Were There Arab Jews, and Did They Speak Judeo-Arabic?

Jews in Arab lands spoke much the same Arabic as their neighbors. But the notion that they thought of themselves as Arab Jews, pushed now in some circles, is a historical absurdity.

A Yemeni Jewish family poses together in Raydah on November 01, 1992. Jacques Langevin/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images.
A Yemeni Jewish family poses together in Raydah on November 01, 1992. Jacques Langevin/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images.
April 10 2024
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“Judeo-Arabic” is said to be the language spoken by the large number of Jews who inhabited the Arabic-speaking lands of the Middle East before leaving them after the establishment of Israel. But although the term is widely used, did such a distinct language actually exist? Not according to Ella Shohat, Professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University, as argued in a recent essay “‘Judeo-Arabic and the Separationist Thesis,” published by her in the newly founded Palestine/Israel Review.

Shohat’s argument is straightforward. While the speech of Jews in Arab lands, she contends, may have had certain peculiarities not shared with Muslim and Christian speakers of Arabic, these were minor features that caused neither Jews nor non-Jews to feel that Jews spoke anything but the ordinary colloquial Arabic of their region; moreover, these features were regional themselves, so that what was true of the speech of a Jew from Baghdad was not necessarily true of the speech of a Jew from Cairo, and the “Judeo-Arabic” of a Moroccan Jew was different from the “Judeo-Arabic” of a Yemenite Jew. The idea, writes Shohat, that there was ever a “Judeo-Arabic” common to all Arabic-speaking Jews and setting them apart from Arabic-speaking non-Jews is a myth propagated, for ideological reasons, by contemporary Jewish linguists.

This myth, Shohat maintains, was associated with Zionism and with Israel’s conflict with the Arab world, which made it seek to “de-Arabize” Arabic-speaking Jews by insisting on “the inherent distinctiveness of the Jewish [form of Arabic] from the Arabic language [spoken by non-Jews] and its assumed connectivity to other Jewish languages in other places.” On the one hand, that is, placing the speech of Jews in Arab lands on a par with truly distinct Jewish languages like Judeo-German (Yiddish) or Judeo-Spanish (Ladino) served to create the false impression that they lived in a state of social separation from their non-Jewish environment, as did Yiddish speakers in Eastern Europe and Ladino speakers in Turkey and the Balkans; on the other hand, it conveyed that they had nothing linguistically in common with their new neighbors in Israel, the Arabic-speaking Palestinians. This “separationist thesis,” as Shohat calls it, was thus intended to drive a wedge, historical and present-day, between Jews and Arabs in the name of Jewish uniqueness.

Needless to say, Shohat, who grew up in Israel, to which her family came from Iraq, and who calls herself an “Arab Jew,” has her own ideological ax to grind—and she grinds it far more tendentiously than did such proponents of “the separationist thesis” attacked by her as the eminent Hebrew University linguists Joshua Blau (1919–2020) and Haim Blanc (1930–1984), both given prominence in her article. Still, one must not be blinded by her anti-Zionism and lack of linguistic training into dismissing her argument out of hand, because it is not entirely baseless.

This is so because, although the question of what distinguishes a language, what a dialect, and what a mere regional or ethnic variety of standard speech is a vexed one that indeed often involves political and ideological issues, the issue of mutual intelligibility is invariably at its core. Where such intelligibility exists to a high degree, separate languages do not—and Shohat is correct in saying that speakers of the ordinary Arabic of the various regions of North Africa and the Middle East, and speakers of these regions’ “Judeo-Arabic” variants, never had any trouble understanding one another.

To this statement, it is true, two caveats need to be added. The first is that, prior to modern times, Arabic-speaking Jews wrote Arabic in Hebrew characters that non-Jews could not read and were unable themselves, for the most part, to read Arabic characters; the written Arabic of each group, therefore, was a closed book to the other. The second caveat is that, though its grammar, syntax, and general vocabulary were no different from those of ordinary Arabic, “Judeo-Arabic,” like Jewish speech nearly everywhere, made extensive use of Hebrew and Hebrew-derived words that non-Jews were unfamiliar with.

Neither of these points, though, carries critical weight. Writing Arabic in the Hebrew alphabet does not mean that its writers were writing a different language any more than Serbian and Croatian are different languages because Serbs write Serbo-Croatian in Cyrillic characters and Croats in Latin ones. And while a Moroccan Jew who said “Simossilinu” (from Hebrew Hashem yatsilenu), “God help us,” to a non-Jew in speaking of some predicament would have met with a blank stare, this is precisely why he would have been unlikely to say it, just as a New York Jew would not generally say to a non-Jewish colleague, “Do I have tsuris!”

Moreover, even when Jewish speakers pronounced Arabic words or used Arabic grammatical forms differently from their neighbors, such pronunciations and usages were rarely uniquely Jewish. If the Jews of Baghdad, for instance, said kultu, “I said,” rather than gelt, as did their Muslim counterparts, this was because kultu was the standard form, still widely used in the Arab world, that they had preserved as one of the city’s oldest communities, whereas non-standard gelt was brought to Baghdad by rural and Bedouin migrants. And conversely, if the Jews of Cairo said leysh, “why,” in place of Cairene ley, this was because many of them could trace their roots to Syria and Lebanon, where leysh was the accepted usage. When Baghdadis heard kultu from Jews, or Cairenes heard leysh, they were not hearing anything felt by them to be foreign to Arabic.

Such examples help demonstrate why Shohat is right. But they also demonstrate why she is wrong, because the very fact that Jews wrote Arabic in Hebrew characters, or clung to usages that were not the rule among the non-Jews in whose midst they lived, indicates that, even if “Judeo-Arabic” was not very different from non-Jewish Arabic, it was the product of a tightly knit and inwardly oriented community that did separate itself from its surroundings. Linguistically speaking, such things could only have happened in an environment in which Jews socialized mostly or entirely with themselves and had relatively little social contact with non-Jews. While Jews and non-Jews in the Arabic-speaking world might have enjoyed good neighborly relations, done business together, and been on superficially friendly terms, clear boundaries existed between them. An Arabic-speaking Jew was always a Jew, just as an Arabic-speaking Arab was always an Arab, and this distinction was never lost on anyone.

This is why the term “Arab Jew,” with its implication that the Jews of Arab lands traditionally thought of themselves as Arabs in much the same way, say, that the Jews of America think of themselves as Americans, is a historical absurdity. On the contrary: in the traditional Arab world, a Jew could not be an Arab and an Arab could not be a Jew; the two categories were mutually exclusive. It was only in the 20th century, with the rise of an ideology of secular Arabism that sought to fit all Arabic speakers, irrespective of religion, under a single nationalist umbrella that the term “Arab Jew” came into being—and then, too, it was largely restricted to left-wing intellectuals in urban centers like Cairo or Baghdad who were out of tune with popular sentiment. Apart from them, it would be hard to find Jews even in 20th-century Arab lands who spoke of being “Arab Jews.”

Blau and his disciples may indeed have gone too far in their insistence on a distinct “Judeo-Arabic” language. They were justified, however, in stressing that the peculiarities of Jewish speech in Arab lands, however relatively few, testified to a powerful sense of Jewish identity that drew a clear line between Jews and non-Jews. As Blau wrote in a 1968 paper titled “Judeo-Arabic in Its Linguistic Setting”:

True, the cultural symbiosis . . . of Jews and Arabs was very close, unexcelled in some respects until our own day. Nevertheless, it was the symbiosis of two separate cultures, which remained separate despite their basic similarity and mutual contact. One must always keep in mind this basic difference between medieval [and later] Arabic-speaking Jews and modern Western Jewry living in the post-Emancipation era.

This is something that Ella Shohat has failed to do.

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