Massoud Hayoun, When We Were Arabs: A Jewish Family’s Forgotten History (New York: The New Press, 2019).


In a time of resurgent populism and white nationalism in the West, Massoud Hayoun’s book When We Were Arabs: A Jewish Family’s Forgotten History is a daring and rejuvenating book. Massoud Hayoun is a young journalist based in Los Angeles who has worked for Al Jazeera English and Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown online while writing a weekly column on foreign affairs for Pacific Standard.

Written in the form of a historical memoir, Hayoun, who identifies himself as a Jewish Arab, traces his family history before and after World War II to illustrate how Jewish Arabs were maliciously separated from their societies and how their identities were used in a game of colonial domination. He argues that Jewish Arabs lived and worked alongside their Muslim and Christian Arab neighbors in relative peace until colonialism, white supremacy and Zionism disrupted Arab society and fractured it into various groups, which, among other things, separated the identity of Arab from Jew.

Hayoun effectively interlaces the stories of his grandparents with historical research on colonial institutions, modern states and their relationship to religious minorities in the Middle East. The gripping stories of his grandparents—his grandmother Daida from a Tunisian Jewish family, and his grandfather Oscar from Egypt’s Jewish community in Alexandria—unfold through their gradual alienation from the Arab world within the broader historical context of colonial transformation and regional fragmentation. Hayoun’s masterful use of memoir not only gives us a fascinating look at the fate of the Arab world’s Jewish community, but also provides a powerful and impassioned argument for the reemergence of an emancipatory Arab nationalism, or what Hayoun describes as “Arabness,” based on decolonization (218) and which can “fully embrace pluralism and diversity”(49).

Separating Jew from Arab

Hayoun traces his Jewish Arab family’s history through the line of his maternal grandparents, who played a major role in his upbringing and whose stories and culture he imbibed as a child.  His Grandmother Daida’s family has a rich history as indigenous Arabic-speaking Jews of Tunisia. Hayoun shows how deeply their family, some as representative members of the Tunisian upper class, were tethered to the institutions of their country and, most interestingly, engaged in the debates about what it meant to be a Tunisian. Hayoun also notes how, as well-off Jewish Arabs, his grandmother’s family saw themselves as apart from Jewish “Grana”—the Livornese, or the Jews of Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese descent who lived in the country—but also apart from the other Jewish Arabs in the “hara,” or the working classes in the old city.

The paternal side of his grandfather Oscar’s family hailed from Morocco, but his grandfather’s outlook, Arabic dialect and cultural affinities were defined by Egypt. Oscar also had indigenous Egyptian roots through his Jewish Egyptian mother. Hayoun’s discussion of Oscar’s world provides a fascinating overview of the Egyptian Jewish community from the fourth century CE onward, particularly in Alexandria. He describes how his grandfather grew up, attended colonial schools and began to feel the tension brought on by the Zionist settlement and eventual takeover of neighboring Palestine.

Throughout, Hayoun weaves established historical scholarship with his family’s personal history to give context to their experiences, especially as their Jewish Arab world begins to fragment. He shows how French and British colonial schools impacted Jewish children by teaching them to identify with the colonizer rather than their immediate communities. He also discusses the Universal Israelite Alliance headquartered in France, whose mission was to “civilize” Jewish Arabs by removing their Arabness. The Israelite Alliance perceived Jewish Arabs as primitive and, horrifyingly to them, indistinguishable from the Muslims. Thus, the Alliance schools sought to Europeanize their students, emphasizing how the Jewish Arab community was beneficial to their colonizing mission. Because Jewish Arabs had “Oriental physiognomies,” they naturally possessed a “talent for assimilation,” which could be used to colonize their Muslim counterparts across North Africa. The external exploitation of indigenous Jewish Arab communities would continue with Zionism—Hayoun provides an alarming overview of Zionist efforts to sow dissension and encourage Jewish Arab outmigration from Egypt and Iraq to the new state of Israel.

Hayoun relates his grandparents’ journey out of their colonized Jewish Arab world—from North Africa to Israel, then to France and finally to the United States—with the rise of Zionism at the end of the 19th century and the emergence of Israel on the ruins of Palestinian society in 1948.  Both events play a major role in his grandparents’ narrative as well as in the broader process of separating Jew from Arab.

Hayoun critically engages with Zionism and the creation of the Israeli state as manifestations of colonialism and white supremacy, and as a derivation of French and British colonial projects (239). He argues that Zionism built off the work of the French colonial Israelite Alliance prior to 1948 through its efforts to construct a separate identity for Jewish Arabs and sow antagonism between them and their Muslim and Christian Arab counterparts. According to Hayoun, Zionism—invented by a German Jew to resolve a European problem— “simply redirected Jewish Arab attentions away from France and toward Palestine” (202).  The concept of a single Jewish people was not “intuitive” to Jewish Arabs, for whom their identities as Tunisian, Egyptian or Arab generally were as important. Even in the elite circles of wealthy North African Jews who flirted with the idea of Zionism, theirs was a “Zionism without realization”—they offered verbal support for Zionism but had no intention of ever moving out of their homelands.

Oscar’s family, however, were compelled to leave Egypt and immigrate to Israel, renouncing their Egyptian citizenship, as a result of the growing hostility and prejudice many Jewish Arabs faced in their home countries following Israel’s establishment in 1948.   But upon arriving in Israel they continued to face hostility and prejudice of another type—widespread views from the highest levels of the European Ashkenazi Zionist and Israeli establishment that Jewish Arabs were inferior and uncivilized, as well as not truly Jewish. Oscar’s sister-in-law was embarrassed to be identified as North African and his father-in-law had difficulty finding work for subsistence as a result of discriminatory attitudes and policies. In this context, Oscar left Israel as quickly as he could, living in France before moving on to the US, while still providing money and support to the family in Israel.

Zionism had less appeal to Hayoun’s grandparents, who met in France, after they saw the reality of life for Jewish Arabs in Palestine. They migrated to the United States together as they identified less with a transnational Jewish identity, even as their connection to Arabness became more tenuous. Hayoun highlights how they preferred the Arab synagogue to the Ashkenazi one in Los Angeles, and maintained their cultural practices and sense of indigeneity. To them, their Judaism was the real Judaism. Hayoun’s grandfather often bristled at the way Ashkenazim carried themselves with a sense of superiority.  Hayoun writes:

“Judaism had originated, Oscar would remind us angrily, in the Middle East, not in Germany or Russia. In Egypt, Oscar resented the presence of Jewish refugees from Eastern and Central European nations, largely because they cloistered themselves off and viewed North African and Middle Eastern Jews…Even if the Jewish Egyptians were wealthier and better educated, by Oscar’s estimation, the Jewish Europeans never welcomed them in their circles” (205-206).

Hayoun’s upbringing by his Jewish Arab grandparents, and his experience of post-September 11 hysteria in the United States, led him to begin questioning the centrality of transnational Jewishness to his identity. His family served foul mudammas at his bar mitzvah, and watched Egyptian films at home. He had more in common with the Moroccan congregation at his synagogue than Ashkenazi friends who would claim things like Jewish Arabs “could be clever, but never intelligent.” He had more allegiance to Arabs around Los Angeles than to a Jewish state whose prime minister would make jokes about his Mizrahi temper. His grandparents, despite some resistance, came to the same conclusions. They recognized that the Arabs of Palestine had been driven out, and that they themselves had no place in the so-called new Jewish homeland.


Shifting Identities

One of the most interesting aspects of When We Were Arabs is to follow the generational shifts in ethnic identity that Hayoun traces within his family over time.  From their ancient origins in North Africa, including the connection between North African Jewry and the indigenous Amazigh (often referred to as Berbers), Hayoun traces the generational shifts in identity that occurred as colonial institutions became more intrusive and entrenched, and then how these identities shifted again in exile.

From a political science perspective, Hayoun’s family history corroborates important findings in contemporary research on ethnic identity, such as David Laitin’s argument in his 2007 Nations, States, and Violence that identities are not primordial, but rather constructed. While the constructed nature of identities is not an original point, Laitin goes further by outlining the process through which identities shift. He argues that ethnic identity emerges as a result of group dynamics: As certain groups find that it is in their best interest to speak a specific language, engage in a different economy and become absorbed by particular institutions, people may begin to make the linguistic switch, and identify with another culture or identity. When a critical mass of people make this choice, then ethnic identities at the group level begin to shift as well.

Hayoun’s discussion of Amazigh versus Arab identity, as well as the impact of colonial education at the start of the twentieth century, provides support for this approach. Hayoun notes that although his family’s immediate history and culture is Arab, they most likely descended from Amazigh communities that were Jewish before the Arab and Islamic invasions. He outlines the origin story of Dihiya, the North African queen of Amazigh and Jewish oral histories, and asks the question: “Does the contemporary North African call the Amazigh our ancestor? Or does the North African call the Arab invader our ancestor? Or was a new people forged from a generation’s violence?” (209). No matter the reality of what occurred following the seventh century Muslim invasions, we know that some crucial mass of indigenous North Africans adopted the Arab language and Arabness as a culture, and engaged in the institutions of the new empire which ruled them. Over time, the Arabs and the Amazigh in North Africa became largely intertwined—in culture, language, and also genealogy, though not without contestation.

In the early twentieth century, however, Hayoun’s grandparents and their generation took on the French and English language in order to access greater economic opportunity and class prestige. The Israelite Alliance in particular was able to shift the self-perception of Jewish Arabs. Jewish Arabs had been fully integrated into society, to the point that the Alliance itself bemoaned their barbarity. There were very few discernable differences between them and their Muslim countrymen and cultural markers were replicated in both Muslim and Jewish homes. But in the span of a few generations, the Alliance and colonial institutions were able to subvert the Jewish Arab’s perception of him/herself. For the first time, one could be Tunisian and Jewish, but not Arab and Jewish—even though Tunisia itself was an Arab country and even though Jewish Arabs did indeed speak Arabic (as Hayoun’s grandmother Daida at one point explains, exasperated at her grandson’s insistence that they might be Arab).


An Emancipatory Arabness

But Hayoun’s memoir of his family history also shows that their decisions to identify with one culture or language over another cannot be purely thought of in rational choice or economic terms. His grandparents certainly thought of their French or English linguistic ability as a means to access opportunity, but Hayoun shows that there was more. To them, it also represented a way to rise above their immediate community, to become civilized and different from what they had been taught represented all that was barbaric. Hayoun by contrast, finds that an Arab identity for him today fulfills another purpose:  “Arabness is what ties me to people from Marrakech to Manama who share a similar legacy and, in my experience with them, recall to me things I know of my family and self in the way that they live their lives today” (27).

Indeed, as many Arab nationalist thinkers have argued, Hayoun shows that the choice of Arabness cannot be reduced to decisions related to material gain. An early theorist of Arab Nationalism, Sati al-Husri, for example argued that shared economies strengthened the feeling of being a single nation, but did not in itself create a nation. Instead, Husri claims that a feeling of community emerges as a result of unity—in land, origin, language, and customs—pinpointing language specifically as the strongest foundation. Moreover, for modern Arab nationalism, Husri ties anti-colonialism to the idea of Arab unity, because Arabs did not have much of a choice in how they were governed, where their borders were based and how they were conceived of as citizens. Thus, for Husri, the concept of Arab nationalism and Arab unity served the function of providing an alternative identity which promised to better their cultural and political circumstances.

Writing later, the Palestinian philosopher Azmi Bishara agreed with Husri that being Arab includes a shared language, shared history and a common desire to change an oppressive political reality, but that it could not be reduced to economic ties alone. Bishara ties Arab nationalism not only to emancipation from outside powers, but also to a liberal democratic project. Since Arab identity is the main unifying trait in the region, countries in the Arab world must become democratic in order to express the will of this majority.  Arab identity becomes the “common glue,” necessary to contain subnational or pre-modern identities. Bishara argues that Arab identity does not negate other identities but, as the primary identity, it can rise above divisive sectarian or tribal identities that have been weaponized in the modern history of the Arab world. In his view, democratic citizenship in any Arab state should be a relationship between individuals and the state that is not mediated by the elites of any identity group nor tied to whether a person has a particular identity, but rather based on inalienable rights.

Thus, this emancipatory Arab nationalism is a two-step process—one which harnesses a shared Arab identity to emancipate themselves from vestiges of colonialism and reject authoritarianism, and then to build a relationship between the state and its citizens on the basis of individual rights.

Hayoun arrives at similar conclusions without referencing these thinkers in the tradition of emancipatory Arab nationalism. Hayoun writes, “…Arabness does not, to my mind, negate the sacred things that came before, in which I also take great pride, namely my Amazigh-ness and my Judaism. I can feel Arab, first and foremost, without forgoing or denigrating other simultaneous identities” (27). He continues, “I choose Arabness, because Arabness in reality is as diverse as the many characters in this book. There are dark- and light-skinned Arabs, Arabs of many and no faiths, Arabs who further colonialism and Arabs who stamp it our wherever they see it. I find the internationalism of Arabness enormously useful to reverse the tides of populism and neoliberalism, of which Arabs are made to bear the brunt. It is to choose solidarity over the division wrought by white colonialism” (18). While Hayoun recognizes that to “champion an ethnic identity” risks “falling into a pit of tribal nationalism” (281), he insists that his affirmation of Arabness is a necessary way to rebuke the white supremacy that has disfigured his community.


Affirming Arabness

By outlining the history of how his family was divorced from their Arab roots, Hayoun makes the conscious decision to reclaim this history, claiming that the Arab identity is the best antidote to the divisions of religion, sect and tribe that plague the region today and to deal with his own cultural and political position as a Jewish Arab in the United States. He ties his embrace of an Arab identity directly to combatting white supremacy and colonialism in ways that echo Arab nationalist thinkers who wrote before him:  “My Arabness is cultural…It is also retaliatory. I am Arab because it is what I and my parents have been told not to be, for generations, to stop us from living in solidarity with other Arabs” (17). Later, he notes that “to be Arab is a thing not of great sorrow or of exile or of the past, but of progress and beauty and solidarity” (230).

When We Were Arabs offers insights that are useful for a variety of audiences. For those interested in minorities in the Arab world, and particularly the history of the Jewish community, this book provides a great first accounting. For those who teach Middle East politics or history, this book is an accessible human story that addresses some of the major conflicts and transformations that have shaped the history of the modern Arab world, and which still rage today. And for those concerned with the future of the Arab world—particularly the rise of sectarian warfare, retrenched authoritarianism and the collapse of states—this book provides support for an emancipatory democratic Arab nationalist project that could be a major force for solidarity and progress. Finally, this book offers insight to others whose identities have been distorted by colonialism and white supremacy. As Hayoun explains, his efforts to embrace his Arab identity are “…not arguments for an Arab supremacy” but rather a means by which to “restore to humanity a people so deeply disfigured by white supremacy that we have lost all semblance of self and of dignity” (281).


How to cite this article:

Dana El Kurd "Memoir of a Jewish Arab," Middle East Report Online, October 04, 2019.

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