Last updated: 10 November, 2011

The grammar and semantics of identity: What was it like, living among the Arabs, as a Jew?

About my experience living in Wadi Nisnas, a predominantly Arab Christian neighborhood in Haifa, I was asked the other day: “what was it like, living among the Arabs, as a Jew?”

What was it like, living among the Arabs, as a Jew? It’s an embarrassing and more than slightly offensive question.

I am Jewish and identify as such, but wouldn’t normally identify as “a Jew.” My visceral reaction to it is that it recalls the semantics of anti-Semitism and racism, so it is particularly uncomfortable. We don’t say “a Jew” or “the Jews” any more than we say “the blacks.” “A Jew” is a label rather than a description: to be “a Jew” is to be a member of the group “the Jews,” a title which implies that the sole characteristic of that group is Jewishness.

    “The: adj. denoting one or more people or things already mentioned or assumed to be common
    knowledge; used to point forward to a following qualifying or defining clause or phrase.”

“The Jews” is a known quantity, and is defined as and qualified by consisting of Jews (which, as a plural, feels more fluid and less rigid than “the Jews”). I imagine it like cafeteria lunch tables: the jocks sit at one table, the nerds at a second, the drama geeks at a third, the slackers at a fourth, and so on and so forth. “The Jews” sit at their own table, with their own kind.

The problem, of course, is that Jews as a group are not homogeneous. No one person (“a Jew”) can be representative of the entire group (“the Jews”) or be represented by the entire group. So the use of the nominal construct (Jew as a noun), by insinuating that there is only one kind of “a Jew” who is one of “the Jews,” carries a misleading connotation. If we abandon the nominal phrases “a Jew” and “the Jews,” we can use the adjectival and broadly-applicable “Jewish.” “Jewish” permits a multi-faceted identity: “Jewish” allows one also to be female or male, to be American or Chinese or South African, to be young or old, to identify with any combination of traits one wishes. Nouns are definitive and restrictive while adjectives are descriptive and allow our full identities to be flexible and open-ended.

In much the same way, the grammar of “the Arabs” denotes a homogeneous quantity devoid of other characteristics and is semantically reminiscent of racism and, here, Orientalism. If one is “an Arab,” that is to say one of “the Arabs,” the qualifying feature for membership in the group is being Arab and in reverse, “an Arab” can only be defined as being one of “the Arabs.” But we know one can be Arab and American, or Arab and British, or Arab and Christian or Arab and Muslim. Or Arab and atheist, for that matter. As with being Jewish, being Arab is not mutually exclusive of traits such as religion, nationality, sexuality, age, or any other facet of identity. It comes down to, as in the difference between “Jewish” and “the Jews,” the difference between the nominal identifier (“the Arabs”) and the adjectival one (“Arab”). Instead of the noun, the adjective allows for complex identities.

Now, with our identity-grammar know-how, we can re-structure the question. “What was it like, living in an Arab community, being Jewish?” (Adjective, adjective.) Here we get to the meat of the problem: this question assumes the illogical dichotomy “Jewish” versus “Arab.”

It is illogical because Arab and Jewish are not mutually exclusive. Whether or not you see being Jewish as purely religious, national, cultural, ethnic, or some combination thereof, it can’t be diametrically opposed with being Arab. Generations of Jewish communities who have called the Middle East and North Africa home, Jewish communities which are, in fact, Arab, can attest to the absurdity of this dichotomy.

I imagine the Jewish-Arab dichotomy is borne of the predominance of the white Ashkenazi as “the (stereotypical) Jew” in Western thought: despite anti-Semitism through the ages, Ashkenazi Jews (and Sephardi Jews to some extent) have been a part of white Christian European society throughout modern history. This historical stereotype prevents collective acknowledgement of the existence of non-white Mizrahi Jews, perpetuating the legitimacy of the Arab-Jewish contrast. Western culture also tends towards xenophobia and thus Orientalism: we have an incessant fear of the “other,” especially a darker “other.” While we understand Jews as being exclusively white and Western, and therefore one of us (here meaning the white Christian West), Arabs are not white, and therefore not Western. The Jewish-Arab dichotomy is a microcosm of “the civilized West’s” Orientalist perspective of “the primitive Arab.”

Unfortunately, despite its inaccuracy, the Arab-Jewish dichotomy is almost universally used. You see it in the rhetoric relating to conflicts in the Middle East. You see it in colloquial dialogue throughout the region: among many non-Jewish Arab communities, “Jewish” or “the Jews” has become the demonym for the “other,” often an enemy and synonymous with Israel. You see it in the U.S., as I have, in conversations with friends both Jewish and non-Jewish who have launched into diatribes pitting “the Jews” against “the Arabs,” conceptualizing Jews as one team and Arabs as the “other.” “The Jews” sit at this lunch table, “the Arabs” sit at that one.

Living in an Arab community, I was an outsider because I was not Arab, and living in Israel, I was an outsider because I was not Israeli. Based on comparable traits, these make sense: but I wouldn’t think I stuck out in a Christian community because I am white, or stuck out in France because I’m female. Neither would you; those dichotomies don’t make sense. I don’t stick out among Arabs because I am Jewish, no more than someone who is Arab would stick out among Jews.