Last night Jules asked me a very interesting question. She had gone out to breakfast yesterday with a friend and the question came up of “Is there such a thing as Arab Jews?” There is not a clear cut answer to this question. I am not by any stretch an authority but based on my heritage and readings I will attempt to provide some insight to the question. Keep in mind that my answers are not to be considered definitive and if you’re interested I would suggest reading more about the history of the region. The answer depends on the direction you approach the question from. From the racial perspective, all the people of the middle east region are considered semitic peoples. Within that however, in various there are various sub-groups. In the geographic region that comprises Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Israel/Palestine (and to some degree northern Egypt) most of the people are actually descendants of the semitic people who have lived in the region for several millenia, and also the Greeks and Romans who conquered and occupied the region in the centuries after Alexander the Great. Further to the south in the Arabian Peninsula most of the people are more “purely” native. Over the centuries many of the people migrated to Europe and became what are considered European Jews but they are still largely descended from those people. Strictly speaking from a racial viewpoint there is no real distinction between “Arabs” and “Jews”.
The people that today are known as Arabs and Jews are historically the same people. The differences such as they are today more cultural and ethnic, than genetic. The idea of an Arab-Jew is somewhat analogous to a French-German or a Greek-Italian. They are people who live adjacent to each other but are separated by cultural, linguistic and religious differences. The people who are considered Arabs live in countries that speak Arabic. Beyond that there are many groups in the Arab world that have as many differences as commonalities. There are “Arab” countries stretching from Iraq and Lebanon in the east and north to Morocco and Algeria in the west. Within these countries probably the majority would count themselves as Muslims. To varying degrees in the different countries a large proportion of those would be considered secular in that they may not go to the mosque all the time and pray 5 times a day. There are also branches of Islam, most notably Sunni and Shiite and to lesser degrees other groups. In certain areas, particularly to the east in Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Iraq there are substantial numbers of Christians as well. And of course there are also groups of Jews in each of these countries. Clearly the populations of Arabic speaking nations are not a homogeneous group either in terms of religion, or culture.
Those who are typically thought of as Jews typically speak Hebrew, and believe in Judaism in some form. However, as with the Arabs, the Jews are a very diverse group. Because many of the Jews left Palestine in the first couple of centuries CE following the Roman suppression of the rebellions, there was a fairly large Jewish diaspora. As a result, when many of their descendants returned to Israel in the latter half of the twentieth century, they brought many cultures, languages and sects of Judaism with them. There are Jews from Russia, Europe, America, and Africa who all have differences. In Israel today there is a very diverse population including Israeli Arabs. Israeli Arabs are people who lived in Palestine and there descendants who stayed after 1948. They were granted Israeli citizenship but culturally they are Arabs.
Israel is a Jewish state but not all it’s citizens are Jews. Similarly, there are Jews in Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and other countries. Israeli-Arabs often speak Hebrew (as well as Arabic) as a necessity of life in the society. Jews in the Arab countries also typically would speak Arabic as well as Hebrew and would citizens of Jordan, Syria, etc. So what you would have is Jordanian-Jews, Lebanese-Jews etc. So I guess the answer to the question is that there aren’t Arab-Jews but there are Jews living in Arab countries, just as there are Arabs living the Jewish country. Altogether a long-winded and possibly not entirely satisfying answer to a complex question. Hopefully though, it can provide a little bit insight into the people and culture of the region.