Arab Jews, and complicating our binaries
November 29, 2018
We've all heard the term "Judeo-Christian." (And many of us have objected to it strenuously on the grounds that it erases important distinctions between Judaism and Christianity, and that when our traditions are conflated, often Judaism is appropriated to bolster Christian values that aren't our own.) But "Judeo-Islamic" isn't in the same kind of common parlance.
According to Bernard Lewis (in his book Jews of Islam), the term "Judeo-Islamic" was never adopted either by Jews or by Muslims in Islamic lands, because neither side saw their relationship in that light. But the Jews who lived in Muslim lands manifested a distinct strand of Jewish tradition, and Jews who come from Muslim or Arabic places complicate our mental binaries between Arab and Jew.
That's part of what I took from Dr. Yuval Evri's presentation to this year's LEAP fellows (of whom I am one) at the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at Penn. Each year, leading scholars of Judaic studies gather at the Katz Center to engage in research on Jewish civilization past and present... and each year, Clal invites a diverse group of rabbis to join those scholars and to (ideally) translate what we learn from them into "accessible, meaningful, and usable wisdom."
This year, the fellowship focuses on the study of Jewish life in Muslim contexts. Our first speaker at our first session was Dr. Yuval Evri, who began by noting that Jews and Muslims have coexisted -- sometimes under Muslim majority rule, sometimes as parallel minorities -- for centuries. He invited us to think beyond easy and simplistic narratives, both the pretty story of interfaith utopia and the ugly story of inevitable persecution, as we engage with the ideas and realities of Jews in Arab lands.
(You can glimpse his work here: Katz Center Fellow Yuval Evri on Arab Jewish Thought.)
In Ashkenazic / European-centered Jewish historiography, he pointed out, Sephardi / Mizrahi / Arab Jews are mostly ignored. When they are mentioned, it's as passive actors or bystanders. There's a problematic Eurocentrism in that lens. The underlying assumption of that approach is that Jewish modernization began in Europe, and from there spread to other parts of the Jewish world. But that's not fair or correct. It's more accurate to say that there are multiple modernities, not just the one.
Dr. Evri repeatedly used the term "Arab-Jewish." I love the way that phrase elides, or even erases, a binarism that many of us in the European / Ashkenazic diaspora take for granted. The Ashkenazic (some would say "Ashkenormative") perspective presumes a tension between Arab and Jew, but Dr. Evri's work is a reminder that that's a false binary. And it's been a false binary for a long time. One can't study Rambam (Maimonides) properly, he noted, without knowing Arabic!
When we broke into small groups to discuss texts, my small group looked at Nissim Malul's "Our Status in the Country, or the Question of Learning Arabic," which offered a fascinating window into how one intellectual regarded the need to learn and teach Arabic to Jewish children in Ottoman Palestine in 1913, and how he regarded Arabic as a way to connect with his "brothers" in Syria, Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. What a different paradigm for Jewish-Arab interaction that would have been.
There was a slide in Dr. Evri's presentation (that he didn't actually get to read when we were in session -- time was too short) that I want to excerpt for y'all, because it's such a beautiful encapsulation of the tensions his session was exploring. (This is one of the upsides of participating remotely: I had his slide deck, which meant I was able to see even the slides he didn't get to!) This is from his "Conversation with American Jew Sami Shalom Chetrit," and here's the part that really reached me:
Excuse me for prying, but I just have to ask you, are you Jewish or Arab?
I'm an Arab Jew.
No, I'm quite serious.
Arab Jew? I've never heard of that.
It's simple: Just the way you say you're an American Jew. Here, try to say "European Jews."
Now, say "Arab Jews."
You can't compare, European Jews is something else.
Because "Jew" just doesn't go with "Arab," it just doesn't go. It doesn't even sound right.
Depends on your ear.
The first speaker argues that it doesn't make sense to say "Arab Jew" because Arabs want to kill us; the second speaker retorts that the phrase "European Jew" is equally complicated because of European history of trying to kill us! I love how this piece skewers the fallacy that Arabs or Europeans maintain a single attitude toward Jews -- and the fallacy that "Jew" is any more (or less) incompatible with "Arab" than with "European." (Also the dig at American Jews not knowing that Arab Jews exist.)
Dr. Evri made the point that for Arab Jews, both historically and today, the divisions we're accustomed to presuming -- Zionist vs. anti-Zionist, Arab vs. Jew, East vs. West -- don't necessarily apply. In one sense this is kind of Jewish diversity 101 (of course Arab Jews exist, and of course these binaries are limited!) At the same time, his talk gave me an opportunity to ponder: given the existence of Arab Jews (historical and current) who shatter that binary, why are we still working with that binary at all?
This week was the first gathering of this year's LEAP Fellows at the Katz Center at the University of Pennsylvania; I offer this with gratitude to the Katz Foundation for making me a Katz Family Fellow. This is the first in a pair of posts processing some of our learning. Thoughts / comments welcome.