“Ta‘ish al-Republique!” On Judeo-Arabic political writing

The indigenous Jews are not French, but Arabs of the Jewish faith. Their mother tongue is Arabic, which they speak badly and write in Hebrew letters.

Charles du Bouzet, 1871

א שפראך איז א דיאלעקט מיט אן ארמיי און פלוט

(Language is a dialect with an army and fleet)

Max Weinreich, quoting an anonymous individual, 1945

I have only one language; it isnt mine.

Jacques Derrida, 1996

Each in its own way, these three quotes tell a complex, radical and almost unfamiliar story: the rise, fall and heritage of Judeo-Arabic as a language of political writing.

A political and colonial official in Algeria Charles du Bouzet wrote the sentence quoted above in protest against the collective naturalization of the Algerian Jews by virtue of the 1870 Crémieux Decree. Beyond profound hostility for the Algerian Jews – and Jews in general, as arising from the rest of the text –his words seem to express the rage and contempt of a French colonial official following the campaign held by this group in the winter of 1869. Notables, community leaders and emissaries spread all over the Jewish communities in Algiers and around it a petition written in Judeo-Arabic (and in one copy in French as well), calling for the granting of French citizenship based on historical, political and ethical reasons (until then, the Jews in Algeria, like the Muslims were French subjects rather than citizens).

As shown in my study, this campaign, whose details and scope have been little known hitherto, was a highly significant historical moment in the attempt to formulate a political vocabulary in Judeo-Arabic. Terms such as “citizenship” or “political homeland” were lacking, and to express these ideas the authors of the petition relied on words borrowed from the Jewish liturgy or daily speech. For example, they used the term “good virtues” (midot tovot) to express loyalty to the nation state. Thus, this was one of the high points of a process that had begun in the mid-19th century, upon the arrival of the print revolution to the Middle East and North Africa and the establishment of Hebrew and Judeo-Arabic printing presses. When one of the first of these was founded in Tunis in 1861, the first text it printed was a Judeo-Arabic translation of the Tunisian Constitution formulated shortly beforehand by scholar Khayr a-Din a-Tunisi – one of the earliest and most important documents of the political reform and cultural renaissance movements in North Africa and the core of the Ottoman Empire in the mid-19th century. Over the following decades, Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco saw the emergence of Judeo-Arabic newspapers and journals whose explicit purpose was to disseminate the concepts of assimilation, citizenship and enlightenment among the Jewish communities.

This brings us to Max Weinreich’s words about the difference between language and dialect, said decades later and far across the ocean, in the annual conference of YIVO – the Institute for Jewish Research founded in Vilna in the 1920s and moved to New York following the Nazi expansion. Albeit ironic, the quote was used to convey a serious idea. To paraphrase his words, we can say that language is a dialect with an academy or a research institute of the kind established by almost all nation states and national movements, in one form or another, during the 19th and 20th century. In fact, YIVO sought to be a kind of non-nationalist yet well-organized and institutionalized variation thereof. The documentation, research, teaching and publication work at YIVO, Weinreich went on to argue, was designed precisely for that purpose: to protect Yiddish against its status as an inferior and laughable “dialect”, and to maintain and establish its status as a vibrant language of everyday speech, research, journalism, literature and culture more generally.

The question at stake therefore transcends geographic areas and historical periods. It has to do with the status, role and development of Jewish languages vis-à-vis the modern state in its various forms: the colonial, national or multicultural. What is fascinating about the development of Judeo-Arabic in the 19th century is the dynamics, the transition from a daily and liturgical language to the language of political thought and writing, without any central attempt to restructure it in an organized, academic fashion. Whereas YIVO sought to provide that organization – to be a kind of Jewish parallel of Napoleon’s French academy, of the German Duden Dictionary – and of course also a Yiddishist alternative to the trends of assimilation on the one hand and the rise of Hebrew on the other – the rise of Judeo-Arabic as a political writing language was the fruit of the decentralized labor of community leaders and printers who sought to bridge the world of the Jewish communities on the one hand and the demands of the colonial state, mainly the French, on the other. Perhaps the most distinct expression of this attempt was the motto printed on the front page of Kol Israel (Voice of Israel), a journal published in Oran, Algeria, in the late 19th century: “תעיש ארפובליכ! תעיש פאראנסא! תעיש לאלז’ירי!”. (Long live the Republic! Long live France! Long live Algeria!).

Clearly, in retrospect, this was a short-lived attempt. Like Yiddish, Judeo-Arabic was facing much stronger and better-organized rivals – above all French, whose dissemination among the Jewish communities in the Middle East and North Africa had been the mission of the powerful Alliance israélite universelle since the mid-19th century. For the French-Jewish liberals who founded it, led by Adolphe Crémieux, the dissemination of French language and culture, and in the case of Algeria, French citizenship, fulfilled the ideal of the mission civilisatrice – the French mission of spreading the ideas of Enlightenment worldwide. In Algiers, Jerusalem, Cairo, Istanbul, Baghdad and many other cities, the Alliance was quite successful in establishing French as the language of the Jewish elite, at the expense of Hebrew, Arabic and Judeo-Arabic.

Still, the questions faced by the authors and printers, the thinkers and scholars who wrote in Judeo-Arabic in the late 19th century – how to express ideas inspired by European political thought without becoming assimilated and without giving up on a unique collective identity – have lost nothing of their importance. The paradox formulated by Derrida – himself an Algerian Jew – is not only the historical product of the demise, over the 20th century, of the attempt to establish Judeo-Arabic as a political writing language, but also an attempt to understand the meaning of Jewish existence in a world predominated by national and imperial languages. A world where a Maghrebi Jew – like members of many other groups following decades of colonial rule and influence – has no language he can call his mother tongue, let alone one in which he can say “I”. Against the background of that paradox, that sense of emptiness, the historical significance of political writing in Judeo-Arabic shines bright.

References and Suggested Reading:

Ayalon, Amy, The Arabic Print Revolution: Cultural Production and Mass Readership. Cambridge, 2016.

Boulouque, Clémence, “An Interior Occident and the Case for an Oriental Modernity: The Livornese Printing Press and the Mediterranean Publishing Networks of Elia Benamozegh (1823-1900)”. Jewish Social Studies 23, no. 2 (2018) : 86-136.

Derrida, Jacques. Le monolingualisme de lautre ou la prothèse dorigine. Paris, 1996, 13.

du Bouzet, Charles, Les Israélites indigènes de lAlgérie. Pétition à lAssemblée nationale contre le décret du 24 octobre 1870. Paris, 1871, 4.

Ofrath, Avner, “’We Shall Become French’: Reconsidering Algerian Jews’ Citizenship, c. 1860–1900“, French History, Volume 35, Issue 2, June 2021, Pages 243–265. https://doi.org/10.1093/fh/craa073

Lisa Moses Leff, Sacred Bonds of Solidarity: The rise of Jewish internationalism in nineteenth-century France. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2006.

Joseph Tobi and Tsvia Tobi, Judeo-Arabic Literature in Tunisia, 1850-1950. Detroit, 2014.

מקס ויינרייך, “דער יווא און די פראבלעמן פון אונדזער צייט,” יווא בלעטער XXV (1945): 13.

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