When Words Matter

In a blog article on May 2, 2020 full of confused terminology and contradictory statements not fully thought out, Rachel Wahba, a San Francisco psychotherapist and (by her own account) a travel agent, offers the Times of Israel reader a case for use of the nomenclature of “Arabic Jews”.

In her own words:

Read Sami Michael’s novel “Victoria” and tell me we were not Arab Jews. Read Albert Memmi, Naim Kattan, Sasson Somekh. Respect.

It’s a no brainer. How could we live in what became Arab lands under Arab rule, for a thousand plus years without becoming Arabic?

The casual reader will already have picked up the confusion present (and one she plugs again and again…) in Wahba’s thesis.

She conflates between ethnicity and language root.

Writing in 2009, Lyn Julius wrote, “Jews may be Arabised, but they are not Arabs. Even many non-Jews living in the Arab world would reject the epithet “Arab”. I know Egyptians who recoil at the term, and Iraqis who reject the values of Bedouin culture.

Compounding her own incorrect use of terminology she asks plaintively how American migrant officials could possibly see her as Jewish if her parents were former citizens of Iraq and Egypt? How could she not be an Arab? And, as proof of her confused concept that Wahba is indeed an ‘Arabic Jew’, she states that in transit in Japan, her family ate “Arabic food” (sic), the family spoke “Judeo Arabic Iraqi” (sic) at home, her mother spoke what she terms an “Iraqi Jewish dialect” while her father favoured Arabic language singers such as Farid al-Atrash, Abdel Wahab, and Umm Kultoum.

With regard to Wahba’s first question, the question could be asked that if a child was born to Moldovan Christian parents living and working in Egypt, would the child be an ethnic Egyptian? Would a child born to Pakistani parents in Manchester be considered ethnic English?

With regard to Wahba’s comment about eating “Arabic food”, if she refers to varied chickpeas preparations, flat breads, finely chopped salads and skewered meats, such things are common fare from Turkey, to North Western China, to India and where nobody would suggest that the food, or those eating them, were “Arabic”.

Wahba needs to realise that ethnicity is not dependent on place of birth, and that there is no such thing as an “Iraqi Jewish dialect”, though there is such a thing as Iraqi Arabic.

She further needs to acknowledge that liking local artists performing in Arabic does not make a Jew (an ethnic and religious nomenclature) an Arab (an ethnic nomenclature) and that Arabic is a Semitic language and not an ethnicity. Her confusion in the appropriate use of terms forms a large part of her confusing error-ridden blog post.

To illustrate this confusion, Wahba states early on in her article “We were not Jewish Arabs but Arab Jews…” but then, halfway through her writing states “And, Yes (sic), we were never Arabs, we were Jews.”

However, in her defence, and in moments of lucidity, Wahba refers to “Memmi’s Arabized Jews (emphasis mine) of Tunisia…” and refers to her family as “…traditional/Orthodox Jews…Arabic-speaking (emphasis mine) kosher-eating synagogue-going Jews.” Further, she astonishingly states, half way through her article, “And, Yes, we were never Arabs, we were Jews.”

This was a confusing article to read, not least because of an incorrect interchangeability in used terminology.

Readers of the Times of Israel and its Blog contributions deserve a little better.

Words matter.

About the Author
Alan Meyer is a retired educator with an interest in the Arab-Israeli conflict, photography and Australian road trips.
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