Lyn Julius
Lyn Julius

Using language to advance politics

‘A language is a dialect with an army and navy’.

How best do you delegitimise a nation whose existence you despise?

The answer, according to Ella Shohat, an academic from New York University, is to downgrade a language to a dialect.

Ella Shohat is the high priestess of ‘Mizrahi anti-Zionism’. In London recently to give a talk at the School of Oriental and African Studies, she has made her name by applying the theories propagated by the Palestinian author of ‘Orientalism‘, Edward Said, to Jews from Arab lands. She is best known for inventing the expression ‘Arab Jew’ to denote a creature torn from its natural habitat by Zionism – itself deemed an extension of western colonialism. Thus Jewish nationalism stands accused of destroying what she terms ‘Arab-Jewish culture’.

To follow Ella’s logic, an ‘Arab Jew’ does not speak a separate Jewish language called Judeo-Arabic: he or she speaks Arabic, albeit with minor variations. In order to reinforce her argument she downplays these differences. The only real distinction, according to her, is that Judeo-Arabic is written in the characters of ‘liturgical’ Hebrew.

It is possible to argue that a speaker of Judeo-Arabic uses enough Hebrew, Aramaic, Turkish, Persian and English terms, as well as idiosyncratic syntax and proverbs, to make himself unintelligible to a regular Arabic speaker. And then there is the Jewish accent, which would not only make a Jew a figure of fun to the Muslim listener, but instantly give his ethnicity away.

In her eagerness to assimilate the Jewish dialects to ‘regular Arabic’, Ella is forced to minimise the differences in the ‘regular’ Arabic spoken across the Arab world.  From a linguistic standpoint, it is often said that the various spoken varieties of Arabic differ from each other about as much as French differs from other Romance languages. Moroccan Arabic is as incomprehensible to Arabs from the Middle East as French is incomprehensible to Spanish or Italian speakers ( but relatively easily learned by them). It is even suggested that the spoken varieties of Arabic may linguistically be considered separate languages.

In Israel,  the last generation of Jews who were born in Arab lands are dying off and their children and grandchildren have all shifted to speaking Hebrew. You would have thought that Ella, who deplores the ‘suppression’ of Arabic in Israel’s early years because it was the ‘language of the enemy’ –  would welcome the revival of interest in, not just Ladino or Yiddish, but Judeo-Arabic ( eg Iraqi-Jewish or Moroccan-Jewish). A Facebook page called ‘preserving the Iraqi-Jewish language’ has over 30, 000 followers.

But no. To Ella,  there is no need to consider Iraqi-Jewish endangered or to preserve what is still living and spoken by the non-Jewish neighbours. Emphasising the ‘Jewish’ character of these dialects becomes a distasteful political act.  Not only – as the controversial academic Shlomo Sand claims –  has a separate Jewish people been invented, Israel has invented ‘Jewish languages’.

But it is Ella who is manipulating language to advance an agenda. As the saying goes,’ dialect is just politics.’ And this is the abysmal level to which the teaching of Middle Eastern studies in our universities has sunk today.

About the Author
Lyn Julius is a journalist and co-founder of Harif, an association of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa in the UK. She is the author of 'Uprooted: How 3,000 years of Jewish Civilisation in the Arab world vanished overnight.' (Vallentine Mitchell)