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Are Jews From Arab Countries "Arabs of Jewish faith?"

June 15th 2009

Congratulations on the excellent article by Edwin Black (Page One June 8, 2009) dissecting what was wrong with the Obama speech in Cairo. However there was one sentence which I do find incorrect: That Jews of the Middle East and North Africa are ‘originally Arabs, but of Jewish faith’. Almost no "Mizrahi Jews," that is Jews from Arab countries, consider themselves ‘Arabs’ unless they happen to be Commmunists or anti-Zionists. This concept plays into the anti-Israel propaganda argument that there is no such thing as a Jewish people, only Arabs of the Jewish religion. No Middle Eastern Jew, asked whether he was an Arab, would have said yes, no matter how at home he felt in his environment. And for that matter, no Arab would have called his Jewish neighbour an Arab either. Jewishness and Arabness were perceived as antonyms in the sense of denoting two mutually exclusive ethnic identities, just as “Jew” and “goy” were antonyms in Eastern Europe. 

Edwin Black replies: Your observation is understandable. But my statement was correct especially in historical context. Some explanation may help. The term "Arab" derives from the word which described a person who dwelled in the Arabian Peninsula. For centuries, these people were almost entirely non-agrarian marauders and nomads of tribal character. There was no Arab national identity and no Arabs nations anywhere. The Arab Conquest or Muslim Conquest of the early seventh century brought Arabs to the far reaches of the Middle East and beyond as the Caliphate was forged by fire and sword. For nearly a half millenium prior to World War I, the Caliphate was controlled by the Sultans of the Ottoman Empire. There were, of course, no Arab nations and no Arab nationality or nationalism during these centuries leading up to twentieth century.

The despotism and backwardness of the Ottomans gave rise to the concept of "Arab Nationalism" in about 1908. Arab Nationalism was primarily driven by Christian Lebanese and Syrians influenced by French democratic thought. This group, the "Young Turks," expanded their movement to identify the Ottoman lands as not just imperial but also national, and its subjects as "citizens." In years before World War I, many nations saw a popular surge to end dynastic and ecclisiastical regimes from the Czars to the Sultans. The Young Turks defined Arab Nationalism or the Arab national identity to include all citizens of the realm, Sunni and Shia Muslims, Kurds, Christians or all denominations, Yazdi, Copts, Jews and all others. These people were to be Arab nationals first, and this identity and authority would supercede tribalism or religious grouping--just as it does throughout the Western World today. In fact, it was this Turkish national authority that asserted its right to tax Muslim pilgrims traveling to Mecca, thereby challenging the prerogatives of the Muslim Sherif. Indeed, this conflict compelled the Islamic forces of Hussein and Faisal to side with the British against the Turks in World War I under the leadership of Lawrence of Arabia.

After the War, the Paris Peace Conference and related conclaves dismantled the Ottoman Middle East and invented a convenient collection of Arab nations where none previously existed--this to create oil states to function under the control of London and Paris and oil companies. All citizens of these Arab nations--majority and minority--had internationally guaranteed equal rights, something local populations never accepted. Despite the endless internecine strife and violence, Christian Maronites, Jews, Kurds, Armenians and others were Arab citizens. In common parlance, Arab Christian and Arab Jew were frequently used. That came to an end in various Arab countries due to a variety of anti-Democratic movements, as well as the exploitative weight of western oil imperialism.

In the thirties and forties, the pan-Arab adoption of the Hitler program, paralleling the rise of Zionism and Israel, and under the anti-Semitic leadersership the Mufti of Jerusaelm, made the Jew a national outcast throughout the Arab Middle East. In essence, the Hitler model became the Arab model. After World War II and the establishment of the State of Israel, the Arab nations expelled their Jewish citizens completely penniless. This displaced a million persons who had dwelled in those lands for a millennium before Muhammad. Their only crime was being Arab nationals of Jewish faith. You can learn more in my book Banking on Baghdad, now temporarily available only in selected Barnes and Noble or at any library.

Here would be a good time to remind that a similar context applies to my own parents and millions of other Polish Jews. It is common to speak of "Poles and Jews." The pure fact is that all Polish victims of the Holocaust were in fact Polish citizens. Polish Jews were Poles, albeit Poles of Jewish faith. Many Polish Jewish families had dwelled in Poland for centuries.

In the final analysis, your comment really confronts the Zionist concept during the pre-World War II decades. Many Americans and most Germans counted themselves as non-Zionist. This same dynamic existed in many nations. More on this can be learned in my book The Transfer Agreement to be reprinted this fall. The Zionist notion declared that Jews could choose to self-identify first as an Arab national, Polish national, Russian national, or Argentinian national, and then by religious commuinity second or third. But at some point the centuries-old historical dynamic would inject and local regimes would declare their Jewish citizens "foreigners" or "enemies" to be persecuted, disallowed, expelled or killed. In large measure, that is why Israel came into being. Unhappily, the Zionist ideal has been vindicated time and again throughout the world exempting North America--that is, exempting it for the most part.


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