The Arab Jewish Tradition and the Past and Future Promise of Peace

The modern state of Israel is composed of Sephardic Jews, Jews from Arab-Islamic lands, and Ashkenazic Jews, Jews who hail from Christian Europe. Occidental Jews have taken on many of the traits of Western culture, while the Oriental Jews, many of whom continued to speak Arabic and partake of a common Middle Eastern culture until the mass dispersions of Jews from Arab countries after 1948, have preserved many of the folkways and traits of Arab civilization. The current demographic composition of Israel maintains a majority of people whose native family origins and history are in the Middle East - be they Jewish or Muslim.

Because of the stigma against all things Arab propounded by Zionism, many Arab Jews have surrendered their native Sephardic perspective in favor of the ruling Eurocentric ideology in Israel and have become among the most militant followers of the Likud and other Right Wing parties in Israel. The movement of Jews out of the Arab world and into the orbit of the Jewish state has greatly disrupted the bearings of Arab Jewry.

It is standard practice to see Jews and Arabs as embattled enemies rather than try to recall a time when the Jews of the Middle East were integrated into the Arab culture and civilization. But there was, contrary to today's assumptions, a time when Jews were culturally integrated into the Middle East.

This culture, what I have called "The Levantine Option," if adopted as a discursive model in the current dialogue, could speak in a sophisticated and humane manner to many of the underlying barriers that frame the culture of brutality permeating the region.

The term "Levantine" describes a polyglot Middle Eastern culture inclusive of the many ethnic groups that reside in the eastern Mediterranean under the rubric of Arab-Islamic civilization. The Levantine civilization is part of a Mediterranean world that in earlier times stretched from Muslim Spain all the way to Iraq and Syria, extending to India and even China.

The most recent chronicler of this forgotten civilization is the great Turkish writer and Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, who, in his excellent memoir Istanbul laments this eclipse of this venerable culture:

The cosmopolitan Istanbul I knew as a child had disappeared by the time I reached adulthood. In 1853 [the French writer Theophile] Gautier, like many other travelers of the day, had remarked that in the streets of Istanbul you could here Turkish, Greek, Armenian, Italian, French, and English (and, more than either of the last two languages, Ladino, the medieval Spanish of the Jews who'd come to Istanbul after the Inquisition). Noting that many people in this "tower of Babel" were fluent in several languages, Gautier seems, like so many of his compatriots, to be slightly ashamed to have no language other than his mother tongue.

Sephardic Jews acculturated to the Arabic model as articulated in the first centuries of Islam. Prominent Sephardic rabbis, such as Moses Maimonides and Abraham ibn Ezra, disdained clericalism while espousing humanism and science. The synthesis that was created by these sages permeated the religious values of Muslim, Jewish, and Christians in what the scholar Jose Faur has called "Religious Humanism."

Sephardic rabbis were thus not merely religious functionaries; they were poets, philosophers, astronomers, doctors, lawyers, accountants, linguists, merchants, architects, civic leaders and much else. Samuel the Nagid, the famous polymath of Granada, even led military troops into battle in the 11th century.

While Ashkenazi Jews in the modern period broke off into bitter and acrimonious factions, Sephardim, true to "The Levantine Option," remained united rather than let doctrine asphyxiate them. A Jewish Reformation never took place in the Sephardic world because the Sephardim continued to maintain fidelity to their traditions while absorbing and adapting the ideas and trends of the world they lived in.

Arab Jews created a place for themselves in their countries of origin by serving in government, civic affairs, business, and the professions: James Sanua, an Egyptian Jewish writer, was at the forefront of the nascent Egyptian nationalist movement. The last chief rabbi of the Ottoman Empire and then of Egypt (who died in Cairo in 1960), Haim Nahum Effendi, was elected as a member to the Egyptian Senate and was a founder of the Arabic Language Academy. By request from the Egyptian civil authorities Rabbi Masud Hai Ben Shimon composed a digest of Jewish legal practice written in classical Arabic that served as a primary source on Judaism for Egyptian courts.

In his best-selling 2002 book What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response, Bernard Lewis makes a telling statement in his interpretation of this ethno-cultural impasse. Echoing his infamous "Clash of Civilizations" thesis, made famous by the late Harvard professor Samuel Huntington, Lewis sees that the dichotomy between Judaism and Islam extends to the Jews of Israel as well:

The conflict, coexistence, or combination of these two traditions [i.e. the Judeo-Christian and the Judeo-Islamic] within a single small state, with a shared religion and a common citizenship and allegiance, should prove illuminating. For Israel, this issue may have an existential significance, since the survival of the state, surrounded, outnumbered, and outgunned by neighbors who reject its very right to exist, may depend on its largely Western-derived qualitative edge.

Israel, according to this logic, must be a representative outpost of Western civilization in a brutal and barbaric region of culturally inferior Arabs.

Indeed, when they arrived in the state of Israel from the Arab world in the 1940's and 50's, Sephardim underwent a forced process of de-Arabization, losing their native tongue, Arabic, which led to a complete abandonment of the deep ties they once had with the rich civilization of the Middle East and set them at the very bottom of the social and economic ladder in the new state.

The opposition between East and West promoted by Lewis, a permanent feature of the discourse on the conflict as reproduced by the Western media, is a dangerous mechanism that has occluded the voice of Jews who once maintained a crucial connection to the organic world of the Middle East. The silencing or marginalizing of the Arab Jewish voice has had a profoundly deleterious affect on the conflict.

What if the future of the Middle East lay in the amicable interaction of the three religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, in a symbiotic formation that lays out the commonalities rather than the deep-seated differences that are rooted in the Ashkenazi experience?

If such a symbiosis were desirable, the memory of Moorish Spain where the three religions were able to coexist and produce a civilization of great worth, would take prominence. The Sephardic voice would be central in articulating what was termed Convivencia, the creative cultural dynamic that fired medieval Spanish civilization, until its collapse in 1492.

"The Levantine Option" would help collapse the alienating cult of persecution harbored in classical Zionist thought and omnipresent in the rituals of the state of Israel, replacing it with a more positive view of the past. The nihilistic "realism" of the current Israeli approach, centered on the institutionalized perpetuation of the twin legacies of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism, would be countered by memories of an indigenous Jewish past that had a constructive relationship with its surrounding environment. "The Levantine Option" would create a shared cultural space for Jews and Arabs to bring down the walls and barriers between the peoples.

Until we develop ways to talk to one another in a substantial and civilized way - from within a shared cultural space that exists for those of us who still espouse "The Levantine Option" - the questions surrounding Israel and Palestine, as well as the endemic violence that is a malignant cancer in the region, will continue to haunt Jews, Arabs and the rest of the world.