The Not-Quite-Lost Languages of Iraqi Jewry

Like diaspora communities throughout most of history, the Jews of Iraq—the oldest Jewish community outside the land of Israel—long remained linguistically distinct from their neighbors. The Jews of Kurdistan spoke a form of Aramaic, while those in the remainder of the country spoke a uniquely Jewish form of Arabic, written in Hebrew characters, which some linguists believe preserves aspects of the Aramaic spoken by these Jews before the Arab conquest. Mardean Isaac writes:

Following the Arab invasions in the 7th century, Arabic supplanted Aramaic as the lingua franca of the region. As the importance of Baghdad rose, Jews established a strong presence there. By the early 20th century, Baghdad was about one-third Jewish. Some communities of Jews in northern Iraq—like Assyrian [Christians] and Mandaeans—continued to speak Aramaic, adopting Arabic or Kurdish only for external use.

Baghdadi Jews would imbue the Arabic language with their own distinct heritage. The phenomenon of Iraqi Judeo-Arabic mirrors the status of Jews in relation to Iraq, as a people whose culture and habits were deeply shaped by broader Iraqi society and politics, yet who lived in parallel to it. In that status, it joins not only other Jewish diaspora dialects, but a legacy of languages in the Middle East that bear the trace of communities who navigated all sorts of political transformations before the homogenizing cultural and demographic forces set in motion by the collapse of the Ottoman empire and the establishment of often-murderous [smaller] states. . . .

The scholarly value of Judeo-Arabic was made clear [to the author] during a tour of the Judeo-Arabic collection in the British Library. The collection contains thousands of manuscripts and texts, ranging from a version of Moses Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed, copied in Yemen in 1380, to the mid-19th-century Hebrew Gazette, designed for the Iraqi Jewish community of Bombay.

Ilana Tahan, a curator of Hebrew and Christian Orient studies at the British Library, told me that the portion of the archive containing published material (often published outside of Iraq) particular to Iraqi Jews “spans more than 140 years, and covers a wide range of subjects such as Bible, religious law, liturgy, folklore, and literature.”

Read more at Tablet

More about: Aramaic, History & Ideas, Iraqi Jewry, Jewish language, Mizrahi Jewry

Iran’s Calculations and America’s Mistake

There is little doubt that if Hizballah had participated more intensively in Saturday’s attack, Israeli air defenses would have been pushed past their limits, and far more damage would have been done. Daniel Byman and Kenneth Pollack, trying to look at things from Tehran’s perspective, see this as an important sign of caution—but caution that shouldn’t be exaggerated:

Iran is well aware of the extent and capability of Israel’s air defenses. The scale of the strike was almost certainly designed to enable at least some of the attacking munitions to penetrate those defenses and cause some degree of damage. Their inability to do so was doubtless a disappointment to Tehran, but the Iranians can probably still console themselves that the attack was frightening for the Israeli people and alarming to their government. Iran probably hopes that it was unpleasant enough to give Israeli leaders pause the next time they consider an operation like the embassy strike.

Hizballah is Iran’s ace in the hole. With more than 150,000 rockets and missiles, the Lebanese militant group could overwhelm Israeli air defenses. . . . All of this reinforces the strategic assessment that Iran is not looking to escalate with Israel and is, in fact, working very hard to avoid escalation. . . . Still, Iran has crossed a Rubicon, although it may not recognize it. Iran had never struck Israel directly from its own territory before Saturday.

Byman and Pollack see here an important lesson for America:

What Saturday’s fireworks hopefully also illustrated is the danger of U.S. disengagement from the Middle East. . . . The latest round of violence shows why it is important for the United States to take the lead on pushing back on Iran and its proxies and bolstering U.S. allies.

Read more at Foreign Policy

More about: Iran, Israeli Security, U.S. Foreign policy