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The Middle Eastern Shift and Provincializing Zionism

  • Orit Bashkin (a1)

Scholars working on Jewish communities in the Middle East are in the midst of an important historiographical moment, in which the major categories, historical narratives, and key assumptions within the field are undergoing radical changes. A cluster of books and articles written by scholars trained in history, anthropology, and area studies departments, and published in Middle East studies rather than Jewish studies book series and journals, suggests that the study of Middle Eastern Jewish communities in the American academy is undergoing a change which might be termed “the Middle Eastern turn.” For such scholars, the history of Jews in Muslim lands, as modern subjects and citizens, is typified by a multiplicity of categories related to their identities—Ottoman, Sephardi, Mizrahi, Arab-Jewish, and local-patriotic—which they explore by looking at the political organizations and social and cultural institutions that enabled the integration of modern Jews into new imperial and national frameworks. This new scholarly wave is transnational, as it illustrates the importance of Jewish networks and Jewish languages in the Middle East, and likewise seeks to draw comparisons between Jews and other transregional and religious minorities, such as Armenians and Greek Orthodox Christians. It is interdisciplinary, as it attempts to incorporate the insights of sociologists, anthropologists, and literary scholars. Finally, it is postcolonial, in its critiques of national elites, national narratives, and nationalist histories. These new accounts uncover how processes which affected the entire Middle East, like Ottoman and Egyptian reform politics and the rise of nation-states, shaped modern Jewish lives.

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1 The most famous example of this narrative is Lewis, Bernard, The Jews of Islam (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984).

2 See for example, Shenhav, Yehouda, The Arab Jews: A Postcolonial Reading of Nationalism, Religion, and Ethnicity (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2006); and Shohat, Ella, Taboo Memories, Diasporic Voices (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2006).

3 For a thoughtful study of Ottoman Jewry, see Masters, Bruce, Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Arab World: The Roots of Sectarianism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

4 See, for example, Gottreich, Emily R. and Schroeter, Daniel, eds., Jewish Culture and Society in North Africa (Bloomington, Ind.: University of Indiana Press, 2011); Stein, Sarah Abrevaya, Plumes: Ostrich Feathers, Jews, and a Lost World of Global Commerce (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2008); and idem, “Protected Persons? The Baghdadi Jewish Diaspora, the British State, and the Creation of the Jewish Colonial,” American Historical Review (2011): 80–108.

5 On how to think creatively on Arab Jews within their historical contexts, see Levy, Lital, “Historicizing the Concept of Arab Jews in the Mashriq,” Jewish Quarterly Review 98 (2008): 452–69.

6 Campos, Michelle U., Ottoman Brothers: Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Early Twentieth-Century Palestine (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2011); Jacobson, Abigail, From Empire to Empire: Jerusalem between Ottoman and British Rule (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2011).

7 Beinin, Joel, The Dispersion of Egyptian Jewry: Culture, Politics, and the Formation of a Modern Diaspora (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1998).

8 Ginat, Rami, A History of Egyptian Communism: Jews and Their Compatriots in Quest of Revolution (Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 2011); see also the pioneering work by Lockman, Zachary, Comrades and Enemies: Arab and Jewish Workers in Palestine, 1906–1948 (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1996).

9 See, for example, Me'ir-Glitsenshtain, Esther, Zionism in an Arab Country: Jews in Iraq in the 1940s (London: Routledge, 2004).

10 For Sephardi critiques of Ashkenazi Zionism, see Jacobson, From Empire to Empire; Campos, Ottoman Brothers; and Behar, Moshe and Benite, Zvi Ben-Dor, eds., Modern Middle Eastern Jewish Thought: Writings on Identity, Politics, and Culture, 1893–1958 (Waltham, Mass.: Brandeis University Press, 2013).

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International Journal of Middle East Studies
  • ISSN: 0020-7438
  • EISSN: 1471-6380
  • URL: /core/journals/international-journal-of-middle-east-studies
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