Names identify us. They do so for both the individual and the group. We are called Jews – it’s an immediately known particularity. It enables others to locate us on a spectrum with which they are familiar. Equally, it enables us to communicate with each other.
However, that one word belies our distinctions and specific characteristics. It also creates a set of assumptions on the part of both insiders and outsiders of unity – or worse – uniformity.
We are not one, fundraising slogans to the contrary. Our differences are important keys to group identities, culture and history. They should not be erased. Diversity signals dynamism of community and a wealth of tradition.
Some of us are known through our denominational affiliation. Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Orthodox – these names designate certain ritual practice and synagogue affiliations. They also indicate a decidedly North American context. They do not necessarily operate in Europe or even in Israel as identifiers. Other nomenclatures locate geographical or national associations such as American Jew or Italian Jew. Some are called Ashkenazi or Sephardi Jews. Some are associated with distinct chassidic sects. The Jew part is not all-encompassing, correspondingly applicable: it does not equalize us.
In ancient Israel, we were known as the Israelites. This signified a tribal or familial location. The children of Israel were literally supposed to be Jacob’s descendants. But many outsiders attached themselves to the community and there were significant internal divisions.
Each part of a name locates a group and sources its cultural patterns. Paying attention to these discrete classifications enables healthier interactions and effective communication.
Iraqi Jews came to Canada in 1951 and knew themselves to be Arab Jews. But when they got to North America or Israel, they were quickly informed that one could not be an Arab and a Jew. For people from the Middle East, the operating distinction was Muslim, Christian or Jew. The basic category Arab referred to the shared cultural context and spoken language of the varying communities. They surely knew they were not all the same; differences were clear. But the Jews, who lived in these countries and had lived there for over 2,000 years, shared all the cultural elements of Arab life. They ate the same foods, negotiated life in the same fashion and lived fully accepting their place in this multiplicity. They did not speak Yiddish nor eat gefilte fish. And they still don’t.
Their ruptured and dislocated recent history uprooted their sense of self and identities were torn asunder. In accepting the western style of thinking that everything is a binary of conflict, of Arab versus Jew, we have added to their disarticulation.
We should not ask people to dissolve their identities in order to facilitate neat borders or clear groupings. We should learn more about the shared cultural conditions that led to such identifications.
To be an Arab Jew does not indicate a clash of civilizations. Rather, becoming aware of the ethnic and religious diversity of the Middle East might open up our horizons and prevent stereotyping that is detrimental to interrelationships. We rid ourselves of this constant oppositional state of mind. It is not always a matter of us versus them. Sometimes “us” lived amongst “them” and the coexistence created a flourishing civilization.
Maybe the world needs to learn that competing binaries are not the only pattern available. We can think in multiple forms and share cultural complexities. Most importantly, we must recognize the wealth of the Middle Eastern Jewish world, its cultural richness and significant contributions. Iraqi Jews were indigenous to the country and they contributed to the life, history, economy, arts and theatre of their country. They were Arab Jews.