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Judaism remains a powerful force of cultural and religious pride among many Arabs | © israeltourism/Flickr
Judaism remains a powerful force of cultural and religious pride among many Arabs | © israeltourism/Flickr
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8 Things to Know about Arab Jews

Picture of Jessica Harn
Updated: 29 December 2017
A huge part of Arab civilization and history and yet largely ignored and under-represented, Arab Jews have been in the Middle East since the very beginnings of Judaism.

Although many identify as part of the Jewish diaspora instead of “Arab” and are wary of putting too much importance on labels after a long and painful history of Jewish peoples in the Middle East, many also on the other hand proudly identify as both Jewish and Arab. Remembering that identities and ethnicities are fluid and differ from group to individual, here are some of the things to know about ethnically Arab Jews.

Many Jewish people disagree over whether being Jewish is an ethnicity or a religious identity, making it hard to identify who considers themselves Arab

While this article tackles what it means to be an Arab Jew, it’s important to remember that many Jews disagree over whether being Jewish is an ethnicity or a religious identity. While some believe that being Jewish is an ethnicity in itself and will only identify as being Jewish, many other Jews on the other hand believe that being Jewish is a religious identity and will therefore also identify as being Arab (or any other ethnicity) as well.

The Arab Bazaar in Jerusalem
The Arab Bazaar in Jerusalem | © Dennis Jarvis/Flickr

Jewish people living in Arab communities or regions are often referred to as Mizrahim Jews

Again, while some Jewish people do not like to label themselves into categories, many identify and have been labeled as being Mizrahim Jews if coming from an Arab background. Mizrahim Jews simply means Jewish communities that are originally descended from North Africa and possibly from other Arab countries such as Iraq or Yemen who later moved to North Africa.

Many Jewish Arabs speak both Arabic and Hebrew

Arab Jews who still live in Arab states or communities will most likely speak both Arabic and Hebrew, although many might only speak and read a liturgy Hebrew during religious services. Arab Jews who live in Israel however, will more likely speak Hebrew a bit more commonly than Arabic, depending on where they live in Israel as well.

Most Jewish people from the Arab world follow the Sephardi liturgy of Judaism

Sephardic Judaism is generally meaning to be the customs, philosophical, and juridical traditions of Jewish peoples from either the Iberian Peninsula or the larger North African diaspora and the Middle East. Many scholars claim that most Sephardic liturgies came from a Judean and Galilean tradition, while some claim that in the end, all Jewish liturgy is in fact Babylonian (both of which is the source of Arab Jewish background).

Jewish holidays and traditions remain alive today, thanks to the strength of Jewish people
Jewish holidays and traditions remain alive today, thanks to the strength of Jewish people | © Dov Harrington/Flickr

After the founding of Israel in 1948, many Arab Jews from the surrounding Arab states were either forced to or voluntarily moved to either Israel or the West

With the establishment of an official Jewish nation-state in the Middle East, many Jews from the surrounding Arab states either moved to Israel voluntarily or were forced to move out by their respective states. This era represents a painful and sad period of Arab-Jewish history in which many vibrant Jewish communities that lived harmoniously with other non-Jewish Arabs were forced to leave, changing the history of the region forever.

With the growth of Zionism and the State of Israel, many Jews were forced to forego their Arab culture or history

Zionism, which was the movement that called for the establishment of a Jewish homeland and led to the eventual creation of the nation-state of Israel, was both a blessing and a curse for many Jewish people. While many of them were finally able to return to what they call home, many other Jewish peoples, especially those from an Arab background, were forced to leave their cultural and historical ties behind in order to fit into the new society of Israel.

Jewish populations have existed in regions of Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula, and North Africa before the coming of either Christianity or Islam

Many people tend to forget that the Middle East is actually the birthplace of Judaism. Jewish peoples have been in these regions since before the first signs of either Islam or Christianity began, and have played a vital role in the shaping of the region as a whole.

The ancient Wailing Wall in Jerusalem
The ancient Wailing Wall in Jerusalem | © Israeltourism/Flickr

Arab Jews have and will continue to play a large part in the culture, literature, businesses, and art of the Arab world and are an undeniable force for good in the Middle East

Arab Jews have and will always be one of the most important, colorful, and beautifully diverse groups in the region; and should never be overlooked in the history, cultures, and religions of the Middle East. Here’s to more recognition and appreciation of the Arab Jews who have contributed so much to humankind!