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Why Some Jews Don’t Speak Arabic

This is a cross post by Ben Cohen

I always interpreted the term “rootless cosmopolitan,” a Soviet euphemism for “Jew” with a distinctly pejorative ring, as a compliment. The Jewish stevedores who hauled their loads along Salonika’s docks, the Jewish writers who populated the cafes of Vienna and Paris, the Jewish newshounds who bashed out copy for shoestring budget newspapers in London and New York—all conjured up hugely appealing images of a worldly people equally at home with the labor of the hand and the labor of the mind. Jews were building transnational networks, both rabbinical and revolutionary, before we even knew what to call such things.

Not for us the bunkum of “blut,” “boden” and “volk,” I liked to think. To paraphrase the historian Isaac Deutscher, we Jews were in but not of the societies in which we lived, enabling us to see past the parochial complaints and primitive hatreds of our neighbors.

A recent tussle I had with an Arab writer forced me, however, to consider that admittedly romantic notion from another standpoint. The trigger for the dispute was a piece I’d written about Al Akhbar, a pro-Hezbollah Lebanese newspaper that had been the subject of a flattering New York Times profile. My antagonist, a blogger rejoicing in the nom de plume “Angry Arab,” was irritated for a number of reasons: my discussion of Al Akhbar’s anti-Semitism, my reprise of the bloody end which typically meets Middle Eastern leftists when they align with nationalists and Islamists, my questioning of the paper’s “independent” credentials—but most of all by the fact that I don’t read Arabic.

No matter that this is a silly argument. (One would not, after all, need to be fluent in German to know that Streicher’s Der Stürmer was an anti-Semitic rag—and given that anti-Semitism lies at the heart of Hezbollah’s credo, describing a newspaper that cheerleads for these terrorists as anti-Semitic is hardly a leap.) It was a comment that struck me personally, for the simple reason that, had I been born into the circumstances of many of the friends with whom I grew up in London, the offspring of families long-domiciled in the United Kingdom, Arabic would have been my mother tongue.

In 1941, the year of the Farhud—the two-day pogrom against Baghdad’s Jewish community instigated by similarly “angry Arabs” allied with the Nazis and spurred on by the notorious Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Husseini, which resulted in hundreds of deaths and injuries and destroyed homes, my infant father and his family left Iraq. It was an odyssey which took them to British-ruled India, to British Mandate Palestine and then to England.

In the bosom of London’s Sephardic community, my father met my mother, herself the daughter of a Spanish-speaking Jewish mother from Gibraltar and a Serbo-Croat and Ladino-speaking father from Bosnia. I evolved in an environment where these displaced worlds overlapped and collided. In 1969, for example, my grandfather was manhandled out of the Iraqi Embassy in London following the hanging of 13 Jews by the Ba’ath on fabricated charges of spying for Israel—but it was my Bosnian grandfather who was frogmarched into the street. My Iraqi grandfather, whose brother’s family was among the tiny remnant of Jews who remained in Baghdad, could never have taken such a risk.

As I got older, I felt comfortable with the “rootless cosmopolitan” label. I didn’t consider myself a Yugoslav or an Englishman or an Arab Jew. I certainly didn’t think of myself as a refugee, though I suppose I have as much claim on ancestral properties in Travnik, Baghdad, and Basra as any UNRWA-registered Palestinian brandishing the key to a house in Haifa or Jaffa. I did not feel like a victim, even if my birth in London was the consequence of war and ethnic cleansing, rather than a corporate expat package or the indulgent wanderings of a bohemian ancestor.

Yet, however hybridized my sense of self was, it was not reflected in my linguistic range. English was not just my mother tongue; it was my only tongue. I was not taught Arabic, nor Serbo-Croatian. I did pick up a bit of Spanish, simply because it was the lingua franca of my maternal grandparents house’ in Maida Vale, northwest London, where we would sing Ladino songs around the dining table on Shabbat and on Jewish festivals.

This gets to the heart of my dispute with the Arab blogger who took me to task for being a non-Arabic speaker critiquing an Arabic newspaper. Like most Jews, I grew up knowing that England was a country where my family had arrived. Their past was elsewhere, reflected in the food we ate and the conversations, in other languages peppered with English words that I half-listened to. Yet what was absent in all this was an emotion common in other immigrant communities: nostalgia.

I wasn’t brought up speaking Arabic because my elders never thought I would have a use for it; we would not be “returning” to Iraq, after all. I was not encouraged to revere Iraq as a country, nor did I hear idyllic tales about Muslims and Jews living together. If Iraq represented anything, it was the source of our displacement, the land from which, as my father now puts it, we were “ethnically cleansed.”

I may have thought of myself as a “rootless cosmopolitan,” but I could so only because those who came before me were uprooted. These were people who, more than anything else, wanted to feel rooted. My youthful infatuation with gauchiste Left Bank intellectuals was my own; their passion was Zionism and with good reason.

The early Zionist writer Leo Pinsker defined Zionism as Jews wanting no more and no less than the Serbs or the Romanians. An Iraqi Jew emerging from imperial breakdown in the Middle East might well have added “the Arabs” too. Arguably the greatest insight of Zionism is the idea of “normalization”—that sovereignty over a territory will mark a definitive break with the forced displacement which has characterized Jewish history and Jewish geography. The kind of displacement which meant that I never learned Arabic, and that none of my elder relatives had any regrets about that.