Issue 12 /
December 2017 Reviews

Ethan B. Katz, Lisa Moses Leff and Maud S. Mandel

Colonialism and the Jews

DOI : 10.48248/issn.2037-741X/670

This collection of essays, which emerged out of a 2012 conference at Brown University, provides a far-reaching and timely overview of the thorny and often contentious issue of the relationship between Jews and colonialism. The book begins with the two central questions that its thirteen contributors address in the pages to come: where are the Jews in colonial history? Where is colonialism in Jewish history? The introduction, which functions as an excellent stand-alone essay, argues that the relative lack of engagement of scholars of Jewish history with these questions has stemmed from fear of engaging in polemics over the relationship between Zionism and colonialism, as well as from in between colonizer and colonized status that the Jews of the Middle East and North Africa so often occupied during the colonial era. That status, they argue, has also contributed to the relative absence of Jews in the wider field of colonial history, an absence that must also be understood as linked to the difficulty of situating colonialism in regards to the Holocaust and the still unresolved problem of the relationship between colonialism and Zionism. The volume is posited as part of an emerging corrective to this omission, as a move away from binaries in colonial scholarship has opened the door to interest in the role of Jews and other in between groups in the colonial story. Intended to highlight the benefits of mutual engagement between Jewish and colonial studies, Colonialism and the Jews is divided into three sections, each of which revolves around a central question meant to provoke conversation between these two fields.

The essays in part One, entitled “Subjects and Agents of Empire” center around the question “In their various roles in colonial empires, are Jews best understood as subjects or agents of empire?” In the first two essays, “The ‘Oriental Jews’ of the Maghreb: Reinventing the North African Jewish Past in the Colonial Era,” and “The Rise of Imperialism and the German Jewish Engagement in Islamic Studies” Colette Zytnicki and Susannah Heschel demonstrate that, as newly minted Europeans whose critics often pointed to their own alleged oriental roots, nineteenth century French and German Jews had skin in the game when writing about both Jewish and Islamic civilizations. While French Jewish and non-Jewish scholars of the Jews of North Africa shared a condescending view of this population as backwards, Zytnicki demonstrates, it was only the Jewish scholars who argued that these individuals were ripe for regeneration and could play a mediating influence in the region. German Jewish specialists of Islam, Heschel notes, often drew parallels between Judaism and Islam and promoted a positive image of both as founded on scientific and philosophical rationalism.

In his article “Not the Retiring Kind: Jewish Colonials in England in the Mid-Nineteenth Century,” Adam Mendelson compares the social integration of returnees to England from the settlement colonies and indigenous Indian and Iraqi Jews who built commercial empires in nineteenth-century India and subsequently moved to England. Interestingly, Mendelson notes, wealthy colonial Jews from Asia were better able to integrate into London Jewish high-society, where their wealth and upper-class status made them attractive to the Anglo-Jewish elite in a way that the European returnees, who hailed from much humbler social backgrounds, were not. Frances Malino’s article, “Oriental, Feminist, Orientalist: The New Jewish Woman” focuses on the first generation of French-speaking, North African and Ottoman born teachers of the schools of the Alliance Israélite Universelle (AIU). While undertaking the AIU’s “civilizing mission” was empowering for these women, Malino demonstrates, they did not blindly follow the directives, rule and regulations put forth by the AIU directors in Paris. This section closes with Israel Bartal’s essay “Jews in the Crosshairs of Empire: A Franco-Russian Comparison,” which challenges the accepted dichotomy between the emancipating French and persecuting Russian nineteenth-century states. Bartal correctly notes that both governments introduced new forms of centralized rule and Enlightenment-based theories of modernization in attempts to remake their newly acquired Jewish populations. His argument falls short, however, in its failure to acknowledge the fundamental difference between France, where Jews were granted citizenship and an opportunity to integrate and acculturate to the mainstream society, and Russia, where they were subject to institutionalized discrimination that kept them a people a part.

Part Two, “Jews in Colonial Politics,” is focused on the question “Politically, how did Jews become defined and define themselves in colonial ventures and in anti-colonial struggles?”. The first chapter, “Crémieux’s Children: Joseph Reinach, Léon Blum and René Cassin as Jews of French Empire” by Ethan Katz, argues that each of these men’s commitment to liberal colonial politics was an intrinsic part of both their French and Jewish identities and their strong belief in France’s “civilizing mission.” This led them to both defend Muslim rights while at the same time articulate a strong belief that France’s colonial presence was a positive good for France, for the indigenous populations of France’s empire (both Jewish and Muslim) and for humanity as a whole. Tara Zahra’s thought provoking article “Zionism, Emigration and East European Colonialism,” situates Zionism within the context of largely unsuccessful eastern European colonial project, and argues that it was, in fact, the only form of Eastern European “settler colonialism” that actually succeeded. David Feldman’s “Zionism and the British Labor Party” argues that Labor’s support for Zionism and for the State of Israel was always ideological and contingent, as it stemmed from an assumption that democracy and socialism went hand in hand Zionism. The Labor party became increasingly critical of Israel, Feldman contends, not because it embraced the postcolonial New Left, but because, in its view, Israel had departed from the original liberal, socialist ideals that it shared with Zionism.

Daniel Schroeter’s chapter “Vichy in Morocco: The Residency, Mohammed V, and his Indigenous Jewish Subjects” explores the complex relationship between the French protectorate and the King of Morocco during the Vichy period, and looks at how that relationship affected policy towards Jews. Schroeter’s essay reveals that the story of Mohammed V as having protected the Jews during the Vichy period is largely mythical. This myth has served an important ideological role for both Jewish and Muslim Moroccans, however, as it confirms Jewish identification with the country, and promotes an image of a tolerant, inclusive, and multicultural Moroccan society. Section Two closes with Maud Mandel’s chapter “The Politics of Street Riots: Anti-Jewish Violence in Tunisia before Decolonization.” Mandel compares reports on the riot by the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and the World Jewish Congress (WJC), demonstrating the importance of analyzing conflict between Jews and Muslims in specific political context rather than relying on a trope of age-old conflict. Additionally, Mandel notes, while these two reports agreed on the facts of the riot, they put forth very different views on the causes and extent of anti-Semitism in Tunisian society, in keeping with AJC’s desire to see the Jews remain in Tunisia and the WJC’s desire to encourage immigration to Israel.

Part Three, entitled “Zionism and Colonialism,” consists of a conversation between Derek Penslar, the author of the now-classic essay “Is Zionism a colonial movement?” reprinted in this volume, and Joshua Cole and Elizabeth F. Thompson, both scholars of European imperialism in North Africa and the Middle East. Rejecting attempts to establish “complete congruence or total separation” between Zionism and colonialism, Penslar’s essay details the multiple ways in which the Zionist project was both historically and theoretically located between colonial, anti-colonial and postcolonial discourse and practice. His comparison of Zionism with Indian nationalism is particularly interesting, as he shows how both of these movements represented the transformation from a religiously oriented to a nationally oriented self-understanding. In his response to Penslar, Joshua Cole draws attention to the problematic nature of defining both colonialism and nationalism that Penslar’s essay eludes. He also fleshes out some of the disagreements with post-colonial theory – namely that there is nothing intrinsically European about nationalist aspirations – that Penslar offers in his piece. Elizabeth Thompson challenges Penslar’s rejection of the label “settler colonialism” to characterize Zionism: the link between Jewish settlement in Palestine and the British Empire, Thompson argues, indeed makes this label warranted.

In the penultimate paragraph to his response to Cole and Thompson, Penslar makes an important and often neglected point: attempts to equate Zionism with colonialism often ignore the particularities of the situation of world Jewry in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which included very real security concerns that other European settlers did not have to content with. Penslar ends his essay, and thus the volume, with the very apt suggestion that “we would all do well to avoid employing the term ‘colonialism’ in an axiomatic and reflexive way.” This is a conclusion that is very well taken vis-à-vis not only the issue of Zionism, but also in regards to the broader theme of “Colonialism and the Jews” that this volume plays a critical role in elucidating.

Nadia Malinovich, Université de Picardie Jules Verne/ GSRL (Groupe Sociétés, Religions Laïcités)/ CNRS

Ethan B. Katz, Lisa Moses Leff and Maud S. Mandel (edited by), Colonialism and the Jews (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2017), pp. 360.

  How to quote this article:
Nadia Malinovich, Review of Ethan B. Katz, Lisa Moses Leff and Maud S. Mandel, Colonialism and the Jews, in Quest. Issues in Contemporary Jewish History. Journal of the Fondazione CDEC, n. 12, December 2017

DOI: 10.48248/issn.2037-741X/670