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Arab Jews: History, Memory, and Literary Identities in the Nahḍah  

Orit Bashkin

Middle Eastern Jews showed great interests in the Nahḍah (Arabic for Renaissance), a term signifying numerous intellectual movements, which championed Arabic literary and cultural renewal during the 19th century and the interwar period. Middle Eastern Jewish thought and literature thus responded to, and were shaped by, a context where ideas about the need to reform social and religious practices and laws, and discourses about Arab history and civilization, circulated widely in urban public spheres in the Arab World. Jewish thinkers and scholars were attentive to these discourses and they incorporated them into their conversations about the status of Jews as Arabic speakers, imperial and national citizens, and modern subjects. Middle Eastern Jewish writers were likewise keen to experiment in new genres that the Nahḍah’s Arab writers explored, such as the short story, the novella and the novel, the newspaper’s article and editorial, and the historical essay. Some Jews identified as Arab Jews, while others thought of themselves more as members of the national communities that emerged in the Middle East after World War I. The influence of Arab culture on Jews is apparent not only in their Arabic publications, but also in their writings in Judeo-Arabic and Hebrew. Jewish adaptions and perceptions of Arab culture, history, and language, moreover, generated different ideological commitments. Some Jews, who occasionally called themselves Arab Jews, felt that their adaption of Arab culture obliged them to support Arab nationalism and object to Zionism. Others, however, especially the Palestinian Sephardim, felt that they could combine between their Arab culture and Zionism to change Zionism from within, and underscored their indigenous identity as part of Zionist claims for Palestine.