Jews, Arabic-Speaking - History and Cultural Relations

The Fertile Crescent is the region where Judaism originated. With the beginnings of the Diaspora in the sixth century B . C ., and, certainly by the second century B . C ., there were Jewish populations throughout the region, especially in Babylonia (now southern Iraq). From the beginning to the present, Jews have lived side by side with peoples of other religions.

From the sixth century B . C . until well after the Arab conquest in the seventh century of the Christian Era, Aramaic was the primary language of Jews in the Fertile Crescent, whereas Egyptian Jewry was Greek speaking. Although there were some Jews living in cities, most Jews in this period were rural cultivators. By the ninth century, Jews were increasingly becoming urbanites, specializing in crafts and trade. There were, at that time, some speakers of Arabic.

Jews, like their coresidents, flourished during the Umayyad and ʿAbbāsid periods, but the Fertile Crescent in general went into a decline with the breakup of the ʿAbbāsid and Fātimid monarchies in the eleventh century and suffered from internal disorder and invasions by the Turks, the Crusaders, and the Mongols. During the late fifteenth and the sixteenth centuries, communities of Jews in Egypt, Palestine, and Syria were augmented by the settlement of Jews from Spain and Sicily. These newer immigrants helped to give the Jewish communities importance in trade relations with Europe.

In the nineteenth century the European Industrial Revolution caused Middle Easterners to import more and more products from Europe. Many artisans were forced out of business as local merchants imported increasing quantities of foreign goods, beginning with textiles. A substantial number of non-Arabic-speaking Jews emigrated to Egypt and Palestine during the nineteenth century. There were many emigrants from the Jewish communities of the Fertile Crescent. Many Baghdadi Jews moved to India and the Far East. Both Aleppo and Baghdadi Jews established trading firms for goods exported from Manchester, England. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Cairo, Alexandria, and Beirut flourished as new trading centers and were the targets of many ambitious Jews from elsewhere. Other Jews from the Fertile Crescent found homes in Palestine/Israel, and from 1900 on, many Syrian Jews emigrated to the Americas.

After World War II, the conflict between Zionism and Arab nationalism came to a head. By 1950, the majority of Jews from Syria and Iraq had emigrated to Israel and elsewhere. After the 1956 Suez War, Egypt was largely emptied of its Jewish population. Lebanon received several thousand Jewish immigrants during the 1950s, but most left during the Lebanese Civil War, which began in 1975. Several thousand Jews remain, mainly in Syria, as a result of government policies that prohibit Jewish emigration.

The Arabic-speaking Jews of the Fertile Crescent were an integral part of the Jewish Diaspora. The Jewish communities there were hosts to traveling Jewish merchants and to pilgrims to and emissaries from the Holy Land. Hebrew books, many of which were printed in Europe, circulated throughout these countries. In their vernacular culture, the Jews of the Fertile Crescent had ties with their Gentile neighbors and shared many patterns of behavior with them. In modern times, European culture, especially that of France, was transmitted to the Jews in this part of the world.


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