From: Orientalism and the Jews, ed. by Ivan Davidson Kalmar and Derek J. Penslar. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 2005. Excerpt from last draft version, may not be identical with print. Please reference and quote the print version only.
Orientalism and the Jews: An Introduction
Ivan Davidson Kalmar and Derek J. Penslar
At the turn of the twenty-first century we are painfully aware that in spite of growing globalization there remains in the world a split between the West and the rest. The manner in which this split has been imagined and represented in Western civilization has been the subject of intense cross-disciplinary scrutiny, much of it under the rubric of “orientalism.” The term “orientalism” has in this debate referred to the western image of the “Orient,” usually with a focus on the worlds of Islam (and not, as the uninitiated might suppose, the Far East). In this book we wish to demonstrate that orientalism has always been not only about the Muslims but also about the Jews. We believe that the western image of the Muslim Orient has been formed, and continues to be formed in inextricable conjunction with western perceptions of the Jewish people.
The major objective of this volume is consequently to demonstrate the urgency of making connections between the study of orientalism and the study of Jewish history. We seek to throw light on these connections, to raise new questions relevant to both fields of inquiry, and to stimulate future research. Each contribution – written, we hasten to add, from a variety of vantage points, not all of which necessarily agree with the editors’ - has been selected not so much because it says the last word on its subject, but rather in order to invite further discussion and expansion.
The central fact around which all debate on orientalism and the Jews must be formed is that, historically, Jews have been seen in the western world variably and often concurrently as occidental and oriental. Even today, when the Jews are generally thought of as a western people, that perception is nuanced by the fact that unlike any genuinely western state Israel (home not only to Jews of European background but also to millions of “oriental” Jews and Arabs) is located in the East. More importantly, the Jews are identified, both by themselves and by the Western world, with the ancient Israelites who established themselves, and the monotheistic tradition, in that same “oriental” location. It is this latter identification with the biblical lands that allowed Jews to be seen during the centuries as an “oriental people,” a perception challenged only in the twentieth century as the result of Jewish-Arab strife in the Middle East. The German Enlightenment philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder expressed the once standard Western conception of the Jews when he wrote that they were the “Asiatics of Europe.”
Orientalist representations of the Jews have always been at the very center of orientalist discourse, which we believe to be based historically in the Christian West’s attempts to understand and to manage its relations with both of its monotheistic Others. Strangely perhaps, one benefit of studying the Jews as a topic in orientalism may be the discovery of the extent to which orientalism has been not only a modern Western or imperialist discourse, but also a Christian one, with roots deep in the middle ages.
The Literature: Orientalism, Colonialism, Zionism, and Beyond
Following the publication, in 1978, of Orientalism by Edward Said, the overwhelming importance of the Muslim Orient to Western history was driven home by a good number of excellent contributions by Said himself (he died in 2003), his followers, and his critics. In contrast, orientalist sensibilities about Jews may appear to be a minor issue, comfortably treated as a relatively autonomous appendix to what really matters.
The historical record, however, does not justify such an ancillary role for orientalist representations of the Jews. In fact, Jews have almost always been present in one way or another whenever occidentals talked about or imagined the East. How biblical Jews formed, since the Middle Ages, the model for Christian depictions of Muslims is demonstrated in this volume by Suzanne Conklin Akbari, who deals with medieval English literature, and Ivan Davidson Kalmar, who surveys the history of Christian orientalism in the visual arts.
Akbari and Kalmar’s contributions concern orientalism well before the late eighteenth century, where debates on orientalism commonly begin. But if anything, the heyday of orientalism in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was accompanied by ever increasing concern with the Jews. Importantly, the modern versions of imperialism and antisemitism were both born at about the same time, in the second half of the nineteenth century. There were other correlations between imperialism and the image of the Jews: Tudor Parfitt’s essay provides an astonishing range of examples of how many of the Western protagonists of imperialism “discovered” real or imaginary Jews, including the Lost Tribes of Israel, almost wherever their expeditions took them. Xun Zhou details the process as it affected China and its supposed Jews who, she argues boldly, were nothing but a Western invention encouraged by enterprising locals. Last but not least, Zionism developed in the context of, and in many ways as a response to, this twin concern in the Gentile West with both overseas expansion and the Jewish people. Today modern Israel is at the vortex of turbulent East-West relations and (as Dalia Manor, Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin and Derek Penslar point out) orientalist attitudes by Israelis target not only Arabs but also the Mizrahi (“oriental”) Israelis with roots in the Arab world.
Given, then, that western discourses about Muslims have almost always had something to do with western discourses about Jews, why has more work not been done on orientalism and the Jews? Of the historical correlations just listed (and there are others, as we shall soon see) only that between orientalism and Zionism has received vigorous attention by scholars focused on orientalism.
There can be little doubt that one reason is political. Edward Said was a leading spokesperson for the Palestinian cause, while most Jewish Studies specialists identify with Israel. Said was very likely right when he complained that many of his critics “have seen in the critique of Orientalism an opportunity for them to defend Zionism, support Israel and launch attacks on Palestinian nationalism.” On the other side, there is a converse lack of enthusiasm for talking about the Jews among students of orientalism. This, too, is partly politically motivated.
Said himself well recognized, as would anyone familiar with the facts, that Jews as well as Muslims had been the target of orientalism; indeed, he called orientalism the “Islamic branch” of anti-Semitism. Focusing on Jews as targets rather than perpetrators of orientalism, however, decreases (in rhetorical terms though certainly not in logical ones) the effectiveness of the argument for Zionism as a form of anti-Arab orientalism. It is, therefore, perhaps understandable if writers primarily concerned with a critique of Zionism overlook other aspects of the relationship between orientalism and the Jews. They generally see Zionism as an example of orientalist ideology in the service of western colonialism, and consequently link the creation of Israel to the West’s imperial expansion in the Orient. In Said’s own opus, his essay “Zionism from the Standpoint of Its Victims” set the tone for this type of argument. It has also been popular with Israeli scholars of the “post-Zionist” school, such as Baruch Kimmerling, Ilan Pappé, Gershon Shafir, and Ronen Shamir.
As Derek J. Penslar has argued elsewhere, the link between Zionism and colonialism is undeniable. On the other hand, there is more to Zionism than that: it has also been one of an oppressed people’s response to racist discrimination, and the discrimination has often been expressed in orientalist terms. Martin Kramer has argued that nineteenth century European Jews questioned the East-West dichotomy because it excluded them, as “Easterners,” from the national polity. Much in the attitudes to Islam of such nineteenth-century Jewish thinkers as Abraham Geiger, Heinrich Graetz, and Ignaz Goldziher appears, according to John Efron’s article in this volume, to support Kramer’s point, though Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin’s article points to what he sees as its limitations.
Whatever the merits of Kramer’s case may be, there can be no doubt that in the nineteenth century the Jews were much more importantly the targets rather than the perpetrators of orientalism. To reconcile this fact with Said’s emphasis on orientalism as a colonialist ideology, some authors, most notably Susannah Heschel and Jonathan Hess, have produced interesting work that explains the parallels between imperialist and anti-Jewish orientalism on the premise that European Jews were a kind of colonized population, subject to quasi-colonial domination by the Gentiles.
Hess provides some concrete support for the “Jews-as-colonials” argument. The German biblical scholar Johann David Michaelis (1717-1791) was an orientalist and an anti-Jewish polemicist. Hess notes that Michaelis came up with a colonialist solution to the “problem” of the Jews as the Asiatic residents of Europe. He suggested turning Europe’s Jews into real colonials – by exporting them to “sugar islands” in the West Indies, where they would labor to benefit the German economy.
Hess’ work, while demonstrating the value of the colonialist paradigm, also shows up its limits. As anyone examining the sources must realize, orientalist depiction of the Jews was common in the late eighteenth century and indeed, as several articles in this volume demonstrate, much before. Michaelis’ proposed deportation of the Jews to the Caribbean was a quirk: clearly it did not motivate more than a small part of the debate on Jews as orientals, a debate that was, moreover, common all over Europe and to a lesser extent America, and not just Germany. Hess posits that in eighteenth-century Germany there were two, “parallel orientalisms,” one dealing with the Jews and the other with the Muslims. Though these parallel lines meet in Michaelis’ idiosyncratic “sugar islands” suggestion, the broader question of what they had in common is not answered. It is unlikely that orientalist discourses with identical features – excluding their object as Other, presenting it as either eternally unchanging or as degenerate, feminizing it, and so on – could have developed in the West regarding the Muslims and the Jews in parallel, unconnected ways. As Bryan Turner put it, there have been “two related discourses for Semites” – one about the Jews, the other about Muslims and Arabs. But what is the link between them?
While studies of orientalism and the Jews on a more-or-less Saidian pattern – whether looking at Zionism as orientalism or at the history of antisemitism as colonialism – can be of crucial importance to our understanding of specific issues such as were investigated by the authors mentioned above, the full depth and breadth of the connection between orientalism and the Jews reaches well beyond the limits of the Saidian paradigm, especially as it has been developed in the last two decades or so.
In this respect, the assumption that orientalism can be entirely subsumed as a specific instance under the general topic of colonial discourse has been a hindrance, much as it has in other ways advanced our understanding of the power politics underlying orientalism as a major western ideological complex.
Many writers have defined orientalism not by its formal content as a set of western representations of the Orient, but in functionalist terms as “a discourse of western domination.” The tendency has been to minimize differences and maximize similarities and historical connections between examples of western domination over various parts of the world. To some authors, indeed, any discourse of Otherness that is associated with domination merits the label of orientalism. Ernest J. Wilson III, for example, writes of African-Americans as targets of America’s “internal orientalism.” A more complex example is Ella Shohat’s position, according to which American colonial discourse was “constituted by” orientalism and “the colonial discourse of the Americas, sub-Saharan Africa, and East and South Asia generated a specific form of orientalist discourse directed at North Africa and West Asia during the later part of the imperial era.” There is, then, a broader orientalism that does not (yet) have much to do with the Orient, and a more specific orientalism that does. Both are western discourses of domination, constructing an Other that will be, or is already, ruled by the West.
This broadening of Said’s Orientalism to the study of colonialism in general as a discursive phenomenon has already proven to be among the most important achievements of scholarship at the turn of the twenty-first century. Many of the scholars furthering this line of inquiry (though sometimes in ways quite contrary to Said’s) themselves have non-western, “colonial” antecedents and are writing from a postcolonial position as residents either of the former colonies or of their diasporas in the West. Some, like Leila Abu-Lughod or Talal Assad stem, like Said did, from the Arab world, but most are South Asian: Aijaz Ahmed, Arjun Appadurai, Homi Bhabha, Partha Chatterjee, Gyan Prakash, Gayatric Spivak, Gauri Viswanathan, and others. This may be a minor reason why they have shied away from the term “orientalism,” generally preferring to focus on local Indian conditions in the context of global influences, with potential comparisons made to not only the hub of Said’s Orient – Islamic North Africa and West Asia – but any other part of the Third World and even the Third World diaspora in the West. However, the major reason for orientalism having in many ways evolved into an avatar of “postcolonial studies” is given by the very nature of the project of subsuming orientalism under the rubric of imperialism. Said and others have shown impressively how orientalism as a discourse functioned within the building of western empires. But if there is nothing other to orientalism than that and orientalism is seen as merely a special case of imperial domination, then why maintain a separate topic of research labeled “orientalism” at all? Indeed in the last decades of his life Said himself preferred to focus on imperialism and colonialism rather than orientalism per se.
Colonialism and imperialism, however, are relevant only since the late eighteenth century; yet both orientalism and its Jewish connection are much older, as the articles by Akbari, Kalmar, and to some extent Parfitt and Zhou demonstrate. And even then the Jewish connection to colonialism and orientalism needs to be complicated.
Jews responded to the anti-Jewish orientalism of the late eighteenth to early twentieth century in three different ways (typical, we believe, for other targets of orientalism, including Muslims, as well): first, by rejecting it wholesale; second, by idealizing and romanticizing the Orient and themselves as its representatives; and third, by setting up traditional Jews as oriental, in contrast to modernized Jewry which was described as “western.”
The wholesale rejection of an oriental identity for the Jews was common among segments of both liberal and orthodox Jewry in Europe; it does not particularly concern us here. A more nuanced rejection, among right-wing Zionists who opted for an Italian-centered, Mediterranean identity for the Jewish state, is however explored in the fascinating article on this little-known topic by Eran Kaplan.
The romantic self-image of a noble oriental Jew can in part be seen in Abraham Geiger as explored by Susannah Heschel and in this volume by John Efron. Efron’s portrayal of Heinrich Graetz and Ignaz Goldziher fill in more of the picture, as does Michael Berkowitz’s study of the enigmatic Dutch-Jewish-Hebrew poet, Jakob de Haan. Outside this volume the reader might want to consult Ivan Davidson Kalmar’s study of the “Moorish-style” synagogue, a building style that encodes modernizing Jewry’s romantic image of the medieval world of Islam. Michael Brenner’s The Renaissance of Jewish Culture in Weimar Germany also includes material that may be relevant.
The “internal orientalism” of Jew versus Jew, practiced by modernizing, western or westernized, Ashkenazic Jews vis-à-vis their more traditional brethren was not unrelated to the romantic self-orientalization just mentioned. Ismar Schorsch and others have shown that the identification of nineteenth century liberal Jewry with Judaism in medieval Muslim Spain was in important measure a way to avoid the stigma of identifying with the Ostjuden of Eastern Europe. For the most part the “half-Asiatic” Ostjuden were abhorred in, paradoxically, typically orientalist terms; yet they, too, could be the target of romantic orientalism. Of more relevance to recent history is another version of Jew-towards-Jew orientalism: that of the Ashkenazic Jews (originating in the West) towards the “oriental” Jews in Israel. A considerable part of this volume is dedicated to deepening our understanding of this “internal” orientalism of the “western” Jews verses the East European and the MizrahiJew. Noah Isenberg’s study of Arnold Zweig’s work expands in important ways on the theme of the Ostjudeas in some romantic sense oriental, a subject that had previously received attention from Paul Mendes-Flohr, Daniel Schroeter, Steven Aschheim and David Biale and other scholars. As for the Ashkenazi-Mizrahi relationship, Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin surveys the work of Ella Shohat and others who draw parallels between orientalism directed towards Jews by Christians and orientalism directed towards Mizrahim by Ashkenazim.
Clearly, romantic Jewish counter-orientalism as well as internal Jewish orientalism towards “Eastern” Jews of one kind or another has something to do with the colonial context of orientalism. Equally clearly, the colonial context is not the issue that is central to it.
If the transition from orientalism to postcolonialism has left important elements of our topic of “Orientalism and the Jews” by the side, the same is true of another (and related) switch from Said’s original reading of orientalism as positing a rigid structural opposition between East and West, to a new recognition that here as elsewhere boundaries are flexible and permeable. Recent work has focused in Turnerian fashion on the “liminal” region between Occident and Orient as a most productive source of orientalist discourse (and performance) and the counter-discourses it generates. Homi Bhabha has been perhaps the most effective proponent of the thesis that postcolonial populations (both “at home” and in the diaspora) have been defining themselves largely in response to western influence and domination. The result are “hybrid” discourses of identity, and these may reflect local social and cultural patterns rather than any traditions that the occidental observer may deem “oriental.”
It is perhaps surprising that scholars concerned with postcolonial “hybridity” have paid so little attention to the Jews (and vice versa). Indeed, in this volume Sander Gilman argues that for the “multicultural” writers that are so much the focus of much of postcolonial literary studies, the Jews seem to be the eternal exception, a people who, far from hybrid, have an essence that is both unchanging and contrastingly distinctive (as do, in the orientalist conception, all orientals).
Yet if ever there was a population that lives at the borders between cultures and civilizations it is the Jews. More than that, we suspect that, at some level, the liminal region between Arab/Muslim, Jew, and Christian – what Jacques Derrida and others have called “the Abrahamic” – must be quite central not only to any understanding of the Jewish aspects of orientalism, but of orientalism tout court. Derrida speaks of “the fold [pli] of this Abrahamic or Ibrahimic moment, folded over and again [replié] by the Gospels between the two other “religions of the Book.” This volume’s essays by Akbari and Kalmar show how from medieval times Jews and Muslims constituted a silent referent for one another in western texts and art. Other authors, as we have said, explore how in Israel today this “explosive” mixture of the Jewish and the Arab is the stuff of relations between the dominant Ashkenazi elite and the Mizrahim who (like Derrida himself) combine Jewish identity with roots in the Arab world. In Derridean terms, the Jew and the Arab are always “traces” of the other when only one of the pair is addressed. Touching on both simultaneously causes an “explosive” and therefore always scattered, diffuse, and never completely decipherable eruption of the “unspeakable” into representation.
For the reasons listed above, although both the colonial/postcolonial and the related “hybridity” paradigm of research on orientalism stand to profit from incorporating the relationship between Jews and orientalism, the current volume is emphatically not meant to be primarily a response to the existing literature on orientalism and postcolonialism. Apart from the fact that we considered it preferable at this stage to establish the breadth of the issue without prior theoretical, political, and other restrictions, we recognize, too, that the existing paradigms may have to be broadened to do justice to the historical facts.
One way is to pay more serious attention to the role of religion as one of the primary referents of orientalist discourse. It is the Christian religious tradition that forms the missing link explaining the necessary, rather than accidental, connection in orientalism between representations of Muslims and representations of Jews.
Clearly, discourses about the Islamic world were what most interested Said in Orientalism, and “Muslimism” might have been a more correct, if also more awkward, term for his subject matter. Yet the fact that the oriental Other Said’s book deals with was for the most part an Islamic Other seems to get much less play than would seem to be merited by the facts. This is merely one side of the coin, for this under-representation of Islam is the consequence of Said’s under-representation of Christianity as a major, and perhaps historically the principal, factor in orientalism. True, Said realized that “present-day Orientalism” was a “set of structures inherited from the past, secularized, redisposed, and re-formed by such disciplines as philology, which in turn were naturalized, modernized, and laicized substitutes for (or versions of) Christian supernaturalism.” But Said was content to leave the implications of this aperçu more or less unexplored: he no more than touches, for example, on the missionarizing rhetoric of imperialism, and minimizes the personal involvement of missionaries along with colonialists and imperialists. Was he as a Christian protecting his religion from the charge of complicity in orientalism? Or was he just, as a secular thinker, underestimating the deep power of religion over discourse both in the East and in the West? The answer matters little. The importance of recognizing the Christian foundations of orientalism is an intellectual necessity, dictated by the facts rather than by elements of any scholar’s personality.
Recognizing how important Christianity has been to orientalism might actually have helped Said to justify a decision that otherwise appears rather problematic – excluding the Far East from the focus of his analyses. Among the good reasons for the exclusion would be that the dominant religions of China or Japan do not share the Judaic roots of Christianity and Islam. Consequently their ideological “otherness” was of a very different nature from that of the Muslim world – or the Jews. Western discourses about the Far East are not part of “the Abrahamic.” Western discourses about the Jews are.
In this volume the Christian foundations and enduring Christian undertones of orientalism become clear in the contributions by Akbari, Parfitt, Zhou, Kalmar, and Raz-Krakotzkin. To fill in the picture the reader unfamiliar with the issue should also consult James Pasto’s remarkable investigation of the roots of modern orientalism in German biblical criticism in the context of the “Jewish Question” in Europe as well as the above-mentioned body of work by Jacques Derrida and Gil Anidjar on the “Abrahamic.” Indeed, to those on whatever side of the political or intellectual spectrum who object to linking Jews to orientalism we can do no better than give them Gil Anidjar’s advice: “Read the incomparable, Shylock and Othello.” To understand orientalism, we must read discourses about Muslims and Jews together, however embarrassing or disturbing the task may be politically, religiously or emotionally.
This is not to say that orientalism was the same regardless of whether it dealt with the Orient itself or with the “Orientals of Europe.”
The exact nature of the relationship between orientalist images of Jews and Muslims has undergone, like orientalism itself, substantial historical variation. One has to guard against positing eternal semiotic systems that survive regardless of the social and political context. Although professes to be a follower of Foucault, his account of orientalism diverged radically from the historiographic habits of his professed master. Foucault, who focused on radical discontinuities in history, would not have subscribed to Said’s view of orientalism as spanning antiquity, the Middle Ages, modernity, and beyond. Indeed, his essentialist and idealistic conception of a timeless orientalism permanently inherent in some sort of a “Western mind” has been accused of preventing Said from formulating an effective anti-imperialist position.
Orientalism itself can be regarded as a form into which various content can be cast. We will suggest below a periodization of orientalism in general and of its relationship to representations of the Jews, rooted in continuities and discontinuities in the history of the Western world. In this sense it is more like what Foucault called “language” (a finite set of principles that can generate an infinite number of discourses), rather than “discourse,” a word that Foucault used to refer to a finite corpus of historically located texts. (We will, however, continue to follow Said’s lead in referring to orientalism as a “discourse” - meaning “ways of representing” the Orient – as this has now become a common practice.) Looking at orientalism as language rather than discourse would open it up to theorizing in terms of the Bakhtinian notion of slovo. According to Mikhail Bakhtin, slovo, a Russian term quite homologous with the French parole and typically translated as “the word,” is a stage on which changing and competing, socially conditioned views are played out. And indeed, orientalism has, like words, kept a continuity of form while recharging itself periodically with new content.
New ideas require new language at times, but more often they take hold more easily if clad in familiar forms. New content infuses old form, and the earlier content does not quite disappear but leaves traces that are recognizable in the new. For example, when imperialism became the new content of orientalism the old Christian content continued to structure its form. Indeed, imperialist rhetoric continued to be accompanied by Christian rhetoric, and the talk of waking up the dormant East through Western intervention was often accompanied by the proselytizing discourse of missionary societies eager to bring true religion to the ignorant oriental Muslims and Jews.
[the print version continues ...]
Edward W. Said, “Orientalism Reconsidered,” in Francis Barker, Peter Hulme, Margaret Iverson and Diana Loxley (eds.), Literature, Politics and Theory: Papers from the Essex Conference, 1976-84 (New York, Methuen, 1986), 221.
In what may have been his last publication Edward Said wrote that Freud’s image of the Jewish people as founded by a foreigner (the Egyptian Moses) could be taken as prototypical for non-European identities today, marked as they are by the indelible impact of western domination. Edward W. Said, Freud and the Non-European, with an introduction by Christopher Bollas and a Response by Jacqueline Rose (London and New York: Verso, 2003).
See, for example, Jacques Derrida, "Hostipitality," in Jacques Derrida, Acts of Religion, ed. by Gil Anidjar (New York and London: Routledge, 2002), 356-420. The term “Abrahamic” is also used in much the same sense by Marc Gopin throughout his book Holy War, Holy Peace: How Religion Can Bring Peace to the Middle East (New York, Oxford University Press, 2002), although with no apparent reference to Derrida.
Jacques Derrida, Donner la mort (Paris, Galilée, 1999), 149. See the translation and commentary by Gil Anidjar, “Introduction: `Once More, Once More’: Derrida, the Arab, the Jew,” in Derrida, Acts of Religion, 10.
Vološinov, Valentin Nikolaevich, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (Cambridge, MA, 1986), Part I, Ch. 3. This work is generally considered to have been written by Bakhtin and published under his colleague Vološinov’s name for political reasons under Soviet rule; some believe, however, that it is genuinely by Vološinov or the result of collaboration between the two.