“When We Were Arabs: A Jewish Family’s Forgotten History” by Massoud Hayoun— Reclaiming Identity

Hayoun, Massoud. “When We Were Arabs: A Jewish Family’s Forgotten History”, The New Press , 2019.

Reclaiming Identity

Amos Lassen

“When We Were Arabs” is Hayoun Massoud’s account of his grandparents’ lives in Egypt, Tunisia, Palestine, and Los Angeles and in it he reclaims his family’s Jewish Arab identity. I have often wondered why we consider all Arabs to be Muslims when they are not. We confuse ethnicity with religion and we must remember that there

was a time when being an “Arab” didn’t mean someone was necessarily Muslim. There was a time when Oscar Hayoun, a Jewish Arab, walked along the Nile in a fashionable suit, long before he and his father came to Haifa to join the Zionist state but to find themselves hosed down with DDT and then left unemployed on the margins of society. Then to be an Arab was a mark of cosmopolitanism, of intellectualism. Today, in the age of the Likud and ISIS, Oscar’s son, the Jewish Arab journalist Massoud Hayoun whom Oscar raised in Los Angeles, tells his family’s story in order to find his voice.

Hayoun wanted to reclaim his Arab identity as, part of a larger project to recall a time before ethnic identity was used for political ends. It is also a personal journey into a lost age of sophisticated innocence in the Arab world; an age that is now almost lost. He brings the words of his grandparents back to life by eschewing today’s contemporary understanding of what makes an Arab, what makes a Jew, and how battle lines over this have been drawn. He brings together his family history and politics that shaped their lives and presents further understanding of complex identities and mixed cultural heritages. To do this, he uses family lore, journals, and photographs to tell his grandparents’ story and shows a lost multicultural era in the Arab world.  This is a story of survival and success and an intriguing one at that. It is his goal “to obliterate our brittle understandings of what is Jewish, Arab, and radically loving.” We become very aware of the postcolonial foundations of contemporary Arab American identity.
We do not often hear the term Arab Jew without propaganda or prejudice. The book chronicles how the nuance that had been there in “Jewish Arab political identities disappeared under the onslaught of Zionism.” I would have preferred a different word to “onslaught” or even an explanation why Hayoun chose to use that term.

“When We Were Arabs” revolves around Hayoun’s own family’s painful experience of having to leave their homeland and it certainly is not a nostalgic look back at a better time.  Arabs/Muslims and Jews have not been at each other’s throats for thousands of years. Arab Jews were an integral and integrated part of their communities whose lives that were enmeshed with those of their Christian and Moslem neighbors. Arab Jews were at times oppressed by the mightier and more corrupt, but no more so than other poor, non-Jewish Arabs. Hayoun also exposes how the colonial powers, in partnership with European Jews, forced the Arab Jewish community to cuts its millennial old religious and cultural traditions. Traditional divide and conquer strategies were used to separate Arab Jews from their neighbors. The methods used were, so the writer says, first by the Zionist movement and then by a nascent Israel, to force mass migration of Arab Jews to Israel. There were strategies used to drive the mass emigration of Iraqis to Israel letting us see that this is not a new idea.

However, between the beautiful prose and the author’s ideas is his problem with the State of Israel. We cannot help but sense his very strong feelings against the country and it builds page by page. Some of his claims against Israel are unfounded (or it they are found, then the programs are totally secretive). I cannot believe that Zionists brought about attacks against Jews in the Middle East in order to frighten them into moving to Israel. Hayoun also writes about what he calls “peaceful protests in Gaza,” without writing about the flaming kites, condoms with IEDs, and Palestinian children sent to the front with weapons. The author’s biases are exaggerated to the point of disbelief. I say wanted to like this book but some of the statements make it impossible to do so. But then I am an Israeli/American and, of course, that colors my way of thinking.

I do, on the other hand, like the way that preconceived notions of what Arabness and Jewishness means is handled. This is a well-documented history of Arab Jews, and colonialism in the Arab world but I wanted to know more about Hayoun’s actual background, with his family.