Jewish Arabs and a New Middle East

Common Ground News Service – Middle East

by Marc Gopin

27 March 2008

WASHINGTON – In 1998, Prince Hassan of Jordan appeared on video at the University of Notre Dame, marking one of the first academic conferences in the field of religion and conflict resolution. As he spoke via teleconference, he quoted at length and with great love from the writings of Moses Maimonides the world-famous medieval Jewish philosopher who had been a chief conduit between Arab neo-Aristotelian philosophy and the Christian world.

It was already a thrilling moment for me the conference was the first that I attended as an academic speaker but Maimonides was part and parcel of my sequestered religious childhood. I went to school for 13 years as a child at a place called Maimonides School, and prayed there on Sundays and Saturdays. For Prince Hassan, a major figure of the Arab world, to be embracing Maimonides felt like an extraordinary inter-cultural and inter-religious gesture. I was so moved that I had to say something to the plenary meeting.

Then I got a shock.

When I shared my feelings of gratitude publicly, someone from the audience of scholars responded quite forcefully, “But he is our Maimonides, one of the great Arab philosophers of history.” I think that if I were brought up with more Jewish wounds than I had (‘Jewishness’ could be defined by how many and how deep your wounds are), I might have taken offense. But I did not, and was instead stunned, intrigued, and amused at the playful re-orientation of identities afoot in the room.

That was one of those life-changing moments for me. In that instant I realized the truth of Gandhi’s words when he claimed that, the more fluid and multiple our identities, the easier peace and coexistence can flourish at a very profound level. I noticed later in various texts and articles that Jews from the Middle East, who often originated from Spain/Al-Andalus, were referred to by scholars not only as Sephardim but as Arab Jews.

One decade later, Prince Turki, Saudi Arabia’s current National Security Adviser and former Ambassador to America, said it was time for Israel to respond to the Arab League’s 2002 offer to integrate into the Middle East. After fully withdrawing to the 1967 borders, after realizing a just two-state solution with the Palestinians—then, he added crucially, Israelis could become Arab Jews of the Middle East.

This went unnoticed by most of the enlightened press, presumably because Al Qaeda was not mentioned and no blood of Arabs or Jews was spilled. But at a deeper level, blood was very involved: this former head of intelligence from a country from which so much of the extremism of the Middle East had emerged was now utterly redefining identity, family, tribe and clan in terms of ethical relationships, in terms of peace and justice.

In the pages of The Forward, a centrist Jewish journal, some people reacted to Prince Turki’s offer as insulting. They assumed that it was an offer from the majority group of the Middle East for a minority to attain some subsumed and subjugated status. But after working with Prince Turki for years at the World Economic Forum, I saw that he embraced the interfaith moment as a moment of absolute equality. He was suggesting, from within the most conservative religious environment in the Middle East, that “Arab” was an ethical term of belonging and community, not a racial or tribal term. It would be like the Orthodox Chief Rabbi of Israel saying that if Palestinians can live in peace with us then they will be our Jewish brothers. I have never heard anyone, no matter how progressive, say this.

Prince Turki went to the heart of the matter, to the question of how the definition of identity can drive us away from hatred, fear, and war, toward the peaceful embrace of the other, or, alternatively, how much identity can stand in the way of all rational negotiation. He has placed a challenge before every Jew and Arab as to who they really are, and who they will be in the future of the Middle East.
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* Marc Gopin is the James Laue Professor of World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University in Washington D.C. He can be reached at This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at

Source: Common Ground News Service, 27 March 2008,
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© Marc Gopin