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‘For many years I shunned, even denied, that part of my culture’

Elhanan Miller
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Published: 4 July 2019

Last updated: 4 March 2024

PROFESSOR YOSSI YONA’S PARENTS immigrated to Israel from the northern Iraqi city of Anah, once known as Nehardea, a historic center of Babylonian Judaism where parts of the Talmud were written. But when the time came to choose his academic path, Yona veered as far as possible from his Middle Eastern roots.

Yona specialised in Anglo-Saxon philosophy. He studied Flemish renaissance art history, learned Latin, and delved into the history of the Roman Empire. It was only during his final year of PhD studies at the University of Pennsylvania that he decided to start learning Arabic, his parents’ native tongue.

“For many years I shunned, even denied, that part of my culture,” Yona said. Today, the Ben Gurion University professor of education translates Arabic poetry into Hebrew and has recently finished a novel telling the story of a Jewish Iraqi family’s journey to Israel.

Yona’s biography is not unsimilar to that of many second-generation Mizrahi intellectuals now rediscovering their cultural roots and taking pride in them. On June 25, a group of academics and social activists gathered at the Museum of Islamic Art in Jerusalem for a conference titled “Hebrew and Arabic in the Judeo-Arab tradition.”

The conference was organized by Tikun, a grassroots organisation dedicated to “influencing the social agenda in Israel through the voice of traditionist (Masorti) Judaism, out of a desire to renew Jewish cultural life in Israel.”

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At the conference, speakers discussed the influence of Judeo-Arabic on Islamic traditions and spoke of the need to free Mizrahi culture from post-colonial discourse. Moroccan rabbi and cantor Haim Louk taught the audience a North African Jewish poem dealing with devotion to God, “Ana Mali Fiash,” which the audience, mostly bare-headed, sang in unison.

“This is the Jewish debt to our Arab legacy,” said Dr Meir Bouzaglo of the Hebrew University, who led the discussions at the conference as chairman of Tikun. “Hundreds of years of Jewish-Arab partnership have never been expressed. It’s time to bring them to the fore.”

Bouzaglo, who wrote his PhD about the philosophy of mathematics, but in recent years has shifted his academic focus to the study of Mizrahi traditionalism (masortiyut), insisted the identity discourse his group promotes is neither anti-Western nor anti-Zionist, but rather “post-liberal.”

“Liberals know how to communicate liberalism, Polish Zionists communicate Polish Zionism, but today our third generation feels ready to bring what it has to the table,” he said.

“Others have done their share and now it’s our turn,” Bouzaglo added, alluding to the diminishing Ashkenazi hegemony in Israel.

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Professor Haviva Pedaya, an expert in Jewish mysticism from Ben Gurion University, was forbidden by her grandfather, a Baghdad Kabbalist, to speak Arabic on the streets of Jerusalem where she grew up.

“Arabic was the language my parents and grandfather spoke at home,” Pedaya said. “Many of our religious patrimonies were bilingual, like the Passover Haggadah we used, which combined Hebrew and Arabic. “

For Israelis of Pedaya’s background, Arabic was long confined to “the language of the heart.”

“There used to be this sense that Arabic was somehow unwanted, a bit foul. It was considered the language of the enemy, the language Israelis studied to join the Shabak (Israel’s secret service).”

“Now we’ve reached this pivotal moment when things are opening up and Arabic is being recognized. We live in the Middle East, among Arabs. Our indifference and obtuseness should be done away with.”

Pedaya said that unlike some Mizrahi partisans, she does not identify as a “Jewish Arab.”

“That term has a post-colonial tinge that is of no interest to me,” she said. “I don’t consider myself a colonialist or post-colonialist. I see myself as coming from the Judeo-Muslim tradition.”

Yona said that today he is proud of his Babylonian roots. In 2015, he was elected as Knesset member for the Labour party. A year later, Yona delivered an eight-minute speech in Arabic as part of the “day of Arabic language” which he initiated with MK Yousef Jabareen of the Joint Arab List.

“Standing on the Knesset podium, I felt elated,” Yona reminisced. “On the backdrop of the Nation-state Law which strives to harm the status of the Arabic language, I was basically saying ‘gentlemen, don’t you understand? You’re hurting Maimonides! This is our heritage you’re harming!’”

Photo: Professor Haviva Pedaya

All photos: Elhanan Miller

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