Indy Arabia claim “Hebrew is a branch of Arabic” mirrors broader anti-Zionist narrative

After having presented a detailed translation of Independent Arabia’s article (“Between Hebrew and Arabic – Roots and Similarities, but…”, December 20th) in our first post, in this second part we share with UKMW readers our personal, wider perspective of contemporary Arab-nationalist propaganda, using the article as an example of the genre.

The article’s view of Hebrew revival as a microcosm of the entire Zionist project leads to grim conclusions regarding the problematic way the author of the article, ‘Izz ad-Deen Abu-‘Eisheh, as well as his interviewees, perceive their respective fields – journalism and scholarship – inside their Arab societies. The Independent newspaper is hence complicit in the perpetuation of their unprofessional conduct via its subsidiary, Independent Arabia.

The article’s view of Zionism is a part of a long Arab-nationalist tradition

In order to draw the connection between Abu-‘Eisheh’s portrayal of modern Hebrew and the contemporary Arab-nationalist narrative purporting to explain modern Jewish history (and especially Zionism), we’d like to evoke a certain figure that is often recited in this context (either correctly or incorrectly) by Arab and Palestinian nationalists themselves [1]. That figure is Egyptian ‘Abdel-Wahab el-Messiri (1938-2008), a researcher of English literature who published his 8-volumed “Encyclopedia of Jews, Judaism and Zionism” between 1975 and 1999. Although he and his encyclopedia are quite unknown to most English readers, in the Arabic speaking world they are considered rather influential, so much so that an episode of al-Jazeera’s latest literature magazine, “Outside the Text”, was dedicated to them just last October (it was subtly entitled “Don’t let them deceive you – How to distinguish between Judaism and Zionism”).

El-Messiri was one of the first and most prominent Arab thinkers who opposed Zionism and the State of Israel while making a conscious effort not to engage in overt antisemitism, including Holocaust denial – although, admittedly, his success at this task was at best weak [2]. To put it in al-Jazeera’s words, “some still blame him for exonerating the Jews of Zionism and of many crimes that are historically attributed to them”. Here are two of el-Messiri’s most famous quotes, where he articulated the canonical Arab-nationalist position towards modern Jewish history, Zionism and Israel (all translations, emphases and in-bracket remarks are by CAMERA Arabic):

“[Explaining what he meant by calling Israel ‘a utility state’:] colonialist powers manufactured and launched it to carry out functions and tasks they would turn their nose up at performing directly – it is a colonialist endeavor that has no connection to Judaism

The history of the Zionist movement is not a part of a virtual ‘history of world Jewry’, nor is it a part of Torah and Talmud […]. Rather, it is a part of the history of Western imperialism”

The statements above reflect the Egyptian writer’s refusal to recognize Zionism and Israel as legitimate chapters of modern Jewish history (as he says elsewhere, he believes there is no such thing as a single Jewish history or a single Jewish identity to begin with). Accordingly, he posits that Israel, unlike most (if not all) countries, only exists to fulfill agendas dictated to it from above. This worldview is completely analogous to the way Abu-‘Eisheh’s article portrays modern Hebrew – a rootless, artificial and abbreviated version of a language whose revivalists turned to Aramaic and Arabic in order to create it “for specific purposes”.

Similarly, while Abu ‘Eisheh and his interviewees imply that modern Hebrew has little to do with the ancient Hebrew known to be holy to Jews, in el-Messiri’s eyes the Zionist movement is essentially unrelated to Judaism. A third point of resemblance in the storytelling of both men is found in their description of the driving force behind the events; much like “colonialist powers” are the predetermined, scheming agents who generate el-Messiri’s story, “Zionist leadership” has the same part in Abu-‘Eisheh’s, as is evident from his first words:

“About 150 years ago, the leadership of the Zionist movement decided to assemble the world’s Jews in their own nation-state, and the first step they took at the time was the creation of a language for them to speak.”

Unsurprisingly, it is in this type of phrasing, used throughout the article, where one can spot the essence of what sets Abu-‘Eisheh’s article apart from professional journalism.

The broad historical phenomenon called “the Zionist movement” was reduced in one fell swoop to its common Palestinian and Arab stereotype. Abu Eisheh’s imagined “Zionist leadership” comes complete with its loyal followers, all seeking from day one (as early as 1870!) to implement a single master plan: “assembling the world’s Jews in their own nation-state”.

This picture is as inaccurate as it is superficial (however convenient it may well be for the promotion of related conspiracy theories). The truth is that consensus was hardly ever reached among the first few generations of Zionists, let alone a level of organisation and discipline needed to take “decisions” of the kind the article suggests. Thus, all of the following core issues fed long and heated debates between Zionists throughout most of the movement’s early history:

  • The nature of the Jews’ sense of peoplehood;
  • The Jews’ purported connection to a territory where some or all of them could be part of this peoplehood, once a collective immigration plan is laid out and executed;
  • The way that such practice would benefit Jews as a whole, wherever they opt to reside;
  • The question whether such a territory should be sovereign (or should it even overlap the historic Land of Israel).

Notably, this was the second time in less than a month that such an image of historical Zionism and Jewish immigration was dishonestly portrayed by Independent Arabia.

Hebrew Revival and its presumed “objectives”

Next in line is way the article further describes the revival of Hebrew, which has the same flaws:

“In order to revive the language, they [Zionist leaders] resorted to Aramaic […]. History experts say […] that it is the language of the Arab region”

“‘Awad points out that […] it [modern Hebrew] was conceived by a decision on behalf of the Zionist movement and that it is made up of a mixture between the Arabic language and languages that are widespread in Europe.”

“language experts and historians view […] Hebrew language as a small branch adapted from Arabic, as Hebrew was fabricated out of Arabic for specific purposes”

“[…] Observers argue that the most senior Jews have decided to manufacture a language that would be close to Arabic so they could penetrate the Arabs, intending to establish their state in the middle of the Arab region. […] ‘Awad denies this, as he reasons that the Jews regard themselves a class distinct from Arabs, whereas the invention of language only came to aggregate them under one tongue, and to stand out of the Arab region while asserting that they carry progress, modernity and superior spiritual values.”

Again, these deliberately misleading words choices are made because the article’s author and interviewees, in a true Arab-nationalist fashion, insist on seeing a complex historical development – Hebrew revival – only as a parable of Zionism, and exclusively through the narrow lens of what both have to do with the Arabs.

In fact, the first intellectual movement that marked Jews’ modern return to Hebrew as an everyday language wasn’t Zionism at all; that title is reserved to the Jewish Enlightenment (“Haskala”), initially aspiring to integrate European Jews of the 18th and 19th centuries into the social fabric of their countries of residence.

Aiming to distinguish themselves from the traditional communities of their time, the Maskilim often used Biblical Hebrew, rather than Yiddish or Rabbinic Hebrew, for that objective – all while having little or no affinity for the idea of a Jewish homeland, and sometimes even opposing it vehemently. The Zionist utilization of spoken Hebrew in service of Jewish nationhood came only a generation later and relied heavily on these early experiments; even then, a common Zionist position at the time – with Ahad Ha’am as the key figure expressing it – was that Hebrew revival, as a part of a broader Jewish spiritual renaissance centered in the Land of Israel, should replace Jewish sovereignty rather than lead to it.

Regarding the linguistic origins of modern Hebrew, the four quotes above are somewhat contradictory.

What adds to the confusion is that each of them appear in a different part of the article, and each is said to have come from a different speaker (Abu ‘Eisheh’s own voice, his interviewee Ahmad Rafiq ‘Awad and a group of unnamed “language experts and historians” and “observers”, respectively). This was perhaps a clumsy attempt to create the façade of a “pluralistic debate” within the article – whether modern Hebrew is mainly based on Aramaic; whether it’s manufactured so that it “would be close to Arabic”; or whether it’s “fabricated out of Arabic for specific purposes” or is it “a mixture” of Arabic and European languages.

However, all theories are erroneous, as they’re oblivious to the relationship between modern Hebrew and earlier versions of that language, including ancient ones; they become all the more preposterous once put alongside the almost tautological “confirmation” Abu-‘Eisheh brings on behalf of unknown “history experts” – that modern Hebrew “is not the same ancient Hebrew used in their [the Jews’] own houses of worship”.

The truth is that ancient Hebrew, especially its Biblical version, has always been the primary source for the first generations of modern era Hebrew revivalists, as they were attempting to accumulate a large body of neologisms and loanwords and subsequently create a contemporary version of Hebrew – that was mainly a liturgical language for over 12 centuries. Arabic, Aramaic and several European languages (Yiddish, Russian, German and many more) were also important secondary sources of the new vocabulary, but as far as the revivalists were concerned (they weren’t always consulted), never at the expense of an existing Hebrew option.

Indeed, because of their family relations to Hebrew, Arabic and Aramaic were seen as preferable candidates for the extraction of such loanwords – although, contrary to Abu-‘Eisheh’s claim, some scholars were actually reluctant to use Aramaic specifically due to its heavy influence on Rabbinical Hebrew and its connection to the traditional Jewish diaspora world.

Traditional Judaism as a strawman

A final argument that Abu-‘Eisheh’s article have in common with the Arab-nationalist worldview, in a way that reveals how the creeds of that worldview lie underneath his writing, is the use of traditional Judaism as a strawman – in order to prove the inauthentic nature of a so-called “Zionist” novelty. El-Massiri, for example, was bothered by the fact that most Jews of his day considered themselves one nation, with a unique identity and history. He therefore suggested an alternative to the term “Jews” – “Jewish communities”, better describing the traditional Jewish diaspora, in his opinion, since it emphasizes that a Jew is solely a part of the history and identity of his or her community and “original” country – thus distinguishing them from the “settler-colonialist entity” that is Zionist Israel.

Independent Arabia’s article uses an identical premise when addressing Hebrew:

“The original Hebrew language that the Jews see as holy […] ‘Awad explains that they believe that this ancient language is the language of the Lord, so it must not be exploited or used in everyday life. The other type of Hebrew language is newly born. ‘Awad points out that its age doesn’t exceed 150 years […]”

“History experts have confirmed to ‘Independent Arabia’ that the Hebrew language widespread today among the Jews is not the same ancient Hebrew used in their own houses of worship – which they are prohibited from using in everyday life. According to ‘Awad, every piece of paper that has ancient Hebrew imprinted on it becomes sacred.”

The one detail these two phrases got right is the sacred status of Hebrew in Judaism; it is often referred to, sometimes jointly with Aramaic, as “Leshon HaKodesh” – the holy tongue. Arguably, this was the kernel of truth that was exploited to build an impressive structure of falsehoods:

    • Although Hebrew was no one’s mother tongue between the 5th and 19th centuries, it was still continuously used by individuals from all over the Jewish world. New texts – of religious, literary and other character – kept appearing all the time.
    • Of these, the number of secular texts written by fresh authors was at no point zero; some scriptures even dealt with matters as mundane as showing one’s guests to the toilet. Modern Hebrew slang also absorbed Biblical phrases and terms into it, so it is widely used in “everyday life” even today.
    • Certainly not every piece of paper with ancient Hebrew scripture on it automatically becomes sacred (although 85 or more letters of a direct quote from the Bible do sanctify the material on which they are written on, and so is the name of G-d or scriptures that were used in rituals).
    • Rabbis only started debating whether it is permissible to speak Hebrew after Zionism was already established in the Jewish world. Those who forbid it today represent but a tiny fraction of world’s Jewry.

What does the casual publication of an Arab-nationalist propaganda piece like “Between Hebrew and Arabic” indicate about Independent Arabia’s editorial ethics? What is Independent Arabia’s policy regarding the echo chamber within which Abu-‘Eisheh and all of his interviewees jointly operate? Here are two last anecdotes to stress out just how enclosed and self-congratulatory their universe of Arabic-speaking media is:

  • In 2008, when he predicted the impending end of Israel within fifty years, el-Messiri brought as evidence a single chat that he had with a Jew in the United States in the mid sixties (!). The author of the “encyclopedia of Jews, Judaism and Zionism” deduced from this chat that Israeli society is decaying.
  • Last January, ‘Awad was interviewed at the door of his Ramallah home by the Palestinian channel “Watan” about the World Holocaust Forum of 2020, which took place in Jerusalem at the time. His words were as follows: “Israel, first of all, wants to gain a monopoly over the role of eternal victim. It wants to invest in the Holocaust so it will remain ‘a sacred cow’, for no one to criticize, hold accountable or even blame. It also wants to get a green light from the world to persecute the Palestinian wherever he is, and it wants to continue this racist conduct. Secondly, Israel wants to rely on this Holocaust, which we are also against, by the way, because it is against humanity, not against the Jews […]”

Clearly, this circus could not have lasted a single minute had the “journalist” actually spoken to the object of his coverage, a Hebrew speaker, or had the “intellectuals” and “experts” had the slightest clue about their area of expertise, the Hebrew language.

The sad reality is that there is a wide gap between the way Abu-‘Eisheh, ‘Awad and their colleagues see their professions as journalists and scholars on the one hand, and the Western definition of these professions on the other. To them, their job focuses on introducing the common beliefs and the perspectives of the societies they live in, even if they include the reinforcement of some of their audience’s most ridiculous prejudices – for example, that Israel and the Hebrew language are objects that exist outside the normal course of life and linguistic continuum, and therefore lack any authentic dynamics of their own.

Only remaining question is, why does The Independent embrace this, after having stated in its own report, announcing the launch of Independent Arabia, that:

“All editorial practices and output [of future Independent channels in Arabic, Turkish, Urdu and Persian] will conform to the world-renowned standards, code of conduct and established ethos of The Independent”.

(Research and writing by CAMERA Arabic. Editing by UK Media Watch. H/t Ruth Almagor-Ramon, Thamar E. Gindin, Sara (Uki) Israeli and Ghil’ad Zuckermann for their helpful insights and their kind assistance in initiating the research about the relationship between Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic.

[1] It bares mentioning that among these nationalists are the article’s sole interviewee who is identified by name, Ahmad Rafiq ‘Awad, and one of Independent Arabia’s editors and political commentators, Ahmad ‘Abd al-Hakim; both mentioned him in their op-eds more than once.

[2] A more in-depth analysis of el-Messiri’s unique form of antisemitism and Holocaust denial, and specifically his Holocaust inversion, is found in Meir Litvak and Esther Webman’s book, “From Empathy to Denial: Arab Responses to the Holocaust”, pp. 227-236.

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