Monday, 20 July 2015

Are Jews and Arabs Really So Different?

I think it's ironic that Jews and Arabs currently find themselves in such a divisive conflict, because the truth is that we're not that different from one another.  In fact, we share several attributes in common, starting with our origins.  For those of you who know your Bible, you're probably familiar with the story of Abraham, which is found in the Book of Genesis.  Abraham is considered a patriarchal figure by both Jews and Arabs.  Why?  Because both Arabs and Jews are descendants of Abraham's offspring.  The Arabs are the direct descendants of Ishmael, Abraham's first born son.  The Jews are the direct descendants of Jacob, whose father was Isaac, Abraham's second born son.  Hence, the Jews and Arabs are cousins.

It is probably no coincidence then, that Jews and Arabs have similar languages.  Any linguistics expert who is familiar with the languages of Africa and the Middle East will tell you that Hebrew and Arabic are both in the same family of languages - the Semitic family.  And as someone who has studied both Hebrew and Arabic, I can tell you that the two languages are very often quite similar to each other.  Many of the words are either the same or at least somewhat similar.  I can still remember how much easier it was for me to learn Arabic than it was for the others I studied it with since I already had a working knowledge of Hebrew at the time.  I also had a work colleague from Egypt who said that she took a Hebrew course and achieved a grade in the high 90s because, as she told me, the two languages are very similar and knowing one makes it a lot easier to learn the other.  Those of you who have studied languages probably know that studying a new language is a whole lot easier if you already know a language of the same linguistic family.

So Jews and Arabs clearly have commonalities in both origins and language, but our similarities don't stop there.  Jews and Arabs also share various cultural traits and values.  For example, both Jews and Arabs in general have the frequent tendency to use hand gestures to communicate.  This is a cultural trait that is common not just amongst Jews and Arabs, but amongst all Mediterranean cultures, including the Italians, Maltese and Greeks.  Jews and Arabs also share another commonality with other Mediterranean cultures in that both peoples have a very special relationship with food.  If you've ever been to a meal in a Jewish or Arab home, you'll understand what I mean.  Indeed, if you do get the opportunity to be hosted by a Jewish or Arab family, you'll quickly find out that food is big part of our common tradition of hospitality.  Now of course, being hospitable is not something distinct to Jews and Arabs, but I would say that the two peoples are more well-known for it than others.  Jews and Arabs also both have a long tradition of being very family-oriented.  I can tell you from personal experience that for many Jews and Arabs, the family is the number one priority.

The fact of the matter is that Jews and Arabs have more similarities than they do differences.  Unfortunately, it is the differences between the two peoples that the Arab-Israeli conflict has magnified.  These differences are mainly political, though there is one other important factor that has divided the children of Abraham: The fact that while the Arabs have remained in their homeland, we the Jews were largely exiled from ours for approximately two thousand years.  Why is this important?  Well, a lot can happen to a people when they are dispersed and largely absent from their original homeland for two millennia.  One thing that happen was that the Jewish people, particularly those of us who lived in the Western world, went through cultural, linguistic and even racial changes.  We were also exposed to modern, Western ideas that had largely not yet made their way to the Middle East.  Hence, by the time we Jews began returning to the Land of Israel, we and our Arab cousins didn't recognize each other anymore.  The Arabs looked at us and saw just another wave of European colonizers, while we looked at them and saw a primitive people who had no grasp of modern civilization as it was understood in the eyes of Europeans.  So what should have been a joyful family reunion instead became the beginning of a long and bitter family feud - a feud that I hope will soon come to a peaceful end. 

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