Thursday, 24 September 2009

The linguistic and cultural ties between Arabs and Jews

The conflict in the Middle East gives rise to the perception that Arabs and Jews are deadly enemies with vast differences that can never be solved. Many will be surprised to learn that this conflict is a relatively recent development dating back about a hundred years. The conflict belies the fact that there are many similarities between the two peoples.

Arabic is widely spoken as a language amongst the Arab nations of the Middle East. Hebrew is an ancient language, the language of the Old Testament originating several thousand years ago. The two languages are written using different scripts but there are striking similarities between the two. Often the difference is one of pronunciation.

The Hebrew word for peace is pronounced as shalom. In Arabic it is salaam. Where a Jew will say 'shalom aleichem' an Arab will say 'salaam aleikum'. Both mean 'peace be with you'. The Hebrew for blessing is baruch, in Arabic, barack. The names of the Hebrew numbers are almost identical to their Arabic counterparts.

Knowledge of one of the two languages simplifies the learning of the other. Both languages are thought to have originated from the same source, and have been written since about 3000 BCE. Although a different script is used for the two languages, the names of the letters share a certain similarity and neither has vowels as part of the alphabet. Interestingly, the term 'alphabet' derives from the first two letters of the Hebrew alphabet - aleph and bet. All Semitic languages are written from right to left.

For many years, Hebrew became the language to the Torah and other books of the Old Testament. It was a language of study and prayer. Jews in the region began to speak Aramaic - another Semitic language with great similarities to both Hebrew and Arabic. Much of the Talmud is written in Aramaic, but Torah scholars do not have great difficulty in managing the transition.

With the rise of Zionism in the nineteenth century, Hebrew was revived as a spoken language. This resulted in changes to the grammar, and the infusion of new words to describe modern phenomena. Surprisingly, much of the new grammar corresponds to the grammatical changes that occurred in the use of Arabic over the last two millennia.

There are more than simple linguistic similarities between the two peoples. According to the Torah (and the Quran) both nations began with Abraham's two sons - Ishmael and Isaac. Ishmael was to father the Arab peoples and the nomadic tribes; while Isaac was the father of Jacob whose twelve sons defined the twelve tribes of Israel. Both peoples therefore have a common ancestry.

Islam and Judaism have many differences, but probably share more with each other than with Christianity. Each has retained the dietary laws. These include the killing of animals by cutting through the jugular vein. The method is painless and death is instant. The slaughterer requires specific training. The animal's blood must be drained before the meat is fit to eat. Not all animals are allowed to be eaten. The most famous of these is the pig.

Kosher food is considered halaal for Moslems, though the kosher laws are stricter than the laws of halaal thus precluding Jews from eating halaal food.

The laws governing burial are also similar, namely that the body should be buried on the day of death. Mourning procedures also have similarities.

Both religions place a strong emphasis on the giving of charity. Modesty is emphasised in dress and in the relations between men and women.

There have been historical times when the Jews thrived under Moslem rule. The greatest example was the Hebrew Golden Age in Spain. The Golden Age spanned the years between 900 and 1200 CE. This was a time of great Jewish intellectual achievements. The Jewish and Arab intellectual worlds stimulated each other producing astronomers, poets, philosophers, musicians and scientists. Although the Jews had to wear identifying clothing to distinguish them and were subjected to special taxation, they were free to pursue their own religion and studies. The Jews prospered and developed a strong culture which thrived until their expulsion from Spain in 1492.

For many centuries Jews lived in Arab countries and Arabic became their spoken language. Persecution was much more rare than in the Christian countries of Europe. In the modern era, the Jews of these Arab countries have let or been expelled.

Perhaps one of the keys to solving the conflict in the Middle East between Israel and the Palestinians is to emphasise what the two peoples have in common rather than their differences.

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