The term ‘Arab Jew’ defines our reality

Jews and Arabs don’t have to be enemies. Moreover, we can be united as one.

MOROCCAN JEWS pray at a synagogue in Tetouan, Morocco (photo credit: RAFAEL MARCHANTE / REUTERS)
MOROCCAN JEWS pray at a synagogue in Tetouan, Morocco
Jews and Arabs don’t have to be enemies. Moreover, we can be united as one. In a Jerusalem Post article published last March, Hen Mazzig argues otherwise. Mazzig claims the phrase, “Arab Jew” plays into the hands of Arab nationalism and imperialism. Yes, Arabization of the Middle East, North Africa and the Levant, was real. Arab conquest and colonization of the region did in fact wipe out old traditions and cultures of other people already living there. But this was also the modus operandi of ancient empires. People came in, took valuable resources from others, claimed land as their own, and changed cultures through time.
Jews have known this all too well. Which is exactly why the term “Arab Jew” is an accurate depiction of the Jewish people from the Middle East and North Africa. Though Mazzig doesn’t want to accept it, Arabization of the Jewish people was successful in Arab lands. Thousands of years of mixing, living alongside, and sharing culture with their Arab neighbors contributed to such Arabization of Jews in Syria, Iraq, Morocco, Egypt, Yemen and elsewhere. Mazzig should also be reminded this same process happened for Ashkenazi Jews living in Europe. Gefilte fish did not come from the Levant.
Today, Mizrahi Jews see the remnants of such mixing in their language, music, food, and physical DNA. The “Arab” term therefore appropriately and accurately describes the identity and culture of Jews from these places. Distinguishing between Arab Muslims, Christians and Jews becomes increasingly difficult outside the realm of orthodox religious customs. Arabs are more than Mizrahi Jews’ cousins, we are each other’s brothers and sisters. Mazzig’s insistence on wholly rejecting this bond is precisely the attitude that perpetuates further division among Jews and Muslims in the Middle East.
Mazzig rightly points out the historic injustice Jews have faced in the Middle East and North Africa. However, the “Arab Jewish” identity does not dismiss the countless years of seclusion, violence, and expulsion Arab Jews experienced in the region. The term “Arab Jew” instead reminds us of the tumultuous past our ancestors endured and helps reinforce pride for who we are. Mizrahim can and should embrace our Arab roots, delicious foods, ornate clothing and rhythmic beats. To be an Arab Jew, one should not be shamed, but instead revered as a privilege. A privilege to embrace a culture and traditions that are truly beautiful and world renowned. Arab Jews should continue to be an inextricable part of that heritage, not an enemy to it.
A GREATER tragedy afflicting Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews is exactly the increasing hostile attitudes toward the concept of Arabic language, culture and heritage perpetuated by such rejections Mazzig argues for, largely and unfortunately adopted by many Israeli youth, not excluding Mizrahim and Sephardim themselves. Mazzig fails to highlight or mention the suppression Mizrahi culture has faced in both Israel and America as a result of vilifying the “Arabic” identity altogether, despite nearly half of Israel’s Jewish population falling into that category. Although this has existed certainly no less than the time since the State of Israel was established, things have been gradually changing for the better.
Fortunately in both America and Israel, younger generations of Mizrahi Jews are beginning to embrace the Arab traditions their grandparents and ancestors passed down to them. For example, the millennia-old tradition of ancient, spiritual Jewish West-Asian and North African song continues to be re-captured by the work of visionaries such as visionaries such as Neta Elkayam, Yamma Ensemble, Quarter to Africa, A-WA and others. Their music was, is and will be proudly and unapologetically “Arabic” and “Jewish.”
This brings us to Mazzig’s assertion that self-identified “Arab Jews” must be anti-Zionist. His assertion is incorrect and best juxtaposed by Daniel Saadon’s hit music video, “Hatikva,” which caused a stir last summer due to its depiction of Mizrahi Jews embracing both their Zionism and Arab roots. The idea that Zionism and Arabs aren’t compatible is defeatist in nature and reduces Jewish culture to basic “one size fits all” caricatures. Fortunately, reality is far more nuanced. Mizrahi Jews can embrace both their Zionism and Arab roots simultaneously. Likewise, Arab Muslims and Christians can and do embrace Zionism, albeit at much lower rates than Jews.
Finally, because Arab Jews have a unique connection to their broader Arab neighbors, they also have a unique opportunity to act as a diplomatic bridge for shared understanding. If Jews continue to be seen as solely a “white” European nation among other Arabs, Israel will fail to be heard and listened to. Through our shared genetic makeup, songs, food and customs, Arab Jews offer the Jewish world a pathway for increased dialogue, connection to, and perhaps one day, unity with the Arab world. Shouldn’t we all strive for that as Jews?
David Harary runs a nonprofit think tank in Washington, DC and has Syrian Jewish heritage from Aleppo. Noam Yekutiel Sibony is a fellow with CJPAC in Toronto, Canada and has Moroccan Jewish heritage from Casablanca.