

- You can't compare them; a European Jew is something else.
- How come?
- Because 'Jew' just doesn't go with 'Arab', it just doesn't go. It doesn't even sound right.
- Depends on your ear.
- Look, I've got nothing against Arabs. I even have friends who are Arabs, but how can you say 'Arab Jew' when all the Arabs want is to destroy the Jews?
- And how can you say 'European Jew' when the Europeans have already destroyed the Jews?

While this text is an excellent illustration of the Eurocentric atmosphere in which the discussion of Arab-Jewish identity is currently being held, at the same time it illustrates the difference between the 'politics of identity' and what I may call the 'politics of singularity' and the process by which, in each of them, Arab-Jewish identity has been constructed and articulated.

I argue that declarations such as 'I'm an Arab Jew!' are articulated only in modern times and only in specific contexts. We find them during the last decades, but the context is always of difference and negativity. It is a fact that, in all the cases in which we find such declarations, the person who made such a declaration was in a state of marginalisation, or protest, which is a marginalised state as well. They are in general part of the 'politics of resentment', or the game of masks in the political arena.

The 'politics of singularity' are, in my view, much more constructive in clarifying what happened for example during the 1920s in Baghdad – where young Jewish intellectuals expressed their identification with the new Arab state of Iraq – and what is not happening and cannot happen today.

The Baghdad Spring

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.

On 18th July 1921, before his coronation as King of Iraq, the Amir Faysal addressed Jewish community leaders: 'In the terminology of patriotism there is nothing called Jews, Muslims, and Christians. There is simply one thing called Iraq. [...] I ask all the Iraqi children of my homeland to be simply Iraqis. [...] There is no distinction between Muslim, Christian, and Jew.' Sāṭi' al-Ḥuṣrī, Director General of Education in Iraq from 1923 to 1927, argued at the time that 'every person who speaks Arabic is an Arab'.

The new Iraq was built as a new community that invited specific people to join, and the identity of those who decided to join was constructed less out of negativity or difference and more out of positive belonging. There is a necessary link between rhetoric and identity; after all, the question of 'the one and the many' is a problem not only for philosophy but also for rhetoric, which interests itself in the speaker's or writer's capacity to engage an audience, to have an effect on others.

The orator's task, says Kenneth Burke in A Rhetoric of Motives (1950), is consciously to construct this sense of commonality, to create a community, by way of identification. The orator hails his audience into existence, pulling together a community of listeners, by prompting them to identify with a common desire. We saw an excellent illustration of that 'pulling together a community of listeners' in the last American election with Barack Obama, although in that case it was mainly the 'politics of resentment'.

If we refer to all those who joined the new Iraqi community of the 1920s and expressed their desire to take part in building it, we can understand the great change that occurred in the life of those young secular Jewish intellectuals and writers who would later be known as the major figures in Iraqi Jewish literature. This shift was decisive because it involved different singularities: each wanted to belong to the new community without the need to abandon other frames of belonging, whether religious, ethnic, professional etc.

The importance of the new abode, the new community, may be learned from the context of the emergence of the modern Arabic literature of Iraqi Jews, for which we have solid historical documentation.

At the beginning of 1924 the Christian Iraqi writer Yūsuf Rizq Allāh Ghunayma (1885-1950) published a book entitled Nuzhat al-Mushtāq fī Ta'rīkh Yahūd al-'Irāq [The Trip of the Man Filled with Longing into the History of the Jews of Iraq] (published by Matba'at al-Furāt in Baghdad).

While describing the social classes of the Jewish community and the occupations of the Jews, Ghunayma remarked that the Jews of Iraq pursued all occupations, 'but writers and owners of periodicals and newspapers could not be found among them [the Jews]. The reason for this is that the Jew wants to work at what might benefit him, and composing and writing in our midst does not find a market. So in this matter they follow the Latin proverb that says: "Living comes first, before philosophy".'

Only three months after the publication of Ghunayma's book, on 10th April 1924, the first issue of the Arabic journal al-Miṣbāḥ (The Candlestick) came out. The owner, the editor and most of the writers were Jews. The aim of the journal was to be part of mainstream Arabic journalism and culture and to contribute to Iraqi Arab culture with no narrow Jewish agenda at all.

The publication of al-Miṣbāḥ illustrated the great change in the intellectual life of the Jewish community, whose young, educated, secular members started to consider themselves part of the new Iraqi Arab nation and intelligentsia. If I use the language of Ghunayma, the Jews started to speak on 'philosophical matters', namely: on things that have relative autonomy from the economic, social, and political fields and that often exist in aesthetic forms, one of whose principal aims is pleasure.

From the outset, the secular Iraqi Jewish young intellectuals were inspired by a cultural vision whose most eloquent dictum was al-dīn li-llāhi wa-l-watan li-l-jamī' ('Religion is for God, the Fatherland is for everyone').

That slogan, which was probably coined by the Copt intellectual Tawfīq Dūs in the Coptic congress in Asyut in 1911, is based on the Arabic translation of Mark 12:17: 'Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's'; it was inspired by the slogan of the Lebanese-Syrian Christian intellectuals of the nineteenth century: 'Love of the Fatherland is part of the faith'.

It was also the slogan of al-Jinān, the first pan-Arabic periodical, which was founded in Beirut at the beginning of 1870 by Butrus al-Bustānī (1819-1883) and was published until 1886; it was edited by his son Salīm al-Bustānī (1848-1884). Al-Jinān emphasised throughout its issues the need to substitute religious solidarity with national solidarity.

Inspired by the aforementioned Christian intellectuals, the Iraqi Jews who adopted the slogan 'Religion is for God, the Fatherland is for everyone' were encouraged by Koranic verses fostering religious tolerance and cultural pluralism, such as: lā ikrāha fī al-dīn ('There is no compulsion in religion' – Al-Baqara 256) and lakum dīnukum wa-lī dīnī ('You have your path and I have mine – Al-Kāfirūn 6).

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.

Sir Arnold Talbot Wilson (1884-1940), the Acting Civil Commissioner in Mesopotamia (1918-1920), writes in his personal and historical record:

I discussed the declaration at the time with several members of the Jewish community, with whom we were on friendly terms. They remarked that Palestine was a poor country, and Jerusalem a bad town to live in. Compared with Palestine, Mesopotamia was a Paradise. 'This is the Garden of Eden,' said one; 'it is from this country that Adam was driven forth – give us a good government and we will make this country flourish – for us Mesopotamia is a home, a national home to which the Jews of Bombay and Persia and Turkey will be glad to come. Here shall be liberty and with it opportunity! In Palestine there may be liberty, but there will be no opportunity.' (Wilson 1936, I, 305-306)

In the late Thirties the Jewish educator Ezra Haddād declared that 'we are Arabs before we are Jews'. Ya'qūb Balbūl wrote that 'a Jewish youth in the Arab countries expects from Zionism nothing other than colonialism and domination'. Most of Iraq's Jewish population lived in Baghdad, filling most of the civil service jobs under the British and the early monarchy.

Nissim Rejwan says that, just as it has often been said that New York is a Jewish city, so 'one can safely say the same about Baghdad during the first half of the twentieth century'. The real national vision of the Iraqi Jews, at least the vision of the intellectual secular elite, was Iraqi and Arab – therefore, studies about the pre-1948 relationships between Arabs and Jews seem to use an anachronistic dichotomy which never existed in the Arab lands.

David Semah says: 'The Jews of Iraq never referred to non-Jewish Iraqis as "Arabs", but used the words "Muslim" and "Christian" [...]. When they spoke about "Arabs" (al-'Arab) they had in mind only Bedouins.'

If we return to al-Minbar, the editor was Anwar Shā'ul, and he wrote under the pseudonym Ibn al-Samaw'al, an allusion to the pre-Islamic Jewish poet al-Samaw'al ibn 'Ādiyā', proverbial in Arab history for his loyalty. According to the ancient Arab cultural heritage, al-Samaw'al refused to deliver weapons that had been entrusted to him. Consequently, he witnessed the murder of his own son by the Bedouin chieftain who laid siege to his castle to carry off the weapons that had been left in his charge.

Al-Samaw'al is commemorated in Arab history by the saying Awfā min al-Samaw'al ('more loyal than' or 'as faithful as al-Samaw'al'). The decision to use this pseudonym reflected Shā'ul's Iraqi-Arab vision, which he saw as most appropriate for the emergence of the Iraqi nation.

Anwar Shā'ul's poem 'al-Rabī'' ('Spring'), published in the first issue of al-Miṣbāḥ, illustrated the hope for a new era of national unity far removed from any opportunistic considerations or religious fanaticism.

Here are the five first verses of this meta-poetic qaṣīda:

Spring has come, flowers surrounding it, the birds welcoming it,
The nightingale has been standing speaking early in the morning, whoever speaks with these meadow is a nightingale,
Get up, my companion, and let's visit a garden, the gardens should be visited in the Spring,
And leave aside the sorrows and let me forget their memory, a friendly atmosphere has been created and the distresses disappeared,
And pass round the wine, in the midst of the meadows, where the companions are the birds and trees

The last verse bears an intertextual relationship with a famous mystic verse by the Sufi poet 'Umar ibn al-Fāriḍ:

Pass round remembrance of the one I love though that be to blame me, for the tales of the beloved are my wine

The poem is concluded as follows:

The best scene of the Spring is a garden; describing its beauty, the birds are competing with each other.

The Garden is the new Iraq, and Anwar Shā'ul joined the new community and identified with it not as a representative of the Jewish community but based on his own singularity – his belonging was a pure agency. It means that even when the abode, the new community, invited the various singularities to join the new framework, it was not an all-inclusive sameness, seamless, without internal differentiation.

The poetry of Anwar Shā'ul over sixty years, from the beginning of the 1920s in Baghdad till his death in Israel in 1984, reveals his true changing singularities across the years, or what Paul Gilory calls the 'changing same'.

As for the 1920s, without any problem I found texts about the new spring in Baghdad by the Sunni Ma'rūf al-Ruṣafī (1875-1945), the Shi'ite Muḥammad Mahdī al-Jawāhirī (1899-1997), the Kurdish Jamīl Ṣidqī al-Zahāwī (1863-1936) and the Christian Yūsuf Rizq Allāh Ghunayma (1885-1950). None of them declared that he was an Arab; it was self-evident – the writings of each reflect the feeling of being an Iraqi whose language is Arabic. This belonging was based on their being part of the watan, the abode, and they did not make any effort to belong.

Their identity was positive and most of its components were not derived from difference; – it was easy for them to be Iraqis, whose cultural identity was Arab and Iraqi. Such easiness characterised the identity of those Jews, Muslims and Christian who joined the new Iraqi Arab community. They did not sit down one day and say: I am going to be an Arab Jew, because it suits my political agenda. It just happened.

German- and Arabic-speaking Jews

My investigation of Arab-Jewish identity has taken recently a fresh turn, the first idea for which occurred to me while I was a fellow of the Federal Cultural Foundation at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin in 2004-5. Following a visit to the Jewish Museum in Berlin, I noticed the comparative structure of identity – or better, singularity – of two unique phenomena in modern Jewish life: the German-speaking and Arabic-speaking Jews.

During the first half of the twentieth century the Iraqi Jews in many ways resembled the middle-class Jews of Germany or other European places who felt more German or European than Jewish. When I started to study this resemblance I thought of them only as similar phenomena in different places, but gradually I discovered a network of relationships between Iraqi and European Jews that had existed since the middle of the nineteenth century. Some examples:

1. Baghdadi Jews functioned as correspondents and representatives for European Hebrew Jewish newspapers such as Ha-Maggid, the first Hebrew newspaper to be established in Europe.

2. Wealthy Jews used to send their sons to be educated in European institutions. For example, Sāsūn Ḥiskīl Afandī (1860-1932) took Oriental Studies in Vienna, where many Jews spoke High German, adopted German names, and dressed and acted like Austrians and Germans. I found an interview with him in the Hebrew newspaper Ha-'Olam (The World), published in Vilna, on March 10th, 1909.

Sassoon Afandī, at the time one of the Baghdad representatives in the Ottoman parliament, expressed views inspired by ideas prevalent among European Jews. Here is a quotation: 'Mr. Sassoon wants to be assimilated, and since he does not see any positive aspect which would unite the Jews, beside religion, he would agree to be assimilated even [my emphasis - R.S.] with the Arabs.'

Written in indirect speech, this sentence reflects not only the Arab-Jewish point of view: I am sure that Sassoon did not use the words 'even with the Arabs.' This is the same Ashkenazi-Zionist outlook that cannot comprehend that a Jew could also be an Arab. By the way, Sassoon Afandī would later occupy the post of finance minister in several Iraqi cabinets of the 1920s.

3. We also know of Jewish European immigrants who arrived in Baghdad, bringing to Iraqi Jews the concept of the Enlightenment and pushing them toward Westernisation and secularisation. We can mention, for example, the scholar Jacob Obermeyer (1845-1935), who lived in Baghdad from 1869 to 1880 and tried through his reformist conceptions to modernise the religious framework of the local Jewish community. In his eagerness Obermeyer even challenged the Baghdadi religious leaders, who in one case even united in putting him into ḥerem (exclusion from communal participation).

4. There were also family relations: for example, the musician Yūsuf Ḥūraysh was the offspring of a European family who immigrated to Basra; and the grandfather of Anwar Shā'ul was an immigrant Jew from Austria who arrived in Baghdad in the middle of the nineteenth century. To anyone wanting to gain a sense of the story of these immigrants I can highly recommend the historical novel Der Uhrmacher [The Clock Maker] by Barbara Taufar, published in 2001.

I will conclude with Hannah Arendt, who began to write the biography of a Jewish woman, Rahel Levin Varnhagen, in Berlin in the late 1920s. In 1933, Arendt fled Germany and completed her book in Paris. It was not published until 1957, on behalf of the Leo Baeck Institute, and in English translation. Arendt writes in her preface to the book:

The German-speaking Jews and their history are an altogether unique phenomenon; nothing comparable to it is to be found even in the other areas of Jewish assimilation. To investigate this phenomenon, which among other things found expression in a literally astonishing wealth of talent and of scientific and intellectual productivity, constitutes a historical task of the first rank, and one which, of course, can be attacked only now, after the history of the German Jews has come to an end.

Now, more than fifty years later, I will read the same quotation again, and I will change only one word, which appears twice:

The [Arabic]-speaking Jews and their history are an altogether unique phenomenon; nothing comparable to it is to be found even in the other areas of Jewish assimilation. To investigate this phenomenon, which among other things found expression in a literally astonishing wealth of talent and of scientific and intellectual productivity, constitutes a historical task of the first rank, and one which, of course, can be attacked only now, after the history of the [Arab] Jews has come to an end.

Reuven Snir

© Reuven Snir / Fikrun wa Fann / Goethe Institute 2009

Reuven Snir is Professor of Arabic Language and Literature at the University of Haifa. In 2004 -2005 he was a fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin (Institute for Advanced Study, Berlin).

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