Arab Jews – an Oxymoron
Nora Choueriri -10’s recent op-ed, “Christian Arabs – An Oxymoron?” (Sept. 17) inspired me to write about another forgotten group – the Arab Jews. Choueriri’s call to remember that Arabs come in all faiths is welcomed in a world where being an Arab and Muslim is incorrectly and unfairly linked.
Jewish roots in countries such as Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Morocco and every Arab country in between reach back thousands of years, predating the founding of Christianity and Islam. During the golden era of Arab civilization, Arab Jews made immeasurable contributions in science, medicine, philosophy, and poetry. The most famous Arab Jew was the twelfth century Abu Imram Mussa bin Maimun ibn Abdallah al-Qurtubi (Maimonides), whose contributions to medicine, philosophy and poetry are still glorified. His epic work Dalalat al-Ha’irin (The Guide for the Perplexed) is still studied not only in universities throughout the Arab world but all over the globe. Contributions by Abu al-Fadl ibn Hasda to government, Ibn Gabriol (Avicebron) to poetry and Al- Farj Yaqub bin Yusuf in the founding of Al-Azhar University have made permanent marks on the Arab cultural, intellectual and political landscape.
There was a time when over one-third of Baghdad was Jewish, when the Shabbat songs of Damascus’s Harat al-Yahud (Jewish quarter) subdued the muezzin evening call to prayer and when the songs of two brothers, Salah and Daoud Al-Kuwaiti, Jews and the fathers of modern Arabic music, could be heard in every Arab home. Many Arab Jews contributed to the founding of modern Arab states and actively fought for the liberation of their countries from Western domination. Yaqub Sanu was one of the fathers of Egyptian nationalism. Sassoon Eskell, member of the Iraqi parliament and former Iraqi Minister of Finance, was instrumental in liberating Iraq from colonial domination.
On the eve of the Second World War, there were nearly a million Arab Jews. Most Arab Jews were expelled and ethnically cleansed from their various homelands in the wake of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Within a few years, most Arab Jews found themselves in squalid and overcrowded refugee camps, known as Maabaraot, in the newly formed State of Israel. Hundreds of thousands of others sought refuge in England, France, the United States, and throughout South America. In the United States, the most notable Arab Jewish community exists in Brooklyn, New York where some 40,000 proud Arabic speaking Syrian and Egyptian Jews now live. Only a few thousand Arab Jews currently reside in the Arab world. Those who remain, most notably in Morocco, Yemen and Bahrain (the latter of which has an elderly Jewish member of parliament named Ebrahim Daoud Nonoo) are the relics of a once vibrant, dynamic and now mostly forgotten Arab-Jewish civilization.
Many Americans associate the Middle-East with images of terrorism, war, ethnic cleansing and the conflicts in Iraq, Sudan, Lebanon, and between Israel and its neighbors. These images bombard our daily lives, and more importantly, shape the perspective of how we view the Arab world. The existence of Arab Jews and Christians is a constant reminder of the diversity, complexities and paradoxes which make up the modern Middle-East. The stories of these communities have been eclipsed by the aura of disorder which now engulfs the region. However, amidst this chaos are the stories of many civilizations made up of dramatic and dynamic stories of human beings which ought not to be lost through the sands of time.