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.”

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Read more at Tablet

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

 

Europe-Israel Relations Have Been Transformed

On Monday, Israel and the EU held their first “association council” meeting since 2012, resuming what was once an annual event, equivalent to the meetings Brussels conducts with many other countries. Although the summit didn’t produce any major agreements or diplomatic breakthroughs, writes Shany Mor, it is a sign of a dramatic change that has occurred over the past decade. The very fact that the discussion focused on energy, counterterrorism, military technology, and the situation in Ukraine—rather than on the Israel-Palestinian conflict—is evidence of this change:

Israel is no longer the isolated and boycotted outpost in the Middle East that it was for most of its history. It has peace treaties with six Arab states now, four of which were signed since the last association council meeting. There are direct flights from Tel Aviv to major cities in the region and a burgeoning trade between Israel and Gulf monarchies, including those without official relations.

It is a player in the regional alliance systems of both the Gulf and the eastern Mediterranean, just as it has also become a net energy exporter due to the discovery of large gas deposits of its shoreline. None of this was the case at the last council meeting in 2012. [Moreover], Israel has cultivated deep ties with a number of new member states in the EU from Central and Eastern Europe, whose presence in Brussels bridges cultural ideological gaps that were once much wider.

Beyond the diplomatic shifts, however, is an even larger change that has happened in European-Israeli relations. The tiny Israel defined by its conflict with the Arabs that Europeans once knew is no more. When the first Cooperation Agreement [between Israel and the EU’s precursor] was signed in 1975, Israel, with its three million people, was smaller than all the European member states save Luxembourg. Sometime in the next two years, the Israeli population will cross the 10 million mark, making it significantly larger than Ireland, Denmark, Finland, and Austria (among others), and roughly equal in population to Greece, Portugal, and Sweden.

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Read more at Jerusalem Post

More about: Abraham Accords, Europe and Israel, European Union, Israeli gas