This web page contains an excerpt from the manuscript submitted by Ivan Davidson Kalmar and Derek J. Penslar, eds., for Orientalism and the Jews, Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2005. The web page here is for the sole use of Ivan Kalmar’s students. There is no warranty that its text corresponds exactly to the published version. If you wish to quote or refer to any of this “Introduction” in a publication of your own then you must refer to the published version alone. (This does not include term papers.)


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.”[1]  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.[2]  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.[3]  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.[4]  Martin Kramer has argued that nineteenth century European Jews questioned the East-West dichotomy because it excluded them, as “Easterners,” from the national polity.[5]  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.[6]  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.”[7]  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.”[8]  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 Lila Abu-Lughod or Talal Asad stem, like Said did, from the Arab world, but most are South Asian:  Aijaz Ahmad, Arjun Appadurai, Homi Bhabha, Partha Chatterjee, Gyan Prakash, Gayatri 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[9] 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.[10]  Michael Brenner’s The Renaissance of Jewish Culture in Weimar Germany also includes material that may be relevant.[11]

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.[12]  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 Mizrahi Jew.  Noah Isenberg’s study of Arnold Zweig’s work expands in important ways on the theme of the Ostjude as 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.”[13]

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.[14]  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”[15] – 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.”[16]   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.”[17]  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[18] as well as the above-mentioned body of work by Jacques Derrida and Gil Anidjar on the “Abrahamic.”[19]  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.”[20]   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 Said professed 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.[21] 

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.[22]  (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.[23]  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.

A Periodization

We suggest a periodization of orientalism that recognizes its changing content as consonant with changes in the geopolitical and economic relations between East and West as well as between Christians, Muslims and Jews.

The periods we distinguish are:  1) the Saracen period from the rise of Islam until the end of the fourteenth century, when comparisons between Muslims and Jews were founded on religious grounds with no necessary geographic correlation, and the Islamic enemy was referred to generically as the “Saracen;” 2) the Turkish period from the late fourteenth until the late eighteenth century, when the prototypical Muslim in the Western imagination was a “Turk;” 3) the Arab period from the late eighteenth century until the 1960’s, when the “Turk’s” place as the stereotype of the oriental was replaced by the Arab and specifically the Bedouin, orientalism was characterized by both romantic notions and progressively more openly racist vituperations, and both secular antisemitism and Zionism were organized as social and political movements; and 4) the postcolonial period when discourse about Muslims becomes primarily political and only Jews with roots in the Arab world continue, though most of them now live in Israel and the Western world, to be called “oriental” (Mizrahi).  These periods overlap greatly.  They also show considerable internal development.  All relate to the changing sociopolitical and economic realities of the relationship between the Christian West and the Muslim East, as well as (to a lesser extent until the most recent periods) Christian relations with the Jews.

Proto-Orientalism:  The Saracen Period

In the proto-orientalist imagination of the early Middle Ages, the Jew was imagined in terms of the oriental location of the Holy Land before the Muslim.  The “East” was at the time constructed mythologically and theologically rather than ethnographically.  It was the site of sacred biblical history, and also of apocalyptic events heralding the Second Coming and the Last Judgment.  To the extent that Western Christians had a clear vision of the contemporary Orient, they imagined it as the locus of the Roman Empire of the East, the Christian realm that had a precarious hold on the sites of Christian history, including at times the Holy Land.  To the East beyond these sites, which Western Crusaders succeeded in holding from time to time, were alien peoples inhabiting murky magical lands.  The legend of Prester John, the hero who was to come from far away East to revitalize Christian faith, illustrates the belief that the  Orient continued, even after the death of Christ, to be imbued with a holiness that was capable of recharging a spiritually lax Christendom to its West (it also highlights the fact that the Christian presence in the Orient was part of western Christendom’s image of the East).  This eschatological Orient had everything to do with the fact that it was thought to have witnessed the events of the Hebrew Bible and the life of Jesus, the “King of the Jews.” 

True, from almost the beginning of Islam in the seventh century, Jerusalem and the biblical lands came under Muslim control.  But this did not immediately define the image of the Orient as Muslim.  For one thing, Constantinople rather than Jerusalem was the major city of the Orient in the Western mind, and it remained in Christian hands until 1453.  For another, even under Muslim rule there was a substantial Christian presence in the Holy Land, which the Crusaders attempted to use as a tool for the establishment of political domination.  They were seldom very successful (with the “Latin Kingdom,” 1099-1187, the most notable exception) but they won enough skirmishes to make the idea of a Christian-ruled Palestine appear feasible to reasonable Christians until as late as the 14th century.

Although the Crusaders were fighting for a “real” land and their decline has typically been blamed on venality (they plundered Christian Constantinople) and carnal sin (many died of sexually transmitted diseases) they conceptualized their fight in biblical-historical rather than geopolitical terms.  Akbari shows how some medieval tales of the Siege of Jerusalem conflate conquest by the Crusaders with conquest by the Romans, equating in complex ways the Christians with the Romans on one hand, and the Jews with the Muslims on the other.  There was in these accounts, however, no indication that the Other under siege, be it Jew or Muslim, was thought of as oriental, that what was under siege was the Orient.  The “Saracen” forces were at least as firmly established (and more menacing) in the southern and southwestern than in the eastern Mediterranean.  “Imaginative geography,” as Said called it, did not yet write off the Orient to Islam. 

With Christians in Anatolia and Muslims in Iberia, Islam was not yet imagined, either geographically or metaphorically, as completely outside the Western world.  The “impostor” Muhammad was not thought of as an outsider with no connection to Christianity but rather as a kind of schismatic who challenged, and therefore articulated with, the Church tradition.  In Dante’s Inferno Muhammad is “split,” “ripped open from chin to where we fart.”  A savage split also marks the face of Muhammad’s lieutenant, Ali:  his face is “cleft from his chin up to the crown.”[24]  Clearly we are being shown here two of the many sinners punished for schism, for splitting apart the church – and not as Said incongruously suggests, with Islam as the “epitome of an outsider against which the whole of European civilization from the Middle Ages on was founded.”[25]   Dante makes the point quite explicitly:

The souls that you see passing in this ditch

were all sowers of scandal and schism in life,

and so in death you see them torn asunder.

The ditch contained more than a hundred sinners, and apart from Muhammad and Ali they appear to all have been not Muslims (or Jews or pagans) but bad Christians. Muhammad and Ali are represented here as schismatics, not infidels, and certainly not as outsiders to European civilization. 

The Turkish Period

The imagined equation between the Orient and Islam appears only near the end of the 14th century.  The “Saracens” were then all but expelled from Iberia and gone from Sicily.  At the same time, a new Islamic power was dislodging Christians in the East.  The Ottomans (referred to as “Turks” although they successfully assimilated members of many other ethnic groups) conquered parts of Southeast Europe.  When they conquered Constantinople in 1453 and made it their capital, they ended forever the long history of the Eastern (a.k.a. “Oriental”) Roman Empire.  The conquest also put an end to any half-realistic plans for a Christian conquest of Jerusalem. 

In the spirit of Renaissance humanism, the Ottoman ascendancy was interpreted in Christian Europe in secular terms.  Unlike in the preceding periods, events in the Orient as elsewhere could now be painted with the hues of human conflict rather than of the apocalyptic imagination.  Indeed the Muslim advance may actually have been not only the object, but also in large measure a cause of this overall secularization of history, which was part of “the primary event of modernity; the affirmation of the powers of this world, the discovery of the plane of immanence.”[26]  For if history was entirely governed by God alone then how could one explain the enormous conquests of the Islamic foe? 

The emphasis on the secular aspects of the Muslim conquest led to a need to imagine the conquerors in relatively solid ethnographic terms, rather than as incarnations of apocalyptic personages.  Kalmar shows how Renaissance artists began to depict biblical Israelites as similar to “Turks,” carefully constructing details of their attire on the basis of what was known of Ottoman custom.   

A geographically continuous region under the firmly entrenched control of Islam, inhabited by people whose customs as well as religion were understood as distinctive from those of the Christian West - these were the necessary if not sufficient conditions for the rise of orientalism.  The Orient became orientalized. 

Ottoman military and, many would say, cultural supremacy continued into the seventeenth century, with Europe weakened by the continuing Wars of Religion.  However, in 1648 the Peace of Westphalia put an end to the latter, and in 1683 the failure of the Ottoman siege of Vienna ended the invincibility of the Ottomans.  The representation of orientals as primarily “Turks” continued, but its nature changed, reflecting the new balance of power between Islam and Christendom.  Orientalism remained a discourse deeply imbued with Christian concerns, and one that typically continued to construct the oriental as the enemy Other whom one struggled with and whom one, now, could hope to dominate.  Yet with the threat of the “Turk” largely gone, orientalist discourse could now be freed of some of the fear and loathing and, indeed, provided some fuel for the new spirit of Enlightenment universalism and deism.  These ideologies, critical of the political domination of the Church, not seldom presented elements of Islam and Judaism as desirable alternatives to a reactionary, dogmatic Christianity.  In other words, in addition to its proto-imperialist uses orientalism was also a vehicle for ideas with which to challenge the hegemony of dogmatic Christianity, and even of the sociopolitical order in general. 

One example that is particularly relevant to orientalism as it concerned the Jews was Freemasonry.  Masonic notions of oriental religion were used to challenge the established Christian traditions.  The esoteric, often quasi-kabalistic interpretations of the Bible by the Masons allowed some of them to be open to Jewish membership in their lodges.  It is true that the German (as opposed to English and French) Masonic authorities often denied admission to Jews, but German Jews bypassed the restriction by entering lodges licensed, in Germany, by the Grand Orient of Paris.  According to Jacob Katz, in Frankfurt in the early nineteenth century “the members of the Frankfurt Morgenröthe lodge were identical with the leaders of the Jewish community.”[27]  The contact between Freemasonry and the lay Jewish community, and even some rabbis such as Gotthold Solomon in Hamburg or Samuel Hirsch in Luxemburg (an important philosopher and radical reformer) probably left lasting and as yet insufficiently explored marks on the history of modern liberal Judaism. 

One of the many fascinating episodes studied by Katz was that of the “Asiatic Brethren,” Die Brüder St. Johannes des Evangelisten aus Asien in Europa, an idiosyncratic Masonic lodge in Vienna.  The great majority were gentiles of the most respectable sort. "Ben-Jakhin", also known as "Abraham" and "Israel", for example, was the chosen Hebrew name of one of the more enthusiastic aristocrats among the Brethren, Count Hans Heinrich von Ecker und Eckhofen.  Eventually, the Order was to count quite a few of the high nobility among its ranks, including Prince Karl of Hesse, the Landgrave of Schleswig.  The notorious adventurer, Moses Dobruška, alias Franz Thomas von Schönfeld, a baptized Court Jew, was a sort of spiritual leader to the Brethren.  It was he, apparently, who supplied a Gentile brother with a forgery in Hebrew and passed it off as a secret document found in the Holy Land.  He seems, too, to have convinced the lodge members to adopt Hebrew names in place of the Arabic pseudonyms they had favored.[28]

The incident illustrates the potential of Masonic ideology to support a notion of Jewishness as a sort of patent of nobility, certifying descent from the ancient Israelites who created the spiritual heritage of the West.  The image of a “noble Jew,” cast in orientalist terms, was particularly common in Germany – where the modernizing Jewish community eagerly adopted it.  In Lessing's "Nathan the Wise" Saladin, the famous nemesis of Richard the Lionhearted, is a generous and wise but financially not quite solvent sultan.  He asks a Jewish merchant, Nathan, to lend him money.  Nathan, an oriental notable whose camels ply the deserts from the Mediterranean to the Euphrates, agrees.  But Saladin learns to value Nathan's wisdom even more than his cash.  For it turns out that Nathan is a deist who makes a convincing argument for the proposition that all religions are equally close to the possession of Truth. 

The “noble Jew” was not an anomaly in European fiction at the time.  Charlene A. Lea has counted more than fifty German-language plays featuring an idealized wise Jew in Germany alone, between 1750 and 1805.[29]  It was part of a pro-Jewish movement among the Gentiles, who wished to demonstrate the nobility of the Jewish spiritual heritage. On the Jewish side, it was seized upon by a desire to proclaim the Jews as a “race” or “nation” of great antiquity, ennobled by its association with the Bible, but also more generally with the Orient as the source of spiritual inspiration for the West.

The effort for self-representation as a noble people was, among Jews, part of the broader process that Hannah Arendt described in the following terms:

[T]o transform the whole nation into a natural aristocracy from which choice exemplars would develop into geniuses and supermen, was one of the many “ideas” produced by frustrated liberal intellectuals in their dreams of replacing the old governing classes by a new `elite’ through non-political means… [It was] as significant for English as it was for German race-thinking that it originated among middle-class writers and not the nobility, that it was born of the desire to extend the benefits of noble standards to all classes.[30]

This development should be viewed in the context of a bourgeois society that placed great value on all signs of noble descent – at the dinner table where they received high-born guests the successful bourgeois would serve pedigreed wines and talk of noble races of horses or dogs.  The late eighteenth century marked the origin of all sorts of connoisseurship associated with breeding animals or plants, and the craze continued in the nineteenth century.  Darwin wrote that his ideas came from breeding pigeons; Mendel’s genetic discoveries were suggested to him by his hobby of crossing different strands of African violets.

As ladies and gentlemen bred animals and improved plants, they practiced on their surroundings the doctrine of race as nobility.  The Jews among them felt that their race, the Chosen People who brought knowledge of God to the world, was perhaps the noblest of them all.  (Besides, for the increasing number of Jewish apostates, deists, agnostics, and atheists, a racial understanding of Jewishness helped to give positive content to the fact that they were still universally regarded as Jews.)  Noting the trend, Goethe is said to have joked that the “Jews claim descent from Adam and Eve.  The rest of us, however, have other ancestors as well.” 

Popular “race thinking” went hand in hand with scientific efforts to classify races of humans (an effort that was related to the advances in animal and plant classification which themselves probably owed something to the concept of race).  When in 1781 the theologically trained historian August Ludwig von Schlözer invented the term “Semitic” he applied it primarily to a language family, but his choice of term betrayed the mixture of Christianity, science and evolving “race thinking” characteristic of the time.  In Schlözer’s mind the languages he was referring to were all spoken by races descended from the biblical character Shem (Gen. x – xi).  The category “Semitic” thus gave support to the truth of the Bible at the same time as it conflated (and confused) relations of language and race in a fashion that was thoroughly in accord with the latest scientific advances of the period. 

Likewise when Franz Bopp published, in 1816, his Conjugation System of Sanskrit in Comparison with Greek, Latin, Persian and German, the Indo-European linguistic connection was immediately contrasted with the Semitic family.   The Indo-European or “Aryan” peoples were imagined as holding sway from the Germanic inhabitants of the British Isles to the light-skinned invaders of India, who had set up their rule there over the dark-skinned Dravidian natives.  The Other that defined the limits of this Indo-European race was primarily the Semite.

In this way, orientalism was recast in a racial mold.  The Christian West was the domain of the Indo-European races, while the Semitic “Arabians” inhabited the Muslim Orient.  The Jews, the Asiatics of Europe, straddled both worlds but were understood by everyone to stem from “oriental stock.”

The Arab Period

The idea of a Semitic Orient could only develop when Ottoman power was no longer supreme in the Arab world.  The Turkish language is not Semitic, so it followed from the racial-linguistic assumptions of the time that the Turks were a different race from the Semitic-speaking Arabs and Jews.  But with Ottoman power beginning to fade it was the Arab character of much of the Orient, and of the Islamic religion, that took hold of the Western imagination.

From the early nineteenth century Western art, fiction, and scholarship was replacing the Turks with the Arabs as the “typical” living orientals (the ancient Egyptians were also in vogue as the principal dead ones).  William Beckford’s Vathek, conte arabe (1787), featured an Arab ruler even if his court had many of the trappings of the “oriental despot” traditionally associated with the Ottoman sultan.  The Arab identity of the protagonists is much clearer, and more important, in Mejnoun and Leila, the Arabian Petrarch and Laura by Isaac D’Israeli (Benjamin Disraeli’s father), published in 1797.  And while Ingres’ Grande Odalisque of 1814 was probably meant to evoke a harem in Constantinople (like his Turkish Bath), Delacroix translated the orientalist idiom into an Arab context in his North African paintings, and most famously in the Women of Algiers in their Apartment (1834), with its narguileh-smoking harem inmates who are, incidentally, widely believed to represent Delacroix’s Jewish Algerian models.

 The continuing decline of the Ottoman Empire was probably not the only reason for the Semitic Arabs replacing the Turks as Europe’s chief oriental interest.  Preoccupation with the European Semites may have been another.  There can be no doubt that the Semitic race was of concern to many western people mainly because they were interested in either the Jews of the Bible or the Jews of their own time, rather than the Arabs.  At the time the place of the Jews in Europe was hotly debated by both themselves and their friends and enemies.  Identifying the Jews as Semites gave a scientific sheen to the discussion.  This was especially so in the beginning and the middle of the century, when colonial expansion was still in its infancy. 

In this period Jews were little troubled by being labeled as Semitic.  It is true, as the example of Michaelis shows, that their ascribed oriental identity meant to some of their enemies, already, that they had no place in a modern Europe.  Yet the prevalence of deist romanticizations of the Orient and of the “noble Jew” stereotype meant that being of oriental race was not necessarily a source of shame.  In this volume John Efron shows how, against this backdrop, important nineteenth century Jewish thinkers posited links between Judaism and Islam.  Far from aiming to denigrate Islam, Efron argues, they assumed a close, even familial, relationship between the two religions.  Islam was steeped in Jewish influences, and the Islamic world provided medieval Jewry with it most secure and intellectually stimulating environment.  Moreover, according to these authors, Islam and Judaism were philosophically and theologically superior to Christianity.  

Outside academic scholarship, it was perhaps Benjamin Disraeli, the leading Tory statesman and Prime Minister under Queen Victoria, who most explicitly expressed his Semitic pride.  He was the son of Isaac D’Israeli, whose orientalist novel we have just mentioned.  Disraeli's view of the Jews was that the Jews were an "Arabian tribe," and the Arabs, "only Jews upon horseback." Together, Arab and Jew are depicted as a favored race destined to receive divine revelation. When a character in Tancred (published in 1844) says, with the author's obvious approval, that "God never spoke except to an Arab," he means of course that Moses, the Prophets of Israel, Jesus, and Mohammed were all Arabs. Disraeli fancied himself a descendant of what, certainly in God's mind, was the world's best stock.   A decade before the publication of the Comte de Gobineau's Essay on the Inequality of Races  the hero of Tancred declared that “race is all.”  Such sentiments were anything but rare among the Jews.  In 1862 Moses Hess, Marx’s collaborator on the Neue rhenische Zeitung, stood his colleague’s teachings on their head and claimed that “the race struggle is primary; the class struggle is secondary.”[31]  The proud Moorish-style synagogues explored elsewhere by Ivan Davidson Kalmar did not, as is sometimes thought, encode a romanticization of Sephardic Spain as much as a racial identification with the “Arabian” Orient – the “tremendous claim of noble birth,” as Isaiah Berlin termed Disraeli’s self-orientalizing fantasies.[32] 

There were early indications that Semitic pride among the Jews would backfire and become an additional target of antisemitism.  But things only came to a head towards the end of the century.  In the seventies a severe economic depression was followed by ever louder complaints against the alleged Jewish domination of the economy, of some of the liberal professions, and of culture.  In Germany and France the grumbling took on a political form as movements and genuine parties with parliamentary ambitions were formed.  It was during this period that the term “antisemite” came to be used, probably to give Jew-bating a pseudoscientific character, since the term “Semite” was part of the vocabulary of linguistic and orientalist scholarship.  The antisemites often supported their arguments for excluding the Jews from positions of influence by pointing, as Michaelis had done, to their alien, oriental and therefore non-European character.  Sometimes they referred to Semitic pride among the Jews themselves as evidence substantiating their accusations.

It is well known that the new antisemitism rose in the Western world at the same time as the scramble for overseas possessions that extended the Great Powers’ control or influence to reach some four fifths of the globe’s population.  It is worth considering if the development of what became known as “imperialism” (an ideology justifying colonization, and a notion that the nation depends upon the empire for survival) was in some ways linked with the growing agitation against Jews.  The answer is complicated.  Even Hannah Arendt, who included Antisemitism and Imperialism among the three sections of her Origins of Totalitarianism, failed to articulate a cogent explanation of how antisemitism and imperialism related to each other (as opposed to how each related to totalitarianism).  Yet such an explanation will be indispensable to the full understanding of the connection between orientalism and the Jews.  Here we can do no more than attempt a brief discussion of the lines along which an inquiry into the question might proceed.  

Parker Thomas Moon’s Imperialism and World Politics, published in 1926, was in its time the standard American text on the subject.  It recognized that “Imperialism, nay, all history, is made by the dynamic alliance of interests and ideas.”[33]  At the nexus of imperialism, orientalism, and Jewish history it is simpler to identify the “ideas” than the “interests.” Ideologically, both the Western quest to control foreign lands and the move to exclude Jews from Western society were grounded in the ideology of race.  Whatever else one might say about them, imperialist and antisemitic ideologies are all unquestionably examples of racist thought.

Where the “interests” rather than the “ideas” behind imperialism are concerned, scholarship offers a proliferation of rather different approaches.  They may be divided, for the most part, into those that emphasize the economy and those that emphasize politics.

Of the economic approaches the Marxist ones are particularly noteworthy.  It is perhaps relevant that among the Marxist students of imperialism there were many persons of Jewish origin:  Karl Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Kautsky and others.  Imperialism is an attractive subject for a leftist Jew as it is harder than any other aspect of capitalism to attribute to Jewish activity.  According to most Marxist as well as many non-Marxist analysts, the classic imperialist economy imported raw materials and exported finished goods to the colonies.  (It was this dependence on foreign manufactures that was opposed by Gandhi in his swadeshi movement.)  The elements of the bourgeoisie who most benefited from the imperial system were, consequently, exporters of manufactured goods, importers of raw materials, owners of plantations and mines overseas and, finally, the financiers who provided the funds and the traders who mediated between producers and consumers.  Jews did not figure prominently among these lynchpins of imperialism.

For various reasons, Jewish participation in manufacturing indexed the backwardness of a West or Central European capitalist economy and, relatedly, its relative lack of involvement in empire building.  Jewish manufacturers were extremely important in Hungary, less so in Germany, and marginal in England and France.[34]  On the raw materials side, the owners of plantations were rarely Jewish.  Mine owners, too, were seldom Jewish, with the exception perhaps of the South African gold and diamond industry, where Lithuanian Jews, who had traditionally dominated the once prosperous diamond industry in their country of origin, found some application.  By and large, however, if Jewish groups benefited from imperialism it was less from producing goods that needed to be exported or mining raw materials to be imported, than from associated opportunities in finance and trade.  Given their presence in finance and trade in general, however, there is nothing to indicate that Jewish firms were particularly active in the imperial economy. 

Nor did the Jews have a very great presence in government, in spite of the influence from the outside that was afforded the richest financiers and merchants among them.  Demagogues like Edouard Drumont in France whipped up an unprecedented frenzy of Jew hatred in the wake of the failed French effort to build a Panama Canal in the eighteen eighties, which wrecked the savings of thousands of small investors.  None of the big players were Jews, but some of the middlemen who dealt with investors (including corrupt politicians) were, and that was enough for Drumond and his ilk to lay the whole disaster at the door of the Jews.  This abortive venture, however, was not a true example of imperialism.  Genuine imperialism, as Hannah Arendt argued, began only when the government was asked to send soldiers to “protect” the insecure ventures and adventures of speculators.  (Indeed, the Panama Canal could only be built once the Americans literally created a country to serve the project’s interests, by plucking the surrounding territory out of Colombia and then leasing the required land from its “independent” government.)

Territorial control, as a defining feature of imperialism, necessitated not only capital and capitalists but bigger government and an enlarged military.  The imperial service, both civil and military, provided employment for the sons of the privileged at the helm and for the superfluous “masses” at the bottom.  Few Jews were found in either group.  Throughout the Western world Jewish participation in the armed forces and the civil service was minimal due to overt discrimination or covert hostility.  Even in France and Austria-Hungary, where some Jews were allowed to become officers, Jewish soldiers were often harassed and, as the Dreyfus Affair shows, suspected of disloyalty.  Government bureaucracies were hardly more generous.  Colonial offices and overseas colonial administrations regarded the Jews with suspicion.  The feeling was fully reciprocated.

The marginal status of the Jews in manufacturing as well as the political and military apparatus meant that they were, as a group, objectively irrelevant to imperialism.  Yet it was during the height of imperialism that they began to be more than ever reviled for their alleged control over the economy and the politics of every Western state.  Antisemites identified the Jews as a major noxious force just when their sociopolitical importance was objectively in decline. 

There was, in this, more at play than in the case of the declining aristocracy who, as Arendt pointed out, came to be hated once their socioeconomic usefulness was spent.  Although the Jews played a small role in the politics and economics of imperialism, they received extraordinary attention in its ideology.  Imperialist ideology reformulated Christian evangelism in secular terms.  Much of it concerned the purported need to spread to the rest of the world not only the Gospel but the superior civilization of the West.  And that civilization was, fatefully for the Jews, understood as the achievement no longer only of the Christian faith but also of the European “races.”  It was not generally believed that the Jewish “race” was one of them.  The relative absence of the Jews in the imperial enterprise made it easier to argue for excluding them, along with the “natives” of the colonies, from the benefits of the “Western” guarantees of liberty and equality, and indeed of residence in the West. 

One consequence of the theories of an ineluctable racial difference between Semites and Aryans was the belief that the “Jewish question” could only be solved if the Jews were isolated from Gentiles either in ghettos or, more radically, expelled from the Western world.  To an antisemite like Adolf Wahrmund, a professor of oriental studies at the University of Vienna, the anti-Jewish and the imperial fights were one and the same.  Wahrmund advanced a pseudo-anthropological argument:  all Semites, including the Jews, embodied the nomadic culture of the desert and could only interact with settled peoples such as the Europeans by robbing and enslaving them.  Wahrmund complained that antisemitism lagged behind imperialism in accomplishing its goals:

In Africa the nomads have been pushed back into the desert from North and South: the new Congo State and the German colonies mean cutting off the nomads and Islam from the South, in Central Asia Russia has laid its fist upon the Touranian nomadic tribes …; even the Turkish nomads of Asia Minor will soon have their practices stopped by the West; but among us, in the realm of Christian German statehood, the Semitic-Pharisaic nomad lays down the law.[35]

The Postcolonial Period

Zionism and Imperialism

If Jews were not often involved in the major imperialist projects of the time, it is also true that western imperialism defined the geopolitical situation that enabled Zionism to succeed.  In the late nineteenth century Europeans continued to wage a struggle to fill the power vacuum being left by the continuous decline of the Ottoman Empire.  Britain was concerned with maintaining a continuous sphere of influence from the Mediterranean to India.  It was threatened by Russian efforts to reach the Mediterranean.  The Germans challenged Britain, too, with the railway concession they wrung out of Istanbul, linking Berlin with Baghdad and the Persian Gulf.  In addition to the well-heeled passengers of the Orient Express, this made it possible to transport freight that would otherwise have to travel via the British-controlled Suez Canal.  Theodor Herzl hoped to make use of German influence with the Porte, asking the Kaiser’s government to pressure the Sultan’s, which still controlled Palestine, to support Jewish settlement there.  But the course of the First World War led Zionists to believe that a victorious Britain would dismantle the Ottoman Empire and dominate the Holy Land.  London became the preferred address for the Zionists’ efforts.  In 1917 the British Foreign Minister Arthur James Balfour declared to Baron Lionel Walter Rothschild that “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” 

In this way the Jewish people became embroiled in imperialist intrigue, and the Zionist movement became from both the Western and the Arab point of view an instrument of European imperialism.  Such was the beginning of the end of the story of the Ashkenazic Jews as a target of orientalism, and was no doubt what Said had in mind when he suggested that the Jews, unlike the Arabs, were able to escape the stigma associated with the label, “Semite.”  As he put it, “…Western anti-Semitism has always included both the Jews and Muslims.  The latter have yet to be released from that ideological prison …”[36]

Yet Zionism has been more than just a typical colonial movement; as we have said earlier in many respects it is itself an anti-colonial liberation movement.  Zionism galvanized the energies of portions of modernizing Jewry because it promised a national rejuvenation and political independence for an oppressed minority.  Its own aims were not primarily imperial.   The early Zionists’ inexcusable disregard for Palestinian rights was a sin of omission rather than commission.  The early Zionists were wont to describe their movement as aspiring to provide a people without a land with a land bereft of people.  In contrast, typical colonialists of the era were more than aware of the local foreign population, and often emigrated precisely to take economic advantage of non-western labor. 

Indeed, the culture of Zionist and other modernizing Jewish intellectuals closely resembled that of colonial intelligentsias.  Both Jewish and colonial elites recast their history to speak of past glories that were lost in part because of the shackles of tradition that destroyed their people’s potential for technical and scientific progress.  Both imagined themselves, too, as emasculated and feminized, and presented their national movements as capable of instilling vigorous masculine character into the body politic.  

Although the early Zionists made much of their usefulness to the imperialist state, this rhetoric was primarily used to convince Jews and Gentiles that Zionism was a rational project; it was rarely a source of  Zionist passion.  Subjectively, to many Zionists the Realpolitik of alliances with goyim was never more than a means to realize a radical separation from the Christian world (even if the physical exit to the Orient was in many ways, as Raz-Krakotzkin argues, a means of becoming a “normal,” i.e. western-style, nation).  Many Zionists must have felt something of the passion of the obviously disturbed author of an anonymous manuscript found among the papers of Aladar Deutsch, a leading Prague rabbi.  The writer identified the Zionist movement with a rejuvenation and “unification” of all Semitic peoples:  “The Orient as the old sight of spiritually infused Semitism (Semitentum) will, recognizing the spiritual emptiness and cowardice of the Aryan so-called culture, force back the Aryan where he belongs.”[37]

In this expression of rage, the Jew becomes simultaneously colonized and colonizer, throwing off the yoke of Gentile domination while assuming a mission civilisatrice to revivify an allegedly barren land as a means to regenerating the Jewish people.  As Raz-Krakotzkin’s essay points out, Zionism’s mental horizon, like that of 19th-century Jewish scholarship in Germany, was the ancient and medieval Middle East, the incubator of symbiosis between Jewish and Muslim Semites, and not the contemporary Arab world, which was considered corrupt and degenerate.  The Palestinian Arabs were seen not as the Jews’ biblical cousins, each claiming a divinely-promised patrimony, but rather as ancient Palestinian Jewry’s devolved descendants, whose preservation of shards of ancient Hebrew customs and place-names bore witness to the truth of Zionism’s claim to the land. There is an obvious association between this view and the classic Christian belief that fossilized Judaic practices bore witness to the truth of Christianity.  Indeed, as Raz-Krakotzkin argues, the very concept of a Zionist “return to history” was based in Christian views of time, redemption, and the Jews’ place therein.  Thus Zionist claims of affinity with the Orient were, in fact, steeped in European perspectives and reflexive projections of Judaic-Orientalist fantasies on to the Palestinian landscape.

  During the first half of the past century those fantasies could, as in Western orientalism in general, assume varying forms.  In Dalia Manor’s piece on Boris Schatz and Jerusalem’s Bezalel Art Academy, the “Orient” is a source of aesthetic inspiration through its naïve sensuality.  In many ways Bezalel resembled a Pre-Raphaelite workshop, although it also contained elements of the Victorian work-house in its emphasis on vocational training for the Jewish poor.  A different kind of sensuality, we learn from Michael Berkowitz’s essay, inflamed the soul of Jakob De Haan, the poet and sexual adventurer, whose homoerotic passion for Arab youths preceded and persisted alongside his conversion to ultra-Orthodoxy.  This fascinating figure, Nerval in a kaftan, as it were, orientalized himself in two different ways:  the first by moving from Europe to Palestine, and the second by adopting the East European Orthodox lifestyle that many Western Jews routinely conceived as primitive, irrational, and obscurantist. 

Many, but not all: Arnold Zweig, whose work is explored here by Noah Isenberg, is typical of the group of German-Jewish intellectuals we have mentioned earlier who, galvanized by encounters with their Russo-Polish brethren during the first World War, romanticized the Ostjude as the soul of Jewish authenticity and the source of Jewish cultural renewal.  For them, Palestine was distant but not outlandish, for the oriental was already embodied in the Ostjude, and Palestine represented merely a natural extension of the cultural sphere in which Jewish renewal was taking place.  It is noteworthy that Martin Buber, who made few actual territorial claims on Palestine and favored binationalism, expressed little orientalist anxiety about the traumatic effects of Western settlement in an Eastern land, whereas the territorially maximalist Vladimir Jabotinsky, we learn from Eran Kaplan’s essay, was in many ways terrified of the land he sought so desperately to conquer in the name of the Jews.  Like Herzl, Jabotinsky associated the Orient with barbarism.  Jabotinsky and other Revisionist thinkers saw Palestine not as a ruined garden awaiting restoration but rather as an unredeemable desert, a physical and psychic challenge to the Western Jewish soul.  To reverse the wording of one of Yehuda Halevi’s most famous poems, the Revisionists’ hearts were in the uttermost west though their bodies were in the east.

Orientalism at Home:  Mizrahi Jews in Palestine and the State of Israel

In pre-1948 Palestine and the state of Israel, the Mizrahi Jew, dwelling in a liminal zone between the European Jew and the Arab, has been the subject of a Zionist orientalist body of knowledge and regime of power.  Twentieth-century Zionist discourse about the meliorability and malleability of the Mizrahi Jew has paralleled the previous century’s debates in Europe about the improvement of the civil status of the Jews.  Hegemonic Zionist sensibility feminized the oriental Jew as irrational, sensual, inconstant and weak, just as European discourse had feminized the Jew (and the oriental in general) for centuries before.  Derek Penslar’s essay, taking us into the period of Israeli statehood, focuses on Israeli radio’s efforts to marshal communications technology in order to nationalize the population.  Radio was to speak to the oriental immigrant, but it tried to do so by avoiding the immigrants’ Judeo-Arabic tongues, and it spoke about them in frequently patronizing tones.  Even state-owned Israeli radio, however, on occasion gave the new immigrants the chance to speak for themselves, and from the 1970s onward the mizrahi Israeli voice had become a formidable presence in the media, politics, and culture.

Given this book’s theme of tracing the modern Jewish response to the orientalist discourse surrounding and directed against them, it is appropriate that Raz-Krakotzkin’s essay concludes with a discussion of the Israeli political party Shas, a creation of Jews of varied origins who, upon arrival in Israel, were lumped together under the rubric of “oriental” Jewry, and in time created for themselves a unified oriental Jewish culture where none had exited before.  The mizrahi Jewish response to Zionist orientalism is no less varied than that of Ashkenazic Jews in previous eras, and it, too, is subject to change. 

Indeed, one could argue that although Jews the world over continue to hold orientalist stereotypes of Muslims, in today’s world Christian perceptions of Judaism and Jews are decreasingly likely to be refracted through an orientalist prism.  Regardless of where one’s sympathies regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict may lie, the conflict is viewed the world over as one between an occidental state and an oriental people.  In the United States the association between Israel and the West is generally positive and framed in terms of an alliance against fundamentalist Muslim terror, whereas the deep-seated hostility to Israel in much of Europe stems precisely from its resemblance to Europe’s bygone colonial regimes, which evoke painful sensations of shame mixed with nostalgia. 

Although orientalist perceptions of Jews have all but disappeared in Europe, they continue to flourish in some parts of the United States.   In part because America itself has appeared to its European settlers as a Promised Land, there is at the cultural and symbolic level a potential, much exploited today, for pro-Jewish and pro-Israeli sympathy in the United States.  Melani McAlister has provided a richly original reading of this sentiment, including its orientalist allusions, in its effects on American policy in the Middle East, but also on ethnic and racial relations within the United States.[38]  Evangelical Christians, who display a powerful biblicist orientalism, are the most visible and perhaps extreme example.  Before the evangelical gaze contemporary Jews, particularly Israelis, become latter-day Hebrews, the center of a sacred-historical epic that began in the Orient with the dawn of man and will end there with humanity’s salvation.  But most North American Christians often view Jewish rituals as pleasantly exotic, and many a bemused Gentile, attending a traditional Jewish Sabbath dinner or synagogue service, has felt himself or herself to have been transported to an extra-territorial Orient, an embassy of Semitic space.  

On the other hand, orientalist fantasy never played as important a role in North America as it did in Europe, the front line against dar al-Islam  in early modernity and, thereafter, its conqueror.  Jews in North America have been perceived as white, hence European, and American antisemitism has been relatively free of the European staple accusation that Jews were a nomadic desert people.

Among Jews, the view of themselves as an oriental people that one encountered in the 19th and early 20th century has all but disappeared.  Ironically, some contemporary North American Jews are perturbed by what they see as Israel’s increasingly “oriental” character, that is, the demographic growth and enhanced influence of Jews of Middle Eastern origin on Israeli mores and culture.  In the American Jewish imagination, however, the ascendancy of mizrahi Jews is not nearly as threatening as the decline of secular Zionist ideology, which sustained American Jews psychologically for decades, and the ongoing growth in the number and power of Orthodox Jews, who deny the legitimacy of the liberal denominations of Judaism to which most affiliated North American Jews belong.  Finally, the Arab-Israeli conflict, which, as we write these lines, intensifies from day to day, has stifled virtually all expression of romanticized kinship or even pragmatic commonality between the children of Isaac and Ishmael.  This is a tragedy, for although Jewish claims to propinquity with the Orient frequently masked or justified claims of cultural superiority and unfettered rights to land in Palestine, the future of Israel depends upon the formulation of a mutually acceptable conceptual framework in which the Jews’ place as a sovereign collective in the Orient is assured.


[1] 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.

[2] Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1979), 28.

[3] Edward W. Said, "Zionism From the Standpoint of its Victims," Social Text 1 (1979): 7-58.

[4] Derek J. Penslar, "Zionism, Colonialism and Post-Colonialism," The Journal of Israeli History 20, 2-3 (2001), 84-98.

[5] Martin Kramer, Introduction to The Jewish Discovery of Islam: Studies in Honor of Bernard Lewis (Tel Aviv:  The Moshe Dayan Center, Tel Aviv University, 1999), ed. by Martin Kramer, 3.

[6] Bryan Turner, Religion and Social Theory: A Materialist Perspective (London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1983), 29.

[7] Ernest J. Wilson III, “Orientalism:  A Black Perspective,” Journal of Palestine Studies 10, 2, winter 1981, 59-69.

[8] Ella Shohat, “Area Studies, Transnationalism, and the Feminist Production of Knowledge,” Sign: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 26,4 (2001), 1271.

[9] Susannah Heschel, Abraham Geiger and the Jewish Jesus (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998).

[10] Ivan Davidson Kalmar, "Moorish Style: Orientalism, the Jews, and Synagogue Architecture," Jewish Social Studies: History, Culture, and Society 7(3): 68-100, 2001.

[11] Michael Brenner, The Renaissance of Jewish Culture in Weimar Germany (New Haven, CN.: Yale University Press, 1996), 135-42.

[12] Ismar Schorsch, "The Myth of Sephardic Supremacy," Leo Baeck Institute Year Book 34 (1989), 47-66.

[13] “Hybridity” is an important concept in much of Homi K. Bhabha’s work.  It is developed most particularly in some of the essays included in his book, Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1995).

[14] 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).

[15] 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.

[16] 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.

[17] Edward W. Said, Orientalism, 122.

[18] James Pasto, “Islam’s `Strange Secret Sharer’: Orientalism, Judaism, and the Jewish Question, Comparative Studies of Society and History 40 (1998), 437-74.

[19] Derrida, Acts of Religion.

[20] Gil Anidjar, “Introduction: `Once More, Once More’: Derrida, the Arab, the Jew,” in Derrida, Acts of Religion, 11.

[21] For a major polemical analysis of Said’s theoretical position, including his references to Foucault, see Aijaz Ahmad, “Between Orientalism and Historicism,” Studies in History 7 (1), n.s., 1991.

[22] Michel Foucault, The Archaelogy of Knowledge (London, Tavistock, 1972), 27. 

[23] 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.

[24] Dante, The Divine Comedy.  Volume I, Inferno, transl. Mark Musa (New York, Penguin, 1984), canto 28. 

[25] Said, Orientalism, 70.

[26] Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press, 2001),  71.

[27] Jacob Katz, Jews and Freemasons in Europe 1723-1939 (Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1970), 92.

[28] Katz, Jews and Freemasons, Ch. 3.

[29] Charlene A. Lea, "Tolerance Unlimited:  `The Noble Jew' on the German and Austrian Stage (1750-1805)," The German Quarterly 64(2), 1991, 167-177.

[30] Hannah Arendt, Imperialism.  The Origins of Totalitarianism, Part Two (New York, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968), 59-60.

[31] "Der Rassenkampf ist das Ursprüngliche, der Klassenkampf das Sekundäre." Moses Hess, Rom und Jerusalem, die letzte Nationalitätsfrage; Briefe und Noten  (Prague, n.d.), 211 (Epilogue, section V). 

[32] Isaiah Berlin, “Benjamin Disraeli, Karl Marx, and the Search for Identity,” Transactions of the Jewish Historical Society of England 22 (1968-9), repr. in Isaiah Berlin, Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas, ed. by Henry Hardy (Oxford University Press, 1981), 252-86.  Kalmar, "Moorish Style,” 68-100.

[33] Parker Thomas Moon, Imperialism and World Politics (New York, Macmillan, 1926), 74.

[34] Derek J. Penslar, Shylock’s Children: Economics and Jewish Identity in Modern Europe (Berkeley, CA, University of California Press, 2001), 130.

[35] Adolf Wahrmund, Das Gesetz des Nomadenthums und die heutige Judenherrschaft (Karlsruhe and Leipzig, H. Reuther, 1887), 234.

[36] Edward Said, “Arabs, Islam and the Dogmas of the West,” The New York Times Book Review, October 31, 1976.

[37] Jewish Museum of Prague archives, Aladar Deutsch file, ms., Ch. 9, 144.

[38] Melani McAlister, Epic Encounters:  Culture, Media, and U.S. Interests in the Middle East, 1945-2000 (Berkeley, CA, University of California Press, 2001).