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  • Historicizing the Concept of Arab Jews in the Maghrib
  • Emily Benichou Gottreich (bio)

Emily Benichou Gottreich, Arab Jews, Exile, Maghrib, Zionist Narratives, Northern Africa, Morocco, post-Zionist discourse, Jewish Identity

To begin, a few quick observations about the concept of the “Arab Jew” that prompt the current intervention: (1), it is largely an identity of exile; (2), it implies a particular politics of knowledge vis-à-vis the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and larger Zionist narrative(s); (3), it was originally theorized from within the frameworks of, and remains especially prominent in, specific academic fields, namely, literary and cultural studies.1 While clearly recognizing the significance of the concept of Arab Jews to post-Zionist discourse, not to mention the groundbreaking contributions of those who have revitalized the term in recent years, this essay will nonetheless argue that these three factors have, to varying degrees, converged to keep the discourse about Arab Jews limited to the semantic-epistemological level, resulting in a flattened identity that is both historically and geographically ambiguous. Developed in conversation with and presented here alongside the related essay by Lital Levy, this essay questions the presumed cultural (i.e., historical) unity inherent in contemporary articulations of the Arab Jew from a Magrhibi perspective. That is, [End Page 433] I will try to imagine how Arabness and Jewishness may have intersected in the Maghrib—and particularly in Morocco—at pivotal junctures in the past. Such efforts at historicization, it is hoped, will allow for much-needed nuance and specificity to accrue to this important identity-category, lending the concept of “Arab Jews” meaning beyond merely the ethical or political.

Arab Jews as Exiles

One of the most striking characteristics of the idea of the Arab Jew is that among those who claim this identity for themselves (and it is important to note the distinction between ascriptive and self-ascriptive identity, an idea which Levy’s essay develops more fully) almost none are currently living, and in many cases have never lived, in the geographic Arab world. I don’t point this out to cast doubt on the legitimacy of claims to Arabness.2 About this one must be very clear: The question of who really is and isn’t an Arab is about as fruitful a line of inquiry as the question of who really is and isn’t a Jew.3 Judging the legitimacy of claims to Arabness is decidedly not the goal of this essay. Rather, I point out this discrepancy at the outset because it suggests, as I mentioned above, that current invocations of the term Arab Jews are inexorably linked to the notion of exile. Exile is hardly a new theme in Jewish history and historiography, of course, wherein each dispersal functions as a mnemonic device for the collective remembering of the original exile in the wake of the destruction of the Temple; when Sephardic Jews living in Montreal remember their lives in Tangier or Tetuan, they are understood simultaneously to recall Spain—and ultimately Jerusalem—in the process. When it comes to Arab Jews specifically, Eva Hoffman’s work on the [End Page 434] “second generation,” the children of Holocaust survivors, is perhaps instructive.4 For Hoffman, the act of emigration (exile) on the part of survivors is significant because it creates the physical remove from the initial experience of the parents needed, in psychoanalytic terms, to stimulate the introjection of certain aspects of the parents’ lives—at least as they are intuited by the offspring—into the latter’s processes of identity formation. Though the historical experience of Arab Jews is obviously quite different from that of their European counterparts, they too are inheritors of the residue of a civilization. It is estimated that between 85 and 90 percent of the world’s Jews lived in the Muslim world during the medieval period;5 as a result of mass emigrations in the twentieth century, there are no longer any numerically significant Jewish communities left in the region, with the possible exception of Morocco within the Arab world (see below), and Iran and Turkey beyond it. As such, and not without some irony, the personal or introjected experience of exile is arguably the...