Religion, Ethnicity, and the Virtue of Blurry Lines

August 24, 2010 Topic: Religion Region: IraqYemen Blog Brand: Paul Pillar

Religion, Ethnicity, and the Virtue of Blurry Lines

Can a small pocket of Jewish Arabs in Yemen defuse the clash of civilizations? And what does that have to do with whether or not Obama is a Muslim?

The current issue of The Economist reports that the small remaining community of Jews in Yemen may be nearing its end.  As many as 50,000 Jews were living beside their Muslim neighbors in Yemen as recently as the first half of the twentieth century--a legacy of the enlightened policies of the Ottoman Empire toward ethnic and religious minorities.  Following the creation of Israel in 1948, the Yemeni Jews became targets of anti-Jewish violence.  Over the subsequent decades most of them emigrated, with Israeli and U.S. assistance.  A few hundred remained, mostly in the remote north.  The Houthi rebellion that broke out a few years ago in that portion of the country made their situation untenable.  Now they are in a compound in Sana'a, the objects of new Israeli and American efforts to have them declared refugees and to resettle them in Israel or the United States.

The story of the Yemeni Jews echoes similar stories of Jewish communities in other Arab countries--communities that had lived in relative peace for centuries but became the targets of hatred and resentment as the Arab-Israeli conflict became, in the late 1940s, the defining fault line in the Middle East.  The evacuation, and accompanying hardship, of members of those communities constituted the other, less widely noticed, refugee problem (mirroring the one involving Palestinian Arabs who fled their homes) stimulated by the creation of the state of Israel.  The especially poignant and ironic aspect of the Yemeni Jews, who speak Arabic, is that they identify themselves as both Jews and Arabs.  They are a living challenge to the habit of sweeping ethnic and religious distinctions together all in one direction, as they commonly are in discussions of Jews and Arabs, and of rigidly thinking in terms of us vs. them.

The Jewish Arabs of Yemen also are a living challenge to the broader violent effect of religious divisions.  When Samuel Huntington laid out his "clash of civilizations" thesis in the early 1990s, he made it clear that the primary element in the cultural distinctions that defined different civilizations was religion.  Huntington's thesis can be, and has been, criticized on several grounds, including his underestimation of how much divisions within and not just between civilizations underlie bloody conflicts (including the sectarian division between Sunni and Shia within the Muslim civilization--but note how that division is also religiously based).  He was right, however, in identifying religion as one of the strongest, and perhaps the strongest, sources of motivation, suspicion, and hatred underlying violent conflict and the human suffering that goes with it.  It follows that anything that sharpens religious identities, or that aligns those identities to make them convergent with ethnic or other identities, is apt to be harmful to peace and stability.  Anything that blurs the identities or makes them less convergent is apt to be helpful.

That is one reason why a community of Jewish Arabs, even a small one, is a good thing, and worthy of notice.  That is also the main reason why the entry of Muslim Turkey into the Judeo-Christian rich countries' club known as the European Union--although this seems unlikely for the foreseeable future--would be a good thing.  It also is why I am less disturbed than some of my colleagues by that recent polling result showing that 18 percent of Americans believe President Obama is a Muslim.  It is indeed disturbing, of course, as another indication of the appalling ignorance of so much of the American public, and also as a partial by-product of the mendacious attacks on Obama by the loony right.  But more generally, it is in U.S. interests, and in the interests of world peace, for the president of the United States not to have any clear religious affiliation.  

Making identity lines clearer, including geographic reshuffling to make communities more homogeneous, may alleviate some immediate problems.  The emigration of Jews from Arab countries undeniably made many of them safer, at least in the short term.  But the larger, long-term divisions and the conflicts that grow out of them may only be made worse.  Something like this has happened with the sectarian divisions in Iraq.  One of the reasons the worst of the communal violence there was brought under control--a result that too often is narrowly attributed to the surge of U.S. troops, aided by the brilliance of David Petraeus--was the neighborhood-by-neighborhood sectarian cleansing that had taken place, especially in and around Baghdad.  With Sunnis and Shiites more physically separate, there were fewer immediate frictions that could trigger more violence.  But that did nothing to solve larger problems, painfully apparent in the continued political stalemate in Iraq today, of apportionment of power nationally among the different communities.  It also added to the personal fears and hardships of those whose identities were blurred--specifically, the "Sushi" married couples with spouses from different sects, one of whom has been forced to conceal his or her religious affiliation.

The Yemeni Jews are facing similar fear and hardship.  Their Jewishness currently makes life uncomfortable in Yemen.  But their Arabness will make it uncomfortable if they emigrate.  The Economist article cites a Jew of Yemeni descent who refers to the "negative undertones" of being an Arab Jew.  "In Israel or the diaspora," he says, "hardly any Jew considers himself of Arab culture."

If the Jewish community in Yemen finally does die out completely, we should mourn that event--partly because of the hardship facing members of that community, but also because it will constitute an unblurring of religious and ethnic lines whose cruel clarity has underlain an enormous amount of bloodshed.