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How two French Jews reconnected with their Arab roots

Text by: Sophian Aubin
13 min

As the number of Jews living in Arab countries continues to dwindle, Jonas and Zacharie explain how they overcame the prejudices poisoning Jewish-Arab relations to rediscover the ties that link them to their parents' countries.


Although Jonas and Zacharie were both born in France, they have their origins in the Maghreb's fledgling Jewish community. The Jewish and Arab peoples are bound together by centuries of shared history but a toxic combination of war, politics and mutual distrust is now driving them apart.

Jonas Sibony, 35, remembers the year he started giving Arabic lessons in Paris. A colleague at the National Institute for Oriental Languages and Civilisations had teased his future students: "This year, Jews will teach you Arabic."

Two widely held misconceptions persist about Jews from the Maghreb. The first is the belief that they are somehow alien to the region, almost like the European colonisers who arrived in the 19th century. Yet Jewish communities have been present in North Africa for hundreds of years. Their first recorded presence in the region dates back to the second century [1], at least 500 years before the Arab conquerors began their rapid outward expansion. But as more and more land came under Arab control, the Jews in the Maghreb, like other Berber groups indigenous to the region, gradually began to assimilate the Arabic language, without ever abandoning their Jewish faith. This happened across North Africa, in a process known as 'Arabisation'.

The other is the idea that many Jews continue to live there. In Algeria, although precise figures are impossible to obtain, the Jewish population is all but extinct [2]. In Tunisia, which was once home to a thriving community of around 100,000 Jews back in 1956, only 1,300 remain. As for Morocco, it may well shelter the biggest Jewish community in the Arab world, but it too has witnessed a mass exodus. Only 3,000 still live in the kingdom today. That may partly explain why Jonas, whose father is from Morocco and whose mother is from Poland, no longer has any family living on the other side of the Mediterranean.

Forgotten identities stirred awake by Arabic language

Those Jews who immigrated to France from the Maghreb rarely brought Arabic with them. Zacharie (not his real name), a Jewish man in his thirties, was born in France to Jewish parents from Tunisia and France. He certainly remembers hearing a few scraps of Arabic during his childhood. But the language spoken in the family has always been French: His father arrived in France at the age of 11, and grew up in a family that began speaking French in the 1920s. As Ruth Grosrichard, from the prestigious Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences-Po) points out, French-speaking Jewish families were quite common in the Maghreb. She herself was born into a Jewish family in Morocco.

Jewish communities in Morocco and Tunisia were steeped in French culture long before France colonised the two countries. The 'Alliance Israelite Universelle' – a French organisation based in Paris that aims to promote the rights of Jewish people – set up its first school in Morocco in 1862, before following suit in Tunisia in 1878.

But the language that Zacharie was drawn to while he was still a child was Arabic, a "little out of a spirit of rebellion", confesses the man who remembers dressing up as a Bedouin at the age of five in front of his parents. He waited until he was 21 before deciding to take an introductory course in formal Arabic at the prestigious Sorbonne University, in Paris, while simultaneously studying for a history degree. Zacharie quickly realised that he was fascinated by the language. His family couldn't understand the formal Arabic he spoke, nor the nature of the passion that had driven him to learn it.

'In their minds, people tend to put Jews and Muslims into two completely separate boxes'

As for Jonas, he had never heard a word of Arabic during his childhood. His father never learnt it; he left Morocco at the age of two. So what could have triggered his "reconnection" with Arabic? "Ironically, it was when I decided to prepare my bar mitzvah, to please my grandparents," says Jonas. At the 'Mazal Tov' synagogue he regularly attended while growing up in the southern French city of Montpellier, he discovered that most of the Jewish teachers had Algerian backgrounds. One of them would sing biblical texts in Judeo-Arabic, a dialect of Arabic with elements of Hebrew. That was a turning point for Jonas.

"At precisely that moment, I fully understood that my father was from Morocco. And that as a result, I was connected to all the Moroccans I was seeing on a daily basis in Montpellier. I thought to myself, 'We're from the same place, yet we don't know each other.'"

As an 11-year-old boy, Jonas struggled to make sense of his identity. His father came from Morocco, but didn't speak the language. He never went there, he never even spoke about it. And the more he talked about his mixed origins to his friends, the more he realised how misunderstood it was. He remembers how, one day, a friend in high school asked him why he had a logo of 'Allah' stuck to his mobile phone, telling him "It's the opposite of you!" When Jonas replied, "Why would 'God' written in Arabic prevent me from being Jewish? [3] I'm the son of a Moroccan immigrant," his classmate shot back: "You can't be the son of an immigrant. You're Jewish."

Though such an assertion is blatantly untrue, Jonas says that the short exchange was 'full of symbolic truths' about collective representations: "In their minds, people tend to put Jews and Muslims into two completely separate boxes."

Going to a school with a large number of second-generation immigrants from the Maghreb, coupled with people's inability to make sense of his mixed origins, pushed the young Jonas to take an interest in both Arabic and Hebrew. He wanted to understand the reasons behind the growing divide between the two communities. It was a divide he would bear witness to first-hand at the age of 18, when he went to Israel to take part in a kibbutz (a type of collective community based on agriculture). Mentioning that he was trying to speak Arabic with Yemeni Jews working on the kibbutz, a fellow participant laughed, before replying: "We're safe here, but if I see an Arab, I'll slit his throat." To this day, the sentence still haunts Jonas: "I remember answering, deep down inside of me, 'I'm Moroccan. And you?' "

The shock at hearing those words would finally give Jonas the motivation he needed to reconnect with his Moroccan past. Back in France, he enrolled in an Arabic course at the University of Paul-Valéry, in Montpellier.

'Don’t ever tell anyone you're Jewish in Egypt'

For Zacharie, the 'divorce' between Jews and Arabs has left a particularly bitter aftertaste. After winning a scholarship to study Arabic for a year in Cairo, he flew to Egypt, against his father's wishes. At the Sorbonne in Paris, even his Arabic-language teacher, an Iraqi, warned him: "Whatever happens Zacharie, never tell anyone in Egypt that you are Jewish."

Zacharie spent his time in Egypt hiding his real identity from those he met, including two people who would become his friends: Abdallah, a Muslim, and Boutros, a Coptic Christian (their names have been changed to protect their identities). To hide his Jewish origins, Zacharie decided to introduce himself as 'Zachariah', a common name for Christians born in Arab countries[4].

'Zachariah' ended up enjoying himself so much in Egypt that he even managed to convince his mother and brother to come and visit him. But their first shared taxi ride would quickly cast a shadow over the holiday. When the driver happened to mention 'al yahood' ('the Jews' in Arabic) during a conversation, he used his hands to make a throat-slitting gesture.

"Neither my mother nor my brother speak Arabic. But I knew they understood. I could see the terror in their eyes," Zacharie recalls.

Three years later, while working as an economic analyst at the French embassy in Tel Aviv, he returned to Cairo to visit his friends Abdallah and Boutros. This time, he decided to try to tell them the truth: that he wasn't Christian, but a Jew from Tunisia. But even before he could, his two friends began lashing out against Israel and its army. It wasn't the diatribe that disturbed Zacharie, but rather the fact that they associated every Jew with the Israeli army, including those who had never lived in Israel. "Jews are all child killers," concluded one of them.

Once again, Zacharie ended up hiding his Jewish identity. That day, he asked himself: "Why did I learn the language of a people who hate me?"

To act as a bridge

A few months later, he was working at a Paris-based think-tank with no link to the Arab world. He had stopped studying the language. Indeed, Arabic had all but disappeared from his daily life. But that would change in February 2011, during a trip to Jerusalem. One morning, Zacharie found himself wondering aimlessly in the maze of narrow alleyways that make up the Old City. Suddenly realising that he was lost, he asked a group of Orthodox Jews for directions in Hebrew. Later that day, he hopped aboard a sherut -- a kind of shared minibus -- heading to the West Bank. Amongst his French-Jewish friends, Zacharie was the only one who could joke with the Palestinian driver in Arabic. That's when he realised how much he loved being able to speak both Hebrew and Arabic. In his mind, he was set on turning himself into a 'bridge' between the two communities, by eventually becoming "the one who knows the region, who can talk to those who live there. The one who can understand the conflict, maybe even help solve it", he recalls. Back in Paris, feeling increasingly unmotivated by work, Zacharie quit his job and went back to studying.

The Maghreb doesn't forget its Jews

Zacharie finally rediscovered the country of his ancestors in 2012. Although he had only planned on spending a week in Tunisia, he ended up living there for two years. Muslims would play a big role in helping Zacharie to establish his Tunisian origins as an integral part of his identity. Unlike in Egypt, this time he didn't hide his Jewish roots from anyone. That's despite the fact that, according to Zacharie, racist Jewish stereotypes still persisted amongst a handful of people.

Nevertheless, Zacharie recalls how presenting himself as a Tunisian Jew aroused a sort of kindness, and even fascination, amongst Tunisian Muslims. He adds that it was Muslims friends, more than Jews, who were the first to call him Tunisian: "When I explained to them that my father was Tunisian, the Muslims replied without hesitating: 'that settles it, you're Tunisian, and here you can feel at home.' "

Jonas is less inclined to bring up his Jewish ancestry in Arab countries. When asked his name, he prefers to give the Arabic variant, Younes. Not out of fear, he hastens to clarify, but rather to avoid being burdened with questions about religion. Sometimes, however, it's impossible to avoid the question, like when Jonas asks for directions to the cemetery, the 'mellah' (the Jewish quarter), or the local synagogue. He feels slightly apprehensive before answering, "but then," he says he always thinks to himself, "let's see what happens. And every time, my answer brings a smile. Sometimes people are surprised, but they're never hostile".

Those smiles couldn't be further from the animosity shown to Zacharie in Egypt. According to Ruth Grosrichard, from Sciences Po, such differences in attitude are hardly unusual.

"Although their numbers have shrunk in both countries, Jews have never been expelled from Morocco or Tunisia. Arab countries in the Middle East, however, like Egypt, have experienced direct conflict with Israel since 1948. Since then, Jews have been singled out by discriminatory measures and other abuses. Confusing 'Jews' with 'Zionists', as well as the idea that Jews are the 'enemies' of Islam and the Arab people, have become part of popular opinion in the region," she says.

Living between two worlds

Whilst some single him out for being Jewish, for others, Zacharie is too close to the Arab world. His father still can't get his head around his son's interest in Islam. Zacharie remembers how, one day, he argued with his father over the phone: "My son, is that it then, have you become a Salafist?" He shot back sarcastically: "Yes dad, that's it! But the Shabbat's starting soon, so I'll have to hang up."

Even the Arabic spoken by Zacharie is enough to raise eyebrows in the family. Returning from Tunis, he had rejoiced at the idea of speaking Tunisian Arabic for the first time to his grandmother. Upon hearing his Arabic, she remarked: "Oh my, you speak Tunisian Arabic like the Arabs!"

But perhaps ironically, at other times, 'being Arab' becomes a part of this Sephardic family's identity, at least for Zacharie's grandmother. At one family meal, Zacharie says, she joked to an Ashkenazi friend: "Don't be shocked by our table manners, this is an Arabic household." He explains: "In France, the Sephardic Jews will very occasionally overstate their Arabic roots in order to distance themselves from Ashkenazi Jews, whose ancestors came from Europe."

'Saying that the Arabic language is the prerogative of Muslims is to completely miss the point' - Ghaleb Bencheikh, Islamic scholar

In the Maghreb, the ties that bind Jews and Arabs became so deeply entrenched that Arabic itself was used during Jewish ceremonies. According to a historical record dating from the 1940s, a Jew living in Fez [5], Morocco, explained how during religious celebrations, Jewish prayers in Hebrew were translated into Arabic, so that local Jews could actually understand them. What's more, in the Jewish liturgy in Morocco, the most sacred reference to God himself is made by saying 'Allah', a fact that Jonas has tried explaining to his students, but that many find hard to believe.

"Saying that the Arabic language is the prerogative of Muslims is to completely miss the point,"explains Ghaleb Bencheikh, an Islamic scholar, firstly because it pre-dates the spread of Islam. What’s more, Arabic has been spoken by Jews and Christians for centuries, even before the Koran was written. Indeed, throughout history the language has been enriched by Jewish scholars[6] who mastered Arabic to such an extent that they surpassed many Arab scholars themselves. Ghaleb Bencheikh points out that, in Morocco in the 1950s, many Arabic-language teachers were still Jews. For the French-Algerian intellectual, the symbolic return of Jews like Jonas and Zacharie to their Arab roots is thus simply "the natural order of things". But he adds, it is nonetheless an endeavour which, nowadays, shows "exemplary courage".

"Let us hope," concludes Bencheikh, "that this type of attitude will become a source of inspiration within our society."


Translated from French by Andrew Hilliar



[1] Source in French: Jean-Marie Lassere, Ubique Populus : peuplement et mouvements de population dans l'Afrique romaine, de la chute de Carthage à la fin de la dynastie des Sévères (146 a.C - 235 p.C), Paris, 1977.

[2] Although no exact figures are available, only a few dozen are thought to remain, mainly in the capital, Algiers.

[3] Associated almost exclusively with the Muslim religion, the word "Allah" is also used by Arabic-speaking Christians and Jews

[4] His real name is also used by Jews as well as by Arabic-speaking Christians

[5] Source in French: Louis Brunot, Elie Malka, Textes judéo-arabes de Fès, textes transcription, traduction annotée, Rabat, 1939.

[6] They include: Saadia Gaon, Bahya ibn Paquda, Solomon ibn Gabirol, Abraham ibn Ezra, Moses Maimonides.

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