Colonialism and the Jews

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Ethan B. Katz, Lisa Moses Leff, Maud S. Mandel
  • Bloomington, IN: 
    Indiana University Press
    , January
     370 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In an engaging introductory essay to Colonialism and the Jews—a welcome volume—editors Ethan B. Katz, Lisa Moses Leff, and Maud S. Mandel ask a question for which their book attempts to model a corrective: what is at the root of the disciplinary disconnect between Jewish history and colonial history?

They offer a variety of plausible explanations. On the side of Jewish scholarship, two stand out. For one, the classic historiographical paradigm of Jewish history had long seen nation-states as the most important stage on which the decisive shifts of modern Jewish life take place. Consequently, this theory of Jewish history tended to regard imperial contexts such as those which were obtained in pre-World War I Eastern Europe as pre-modern in nature. Empires, insofar as they are constituted by a medley of nations and peoples cannot fit the quintessential “nation-state” typology and, ipso facto, these scholars did not consider them to be modern societies.

As the editors correctly note, more recent generations of scholars have moved away from this strict application of modernization theory. In turn, this has allowed for a more nuanced reading of the decidedly modern forms of Jewish communal life and politics which existed in the Russian and Hapsburg empires. What has resulted is effectively a bifurcated historiographical tendency in which the liberal nation-state is taken as the “key political formation” in Western Europe while the “imperial framework” is understood as normative in Eastern Europe (5). And yet, so too were the liberal western nation-states engaged in imperial projects, albeit not land-based ones.

A less disjointed approach to the modern Jewish experience in Europe might, the editors write, therefore adopt the imperial angle as useful point of comparison. If the central contention of the “Imperial Turn” is accurate—that the history of the metropole cannot be understood apart from the history of the colony—then the imperial framework is also central to understanding the Jewish history of putative liberal nation-states. The editors also point to certain methodological principles typical of the “Imperial Turn” and postcolonial studies broadly writ as generative of the lack of cross-disciplinary fertilization between Jewish studies scholars and scholars of colonial contexts. Among these are the critiques of positivism, suspicion of meta-narrative, and attention to issues of subjectivity in the archives (1). Indeed, for reasons very much open to debate, such ideas have made far less an impact on Jewish studies than on adjacent fields in the social sciences and humanities.

As for the reticence of Colonial studies scholars to engage with Jewish subjects the editors suggest two potential reasons. The first is that Jewish individuals and communities in colonial contexts often tended to belie the classificatory frameworks of colonized society—“neither exactly masters nor victims of colonial exploitation” (11). Additionally, the editors point to the “formative influence” of Edward Said’s scholarship on postcolonial scholars as leading to widespread depictions of Jews as agents and perpetrators of Western imperialism. This, of course, is also inseparable from the Zionist question. The present reviewer is not convinced that laying this serious charge at Said’s feet is altogether tenable. At the very least, it requires far more elaboration than it is given

The editors’ call for a “sustained mutual engagement” (16) between the two fields is answered by fourteen separate essays divided into three sections: “Part 1: Subjects and Agents of Empire,” “Part 2: Jews in Colonial Politics,” and “Part 3: Zionism and Colonialism.” In the first two sections, the articles are evenly split between case studies/comparative reflections which center France and/or French North Africa and discussions of Jewish involvement in imperial politics and cultures in nineteenth and twentieth century Germany, England, and Eastern Europe.  The focus on the Francophone sphere is understandable given that all three editors are primarily historians of France and its empire in addition to the fact that the “Imperial Turn” has been particularly consequential in French studies.

Two interrelated points are of note regarding these first two sections. The first is that the primary source work these essays use is almost entirely based in European languages—French, English, and German. A careful review suggested that, for example, no original Arabic sources were used by the authors despite many of these chapters centering on Arabic-speaking regions. This leads to the second point, which is that despite exciting cross-disciplinary engagement, the dominant historical perspective in this volume remains a European one. The intersections of Jewish and colonial histories highlighted here effectively model what might yet be a reinvigorated European Jewish historical paradigm. However, deep engagement with the histories, culture, and politics of non-European Jews in modern imperial contexts will not be found in this volume. Jewish involvement in imperial projects on the western side of the Atlantic also goes unaddressed—a significant absence which ought to have warranted comment from the editors.

The third section centers around an essay by Derek Penslar which addresses the debate over the exact relationship between Zionism and Colonialism. Arguing against both total congruence and absolute dissimilarity, Penslar urges more dispassionate analysis and contends that “the Zionist project was historically and conceptually situated between colonial, anticolonial and postcolonial discourse and practice” (276). Two thoughtful responses from Joshua Cole and Elizabeth Thompson follow, and the section concludes with a final rebuttal by Penslar. Thompson’s contribution is particularly welcome, as she is not by training a Jewish Studies scholar, but rather a historian of the Middle East. The “mutual engagement” which the editors of Colonialism and the Jews propose will be of interest not only to those in Colonial or Jewish studies but also to scholars of European diplomatic and political history broadly writ.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ilan Benattar is a doctoral candidate in the Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University.

Date of Review: 
April 30, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ethan B. Katz is associate professor of history at the University of Cincinnati. He is author of The Burdens of Brotherhood: Jews and Muslims from North Africa to France and the coeditor of Secularism in Question: Jews and Judaism in Modern Times.

Lisa Moses Leff is professor of history at American University. She is author of Sacred Bonds of Solidarity: The Rise of Jewish Internationalism in Nineteenth-Century France (2006) and The Archive Thief: The Man Who Salvaged French Jewish History in the Wake of the Holocaust (2015).

Maud S. Mandel is professor of history and director of the program in Jewish Studies at Brown University. She is author of In the Aftermath of Genocide: Armenians and Jews in Twentieth-Century France (2003) and Muslims and Jews in France: History of a Conflict (2014).


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