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The Arab Jews

David Neuhaus, SJ / La Civilta Cattolica - Tue, Jun 13th 2023

The Arab Jews

Since 1948, the two words “Jew” and “Arab” in the same sentence have widely been understood to refer to polar opposites, suggesting mutual distrust and enmity, war and violence, pointing to a supposedly unbridgeable gap between the two. It is timely to remember that this was not always the case. In reflecting on the history of the Jews in Arab lands, one can say there was an earlier time before Jews were hostile to Arabs, and Arabs hostile to Jews, a time when a Jew might even be an Arab. Jews in Arab lands not only spoke Arabic, but were part and parcel of Arab civilization and made their specific contribution to it. Before 1948, there were about one million Arabic-speaking Jews who were at home in countries stretching from Morocco to Iraq, with important Jewish centers in Casablanca, Tunis, Tripoli, Cairo, Alexandria, Sana’a, Beirut, Damascus, Aleppo and Baghdad as well as in Jerusalem, Hebron, Jaffa and Tiberias.

In the aftermath of the recent attack on the Palestinian town of Huwara near Nablus in the Israeli-occupied West Bank by Jewish settlers seeking revenge for the murder of two Israelis nearby, it was striking that there were more voices from among the members of the ruling coalition that condoned the brutality against Palestinians than voices that condemned it. Among those who did condemn the violence were several members of the Jewish religious Shas Party, a fascinating segment on the Israeli political map.

Recently appointed Health and Interior Minister, Rabbi Moshe Arbel, who has been a member of Shas since his youth, was clear in his condemnation of the violence, challenging his colleagues in the coalition who had supported the actions of the settlers. In 1999, at the peak of its electoral success, Shas gained 17 of the 120 seats in the Knesset (14 percent). In the present governing coalition it has 11 seats. Despite its regular alignment in recent years with Jewish rightwing nationalists, members of the party have sometimes surprised political observers with their moderation and openness to dialogue with Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular. Shas, an acronym of Shomrei Sefarad (Custodians of Sefarad), was founded in 1984 to protest the unequal representation of Oriental Jews (Mizrahim), often called Sephardim,[1] those originally from the Muslim world, in the political parties, predominantly led by Jews originally from Eastern and Central Europe (known as Ashkenazim).

One of Israel’s best-known Oriental Orthodox rabbis, Ovadia Yosef, was the major driving force behind the party until his death. Yosef was born into a family of Arabic-speaking Jews in Baghdad, Iraq in 1920 and given the name Abdallah, the Arabic version of the Hebrew name Ovadia, meaning “servant of God.” When he was four, he moved with his parents to Jerusalem and was later enrolled in an ultra-Orthodox school. Excelling in religious studies and achieving distinction in them, he became a rabbi at the age of 20. Shortly thereafter, in 1947, he was dispatched to Cairo to head the Jewish community in the largest city in the Arab world. He returned just two years later to find himself a citizen of the newly established State of Israel. Yosef worked his way up the rabbinical hierarchy, which had been divided into two by the British in 1921, with one branch headed by an Ashkenazi chief rabbi and the other by a Sephardi one. Whereas the political, social and economic elite in the country was composed predominantly of Ashkenazim, the migration of hundreds of thousands of Mizrahim to Israel, mostly Arabic-speakers from the lands between Morocco and Iraq, changed the composition of the Jewish population. After serving as a religious judge in different locales, Yosef became the Chief Sephardi Rabbi of Tel Aviv in 1968 and five years later, was appointed the Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, a position in which he served for ten years.

After ending his role as chief rabbi in 1983, he became more involved in the political arena with the founding of Shas. He saw Oriental Jews as underprivileged, remote from the centers of power, often humiliated because of their non-European Middle Eastern culture and discriminated against. Shas was founded in part as an expression of frustration against the Ashkenazi political establishment and a rejection of the attitude of too many that Arabic-speaking Jews were in some way inferior to Ashkenazi Jews. Yosef sought to give back to these Jews their lost dignity. Arabic-speaking Jews, he insisted, had a past no less glorious than the Jews of Europe and he was proud of the Arab culture from which he had emerged. A fascinating illustration of this pride was revealed in July 2019. A hand-written list of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s favorite songs in Arabic was sold at auction for over six thousand dollars. A conclusion from perusal of the list is that the rabbi loved most the music of the great 20th-century Egyptian composer and singer Muhammad Abd al-Wahab (1902-1991), famous for his romantic and patriotic hymns.

Oriental Jews could boast of golden ages of Jewish-Arab symbiosis in regions like Iraq, Egypt, Morocco and Andalus. They had produced some of the greatest minds in Jewish history. Among them were the 10th-century Egyptian, Saadya Gaon (Sa’d bin Yusuf al-Fayumi), translator, philosopher, theologian and liturgist, and Moses Maimonides (Musa bin Maymun), 12th-century physician, philosopher, legal expert and commentator from Andalus (the Muslim-ruled part of the Iberian peninsula) to name just two of the myriad luminaries. Oriental Jews were not migrants to the Middle East but rather indigenous to it, integrated into the majority Muslim world alongside Arabic-speaking Christians. They were heirs to a centuries-old heritage of a Judaism that was at home in Arabic language and culture.

The Jewish-Arab heritage stretches back to the dawn of Arab civilization. There are traces of Arabic-speaking Jews even before the rise of Islam in the 7th century. Some Jews from Yemen traced their presence in the Arabian Peninsula to First Temple times. An Arab dynasty of converted Jews, the Himyarites, established a kingdom in Arabia in the 5th century. Islam’s prophet, Muhammad, had complex relations with the Jewish tribes in Arabia, alternating between friendship and hostility. Saadia Gaon’s 9th-century translation of the Jewish Scriptures into Arabic was a masterpiece. It was later adopted (with theological amendments) by the Coptic Church. His manual of Arabic grammar was studied throughout the Arab world. Maimonides, quoted in the works of Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century, was one of the most important exponents of the rational philosophical school that developed in the Muslim Arab world at the time.

They, like many other intellectuals, used three languages in their writing: Hebrew (for intricacies of Jewish law and practice), Arabic (for theological and philosophical works that engaged the broader Arab world) and Judeo-Arabic (for popular works written for the Jewish community). Judeo-Arabic, itself is a forgotten treasure of this heritage, a form of Arabic written in the Hebrew script. It parallels the better-known Yiddish, a dialect of German written in Hebrew characters, and used in Germany and Eastern Europe, or Ladino, a Jewish version of Spanish, used by the Jews originating in Andalus. Jews continued to use Judeo-Arabic well into the 20th century and volumes of philosophy, theology, science, poetry, song and community communication are testimony to the wealth of this Jewish form of Arabic.

It was only after the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 that most of the Arab countries of the contemporary Middle East emerged. Jews, like Christians, participated in the political, social, cultural and economic life of these developing societies alongside their Muslim and Christian compatriots. Arabic-speaking Jews were prominent in many different walks of life and a few examples from politics and popular culture must suffice here:

-Yehezkel Sasson (1860-1932), Iraqi Minister of Finance and member of the Iraqi parliament until his death.

-Yusuf Qattawi (1861-1942), Egyptian Minister of Finance and then Transport.

-David Samra (1878-1960), Deputy President of the Supreme Court in Iraq.

-Henri Curiel (1914-1978), founder of the Egyptian Communist Party, assassinated in Paris.

-Abraham Serfati (1926-2010), leader of the Moroccan opposition to King Hassan II. He spent more than two decades incarcerated as a political prisoner.

-Andre Azoulay (b. 1941), close advisor to Kings Hassan II and Muhammad VI in Morocco.

-Huda Ezra Nonoo (b. 1964), Bahraini ambassador to the US.

-Daoud Husni (1870-1937), Egyptian composer.

-Habiba Msika (1893-1930), Tunisian singer.

-Fayruz al-Halabbiya (Rachel Smuha) (1895-1955), Syrian singer from Aleppo, who inspired renowned Lebanese singer Nuhad Haddad, who also went by the name Fayruz.

-Togo Mizrahi (1901-1986), Egyptian filmmaker and actor.

-Zohra al-Fasiya (1905-1994), Moroccan singer at the court of King Muhammad V.

-Salih (1908-1986) and Daud al-Kuwaiti (1910-1976), prominent musicians and founders of the first Iraqi radio orchestra.

-Salima Mourad (1912-1974), popular Iraqi singer.

-Cheikh Raymond (Raymond Leyris) (1912-1961), Algerian specialist in Andalusian music, oud player and singer, assassinated during the Algerian civil war.

Perhaps best remembered in the Arab world today is Leila Mourad (1918-1995), Egyptian actress and singer, who starred in many Egyptian romantic films and converted to Islam when she married renowned Egyptian film director, Anwar Wajdi.

The establishment of the State of Israel destabilized the Arab world in which Oriental Jews had been at home. Like all minorities, golden ages of tolerance, coexistence and creativity alternated with times of hardship, marginalization and oppression. In the 20th century, emissaries from the political and predominantly secular Ashkenazi-dominated Zionist movement strongly encouraged Oriental Jews to redefine their identity, and focus on the idea that Palestine/Israel was their true homeland. The call to migrate to Palestine/Israel was often framed in religious Messianic terms that resonated with many Oriental Jews who maintained a traditional Jewish lifestyle and hoped for an end-of-time ingathering of the Jewish people in Zion (Jerusalem).

Political Zionist discourse, founded on the need to react to 19th and 20th century European anti-Semitism, which culminated in the Holocaust, assimilated the experience of Oriental Jews to that of European Jews. Jewish history was seen as a long and tragic story of victimhood and Oriental Jews were invited to view their own history also as a grim story of endemic persecution. Strengthening this tendency, parts of the Arab political leadership in the 1940s, mostly as a reaction to what was perceived as Zionist colonialism in Palestine, began to identify these indigenous Oriental Jews as sympathizers with Zionism. There were outbreaks of violence against Jews in some parts of the Middle East, such as the attacks on indigenous Jews in Hebron in Palestine in 1929 and in Baghdad in 1941. Caught between European Zionism and Arab nationalism, hundreds of thousands of Oriental Jews packed their bags and left their ancient homelands.

Many of those who arrived in Israel in the late 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s were shocked by the overwhelmingly secular European society they encountered. Often they were transported to makeshift transit camps, registered with new Hebrew names to rid them of their Arab ones, and were treated as less than fully Jewish and less than fully civilized, because of their Jewish-Arab traditional practices and their Arabic culture. The humiliation they experienced was traumatic, for which many blamed the secular and socialist Ashkenazi elite that ruled Israel from 1948 until 1977.

When the socialists were defeated in 1977, many Oriental Jews, making up more than half the Jewish population in Israel at the time, not only contributed to this defeat with their vote but also embraced the ideology of the Israeli rightwing under the leadership of Menachem Begin. A more strident nationalism ruled the day, including a refusal to compromise with the Palestinians and a defiant attitude toward the Arab world in general. However, this widespread anti-Arab sentiment was accompanied by no small measure of ambivalence among Oriental Jews, who after all were culturally rooted in the Arab world. Not only had they been at home in this world, which they now viewed with enmity and contempt, but they also felt discriminated against because of their own Arab cultural roots. While they might be loath to be identified as Arabs, by definition Israel’s enemies, they were also progressively rediscovering a pride in their own particular Jewish-Arab religious, social, cultural and culinary heritage.

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and his younger proteges in Shas frequently revealed this ambivalence, manifested in swings between angry outpourings of mocking disdain (particularly after Arab attacks on Jews or Muslim extremist diatribes against Judaism) and the promotion of dialogue and peace with the Arab world. On the one hand, for example, in 2001, Yosef declared with regard to Arabs: “It is forbidden to be merciful to them. You must send missiles against them and annihilate them. They are evil and damnable” (The Telegraph, April 10, 2001). Likewise, in 2009, he commented with regard to Muslims: “their religion is as ugly as they are” (Maariv, December 14, 2009). In 2010, he said of the Palestinians: “all these evil people should perish from this world. God should strike them with a plague” (Al-Jazeera, August 29, 2010).

Yet despite these vitriolic remarks, it was the same Yosef who issued a religious legal ruling in 1989 in which he permitted giving up parts of the Land of Israel, including Jewish settlements, when human lives were at stake. On this basis, he supported the Rabin government that signed the Oslo Peace Accords with the Palestinians according to the principle of “two states for two people.” Yosef and his disciple, Aryeh Deri, present head of Shas, visited Egypt in 1990 to discuss peace initiatives with President Hosni Mubarak. What was particularly striking was that Israeli leaders were in dialogue with regional Arab leaders in Arabic, a language they shared as their native tongue. This was a very different image of an Israeli, usually perceived by Arabs as a European colonialist. Shortly thereafter, Yosef led Shas into Rabin’s coalition government, which was negotiating with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), defying many of Israel’s Ashkenazi rabbis. Yosef offered to meet PLO chief Yasser Arafat personally and his meetings with Palestinian police chief Nasser Yusuf arguably saved lives on both sides of the conflict. Later, again defying the religious rightwing, Yosef condemned Israeli settlers who took over Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem and threatened to bring down the government unless Prime Minister Netanyahu redeployed troops in the occupied territories, as had been assented to in the Oslo agreement.

Yosef’s emotional and reactive outbursts were interwoven with language of dialogue with the Muslim Arab world, thus incomprehensible to many political analysts. Three weeks after making hostile statements about Palestinians in 2010, he reiterated his support for the peace process. In his message, he wrote to the president of Egypt, “I support your efforts and praise all the leaders and the peoples – Egyptians, Jordanians and Palestinians – who are partners and wish for the success of this important process of achieving peace in our region, and preventing bloodshed. May God grant you longevity and may you succeed in your efforts for peace, and may there be peace in our region.”[2]

Recently, at a conference of religious Jewish Israelis supporting the peace process with Palestinians held in January 2023, Yosef’s daughter, Adina Bar Shalom, told those gathered, “Contrary to what many claimed, my father never changed his position […] Extreme statements, support for discriminatory policies, and racism have reared their heads and have become commonplace […] I insist that this is not the way of the Torah, and it is not the way of the ultra-Orthodox public […] This is not how we were educated.”[3] When Yosef died in 2013, his funeral was reputed to have been the largest Israel had ever witnessed. Through its news channel, Al-Manar, radical Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah poignantly pointed to the tension between Yosef’s upbringing as an Arabic-speaking Jew and his supposed hostility toward Arabs. “The death of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef: the Zionist Arab who hated Arabs,” read the headline.

On September 29, 2019, another Baghdadi Jew, Shimon Balas, prolific Israeli author and professor of Arabic literature at Haifa University, passed away at the age of 89. Like Yosef, he too had been born in Baghdad, arriving in Israel as a young man in 1951. Unlike Yosef, Balas was a secularist intellectual and, in his youth, identified with the Communist Party. Throughout his life, Balas defined himself as a Jewish Arab. In his autobiography, First Person Singular, published in Hebrew in 2009, he poignantly described how he had forced himself to abandon his mother tongue, Arabic and had begun to write in Hebrew, the official language of the State of Israel, about a decade after his arrival in his country of adoption. “I devoted myself to systematically reading the Bible in Hebrew as well as the Mishnah (a 3rd century rabbinic compendium). Another decision that I was careful to implement was to avoid reading any book or newspaper in Arabic. I even avoided listening to radio broadcasts in Arabic. In fact, I decided to separate myself from Arabic, even to forget it, in order to make Hebrew my first language. This process lasted about two years. One night, before going to bed, I took into my hands one of the books of Taha Hussein (a prominent 20th-century Egyptian writer) in order to verify something. After I switched off the lights, I was attacked by a forceful torrent of words, of phrases, of verses of poetry, all in Arabic, like a dam that had suddenly burst. Sleep was exiled from my eyes until the wee hours of the morning. I had experienced the revenge of Arabic in me, I explained to myself, a fitting punishment for having turned my back on my beloved and warm mother tongue.”[4]

One of Shimon Balas’ most striking literary characters is Ahmad (Harun) Shushan in his novel He is Other, published in 1991. This book appeared at the time of the first Gulf War. It is the story of a Jewish Iraqi, who, rather than deserting his beloved homeland, Iraq, alongside the masses of Jews who had left in the early 1950s, decided to convert to Islam and later joined the ruling Iraqi Baath Party. Balas once explained that Ahmad/Harun was his own alter-ego, the person he might have been if he had remained in Iraq. In an interview with a local Jerusalem newspaper in March 1991, in the midst of the Allied bombing of Baghdad, Balas declared with emotion, “I have never denied my Arab origins or the Arabic language […]. Arab identity has always been a part of me. And I have said and I now say: I am an Arab who has taken up an Israeli identity, but I am no less an Arab than any other Arab. That’s a fact and I have nothing to be ashamed of […] There are Arab Jews just as there are French Jews. How come a Christian can be an Arab and a Jew cannot?”[5] Balas calls to mind in his writings that the Middle East was not and does not have to be a perpetual war-zone.

There were two tragic consequences of the 1948 War in Palestine for the Middle East. One was the genesis of the Palestinian Arab refugee crisis as hundreds of thousands were driven from their homes and not permitted to return. The other was the rapid and almost total extinction of the Jewish Arab communities in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco as these Arabs left their homes in the decade that followed the establishment of the State of Israel. Although many have become aware of the catastrophe suffered by the Palestinian people, few are aware of the tragedy of the Jews in the Arab world. Collusion between predominantly Ashkenazi Zionists and the Arab regimes in the 1940s and 1950s promoted the transportation of many of these Jews to Israel although many others settled in Western Europe, North America and elsewhere. Most Arab regimes did nothing to encourage their Jewish citizens to stay, sometimes doing everything to hasten their departure, confiscating their property and annulling their citizenship. The once thriving millennial Jewish-Arab civilization has almost completely disappeared.

While these two displacements are a part of the tragic history of the Middle East in the middle of the 20th century, they should not be seen as canceling each other out. The Arabic-speaking Jews who moved to Israel have for the most part found a new home, whereas Palestinian Arabs remain scattered in a far-flung diaspora, or live under a regime of occupation and/or discrimination.

Today the only Arab countries with substantial Jewish communities are Morocco and Tunisia, while small numbers of Jews remain elsewhere, often hidden from public view. However, those who migrated to Israel did not always have it easy either. In 1959, after the mass immigration of Oriental Jews to Israel, protests erupted in the Wadi Salib neighborhood of Haifa, spreading to other cities where there were also heavy concentrations of Arabic-speaking Jews. They protested the widespread discrimination and racism they encountered in a country dominated by the Ashkenazi elites. In 1971, in Musrara, a poor Jerusalem neighborhood, a protest movement of Oriental Jews, mostly from Morocco, was formed, named the Black Panthers, evoking the protest movement of Black Americans fighting for equal rights in the 1960s. The demonstrators who took to the streets called on the Israeli authorities to end discrimination against Oriental Jews. Shas has continued this struggle, although shunning the secularism that characterized the protesters in past decades. Interestingly, reclaiming their own Oriental Jewish religious traditions brings them closer to many Muslim Arabs in Palestine and throughout the Arab world, opening up the possibility of dialogue and cooperation.

Renowned researcher into the culture, identity and history of Jews in Arab lands, Ella Shohat, herself the child of Jews from Iraq, has written: “Stripped of our history, we have been forced by our no-exit situation to repress our collective nostalgia, at least within the public sphere. The pervasive notion of ‘one people’ reunited in their ancient homeland actively deauthorizes any affectionate memory of life before Israel. We have never been allowed to mourn a trauma that the images of Iraq’s destruction only intensified and crystallized for some of us. Our cultural creativity in Arabic, Hebrew and Aramaic is hardly studied in Israeli schools, and it is becoming difficult to convince our children that we actually did exist there, and that some of us are still there in Iraq, Morocco and Yemen.”[6]

In recent years, some descendants of the Jews from the Arab world in Israel are recovering their social, cultural and religious roots in the Arab world. There is a revival of interest especially in the musical, religious and culinary traditions of a Jewish world that was part and parcel of the Arab Middle East for centuries. A re-engagement with their own cultural roots reorients some to seek a deeper dialogue with their Palestinian and Arab neighbors.

At the end of his study of Levantine culture, After Jews and Arabs, literary critic Ammiel Alcalay concludes, “To idealize and romanticize this memory seems as futile and bankrupt an endeavor as to appropriate and pervert it. But to not sift through its very particular qualities, in order to chart a map based on the contradictory knowledge that the flux of events can yield, is a complete abdication of responsibility. […] Somewhere between visions based on the old prophecies and the need for a new covenant, between the closed doors and the full streets, the magic of the old places and the locks of rooms without song, a space remains, a space for a poetics and a politics of the possible.”[7]

Remembering the Jews of the Arab world and their history defines in ways largely forgotten the words “Jew” and “Arab,” opening new horizons toward a future that is not suffocated by present realities of conflict and dispossession. The present stagnates, hovering over an unbridgeable gap between the two, but evoking a time before Jews were in conflict with Arabs, while the memory of Jews at home in Arabic, offers the perspective of a future where Jews might dwell alongside Arabs in a state of just peace and a reconciled equality.


[1]. The term Sephardim refers to Jews who trace their origins back to Spain and Portugal at the time of the expulsions of Jews from these lands between the 14th and early 16th centuries. Many migrated to North Africa and the Middle East where there were already communities of indigenous Jews who were Arabic and Berber speakers, who are better identified as Mizrahim (Oriental Jews).

[2]. Y. Ettinger, “Ovadia Yosef Atones to Mubarak After Declaring Palestinians Should Die”, in Haaretz, September 16, 2010.

[3]. Y. Abraham, “A Coming out Party Israel’s Religious Jewish Left”, in +972 Magazine, January 24, 2023.

[4]. S. Ballas, First Person Singular, Bnei Brak/Tel Aviv, Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 2009, 75.

[5]. Interview given to the local weekly Kol Ha’ir, March 15, 1991.

[6]. E. Shohat, On the Arab-Jew, Palestine and Other Displacements, London Pluto Press, 2017, 80.

[7]. A. Alcalay, After Jews and Arabs, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1993, 284.


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