We know that there was an Arab Jewish community in New York prior to the establishment of Israel and that the Arab Jews who managed to emigrate here from Israel were absorbed by that community. These two groups, however, have completely different experiences and memories of their lives in Arab countries prior to coming to New York.Professor Ella Shohat is an Iraqi Jew who teaches in the Department of Middle Eastern Studies at New York University.
- Why don't we hear about Arab Jews?David Shasha is an American born Arab Jew living in Brooklyn with a Master's Degree in Jewish/Middle Eastern Studies from Cornell University. He is an activist, an educator, an author and an archivist and the Director of The Center for Sephardic Heritage.
I hold responsible both Zionism and Arab nationalism. Zionism has always looked at the people of the East as inferior, including Jews from Arab countries. From the turn of the century, Zionists tried to bring Arab Jews to Palestine as cheap labor. Up to now, there are Arab Jews in Israel who are discriminated against within the Jewish population. It is largely the European Jews who set the tone. The rise of Arab nationalism and the forceful rise of Islam did not create a less problematic condition for diverse minorities, who have also suffered, but for the Arab Jews, it has been one of the most complicated stories, precisely because of the establishment of the state of Israel. For the first time in their history, Arab Jews had to choose between being Jews and being Arabs.
- What has the impact of your different opinions been on you?Professor Ammiel Alcalay was born and raised in Boston and is of Bosnian origin. He teaches at Queens College and is the author of numerous books on Arab Jews and Levantine culture.
I have been called 'Arab lover,' 'terrorist,' I get the emails. It's a very ugly situation right now. We just found out that there's something called 'Campus Watch.' Jewish organizations are monitoring Arab professors, or professors sympathetic to the Arab position. My library in itself is expressive of my guilt. The fact that I have a full shelf of Mahfouz already makes me guilty of being an Arab sympathizer and it has hurt my ability to make a living.
- Why do you think they're such an isolated community?
Traditionally, the way that Arab Jews have related to their environment is to completely integrate themselves into it and you can see this during the periods of their greatest cultural creativity, in Spain and Iraq. You can see it through the music, through the poetry. What happened when they came here they faced an Ashkenazi community that did not understand who they were and because of the political situation in the Middle East, their own sense of their Arabness eroded more and more and they were left adrift, relating neither to one or the other.