This essay questions the axiomatic ontology of the “Judeo-Arabic language” as a cohesive unit separate from Arabic and its entanglement in the persistent ambivalence surrounding the conjoining of “the Jewish” and “the Arab.” In the wake of the partition of Palestine and the dislocation of Arab-Jews to Israel, classificatory categories, which can be traced to the nineteenth-century academic meeting ground of Semitic/Oriental and Hebraic/Judaic studies, came to be reinforced in the twentieth century within Zionist discourse. Largely shaped by foundational scholars of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, knowledge production about Arabic-speaking Jews was embedded in what the essay regards as “Judeo-Arabic Orientalism.” Entrenched in the politics of linguistic naming is a partitioning ethnonationalist imaginary of culture and belonging. The epistemic framework undergirding “Judeo-Arabic language” is emblematic of what the essay refers to as “the separationist thesis.” Revisiting a few key arguments, the essay traces the genealogy not of a language but rather of an idea of a language, highlighting the invention of a paradoxical formation—an Arabic that is at once non-Arabic.

With colonial modernity, language re/naming became entangled with demarcations of ethnonational identity, articulated in contradistinction to multiple linguistic, cultural, and ideological others. The foundation of nation-states often fostered the systematic shaping of a homogenous linguistic and cultural identity. Partition and its concomitant dislocation, more specifically, engendered novel designations in a simultaneous violent process of dismembering indigenous cultural belongings and reconceiving them within a new sociopolitical formation. In the case of Zionism, the departure of Jews from antisemitic Christian Europe and their restoration to the then predominantly Arabic-speaking Holy Land arguably involved an ambivalence toward both “East” and “West.” A century-long disavowal of Arabness—whether injected with racial, national, ethnic, or “merely” cultural meanings—has bred an anxiety around assigning any sense of Arab belonging to Jews, leading to an investment in their de-Arabization. In the newly established state, Arabness came to be defined as a national identity assigned to Palestinians within the borders of Israel. The issue of the naming of the language spoken by Jews in arabophone zones, in this sense, is necessarily entangled in the twentieth-century history of a seismic regional rupture. “Judeo-Arabic language,” I suggest, emerged as a concept within an ethnonationalist ideological apparatus. Permeated by a desire for an imagined domain of uniquely distinct Jewishness, its subterranean epistemology would require a decolonizing reading. Identifying such terminological shifts can cast light on veiled processes of post-partition sociopolitical and intellectual transmutation, allowing us to unpack the epistemic frameworks in and around the Arabness of Jews.

In what ways does the formation of Zionism and its linguistic correlative of modern Hebrew correspond to a historiosophy of exceptionalization, of a unique and singular “Jewish History”? More specifically, in what ways has the spectrum of Arabic speech-registers deployed by Jews come to be increasingly narrated through a prism that underlines their Jewishness and sidelines their Arabness? I am concerned here with the ways that the “Judeo-Arabic language” project has extrapolated and magnified specific elements within texts and speech-modes into a grand narrative of uniqueness, generating in its wake what I call “the separationist thesis” vis-à-vis Arabic. While the story of “Judeo-Arabic language” focuses on its emergence in the wake of the seventh-century Muslim-Arab conquest that led to “the Arabization of the Jews,” I have suggested reorienting the discussion toward the formation of the academic field of Judeo-Arabic as a no less crucial point of “beginning.” My work does not aim to map the variegated approaches and multiple developments within the by now richly expanded field of Judeo-Arabic studies over the decades, but rather to revisit some of the arguments foundational to what I see as a genealogy of an idea. A kind of “political unconscious” (Fredric Jameson), the “Judeo-Arabic language” project emerges within an intellectual apparatus invested in the binarism of “Arab” and “Jew” and in the reframing of knowledge production realigned with the ethnonational and state borders.

In Their Own Haki: On Indigenous Naming

Any possible genealogy for “Judeo-Arabic language” requires engagement with the issue of indigenous naming—itself emblematic of the fraught nature of the modern-colonial encounter between European and Middle Eastern/North African Jews. Deploying a wide variety of speech registers, Arabic speakers, including Jews, have named their speech modes in different ways, articulated conjuncturally and relationally. Naming a speech mode relays a speaker’s location, affiliation, and implied addressee, all in relation to various others, across vast regions (e.g., the Maghrib and Mashriq), across countries, provinces, cities, towns, and villages, as well as in relation to social identities and stratifications, such as religion, ethnicity, class, gender, and sexuality. Jewish Baghdadis, for example, commonly referred to their speech-modes as “haki mal yihud” (literally, the “speech of Jews”). And in more intimate settings as “el-haki malna” (our speech). Implicitly, the naming exists in contradistinction to the assumed neighboring dominant Baghdadi “haki mal aslam”—the speech/speech mode of Muslims. Such designations assumed a shared city or town in which the “ours” and “theirs” was enunciated, that is, in relation to those immediate Muslim neighbors. Outside of the familiar space of Baghdad, the same designation, when enunciated vis-a-vis other speakers of the larger colloquial Arabic landscape, would shift, taking on a different naming—now identified as one of Iraq’s lahjat (dialects.) As with languages generally, one finds flexible markers distinguishing, where relevant, a local (Jewish) speech mode from its neighboring (Muslim) speech mode, or, from more distant regional vernaculars, whether or not spoken by one’s co-religionists.

As in the rest of the arabophone zones, such designations have not signified an all-encompassing Muslims-versus-Jews distinction, but rather a specific relation to immediate and more distant neighbors. Whether in the Maghrib or the Mashriq, the names point to idiomatic nuances between co-territorial speech registers. However, Maghribi and Mashriqi Jews did not share one common name for “their” putative Judeo-Arabic language. Yet within the largely Hebrew- and English-speaking academic and public sphere, “Judeo-Arabic” has generated an impression of a distinct language shared among Jews. The names and identifications of speech registers within Arabic, meanwhile, do not correspond to the by now normative notion of a “Jewish language.” The equivalent phrase in Arabic (al-lugha al-yahudiyya) was not habitually in circulation among Jewish speakers of Arabic. In contrast to the name “Yiddish,” literally “Jewish,” to my knowledge there was no exact equivalent name to designate a common distinct Jewish language within the speech modes of Arabic-speaking Jews.1

Arabic, spoken on quotidian ground for centuries, at times for over a millennium, also took a written form. Texts composed by Jewish-Arab thinkers included commentaries on the language of scripture integral to their liturgical affiliation—Hebrew. As discussed extensively in the scholarly field, such texts embodied what S.D. Goitein most famously called “the Jewish–Arab symbiosis.”2 Redolent of a Judeo–Islamic civilizational complex, the Jewish thought and culture signified by the Hebrew script of an Arabic text were shaped in dialogue with Muslim intellectual orientations and cultural practices. Neither Arabic nor Hebrew, in other words, formed an alien civilizational entity that “happened” to exist in the same Jewish-Arab/ic text; rather, they were constituted thoroughly with, through, and in relation to each other. Despite the common transcription of Arabic in Hebrew script, and even the presence of Hebrew and Aramaic words, the language itself was regarded as “Arabic,” without that designation posing any contradiction; rather, it shaped and enacted a cultural continuum in relation to the Jewish readers/addressees. Among Arabic-speaking Jews, such linguistic practices, whether in translation or in newly authored texts, persisted into the twentieth century. Typically rendered in Hebrew script, the Arabic was performed in various registers, including in specifically regional speech modes. This process made Jewish texts accessible to Arabic-speaking Jews lacking formal Arabic education, but who could usually read, or at least decipher, the Hebrew characters, largely as a result of the teaching of Torah reading. At the same time, with the exception of those pursuing the study of Biblical and Halakhic Hebrew, the majority of Arabic-speaking Jews, especially those on the unprivileged classed and gendered axes of the social formation, did not fully comprehend the recited Hebrew. The Arabic of the text, meanwhile, was comprehensible, especially when not written in fusha. Such texts, which often identified the specific speech register by its city or region, assumed a Jewish communal affiliation, but did not designate Arabic-in-Hebrew-script as “Judeo-Arabic language,” rather designating an implied spectrum of Arabic expression.3

A particular case in point is the writing of Hakham Yoseph Hayyim (Ben Ish Hai, 1834–1909) from Baghdad, who composed in Hebrew not only on liturgical matters but also interpretations and commentaries about Jewish themes. In Qanun al-Nisa’ (The Law of Women, 1905/06), Hakham Yoseph Hayyim selected as his medium dialectal Arabic inscribed in the Hebrew script. Directed largely toward women, the text was composed in a context where Jewish men, and to a lesser degree Jewish women, were traditionally trained to read Hebrew script, regardless of their actual knowledge of Hebrew. Indeed, Babylonian/Iraqi prayer books (which continued to be printed in Israel for decades) have often featured three languages—Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic—all rendered in Hebrew script, with the Arabic composed in the “major” Jewish-Iraqi speech mode for the ritual instructions. Assuming Arabic as the language for mediating Jewish practices, Qanun al-Nisa’ mobilized the local speech-mode as its main vehicle. Along with some women possessing reading proficiency, those lacking familiarity with the Arabic and Hebrew alphabets could still comprehend the texts aurally when they were read aloud within family or communal settings. Although the book’s language is now commonly classified as “Judeo-Arabic language,”4 the author himself designated it as the “lafdh ‘arabi” (idiomatic Arabic) “spoken by the Baghdadis” (yehqon binu al-Bghadda), and therefore “comprehensible for women throughout the lands of Arabistan and Hindustan.”5 Such Arabic designations as “lafdh ‘arabi” and “bil-‘Arabi,” common in both liturgical and nonliturgical texts, as well as in speech modes, ground the definition within the variations of the Arabic language. Such designations suggest that Arabic-in-Hebrew-script texts must be framed around a community not merely of readers but also of listeners, turning the written into a preformed text. More significantly, however, it would be difficult to point to a conceptualization of the centuries-long, indeed in some regions millennia-long, mother tongue as somehow a language separate from Arabic.

When Qanun al-Nisa’ was reprinted in Jerusalem in 1958, the language designation displayed on the book cover—stated in the Hebrew language—was simply “Arabic.”6 In 1979, the book was translated into Hebrew and published by Otsar ha-Mizrah of Mekhon Ish Hai in Jerusalem. The Iraqi-Jewish translator, Ben-Tzion Salman Musafi, replicated the original designation and did not deploy the Judeo-Arabic rubric to define the book’s source language. In his preface, Musafi states that the translation was rendered “from the Arabic language into the sacred language.”7 According to Musafi, Hakham Yoseph Hayyim’s rationale for composing the text in an accessible language—even in his Biblical passages translated “into Arabic”—was designed “to attract the hearts of the readers and listeners.”8 It is curious then that while Qanun al-Nisa’ is frequently cited as a locus classicus of “Judeo-Arabic language,”9 the book’s author himself names its language “Arabic.” Seven decades after the original publication in Baghdad, the Hebrew translator replicated the author’s original designation of “Arabic.”10 Even in a post-1948 reshuffled map, the publishers continued to define the Arabic of the texts exactly as it was defined before the partition and the dislocation. The movements across warring publishing geographies did not alter the naming of the language of the text as Arabic. What came to be designated through Jewish studies circles as a typical religious text in the “Judeo-Arabic language,” then, has been defined by its indigenous speakers, writers, editors, and publishers simply as “Arabic.” Hence, the question is whether the terminological shift is a mere convenient shorthand for Jewish texts composed in Arabic-in-Hebrew-script, arguably necessitated in the decades after the displacement of Arabic-speaking Jews, or whether it represents a conceptual reorientation with profound institutional and cultural ramifications.

A Genealogy of “Judeo-Arabic Orientalism”

The Hebrew translation of Qanun al-Nisa’, ironically, coincided with the publication of the inaugural issue of Peamim, which carved out a special place for the “Judeo-Arabic language.” The 1979 issue of the journal Peamim: Studies in Oriental Jewry dedicated a section of its first issue, entitled “A Scholars’ Forum,” to “The Jewish Languages—The Common, the Unique, and the Problematic.”11 The Forum gathered specialists in disparate languages, including key Judeo-Arabic experts Joshua Blau and Haim Blanc. Chaim Rabin’s lead essay, “What Distinguishes the Jewish Languages,” outlined the basic characteristics of Jewish languages. The Forum began to identify “Jewish languages” as exempla of linguistic uniqueness. An argument nascent in this genre came to occupy center stage, thus consecrating an emerging field. Initiating a novel conceptual framework, the hyphen in “Judeo-Arabic” dislodged a speech mode from its regional dwelling to house it within a novel pan-Jewish edifice.

What can we learn from these competing designations of the same linguistic object? During the same year, in the same city, these publications reflected a tale of two intellectual zones: the state-sponsored Ben-Zvi Institute, Pe‘amim’s publisher, part of the Center for Integration of the Oriental Jewish Heritage, and Baqal Printing and Otsar ha-Mizrah—Mekhon Ben Ish Hai, publishers of the then still Arabic-speaking community. Despite the public sphere taboo around Arabness, within their communal spaces Jewish speakers and authors explicitly defined their tongue, whether spoken or written in Hebrew script, classical or colloquial, as “Arabic.” The Jerusalem reprinting of the Baghdadi Haggadah typically included a “sharh fi al-‘Arabi”—Arabic for “explanation” or “translation.” Similarly, Hakham ‘Ezra Dangoor’s Sefer Birkot Shamayim me-‘Al (Book of Blessings of Heavens Above) announces that its instructions are delivered “in the Arabic language according to the custom of the Jews of Babylon and its branches.” Such common formulations, found in both liturgical and nonliturgical texts as well as in everyday speech, suggest a flexible understanding of “Arabic” as capaciously elastic colloquial specificity. Yet the more than a millennium long native tongue of Jews is framed, in all its multitudinous variations, as constitutively distinct from Arabic, an exemplum of a separate “Judeo-Arabic language.” Thus, apart from the empirical issue of the “Judeo-Arabic” autonym, the conceptualization of “the language” tacitly assumes Jewishness and Arabness to be mutually exclusive categories.

The differential appellations indicate diverse outlooks toward Arabic—a terminological dissonance that raises questions about the axioms undergirding the “Judeo-” designation. A significant thread in the Forum revolved around what criteria would qualify a language for “Jewish language” status. These foundational concerns revolved not only around the social identity of the speakers (as Jews) but also around the properties of the language itself (as Jewish)—shifting the definition from “the tongues of the Jews” (leshonot ha-yehudim) to “the Jewish tongues” (ha-leshonot ha-yehudiyot). Although scholars at times acknowledged the problems posed by the new rubric, overall the Forum was clearly invested in the term. The qualifier “Jewish” soon no longer indicated the speakers’ religious or ethnic belonging, that is, their sociological classification, but rather the tongue’s separate Judaic status, consisting of distinguishing characteristics. A sociolinguistic classification based on the speakers’ group identity thus gave way to a project that embraced “the uniquely Jewish character” of an expanding gallery of “Jewish languages of the Diaspora.”12 By linking the multitude of disparate autonomous languages, the Forum shaped a new comparative framework premised on cordoned-off Jewish origins and kinship.

The historical bifurcation of Yiddish and German, introduced by the post-Haskalah Yiddishist movement, has constituted the paradigmatic comparative framework within the relatively recent field formation of “Jewish languages.”13 Replicating the process of extracting a dialect and elevating it to the “superior” status of a language, the idea of Judeo-Arabic was conceived within this new arena to form a subfield of Jewish linguistics. In a retroactive gesture of reclassification, the Jewish languages project would seem to be invested in radically distinguishing Jewish speech modes from those of their co-territorial non-Jewish communities. As evidence, the project has focused on the shared Hebrew orthography and on a common grammatical structure across Jewish languages that differentiates them from their non-Jewish linguistic neighbors. “Judeo-Arabic” has come to connote a mutual intelligibility among Arabic-speaking Jews and a converse lack of mutual intelligibility with their Muslim neighbors. Through a conjoined operation of detachment and reattachment, the principal analytical framing is premised on the inherent distinctiveness of the Jewish from the Arabic language and its assumed connectivity to other Jewish languages in other places. Within “the separationist thesis,” each language deployed by Jews is distanced from the non-Jewish environment with which it had long cohabited, now reconceptualized mainly within the Jewish languages paradigm. Even while traversing multiple geographies, this intra-Jewish comparative framework easily slides from designating a specific sociocultural community into marking off a unique Jewish essence.14 An important act of performing the orality/aurality of a language as lived, the archival labeling gives the impression of a name used by the Jewish speakers/writers of Arabic.15 Such redesignations have come to renarrate the flexible relational indigenous naming, now realigned with the Arabic/Judeo-Arabic separationist thesis.

The antecedents to the formation of Judeo-Arabic studies can be traced back to the nineteenth-century intersection of the fields of Orientalism and Wissenschaft des Judentums (science of Judaism), at that time a joint endeavor of European Christians and Jews, albeit with different investments.16 Crystallized as a prominent institutionalized field, Judeo-Arabic studies came to be located within Hebraic/Judaic studies as part of the modern inquiries into the world of medieval Jewry within Islam. On-the-ground research into the contemporaneous customs, beliefs, and vernaculars of “Jews in the Orient,” moreover, became prevalent and substantive, with increasing travel to the “Orient” and consequently when the collected materials traveled out of these exoticized lands into Western museums and universities. Academically formed largely in German-speaking universities in Europe, mainly in Frankfurt, Berlin, and Vienna,17 the Orientalists/Arabists came to shape Mizrahanut (Oriental studies, or Orientalism) at the Hebrew University already in British Mandatory Palestine. The specialists who were trained within the philological tradition of Semitica, itself formulated in relation to studies of Indo-European languages, came to advance the separate-language thesis.

Seeing themselves as Zionists, many moved to Palestine, where they gradually shaped an intellectual apparatus bifurcating “the Jewish” from “the Arab” Oriental.18 What has been dubbed by contemporary Orientalists as “the Jewish discovery of Islam”19 might better be described as a Jewish–European “discovery of the Orient,” which had as its corollary a scholarly venture into the Jews in the Muslim world. Knowledgeable in Judaic studies, scholars such as David Hartwig Zvi Baneth (1893–1973), Erich Brauer (1895–1942), Shlomo Dov Goitein (1900–1985), Eliyahu Ashtor (1914–1984), Raphael Patai (1910–1996), and Joshua Blau (1919–2020)20 extended the tools of such disciplines as philology, ethnology, dialectology, and history to their Oriental co-religionists. The academic research and mentoring of generations of specialists were instrumental in shaping knowledge about the Orient, both the Muslim-Arab world and the Jews within it.21 Over the years, this Euro-Jewish dominated institution also came to train a new generation of Arabists of Sephardi/Mizrahi background.22 Already in Mandatory Palestine and later in Israel, the Arabists, as the local Orientalists, simultaneously molded a broad approach to the Middle East and, more specifically, to the study of “Judeo-Arabic.” Concurrent with the establishment of the state, the scholars founded the Israel Oriental Society, which published the first issue of its quarterly, Ha-Mizrah ha-Hadash (the New East), in 1949, with prefatory comments by the Society president, S. D. Goitein.23

From its inception within the nineteenth-century classical Oriental / Semitic Studies field, the inquiry into “Judeo-Arabic” was shaped by Judaic studies, an interdisciplinary field that gradually cut itself off from its academic antecedent of Orientalist Hebraic studies. In Israel, Oriental studies (mizrahanut) came to revolve around the non-Jewish East, relocating “Sephardim/Jews of the Orient” (yehudei ha-mizrah) to Jewish studies, although in a marginalized corner of that field. An academic bifurcation paralleled the broader political discourse dividing the “internal issue” (the Sephardi/Oriental ethnic communities) from the “external issue” (the Arabs). This symbolically segregationist worldview generated, or uncritically replicated, the doxa and analytical frameworks of Zionist normative political discourses. The ethnonationalist paradigms of “inside” (Jews) and “outside” (Arabs) came to be extended to the Oriental Jews, who were now institutionally severed as an object of study from the non-Jews of the geographies from which they had recently departed. At the same time, the Oriental Jews were carefully managed within a kind of Hebrew cultural panopticon vis-à-vis the local indigenous Arabic speakers—Palestinians within Israel. This complex historical process of distancing Arabic from its Jewish speakers, which had started before the establishment of the state, took on more explicit articulations in the decades following the partition. In what follows, I will focus only on a few arguments shaping what I have called “the invention of the Judeo-Arabic” as a language subliminally disavowing Jewish affiliation with Arabic.

The Separationist Thesis

An ethnonationalist Weltanschauung has enabled an all-consuming narration of demographic dislocations and cultural affiliations. Even when the object of study was the Medieval era, the metanarrative of the Judeo-Arabic language embedded a latent modern conceptualization of identity. This metanarrative informs the work of Blau, a former student of Baneth and Goitein at the Hebrew University. A seminal figure in the formulation of Judeo-Arabic as a separate language, Blau’s work, especially his The Emergence and Linguistic Background of Judaeo-Arabic: A Study of the Origins of Neo-Arabic and Middle Arabic (1965),24 postulated that the emergence of a separate language dates back to the development of Middle Arabic following the Arab conquest arriving with the rise of Islam. When the conquered population “assimilated” into Arabic, according to Blau, they did not fully absorb Classical Arabic.25 Their writings retained dialectal elements, which resulted in Middle Arabic. Elements of classical and postclassical Arabic, along with Neo-Arabic and pseudo-corrections, “alternate quite freely”26 in the language of medieval texts. Thus, while the authors intended to write classical Arabic, or at least what they deemed to be classical Arabic, owing to their “deficient” knowledge of classical Arabic, according to Blau, the authors ended up using a language containing forms nonexistent both in classical Arabic and in Neo-Arabic, “at least in the given syntactic environment.”27

While studying “Middle Arabic in general” as written by Jews, Muslims, and Christians, Blau analyzes what he sees as the special characteristics of the Middle Arabic of Jews. He foregrounds Hebrew vocabulary, orthography, grammar, and communal themes as special characteristics of the separate language Judeo-Arabic. In a typical hierarchical approach, he carefully analyzes the various mixtures of high and low registers, examining the ways in which Judeo-Arabic resembles both spoken and literary Arabic.28 Judeo-Arabic “was not in itself very different from the Middle Arabic of Muslims and Christians, being indeed more vulgar in form than the corresponding Muslim texts, and approximating in this respect to the Christian ones.”29 And therefore, accordingly, the description of Judeo-Arabic “applies, to a considerable degree, to Middle Arabic generally.”30 Yet this affirmation of closeness is overridden by the representation of the authors as members of a “religious-ethnic society” who chose to write in the Hebrew script, as opposed to the Arabic script. Linguistic proximity thus soon segues to a socioreligious distancing of non-Muslims from Arabic:

Middle Arabic texts do not, as a rule, have a homogenous character; true Middle Arabic features freely alternate with Classical and pseudo-Classical ones. This alternation suggests that this type of language originated in the inability of the writers, generally non-Muslims, to master Classical Arabic and its complex grammar.31

Blau’s linguistic dichotomy of pure classical versus impure modes—described as “vulgar,” “deficient,” and “deviant”—forms a marker separating Jews from Muslims.32 The text also replicates a common hierarchy within linguistic expression, placing the written above the oral, and extended at times to regions not conversant with Classical Arabic (for example, in the Sinai Peninsula), referred to as “backward.”33

The emphasis on the use of an admixture of Middle Arabic, in contrast to Classical Arabic, serves to augment the “special status” of Judeo-Arabic. Blau also emphasizes the classical Arabic ideal, al-‘Arabiyya, as attainable only by Muslims raised on the language of the Qur’an. Al-‘Arabiyya’s ethos greatly influenced Muslim authors, who did not deploy Middle Arabic “until relatively late.”34 The Middle Arabic mixture, in this sense, epitomizes Jewish distance from that revered Muslim ideal. This mixture, for Blau, also characterizes the language of Christian Arabs because, as a minority, they too were not subject to the rigid ideal of literary Arabic. (In fact, Blau’s study of a special Jewish Arabic was followed by his study of a similarly conceived separate Christian Arabic.)35 In both instances, the emphasis on classical Arabic as Islamic has the effect of distancing the Arabic of both Jewish and Christian speakers from that of their Muslim neighbors. Although the Jewish and Christian authors wrote in the admixture typical of Middle Arabic, according to Blau, they nonetheless “theoretically at least, as a rule . . . intended to write in CA [Classical Arabic].”36 The ideal of al-‘Arabiyya as the desired goal among Jewish authors, even if not successfully achieved, meanwhile, would seem to contradict another aspect of Blau’s characterization of the Judeo-Arabic language, his speculation that the authors “had the feeling that they were writing in a separate language” (italics mine).37 Attributing linguistic Judeo-Arabic autonomy on the basis of a speculated subjectivity of the authors would seem in dissonance with Blau’s arguments about a general aspiration to emulate Classical Arabic. One wonders how the authors could simultaneously have the intention to emulate al-‘Arabiyya, and yet have the feeling of composing in a separate language?

Blau characterizes Judeo-Arabic as “hybrid,” for him a negatively connoted word synonymous with incorrect, disorganized, and grammatically inconsistent when compared to high classical Arabic.38 Yet Judeo-Arabic is ultimately redeemed by its (newly declared) status as a separate Jewish language. In this sense, the Judeo-Arabic language category entails simultaneous degradation and elevation, a hierarchical conceptualization that sidesteps the impurities and elasticities characteristic of all languages and dialects. Blau acknowledges these impurities, writing that “the language of the various Judeo-Arabic documents constitutes a whole range of styles with infinitely varied mixtures of Classical and Middle Arabic elements.”39 However, this description is marshaled, surprisingly, as evidence for a separate language:

Judaeo-Arabic proper, i.e. the writings of Jewish authors addressing a Jewish audience, must be accorded the status of a language in its own right. These texts, generally written in Hebrew script, and presupposing some familiarity with Hebrew, invariably deal, to some degree, with topics of specifically Jewish interest. Being the linguistic expression of a clearly defined religious-ethnic society, which despite its absorption into Islamic culture (especially in the fields of philosophy and science) maintained its separate existence, not only in the realm of religious, but also, surprisingly enough, in belles-lettres, it was felt by the Jews themselves to be a distinct literary language. It was consequently used by writers who could equally well have written in a more Classical language had they so chosen, and its distinctive character finds expression in the possession of its own literary tradition.40

Emphasizing a “separate existence” of a demarcated group possessing a “linguistic expression” with a “distinctive character,” based on a vague “feeling of distinction,” concludes with a call for a sovereign language status. Blau’s formative text for the separationist thesis follows from the idea that the language of a “religious-ethnic society” mirrors its presumed separate existence from Islamic Arab culture, equated with Classical Arabic. Yet this description could support a different reading—a flexible fluency in negotiating the different registers of Arabic performed by Jewish authors depending on the addressees.41

For Blau, then, the special characteristics that distinguish Judeo-Arabic from the Arabic language—Hebrew script, grammar, Jewish themes—are buttressed by the subjectivity argument that Judeo-Arabic authors themselves possessed “the feeling” of “writing in a separate—language.”42 Here, Blau offers a separationist argument based on intentionality attributed to authors writing Arabic-in-Hebrew-script.43 Interestingly, this argument, or more precisely this speculation (since it is difficult to imagine how this “feeling” might be measured), triggered doubt on the part of Goitein, whose work has been foundational in both content and method for reconstructing Medieval Jewish life “under Islam,”44 seen as essential to consolidating the subfield of Geniza studies. In his generally positive 1968 review of Blau’s The Emergence and Linguistic Background of Judaeo-Arabic, Goitein, countering Blau’s argument, writes that he does not know the basis for Blau’s “contention that the writers of Judaeo-Arabic themselves had the feeling that they were writing a separate language.”45 For the most part, however, Goitein applauds Blau’s scholarship on the “grammar of nonliterary medieval Judeo-Arabic texts,” which “explained the emergence and nature of this vernacular.”46 Goitein in his own work also occasionally touched briefly on Judeo-Arabic as a separate language, but expressed reservations. While accepting “Judeo-Arabic” as a “useful label for Arabic spoken by Jews and (mostly) written in Hebrew characters,” he clarifies that “there was no structural difference between the languages spoken by Muslims, Christians and Jews.”47 Yet Goitein’s own inclination to find “a special language” and “a world by itself,” as discussed in my work elsewhere, resonates to a certain extent with Blau’s more overt separationist thesis.

Although Blau describes a situation of linguistic overlap with dialects of non-Jews, he also makes the case for a separate language.48 The various Hebrew elements, the Jewish topics, and the appeal to Jewish readers form “the inherent character”49 of the Judeo-Arabic language. Its Hebrew script and the occurrence of Hebrew elements act as the “outward distinguishing marks,”50 making it unintelligible to non-Jewish Arabic speakers. Although Blau acknowledged the existence of various dialects, referring to them as the “special Judaeo-Arabic dialects,” he emphasized that “they had no marked influence upon the character of Judaeo-Arabic as a whole.”51 His grouping of the various Judeo-Arabic dialects under one broad umbrella works to insulate Jews from “their gentile” environment. However, at the same time, Blau does describe situations of intercommunal communication. While he argues that the admixture of Classical Arabic with Middle Arabic was often present “in works intended for the Jewish community only, and even in purely religious texts,” he simultaneously writes that this admixture was “chiefly used, it seems, whenever Jews were addressing a public which included non-Jews.”52 Blau, in other words, acknowledges the different registers in which “Judeo-Arabic” was used, in effect revealing scenes of communication between Jews and non-Jews: hence, in contrast to his barrier image, a site of reciprocal intelligibility.

The separationist argument is redolent with such dissonances. The description suggests situations of moving between language registers within a common elasticity of communication, yet nonetheless Blau concludes with a presumed lack of intelligibility by non-Jews. For Blau,

Judaeo-Arabic proper is not only written by, but also for, Jews, and is therefore suffused, even when not dealing specifically with halakhic matters, with a religious element. The degree of this permeation is such that it ceases to be intelligible to the non-Jewish Arabic-speaking population, partly due to the use of Hebrew characters and the Hebrew elements interspersed, but not only for these reasons: the choice of subjects, most of them falling within the sphere of religion in the widest sense of the word, also created a barrier for Gentiles” [Emphasis mine].53

The fact that most Jews wrote Arabic in Hebrew letters, according to Blau, clearly “testifies to the barrier [hayitz in Hebrew] between the Jewish culture and the general culture.”54 Regardless of the influence of Islamic culture, Blau stresses that “despite the basic resemblance of Judeo-Arabic to other branches of Middle Arabic, it is a kind of a distinct sociolect” due to “the Hebrew script, with which it is largely written,” and “the Hebrew principles (and Judeo-Aramaic) it contains” and, furthermore, that “its subjects are special to Jewish culture, despite being deeply influenced by Islam.”55 Blau’s study can be read, on one level, as demonstrating the flow of language across denominations, since Middle Arabic is similar for Muslims, Jews, and Christians.56 Yet, on another level, since, for Blau, the Jewish community led “its own religious, cultural, and social life,” it proves the existence of “enough factors conducive to the formation of special Jewish dialects.”57 The overarching Weltanschauung is, in other words, premised on a walled-off image of Jewish and non-Jewish cultural practices, leading to the quarantining of Arabic under the guise of Judeo-Arabic. Although such texts suggest Judeo-Muslim inter-fecundation, the Judeo-Arabic project ultimately advances an isolationist view of Jewish culture.

Blau takes on board Goitein’s formulation of the “Jewish–Arab symbiosis,” most prominent at the time in Jews and Arabs: A Concise History of Their Social and Cultural Relations. But Blau, in contrast, employs it more emphatically as an argument for separation, that is, “the symbiosis of two separate cultures, which remained separate despite their basic similarity and mutual contact” (italics mine).58 In other words, Blau insists that Goitein’s symbiosis trope denotes separation, as if Goitein had been insufficiently emphatic on the point. Blau’s metaphor of “the barrier” conveys the separationist thesis in an image that evokes the ghettoized experience of Jews in Christian Europe, especially those associated with the “Ostjuden,” here universalized and projected onto the historically different experience of Jews within Muslim spaces. In any case, this reading of the social circumstances further prepared the ground for the designation of the Arabic of Jews as a separate language. The barrier trope, in this sense, is symptomatic of the imagining of the Arabic linguistic habitat of Jews. The view of language as symbolic of a presumed quintessence of spirit or Geist untouched by historical processes stands in diacritical opposition to an imaginary of identity as a dialogical site of cultural interminglings. Blau’s recognition of contacts and similarities between Jews and Muslims is overshadowed by his unequivocal assertion of “two separate cultures.” This tacit negation of cultural dialogism, even in situations of lack of equality, takes the form of a separate Judeo-Arabic for a separate Jewish world. In sum, in an alignment between the presumably separate social habitat and linguistic expression, here the language comes to serve as metaphor and metonym for the predilection for partitioning.

Unthinking The “Dialectal Cleavage”

While the field of Judeo-Arabic emerged out of the study of medieval texts, it has expanded into the study of contemporary dialects within a similar conceptual apparatus. The Arabic spoken by Jews became an object of sociolinguistic research that went beyond the textual realm. Haim Blanc (1926–1984),59 who received his doctorate from the Hebrew University under Goitein’s supervision, studied the Arabic dialects of the Druze of the Western Galilee and Mt. Carmel and of the Negev Bedouins,60 as well as the Yiddish influences on Israeli Hebrew. He also delved into the Iraqi Jewish dialect, in research made possible largely owing to the arrival of ‘olim in Israel in the early 1950s, which fed into his subsequently published book Communal Dialects in Baghdad (1964).61 Blanc’s work arguably set the stage for isolating sociolects based on confessional groupings. As with Blau’s work on medieval Judeo-Arabic, Blanc’s dialectology split the Jew (and Christian) from the Muslim. His notion of “dialectal cleavage”62 carries the separationist thesis into the modern era. Indeed, Blanc’s book constructed a model for the strong division of Iraq’s Jewish, Muslim, and Christian dialects. This model has been praised as providing a solid foundation for researching the uniqueness of the Jewish dialects vis-à-vis the co-territorial speakers and contributing to the mapping of the Judeo-Arabic language.63 While many scholars studied the territorial boundaries for mapping languages, Blanc sought to focus on the formation of dialects through social grouping (class, urban/rural, and religious divides). He states, “Since social groups and social ‘distance’ do seem somehow essentially different from territorial groups and spatial distance, there may well be a more intrinsic difference between social dialects on the one hand and geographical dialects on the other.”64 The privileging of the social over the regional is the starting point for Blanc’s examination of religious dialectal differentiation in Iraq and his positing of the special status of Judeo-Arabic. This shift in prism toward ethnoreligion positioned Jews as a separate speech community, preparing the way for the Judeo-Arabic metanarrative of subsequent scholarship. Blanc’s work had a major impact on framing the Jewish-Iraqi speech mode, but more generally on the study of Jews as a separate linguistic community throughout the modern “Arab world.”

Blanc distinguishes the gelet from the qeltu dialect (gelet–qeltu, deriving from the first-person singular verb “to say”) as part of an overall thesis of a “cleavage” between Muslim and Jewish speakers.65 In Baghdad, the gelet bears a strong family resemblance to that of the Lower Iraqi countryside and to the nomads of the area as a whole, spoken by the region’s “sedentary and non-sedentary” Muslim population.66 The qeltu, in contrast, is “spoken by the non-Muslim population of Lower Iraq and by the sedentary population (Muslim and non-Muslim) of the rest of the area.”67 Blanc acknowledges Iraq’s regional north/south linguistic division as it relates to Baghdad, pointing out that the dialect of the Christians “is very close to that of Mosul” and that the dialect of the Jews “is far more similar to the Christian and Mosul type than it is to the Muslim dialects of Lower Iraq.”68 While recognizing the close affinities between the northern Mosul regional dialect—for Muslims, Christians, and Jews alike—and the Baghdadi dialect of Christians and Jews, the text nonetheless portrays a veritable chasm between the city’s minorities and the Muslim majority.69 Furthermore, Blanc characterizes the Jewish dialect as “unique,” even within the qeltu dialect.70 The book attributes the distinct origins that led to this “qeltu–gelet split” to the “socially isolated” existence of the Jewish community.71 Although Blanc is aware that those qeltu dialects are associated with the northern region generally, he nonetheless argues, because of certain variations, for the uniqueness of the Jewish dialect.72 And thus the “dialectal cleavage correlates fully with communal affiliation.”73 Such early studies of Judeo-Arabic, in this sense, reveal a tension between detailed description and overarching ascription.

At one point, meanwhile, Blanc qualifies this cleavage claim as follows:

A good many non-Muslims seem to be nearly perfectly bi-dialectal. Another consequence of the special status of M [Muslim] is the tendency among some non-Muslims, especially Christians, to adopt it, or certain features of it, even when speaking with their coreligionists, to that there may conceivably be non-Muslim homes in which M or something very much like M is spoken rather than C [Christian] or J [Jewish].74

This description, where not only non-Muslims were bidialectal but also their home dialects were impacted by that of the Muslims, was, then, not exactly a situation of strict correlation between speech mode and communal affiliation. Thus, although the claim of a “dialectal cleavage” elicits an image of a chasm dividing the communities, the situation can also be read as fluid. Blanc acknowledges “that differences among religious groupings are usually even more marginal than those among other social groupings” since “they tend, typically, to be few and non-structural in character.” Hence for him “[i]n such cases, it is difficult to speak of ‘dialects’ at all, except in the broadest possible sense of the word.”75 Once again, we find a tension between the description and the ascription of the “dialectal cleavage” thesis. While Blanc’s text, in other words, aptly addresses differences that stem from the history of regional variations, it also privileges the linguistic cleavage among “the confessions.” While addressing the specificities of various speech modes, the text reinforces the conceptualization of a distinct Jewish dialect, sidestepping their simultaneous overlappings. Such research into morphology, phonology, and syntactical and lexical peculiarities of speech that distinguish those dialects from each other reflected a method that studies language as a static object without examining it as living systems and acts of communication. More importantly, what could be an instance of “differentiated commonalities”76 becomes a case of an ethnoreligious uniqueness narrative.

Blanc’s book is not concerned with the performed interlocution, in this case between Jews, Muslims, and Christians, and it is also not concerned, for that matter, with the dynamic acts of communication among the dislocated Iraqi Jews. The research was not carried out in situ in Baghdad, as Blanc himself acknowledges, and therefore it could not register the daily negotiations and navigation of living speech modes within and across communities. The gathering of materials from “speakers residing elsewhere,” Israel and the United States, specifically, in turn paints a static image of Arabic spoken in Baghdad, and in Iraq more generally. Suggesting that confessions existed in complete isolation, Blanc draws an impression of “uniqueness” and “dialectal cleavage” as correlating fully to communal affiliation. This argument has prepared the ground for the commonly accepted assertions about the incomprehensibility of the Jewish dialect for Muslims and, at times, even about the general mutual incomprehensibility between Jews and Muslims. Currently in wide popular circulation, this depiction of the Baghdadi situation as paradigmatic of the “Judeo-Arabic language” overrides the social variables of the proximity of neighborhoods, friendships, and intercommunal workplaces.77 But, more significantly, it circumvents the equally significant converging across and between religious communities, eclipsing their situated fluidity of interlocution.78

Returning to the question of the emergence of the “Judeo-Arabic language,” the spatio-temporality of this “strange” phenomenon is less about an evolution of a natural language than about that of an idea. While Judeo-Arabic studies trace the language back to the mediaeval era, beginning with “the Arabization of Jews,” from another perspective, it is a story that begins with an idea of a language within the modern formation of interlinked Orientalist and Judaic studies with a specific focus on “the Jews of the Orient.” The largely German-educated Jewish Arabists who joined the Yishuv in Palestine continued the narrative of the nineteenth-century “Golden Age” in Sefarad, which itself had formed part of a broader neo-Moorish movement. This school of thought promoted the ambiguous Jewish–Arab symbiosis thesis. It spelled out closeness, but also interpreted this history along originary narratives that ultimately divided Jews from Arabs. The emergence of a “Judeo-Arabic language,” I would suggest, manifests and allegorizes the split of the Arabic-speaking Jew from “the Arab” in ways that shape a discursive formation that could be regarded as “Judeo-Arabic Orientalism.” Although since the nineteenth century, Jews throughout “the Orient” had already been the object of the colonial gaze of travelers, writers, painters, photographers, and researchers, in Ottoman and Mandatory Palestine, and subsequently in Israel, they came also to be envisioned through a Zionist prism. The Arabists of the Hebrew University, some of whom later taught at American universities such as Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania, became foundational figures within the field of Judeo-Arabic studies. Bequeathing their legacy of close examination of medieval texts, the Euro-Jewish Arabists also left a legacy of definitions and modes of thinking about “Jews and Arabs,” where the terrain of the hyphenated “Arab-Jews” was out of bounds.79

The bifurcation between the Orientalist and the Oriental constitutes the displacement of “one Semite” (the European Jew) to the Orientalist side while “the local Arab,” along with “the Oriental Jew,” remain Orientalized. Historically, within this power–knowledge nexus, the Judeo-Arabist experts manufactured the Oriental Jew as “the native informant” in a process that reproduced the experts’ archival authority. In a possessive gesture, embodied in such exoticizing phrases as “ha-Temanim shelanu” (our Yemenites), the interpretation of existing archival materials, removed from the imperialized regions, went hand in hand with the construction of new archives dedicated to Oriental Jewry. The massive arrival of Jews from Arab/Muslim countries, particularly in the context of Mandatory Palestine and subsequently in Israel, produced Arabic-speaking Jews as in-the-flesh objects of investigation.80 The Arabic-speaking Jews were instrumentalized as native informants within such fields as linguistics, ethnology /anthropology, ethnomusicology, and sociology, which tended to relegate the very language/culture they were studying to the past.81 The new spatial proximity eliminated the temporal distance between the Judeo-Arabist and the Arabic-speaking Jew, but the objectifying gaze remained intact. Against this backdrop, “Judeo-Arabic” has circulated in the public sphere as a distancing, and now visually alien, marker with regards to the Arab-Muslim world. “Judeo-Arabic” is acknowledged, paradoxically, as a kind of non-Arabic Arabic of Jews.

Severance and the Linguistic Imaginary

The symbolic cutting off of the Arabic vernaculars of Jews, now reified as exemplars of “Judeo-Arabic language,” reflects and reinforces the ideological fault lines within knowledge production entangled, as they have been, in the exodus narrative of “Jews from Arab lands.” In newly established Israel, Hebraization entailed a general devaluation of multilingualism associated with the ‘olim, but it especially entailed a repression of Arabic, becoming a taboo language of Jews, as the language of “ha-oyev” (the enemy). Hebraization, in this sense, was always already premised on de-Arabization. Thus, knowledge production about Arabic-speaking Jews has taken place within the same institutional apparatus that annulled the viability of that very same language and culture. In such instances, it engenders an ambivalent effect of simultaneous communal affirmation and disavowal. More importantly, the concept of Judeo-Arabic, almost counterintuitively, has come to negate Arabic as a language of Jews, let alone of a Jewish culture and identity. “Judeo-Arabic” thus got caught up in what I have called “anti-galut linguistics,” even in contexts where the metanarrative concerns the close study of “the gola’s Jewish languages” but relegates them to an obsolete form. Despite its classification within the safe zone of a “Jewish language of the Diaspora,” in other words, “Judeo-Arabic” has existed in a liminal zone of presumably mutually exclusive Jewish and Arab identities, becoming a specter that haunts, precisely because it remains, through its hyphenated doubleness, linked to the language of “the Arab enemy.”

Conceptualizing a “Judeo-Arabic language” uprooted from Arab linguistic soil could, on one level, be viewed as a matter simply of sociolinguistic classification, but on another, it could be seen as symptomatic of a psychic–ideological investment in displacing Arab-Jews from their Arab past, as well as in partitioning Jewishness and Hebrew off from any affiliation with Arab/Muslim culture. Although the hyphen can suggest an equation or linkage of the two sides of the hyphen, it can also suggest delinking and subordination. This intrinsic ambiguity of the hyphen triggers an oscillation in meaning, depending on the lexical context and the grid adopted. Yet the bifurcation that marks the “Arab-Jew” as a “bad object” versus “Judeo-Arabic” as the “good object” (Melanie Klein) offers a clue to the opposite signification and ideational status of the hyphen in the two terms. In the first instance, the stress in the hyphen—in both senses of the word “stress”—is placed on attaching Jews to Arab culture, while in the latter, the stress is on detaching Jews from that same Arab culture. Although all hyphens bridge seemingly distinct entities, paradoxically, they may accentuate a certain separation. The hyphen indicates a complex relationship between two joined entities, not merely because of their ambiguous noun/adjective status, but also because the joining corresponds to different modes of knowledge production.

“Judeo-Arabic” is deployed to demarcate an ontologically isolatable language common to all “Jews in Arab lands” and to study the diverse Arabic speech modes spoken by Jews within a “Jewish languages” prison-house that renders Judeo-Muslim affiliation, at best, something to be relegated to “the Golden Age” of medieval symbiosis. Defining “Judeo-Arabic” as a language underscores a phantasmatic investment in a linguistic object that is simultaneously rejected (for its Arabness) and desired (for its Jewishness) in the wake of the dislocation of Arabic-speaking Jews from Arabic-speaking spaces. In this sense, Judeo-Arabic Orientalism has participated in the conceptual de-Arabization of Jews. While tropes of a “disappearing world,” “the-last-of-the-Mohicans,” and “a dying language” may give expression to a sense of angst about “the lost” and “the last,” they have also naturalized a history of cultural violence and epistemological violations.82 Thus, issues of language, in both written and spoken form, have become entangled in the partition story and the construction of a house for a language.83

The general institutional disavowal of Arabic as the mother tongue of Jews, now replaced with the distinct Jewish language Judeo-Arabic, sometimes gets literally caught at the border. The Palestinian Israeli scholar Nabih Bashir describes an unfortunate incident related to his project of Arabic transliteration of Yehuda Halevi’s The Book of the Kuzari: The Book of Refutation and Proof on Behalf of the Despised Religion, originally written in Arabic-in-Hebrew-script under the author’s medieval era name, Abū al-H.asan Yahudha Ibn S.amawʼal Al-Lāwī.84 Along with transcribing the text in Arabic, Bashir wrote an introduction and copious explanatory footnotes addressed to contemporary Arabic readers (see Figure 1). The book was printed in Beirut in 2012, but due to his Israeli citizenship, Bashir was legally able to pick up the book only in Jordan, carrying 60 copies to Israel. At the Sheikh Hussein border, the Israeli officials confiscated the copies of the “suspicious” book and accused Bashir of committing “a security offense” of “trading with enemy countries” as well as of a “criminal” offense of not having applied in advance “for a permit from the Treasury’s customs department.” Although Bashir tried to explain that “it was a book by Yehuda Halevi, the great Jewish poet and thinker,” none of the officials listened to his pleas and instead asked him to “pay a ransom”85 because the transfer of the copies violates laws regarding “trade with the enemy.”86

Figure 1. Yehuda Halevi’s The Book of the Kuzari, designating the language as “composed in the Arabic tongue” in a 1593 print from Venice (left); and the book cover of Nabih Bashir’s transliteration of the Kuzari from Hebrew to the Arabic script (right).

Figure 1. Yehuda Halevi’s The Book of the Kuzari, designating the language as “composed in the Arabic tongue” in a 1593 print from Venice (left); and the book cover of Nabih Bashir’s transliteration of the Kuzari from Hebrew to the Arabic script (right).

Close modal

Yehuda Halevi’s work is featured, ironically, as part of the Israeli school curriculum, and his oft-recited Hebrew poem “My heart is in the East/But I am at the extreme end of the West” is taught as an essential Zionist text. Hearing the famous name voiced by an “Arab-Israeli” and seeing Halevi’s book in Arabic script created an anomalous situation where a consecrated text was denied entry into Israel. On one juridical level, the officials were following a law about trade across borders. On a cultural and ideological level, however, the monolingual Hebrew zone, although it could tolerate Halevi composing poetry in Hebrew, could not tolerate his writing philosophically in his mother tongue, Arabic. National borders, in such instances, acquire homological linguistic borders.87 Although appealing to a discourse of ancient roots, the newly partitioned linguistic entity—Judeo-Arabic—has required the symbolic amputation of linkages to Arabness across the border. The very designation of “Judeo-Arabic language,” I have tried to show, has been conceived in contradistinction to “Arabic,” whose epistemic frame is embedded in contested ethnonational imaginaries. The emergence of the Arabness of Jews as a historically new “problem” in the wake of the partition of Palestine and the dislocation of Jews from Arab spaces to Israel is epitomized in the construction of a separate linguistic house-of-being for their speech—“Judeo-Arabic” as a metonym and metaphor for the larger dismemberment of “Arab” and “Jew.”


I thank Tamir Sorek for generously helping to shorten the original text, a section from my MSS in progress, while keeping the overall argument intact. My essay here continues earlier work on the subject attempting to open up the conversation around the taken-for-granted “Judeo-Arabic language.” See especially “The Question of Judeo-Arabic,” Arab Studies Journal 23, no. 1 (Fall 2015) and “The Invention of Judeo-Arabic: Nation, Partition, and the Linguistic Imaginary,” Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies 19, no. 2 (2017).


More recently, with the increased interest in Arab-Jews, the global circulation of “Judeo-Arabic language” has occasionally taken an unusual turn—the usage of the name in Arabic publications, as for example in ʻAbd al-Razzāq al-Qūsī’, Al-Lugha al-‘Arabiyya al-Yahudiyya wa-rihlat al-far‘ al-majhul min al-adab al-‘Arabi (The Jewish Arabic Language and the Journey of the Unknown Branch of Arabic Literature), Riyadh: author, 2019.


Shelomo Dov Goitein, Jews and Arabs: Their Contacts Through the Ages (New York: Schocken, 1955).


As noted in my previous essays, “Judeo-Arabic” can be a useful shorthand for some purposes. However, I have generally favored the designation “Arabic-in-Hebrew-script” to disassociate this textual corpus from the epistemological apparatus within which the idea of a separate language was conceived. The more adequate categorization of speech-modes, meanwhile, requires a multiplicity of designations depending on location, without suggesting “Judeo-Arabic language” as a master-code with its own dialects.


Recently, for example, in the Brill series on Judeo-Arabic publications, the book’s language is identified as “Language: Judeo-Arabic.”


The phrases I translated here from the Arabic appear in the opening page of Yoseph H.ayyim Ben Eliyahu al-Hakham, Qanun al-Nisa’ (Baghdad: ‘Ezra Sasson Ben Reuben Dangoor Printing, 1906). The definition shows an awareness of a specific speech mode, part of their city’s Arab-Jewish culture now extended to the diasporic kin spread around the Indian Ocean.


Baqal Press, which generally published Iraqi-Jewish prayer books, reprinted Qanun al-Nisa’ in Arabic-in-Hebrew-script, Jerusalem,1958.


My translation into English is taken from Ben-Tzion Salman Musafi’s Hebrew translation from the Arabic of Yoseph H.ayyim Ben Eliyahu mi-Bagdad’s Sefer Hukei ha-Nashim (Jerusalem: Otsar ha-Mizrah—Mekhon Ben Ish H.ai, 1979).


Musafi’s preface to Sefer Hukei ha-Nashim, 5–6.


For such cataloguing see for example, “Preserving the Iraqi Jewish Archive,” https://ijarchiveorg/content/3521, or Brill’s “Hebrew and Judeo-Arabic Printing in Baghdad Online,” https://primarysources.brillonline.com/browse/hebrew-and-judeoarabic-printing-in-baghdad/qanun-alnisaaliftunu-bimusaadat-allaha-belaft-arabi-kanun-al-nisa;hpb150.


On the hakham’s life, see Abraham Ben-Yaacob, Rabbi Yosef Hayyim of Baghdad: His Life and Writings [Hebrew] (Or Yehuda: The Iraqi Jews Traditional Culture Center/Institute for Research on Iraqi Jewry, 1984). [Hebrew]. The table of contents defines the language of the Hakham’s poems as “Arabic in Hebrew letters,” but current English-language publications and sites designate the book’s original language as “Judeo-Arabic,” often in contrast to the displayed page from the book.


“A Scholars’ Forum” to the subject of “Ha-Leshonot ha-Yehudiyot: ha-Meshutaf, ha-Meyuhad ve-ha-Be‘ayati,” Peamim: Studies in Oriental Jewry, Peamim, no. 1, 1979.


Sociolinguistic markers themselves became incorporated into an overall separationism thesis where specific characteristics were now read as instances of a Jewish language rather than as instances of social formations within a more fluid understanding of the back-and-forth between the various neighboring communities.


The symbolic process of “extracting” and “elevating” Yiddish from a dialect to a language by the Yiddishist movement took place in defiance of the rejection of the Ostjuden. However, to my knowledge, no such equivalent social movement in the “Arab world” clamored for a language separate from Arabic within a linguistic-secessionist discourse that would parallel Max Weinreich’s canonical formulation with regards to the status of Yiddish vis-à-vis German.


An ethnonationalist grid of exceptionalization has generated a uniqueness discourse. In contrast, an epistemic frame of “differentiated commonalities” can account for specificities of cultural practices devoid of latent narcissism.


Arabic-in-Hebrew-script, whether in the realm of Halakhic duties (Qānun al-Nisā), or in the popular sphere of entertainment (Alf Layla wa-Layla), transcended the zone of the learned, for example, when read aloud for the benefit of those lacking literacy. This mixed mode of textual–oral transmission was performed on a continuum with telling stories and anecdotes, with reciting proverbs and parables.


For example, Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi writes, “After all even Jewish-Arabic studies have their rather formidable beginnings in nineteenth-century Wissenschaft des Judentums,” citing the previous work of Abraham Geiger (on Muhammad and the Jews) and Moritz Steinschneider (the Arabic literature of Jews), as well as the various studies in Spain. Yerushalmi, Shelomo Dov Goitein 1900–1985: In Memoriam (Princeton, NJ: Institute for Advanced Study, 1985).


On German-Jewish scholars and Orientalism, see Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin, “Orientalism, Jewish Studies and Israeli Society: A Few Comments,” Philological Encounters 2, nos. 3–4 (2017): 237–269.


On the bifurcation of “the Oriental” into “Jew” and “Arab” with Zionism, see Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1978). However, already, within the imperial context, another splitting had already taken place, between European and non-European Jews, entailing a “double colonization” and “ruptures before the rupture.” See Ella Shohat, “On Orientalist Genealogies: The Split Arab/Jew Figure Revisited,” The Edinburgh Companion to the Postcolonial Middle East, ed. Anna Ball and Karim Mattar, The Edinburgh Companion to Literature and the Humanities Series (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2019), 118–159.


Indeed, contemporary Orientalists view this work as part of “the Jewish Discovery of Islam.” See Martin Kramer’s “Introduction” to The Jewish Discovery of Islam: Studies in Honor of Bernard Lewis, ed. Martin Kramer (Tel Aviv: The Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, 1999): 1–48.


Blau was the president of the Academy of the Hebrew Language (1981–1993) and the founding president of the Society for Judaeo-Arabic Studies (1984–1997).


In an interview, Blau describes the faculty at the Hebrew University at the time of his graduate studies, mentioning a single non-Ashkenazi name, his Arabic language teacher, Shamosh (referred to as the brother of the novelist Amnon Shamosh.) Blau praises Shamosh’s knowledge of the Arabic language but characterizes his knowledge of Arabic literature as “without content.” Inadvertently, the interview calls attention to the absence of native speakers of Arabic among the senior faculty, especially ironic since the specialists were not necessarily fluent in spoken Arabic. See “Interview with Professor Joshua Blau” (video) by Gabriel Birnbaum and Sinai Turan, Academy of the Hebrew Language, 2013.


Among the students of the Arabists there were also some Sephardi/ Mizrahi who were admitted to the Hebrew University, such as Yitzhak Navon (1921–2015), Eliyahu Agassi (1909–1991), and Sasson Somekh (1933–2019).


See S.D. Goitein, “The New East,” Ha-Mizrah ha-Hadash—The Journal of the Israel Oriental Society, 1, no. 1 (October 1949): 1–2 [Hebrew].


Blau’s key writings on Judeo-Arabic include: A Grammar of Mediaeval Judaeo-Arabic, based on his1962 PhD dissertation; The Emergence and Linguistic Background of Judaeo-Arabic: A Study of the Origins of Neo-Arabic and Middle Arabic (Oxford University Press, 1965), published with two revised editions in 1981 and 1999 (Jerusalem: Ben-Zvi Institute); Dictionary of Medieval Judaeo-Arabic Texts (Jerusalem: The Academy of the Hebrew Language & The Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 2006); and A Handbook of Early Middle Arabic (Jerusalem: Hebrew University, 2002).


Blau deployed classical versus dialectal Arabic in line with the then common approach within the broader field of Arabic studies.


Blau, Handbook, 14.


Blau, Handbook, 19.


Blau, Emergence and Linguistic Background, 25.


Blau, Emergence and Linguistic Background, 49.


Blau, Emergence and Linguistic Background, 49.


Blau, Emergence and Linguistic Background, 49.


Blau, Emergence and Linguistic Background, 49.


Blau, Emergence and Linguistic Background, 32


Blau, Handbook, 19.


In tandem with the development of “Judeo-Arabic,” Blau worked on what he called in Hebrew “‘Aravit Eretz-Yisraelit” (The Land of Israel’s Arabic) in reference to the Christian Arabic dialect in Palestine, contrasted with classical Arabic associated with Muslims. As with “Judeo-Arabic,” the emergence of “Christian Arabic” is disconnected from the present descendants of Arabic speakers by method and historical frame as well as by the separatist substratum delineating Arabic as essentially Muslim.


Blau, Handbook, 19.


Blau, Emergence and Linguistic Background, 47–48.


Such a typical negative view of “the hybrid” would come to be challenged by postcolonial studies scholars who have revisited “hybridity,” mobilizing it to critique purity discourses.


Blau, Emergence and Linguistic Background, 25.


Blau, Emergence and Linguistic Background, 49.


A multi-axis analysis of the various factors determining access to literacy in Hebrew and Arabic scripts among Jewish speakers of Arabic (gender, class, location, etc.) would suggest that the Judeo-Arabic metanarrative often privileges the male writing elite and communal public sphere for the demarcation of Jewish identity, marginalizing nonwritten media of expression.


Blau, Emergence and Linguistic Background, 47–48.


He suggests this intentionality in Emergence and Linguistic Background through the following points: (1) “the choice of subjects, most of them falling within the sphere of religion in the widest sense of the word, also created a barrier for Gentiles.” (46); (2) “Being the linguistic expression of a clearly defined religious-ethnic society, which despite its absorption into Islamic culture (especially in the fields of philosophy and science) maintained its separate existence” (49); and (3)It was consequently used by writers who could equally well have written in a more Classical language had they so chosen, and its distinctive character finds expression in the possession of its own literary tradition.” (49; italics mine).


Goitein, A Mediterranean Society, Vol. II (Berkeley: University of California Press), 1.


Goitein, “Review of The Emergence and Linguistic Background of Judaeo-Arabic: A Study of the Origins of Middle Arabic by Joshua Blau,” Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft 118, No. 1 (1968): 173–176.


Goitein, A Mediterranean Society, Vol. I, p. 26.


Goitein, “Review,” 174–175. Blau at one point briefly acknowledges a similar take: “We readily admit that to confer the status of a separate language is merely adding a label.” But soon he qualifies it: “Nevertheless, it may serve as a catchword, illustrating its position” (Blau, Emergence and Linguistic Background, 47). The name “Judeo-Arabic language,” as Blau himself indicates, then, is not merely a label but reflects an argument for separation.


Although he clearly indicates that Christians and Muslims spoke a similar Arabic, Blau makes a case for Judeo-Arabic as a separate language.


Blau, Emergence and Linguistic Background, 46.


Blau, Emergence and Linguistic Background, 46.


Blau, Emergence and Linguistic Background, 47.


Blau, Emergence and Linguistic Background, 25.


Blau, Emergence and Linguistic Background, 46.


Blau, Emergence and Linguistic Background, 46.


Blau, Introduction, 6. [Hebrew]


Blau, Emergence and Linguistic Background, 49.


Blau, Emergence and Linguistic Background, 54.


Blau, Emergence and Linguistic Background, 35–36.


After completing his dissertation, Studies in North Palestinian Arabic, in 1953, Haim Blanc taught Arabic at the Hebrew University, specializing in Iraqi and Egyptian dialectology.


Blanc, Studies in North Palestinian Arabic: Linguistic Inquiries among the Druzes of Western Galilee and Mt. Carmel, Oriental Notes and Studies, Vol. 4 (Jerusalem: Israel Oriental Society, 1953), 1–139; “The Arabic Dialect of the Negev Bedouins,” Proceedings of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities 4, no. 7 (Jerusalem Academic Press, 1970): 112–150; and “Some Yiddish Influences in Israeli Hebrew,” The Field of Yiddish, Vol. 2, ed. Uriel Weinreich, (The Hague: Mouton, 1965).


Blanc notes the sources in his Introduction: “Data on M [Muslim Baghdadi] and C [Christian Baghdadi] stem principally from persons residing or studying in the United States, while data on J [Jewish Baghdadi] was gathered chiefly from persons now residing in Israel.” Haim Blanc, Communal Dialects in Baghdad (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1964), 3. In his memoriam to Blanc, Blau praises Blanc for managing to construct a model for Iraq’s dialects based on relatively little data, and to build strong foundations for this research. Blau, “In Memory of Haim Blanc,” Pe‘amim, no. 21 (1984), pp. 139–140 [Hebrew].


Blanc, Communal Dialects in Baghdad, p. 3.


Joshua Blau, “In Memory of Haim Blanc,” Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 12 (1989): ii–vii. Following Blanc’s writing on Iraqi dialects, Blau emphasized that “the Jewish dialect of Baghdad is distinctly different from the Muslim dialects.” Emergence and Linguistic Background, 55 and 13.


Blanc, Communal Dialects, 12.


Blanc, Communal Dialects, 3, 5.


Blanc, Communal Dialects, 5, 10–11.


Blanc, Communal Dialects, 5


Blanc, Communal Dialects, 10–11.


For a synchronic analysis, see for example Jacob Mansour’s discussion of the dialect in comparison with classical Arabic as well as with the Muslim and Christian dialects, The Judeo-Arabic of Baghdad [Hebrew] and The Jewish Baghdadi Dialect: Studies and Texts in the Judeo-Arabic Dialect of Baghdad (Or-Yehuda: The Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center, 1991).


For example, “Uniqueness of J. within the qeltu Group,” Blanc, Communal Dialects, 166.


Blanc, “Uniqueness of J.,” 170.


Blanc, “Uniqueness of J.,” 166


Blanc, “Uniqueness of J.,” 9.


Blanc, “Uniqueness of J.,” 13


Blanc, “Uniqueness of J.,” 13.


For a discussion of Bakhtinian translinguistics, see V. N. Volosinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1929/1973).


Blau similarly discussed the Iraqi dialect of Jews in this segregationist manner in Emergence and Linguistic Background, 55.


The depiction of a lack of intelligibility based on ethnoreligious classifications can itself be contested. Judeo-Arabic scholars often cite the case of Baghdadi Jews and Muslims, while a different picture, of a more flexible interlocution, is depicted in memoirs (e.g., Naïm Kattan’s 1975 Adieu, Babylone: Mémoires d’un juif d’Irak), in novels (e.g., Sami Michael’s 1993 Victoria), or in films (e.g., Nissim Dayan’s 2014 adaptation of Eli Amir’s 1993 novel The Dove Flyer.)


The mutually exclusive categories are encapsulated for example in Goitein’s Jews and Arabs and in Raphael Patai’s books, The Arab Mind (New York: Scribner, 1973) and The Jewish Mind (New York: Scribner, 1977)


Founded in the 1930s, the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the Hebrew University included among its faculty members Arthur Ruppin and Martin Buber, and with the establishment of Israel, a new generation of sociologists and anthropologists were carrying out research on the newly arrived Orientals: for example, Shmuel N. Eisenstadt, Karl Frankenstein, and Yosef B. David.


Over the decades, some Mizrahi scholars have gradually come to reproduce the same epistemological apparatus even when in fact their actual studies could also be read against the grain of this separationist metanarrative. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the very same overarching category that frames the project—“Judeo-Arabic language”—has to be constantly suspended, bracketed, modified, or even abandoned for the sake of a more precise classification on the archival “ground.” Under the master code of Judeo-Arabic language, the research on the speech mode itself is obliged to return to the designations within the semantics of Arabic-language discourse, according to specific location and region. In the fissure between the idea of Judeo-Arabic language and its archival adaptation, one discerns the extensive efforts to homogenize “the Jewish world” through its reorganization into subcategories of a master code.


Despite the hegemonic de-Arabization and de-Levantinization, a veritable renaissance of return in various Mizrahi cultural projects has generated an intergenerational dialogue thoroughly reformulating the Jewish relationship to Arabic.


The vast scholarship on Judeo-Arabic has taken various directions, but some more recent articles address a number of issues related to the concerns raised in my essays around the notion of “Judeo-Arabic”; see Esther-Miriam Wagner, “Judeo-Arabic Language or Jewish Arabic Sociolect? Linguistic Terminology between Linguistics and Ideology,” in Jewish Languages in Historical Perspective, ed. Lily Khan (Leiden: Brill, 2018), 189–207. And other scholars emphasize Judeo-Arabic as a mixed language; see Benjamin Hary, “Judeo-Arabic in the Arabic-Speaking World,” in. Languages in Jewish Communities, Past and Present, ed. Benjamin Hary and Sarah Bunin Benor (Berlin and Boston: De Gruyter Mouton, 2019), 35–69.


Yehuda Halevi, Al-Kitab al-Khazarī: Kitāb al-Ḥujja-wa-al-dalīl fī naṣr al-dīn al-dhalīl, transliterated into Arabic script, with an introduction by Nabih Bashir (Beirut, Cologne, and Freiberg: Al-Kamel Verlag, 2012) [Arabic].


Nabih Bashir, “Transmutation, Semantic Shift, and Modification: Reading the Judeo-Arabic Kuzari, in Hebrew and Arabic,” Journal of Levantine Studies 9, no. 1 (Summer 2019): 93–124.


Akiva Eldar, “Israel Bans Lebanese Edition of Jewish Philosophical Work,” Haaretz, May 15, 2012.


In 2018, the Knesset’s Jewish Nation-State Basic Law was met not only by Palestinian petitions, submitted by such organizations as Adalah, but also by a Mizrahi petition concerning the importance of the Arabic language. See Netta Amar-Shiff, Haokets, Sept. 22, 2019 [Hebrew]; and Almog Behar, Zvi Ben-Dor, Nabih Bashir, Vered Madar, and Yuval Evri, “Arabic as a Jewish Language,” in Uniqueness and Togetherness—Heritage Seeks a Bridge, ed. Meir Bozaglo and Yafa Benya (Rishon LeTziyon: Yedioth Sfarim, 2022 [Hebrew].

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