Ayman Odeh MK, the leader of Hadash and the Joint List in the Knesset, gave the following speech at the launch of the Knesset Caucus for the Preservation and Furthering of the Cultural Heritage of Jews from Arab and Islamic Countries a few weeks ago.
Translation by Simon Montagu
Published at "Eating Manna" website
Published at "Eating Manna" website
"We hear a lot today about the importance of cultural pluralism, but unfortunately also too much about Arabs and Jews as two different sides. Scare‑mongering about Arab theatres and questions why there is no investment in culture in the periphery.
The culture of the Jews from Arab countries, the Arab Jews, is the key to an alternative option. Let's talk about the Jewish and Arabic culture combined, about joint culture. After all, the culture of the Jews in Arab countries wasn't just the communal traditions of their specific communities: it was also part of the culture of the Arab world as a whole.
Already in the pre-Islamic Jahiliyya period, we know about figures like Samuel ben `Adiya, who was an important and influential poet before the birth of the Prophet Muhammad. And in modern times it's sufficient to mention the Egyptian singer Leila Mourad, the brothers Daoud and Saleh Al-Kuwaity from Baghdad, or Zohra Al Fassiya from Morocco, to realize how deeply the Jews were rooted in Arab cultural heritage, and how deeply rooted it was in them.
Even those who worked in Hebrew from within Jewish religious tradition were part of their environment, like the great religious poet Rabbi David Bouzaglo, who wrote nostalgically about Morocco:Arabs and Hebrews
All sat at one table,
Sharing the pleasures
Of music and song.But unfortunately, the reality of the State of Israel didn't have room for the richness of this culture. Not only because it was consideredinferior, but because it blurred the boundary that the cultural hegemony was doing its best to draw between Jews and Arabs. It was inconceivable to suggest that Jews and Arabs could draw from a common culture. For that very reason we have an obligation, for our own sake and for the sake of our future, to glorify these neglected cultures whose great wealth has been mostly lost.
It is important to mention also the part that Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel played in preserving and rescuing parts of the glorious culture of Jews from Arab countries. The actor Leo (Albert) Elias, who passed away this year, wasn't accepted in main-stream theatre at first because of his Arabic accent. So he worked in the Arab sector, where he founded theatrical initiatives already in the terrible period of military rule. Musicians such as Abraham Salman and Jojo Mousa worked in the orchestra of the Arabic‑language department of Israel Radio. The Arabic films screened on Channel One (originally targetted at Arab viewers), were a cultural haven for Mizrahi Jews who were given a chance to see a movie in their own language.
Of course, we must not forget literary figures: Sami Michael, Shimon Ballas, Sasson Somekh and others found the first opportunity to publish their works in the Communist Party's Arabic newspapers under the auspices of writer Emile Habibi, before they turned to writing in Hebrew and were embraced by the establishment much later. Jews from Arab countries were enriched by Palestinian Arab culture and enriched it in their turn, even during the darkest days.
I am happy to say that more and more young Jews and Arabs are finding a renewed interest in this culture, and there are new initiatives seeking out the connections that have almost disappeared. How moving it is to hear the Israeli Andalusian Orchestra, in which Jews and Arabs play together, and how infuriating that it has to keep calling for a decent budget on the same level that the classical Western orchestras receive! How moving to meet young Mizrahim who are returning to their grandparents' heritage and re-learning the Arabic language, not in order to "know the enemy" but in order to know themselves and their heritage, and through it to search for connections of reconciliation and coexistence.
If we aspire to a future of coexistence, the time has come to let culture disintegrate barriers, not raise them. Some said that Israel needs to be a "villa in the jungle". What a terrible mistake that was! We have all paid for it in long years of suffering. Instead, Israel should be opening up to the region around it, to new collaborations and new connections. And the first step should be in the field of culture.
The government must stop threatening and persecuting Arab culture immediately, make opportunities for the cultural wealth that exists here, give the resourced budgeted for Arab and Mizrahi culture parity with those for Western-Jewish culture — as required by the bill proposed by my parliamentary colleague Dr. Yousef Jabareen — and celebrate the great Arab-Jewish creative artists who showed us another, better way.