Lisa Moses Leff, Ethan Katz, and Maud Mandel join us discuss Colonialism and the Jews, an edited volume bringing together essays from a 2014 conference on the subject. Listen for our conversation about the place of Jews in the history of colonialism and the role of empire in the varied Jewish experiences of modernity, how examining these topics helps us to rethink modern Jewish history, and the question of Zionism and colonialism.
Ethan Katz is Associate Professor of History and Jewish Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of Burdens of Brotherhood: Jews and Muslims from North Africa to France, and is the coeditor of Secularism in Question: Jews and Judaism in Modern Times.
Lisa Leff is Associate Professor of History at American University. She is the author of Sacred Bonds of Solidarity: The Rise of Jewish Internationalism in Nineteenth-Century France and The Archive Thief: THe Man Who Salvaged French Jewish History in the Wake of the Holocaust.
And Maud Mandel is the president of Williams College. She is the author of In the Aftermath of Genocide: Armenians and Jews in Twentieth-Century France and Muslims and Jews in France: History of a Conflict.
This volume, Colonialism and the Jews, is the product of a 2014 conference at Brown University which dealt with the subject. It’s great because while there were only so many people who could attend that meeting, it is part of such an important conversation — one which we will be continuing in the episode today. The essays explore colonial history, culture, and thought as they intersect with Jewish studies. Together, they consider what the “Imperial Turn” means for Jewish studies — how changes in the way in which scholars study and consider empires means for the field of Jewish history. Because it is quite important. As Maud, Lisa, and Ethan note in the introduction to the volume, modern Jewish history has often been thought of in terms of the nation-state: the effort to gain the rights of emancipation, to participate in and integrate into the wider culture, and also the effort by Jewish nationalists to attain a state in various forms. However as they argue in the introduction to the book, we need to rethink the nature of the modern Jewish experience, and colonialism provides one potential set of tools to do that. That’s because Jews have often lived in colonial settings, and certainly within empires, and the tools and practices of colonialism have sometimes been used on the Jews even within Europe. If one thinks about Jews in the Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and Ottoman empires — to name just three of them — we can understand that it is also the imperial framework and not just the western European model of the nation-state which provides a useful frame for understanding modern Jewish history.
The book contains a set of 14 essays that deal with three major issues: Jews as subjects and agents of empire, Jews in colonial politics, and the issue of Zionism and colonialism. Altogether, it presents an important contribution to the study of Jews in the modern era and a great point of departure for what I’m sure will be a great conversation about why colonialism matters for Jewish history, and why the Jewish case helps us understand colonialism and empire as a whole.
What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation:
An “Imperial Turn”
Jason Lustig: I thought we might get started with this big question: what is the relationship between modern Jewish history and colonialism, broadly speaking?
Lisa Leff: It’s interesting, modern Jewish history has been completely intertwined with the history of modern colonialism in the sense that Jewish history, like the history of empires, reaches beyond nation-state borders. And it depends on a logic of difference in many ways. And of course, Jews have lived within empires and shaped the history of empires. And yet, I think the ways we’ve written about the history of Jews and colonialism has been pretty separate, and I think it’s only in very recent years, in recent decades, that we’ve started to integrate these two once pretty separate historiographies.
Ethan Katz: If we want to zero in on that question—what’s the relationship between colonialism and Jewish history?—I think that was a big part of the conceit of the volume, that there were many ways of thinking about the relationship between Jewish history and colonial history.
Part of the reason is that the vast majority of Jews in the modern era lived in empires for significant periods of time. Now, there’s a lot of debate among historians about which empires are best described as “colonial,” and differences in similarities between land-based empires and overseas empires. But the fact of that matter is, Jews and empire, as Lisa was saying, they’re so deeply entwined that inevitably there’s a lot of variation in the status that Jews had in empires, the experiences that they had, their social, economic, political relationships to power.
And whatever your position on the relationship between Zionism in colonialism, I think it’s pretty indisputable that colonialism is important to the history of Zionism. And of course Zionism became one of the most important, arguably the most important movement in modern Jewish politics. So that in itself is also another element that, while we don’t want to overshadow the question altogether, is indisputably one of the reasons it’s an important question.
Maud Mandel: I would just want to echo something also that Lisa said, that on the one hand, large numbers of Jews lived in empires, and on the other hand the historiography until very recently really hadn’t grappled with that at all. It was absent in some ways, even though demographically it was clear, and contextually scholars would talk about it. It wasn’t grappled with analytically as a framework for thinking about Jewish history. And so I think that’s really where we wanted to make an intervention.
EK: If I can just add one quick thing on that last point, just to crystallize it: The conference was originally entitled “Jewish History after the Imperial Turn.” So this whole notion of the so-called “imperial turn” in modern European history—and there was a sense among the three of us, and I think among a lot of people in the field that were we were in conversation with that the imperial turn had really not come to Jewish history, as it were, and there was a lot to be learned if we engaged directly with that historiographical move that was largely outside of Jewish history and that its own framework had not really considered Jews very much.
JL: I think the language that we use to talk about it is important. The language and the idea of colonialism is sometimes seen as different from empire. These are two things that often go together, but they don’t always mean the same thing. For instance, I think in a certain framework, one thinks about colonialism and many people identify that (primarily)with the efforts of the Europeans to colonize the rest of the world, the effort to subjugate people on different continents and the extraction of natural resources, you know, Heart of Darkness and so on and so forth. But empire is also something that is much bigger than that. One can talk about empires within Europe, right? This is what I think, Ethan, you were saying, that most Jews lived within empires in the modern age. And so these are perhaps two different things. So what’s the relationship then between colonialism and what you’re talking about as the imperial turn: how do you understand these two things?
EK: The imperial turn, as I understand it, really grew out of primarily British and then French historiography, and was focused on overseas empires. And I think it has remained substantially focus on overseas empires, that has started to shift a little bit. But the big question that animated a lot of the scholarship was thinking about the relationship between overseas entities, colonies, and their centers in the European mainland, the center of those empires, so-called metropole-colony relationship. So, by definition that was really focused on overseas empires. Now, one of the key thinkers whose work really helped to push this forward, Frederick Cooper, he has raised the issue, now about ten years ago, about how different were land-based empires like the Russian and the Habsburg and the Ottoman empires from overseas empires? Were they really as fundamentally separate as we tend to think of them?
So I think we get a little bit into that in our book, a little bit in our introduction and then specifically with Israel Bartal’s comparative essay. So there are people starting to ask the question about whether or not land-based empires and overseas empire should be thought about together within the insights of the imperial turn but it has primarily been really focused on these large overseas Western European empires.
LL: Right, and I think that’s partially because with modern British and French colonialism, there was always an assumption that you had a democracy in the metropole, in which everyon— maybe except women or something—had equal rights, but that the colonies represented a totally different kind of regime. And so historians tended to think of them in two different categories. And what the imperial turn did was say, we must now consider or integrate these two historiographies, and talk about how what happens in the colonies affects or shapes what happens in the metropole. We can no longer think of as separate the democracy (in the metropole)and the subjugation in the colonies. I’m not sure that when you talk about the Hapsburg empire or the Russian empire or the Ottoman empire, that those same models apply. So I’m not sure that there can be an “imperial turn” in the same way.
Nevertheless, when we started talking about Jews and the imperial turn, all of a sudden these comparative questions came to light: how different, really, are overseas empires from these land-based empires, and what might they have in common? And I think that yielded as Ethan points outs really interesting reflections on the Russian empire, new ways of thinking about that, that we hadn’t had before we did these comparisons.
JL: I think that what you are really saying here is that the focus of the study of empires and of colonialism has really shifted in recent years. And I want to push you on this a bit, before we come back to this question of Jews and colonialism: what is the significance of this shift, in the way that scholars have talked about empire and about this process of colonialism? What’s the significance of this, not just within the framework of new research in the history of empires, but what does it tell us broadly speaking about the development of the modern world?
EK: I think in the French context, one of the big things that it’s tried to do is to think about an inextricable linkage between the origins and development of democratic universalism, and the origins and development of racial ideologies, systems of subjugation, systems of differentiation. So I think that broader linkage, which French historians spent a lot of time wrestling with over the last twenty-five years, it’s clearly a big impetus for the massive shift in French history to thinking that you had to be thinking about the colonies along with the metropole.
LL: I would say—just to say a word about the British historiography which has been equally important—that there’s political linkages, you can’t think about democracy without also thinking about racism as Ethan just put it, but also the economic element. So, you can’t think about an industrial revolution without also taking into account the imperial underpinnings of that economy. As a world historiographical phenomenon, the “imperial turn” forces us to really rethink our narratives. We used to say, modernity is progress, it’s democracy, it’s capitalism. And now we see that there’s a lot of unfreedom built into all of that.
MM: I would just add that it’s also shaken up, or been part and parcel of the shaking up of, a eurocentric focus or Western eurocentric model. So with the greater focus on colonial history, and imperial turns to use the famous language of other scholarship, Europe has been decentered, which has had a tremendous impact I think on all aspects of the way we tell the history of our times.
JL: I think this is a major part of what’s been going on, the dethroning of Europe, so to speak: to say that it’s not just the center that’s controlling the periphery but in many ways the periphery has an impact on the center. One of the areas where I can think of, for instance, is some of the research on German colonialism in Africa and how some of the techniques, some of the methods that were practiced there in the late, nineteenth and early twentieth century ultimately got put to use by the Nazis in terms of their visions of colonizing Eastern Europe, for instance. There’s a lot going on here, I think, in terms of thinking about how we can rethink empire, especially because it seems like we’re in a post-empire world: the British empire is basically no more, the Soviet Union, if you think of it as an empire, also dismantled. More or less all the great empires of the early twentieth century are gone. And so as we enter a kind of a new era, part of this big question is, how studying empire helps us to understand our own world as well.
MM: Well, (there is)neocolonialism as well… I think that many of the insights of recent scholarship have plenty to tell us about our current world and political scenarios.
EK: Yeah, I mean, I think also one of the animating principles for certain fields like post-colonial studies has been that we’re still living in a world so deeply shaped by the history of empire. And there’s a lot of debate on that topic, but I think another component of the way that the imperial turn emerged and has decentered, or to use Dishep Chakrabarty’s phrase, provincialized Europe, is the emergence and importance of subaltern studies, which in part emerged to say, look how deeply our understanding of these various people around the world continues to be shaped by eurocentric models and by European actions and control of these parts of the world. And so at the same time that we’re in this post-colonial, post-imperial age, the whole framework of post-colonial studies and ancillary fields is in part based on the idea that we still need to work really hard to get out of both political and intellectual arrangements that were profoundly shaped by the history of empire.
Empire and Modern Jewish History
JL: I think that might provide an entry way to go back to this question of colonialism and the Jews because I think that looking at this volume, I think a major thrust of what you’re trying to do with it is to reconfigure how we look at the modern Jewish experience, to look at it in a global framework, to think about how Jews related to these colonial projects. If we’re talking about reframing our understanding of modern Jewish history, one of the things that you noted in the introduction is that the older models of the modern Jewish experience centered around the concept of the nation-state as the key factor in terms of the development of Jewish culture, of emancipation, of integration, of nationalism, and so on. A you look to the framework of empire and colonialism, in what ways does that help us to reconceive of the modern Jewish experience?
MM: I think for starters it really challenges, or builds on what was perhaps was already emerging as a challenge, the focus on the nation-state as thecentral model for understanding Jewish political evolution in the modern era. As we talked about in the introduction, there’s really an almost triumphalist historiography that shaped the origins of the field around which Jewish political emancipation and progressive assimilation into the nation-state was built into modernity. And that historiography had to grapple eventually with the fact that various contexts progressed in different ways, and certainly using even the language of “progress” didn’t really work for explaining modern Jewish history. But it didn’t really ever challenged the nation-state as the core contextual framework for understanding Jewish historical evolution. And I think one of the things we were really seeing, as we put together the articles for this book and some of the other work that has been done in this field, is the way in which a colonial focus decenters that story entirely and thereby helps explain some of the really contradictory developments in modern Jewish history since the French Revolution.
LL: I think one of the really thorny problems in modern Jewish history has been this question of “assimilation,” this assumption that Jews become citizens and socially equal members of modern societies by becoming—or supposed to be becoming—the same as people around them. And that project was never complete. I think once you winden beyond this nation-state model, it helps explain why the assimilation model never quite happened. Because, you know, there’s always been an assumption with the nation-state that everybody is supposed to become the same. Once you move to a larger framework, inspired by the imperial turn, which not only allows for difference but dependson or solidifies difference, then you have some more of an explanation for why the Jews, as they become equal citizens, don’t necessarily become the same as everyone else.
EK: I think that’s a great point, and I think it’s connected to the fact that the other piece that really shakes up the way Jewish history has been done for a lot of the history the field, is that by bringing in empires you bring in a whole series of other ethnic and religious groups that are often considered other, that are often exoticized, that often face racial ideologies. And all of a sudden, Jews have to be thought about in relation not only to majority culture and occasionally in relation to other minorities like Protestants in France for instance, but in relation to other groups that faced both similar and different paths of challenges to their ability to become European or to become “civilized.” And so it forces Jewish historians to think that Jews’ experience of those challenges was not singular, and to ask where Jews fit into larger ideologies about group and race and these types of things that were beyond just the European framework, beyond just Jews as other.
Colonial Practices and the Jews
JL: T he other half of this, as well, is to think about the ways in which colonial practices were applied to Jews within Europe. We’re talking about this process of nation-state-building, where the state is trying to encourage Jews to change… It’s an entire process of social engineering. And I think one of the very interesting things, when we talk about colonialism and the Jews, is the way in which this is perhaps not so different for Jews within Europe for instance.
LL: We also had to keep in mind that Jews are also living in areas that were colonized by European states, for example in North Africa. I think is the place that we talked about the most. And you know, one of the things that this project made clear, and Ethan’s alluding to this, is just the immense variety of different, really tremendously huge differences among the experience of Jews in, say, Britain or France versus in North Africa, and that we can’t speak of one Jewish experience with colonialism. So, yes, a colonial model may have been applied to Jews in Europe. But also, how do we talk about the experience of Jews under colonialism in say Algeria or Morocco?
JL: Right. I think one of the things that is so interesting is that in this volume you talk about Jews as both the agents of empire and also as its subjects. I think that it’s really interesting to think about the ways in which, as you mentioned, there were Jews who were highly involved in colonial projects, and also Jews who were the subjects of overseas colonialism, and also Jews who were part of perhaps a project of internal colonialism as well. And it raises questions about how do we understand colonialism. Is there perhaps a very sharp dividing line between the agents of empire and its subjects, or is it perhaps more complicated?
MM: Well, I think that is one of the things we really were hoping to stress in the book itself, which is that much of the scholarship on colonialism has started to really challenge very stark binary categories. I think one of the things we really saw was the degrees to which Jews are helpful in that larger historiographical endeavor, precisely because they don’t fall neatly into one camp or another. And because there is this diversity of experience of the way of the kind that both Lisa and Ethan were talkin about, and I think multiple essays in that volume demonstrate the key thesis that diversity of experience, both of exercising power and using power, but also of real powerlessness, shaped that Jewish experience in a wide variety of contexts and over time.
EK: One of the things that we also wrestled with, which connects to this question, was that, I think, once you look at the variety of imperial settings that the book does, and the variety of situations in which Jews found themselves and the ways in which Jews don’t fit—you know, the ways in which these binaries are problematized—I think that, inevitably, you are pushed away as well from binary conceptions that see empire either as all “evil” everywhere, or this kind of nostalgic take on empire that has been championed recently that people like Niall Ferguson. Because you just see that the varieties of experiences are so tremendous, and the impact of empire on people’s lives means so many different things in so many different settings. And so a lot of scholarship, I think, continues to be animated by a debate over whether colonialism had good or only evil aspects and I think we felt like a lot of the findings in this volume really go very far towards showing why that question is not a terribly productive one, from scholarly standpoint.
MM: And specifically, if I could just add about the historiography of the Jew: that is really important, because at least some of the historiography—particularly the historiography that focused on North Africa—did tend to give a fairly triumphalist view, I would say especially initially, of the place of Jews in colonial empires as part of a progressive civilization that was going to better Jews towards emancipation. And I think that specifically in the arena of Jewish history, we can see how this more complicated, nuanced, complex version that Ethan was just mentioning really does change the narrative and the way we conceptualize Jewish history.
Jewish Studies and Empire
JL: Right, and I think it leads towards this bigger issue: when we think about this volume and we think about the contribution that it’s making and this effort to complicate our understandings of the nature of colonialism and the nature of modern Jewish history, in what ways does colonial studies and post-colonial studies benefit from bringing these Jewish cases to be part of this discussion? And what does Jewish studies gain from utilizing this whole frame of empire and colonialism to rethink modern Jewish history?
LL: What we kept on discovering as this project went on (was)the basic assumptions—both within Jewish history (and)also within post-colonial studies—about why this has been an impossible project before the twenty-first century. And one of them is just, you know, how much post-colonial studies had been driven by an anti-colonial mentality that colonialism was only bad, as Ethan was just putting it in his answer before. And that once you introduce Jews into the equation, you really have to recognize that it is both. And that’s very hard. And part of it is this category of in-betweenness that Jews occupy, a position that is neither colonizer nor colonized but shares elements of both. And then just within Jewish historiography, identifying with something other than the power, I think that’s always been a challenge in Jewish history both to the people that we study and to us ourselves as historians. Do we always identify Jews with the pool of power? Or are we able to see them as identified with the subaltern, in a colonial context?
MM: I think one of the things that’s been fruitful is some work that a number of us have done, including Ethan and I in great detail and two recent books on Muslim-Jewish relations, and you see other examples of that in this study. We’re looking at two populations—or often, two is far too reductive—multiple subsets of both populations and how they interact, which begins to show in really powerful ways some of this complexity.
EK: Yeah, I would almost say that I think for a lot of Jewish historians the assumption has always been the Jews are in a subjugated or less powerful position, always seeking full equality. And so I think that in that context, for a lot of Jewish historians the complex position of Jews in colonial empires… I mean, to give a concrete example that connects to the books that Maud and I published as well as Lisa’s first book, French Algeria: Jews became citizens in 1870 and Muslims didn’t achieve full equal citizenship until almost 90 years later. And there’s clearly an interconnection between their statuses that has been traced very well by several scholars at this point. And Jews, therefore, don’t look like the most oppressed or the most subaltern people. And that’s, I think, a challenge for a lot of Jewish historians to wrestle with, which is part of what I was alluding to earlier when it talked about how Jews and empires become only one of a number of groups that have histories of racism, subjugation, struggles for equality in the context of modern European nation-states and empires. So I think that in some ways it works from from both angles, in terms of Jew sometimes being strongly identified with power and sometimes being strongly identified with some manner of subjugation or inequality.
And I think the question about post-colonial studies is also very much connected to this issue there as well. Because I think the stakes, in part, for colonial history and post-colonial studies has to be that no matter how you cut it, Jews are a group that historically have often been identified as the primary Other within European nation-states and that have a very long history that includes significant racial violence, obviously the Holocaust being the great culmination of that. And so for a discipline that, in some ways, really conceived itself around subaltern groups and powerless groups and critiquing the powerful, there is something bizarre, I would say, about having had so little ability to tackle the question of Jews, for a variety of disciplinary and political reasons, for a long time.
JL: Right. We’ve talked a fair bit about the ways in which Jewish studies and Jewish history benefit from taking this framework of colonialism as one of a number of starting points for understanding the modern Jewish experience. But I feel like we didn’t really get at this question of how this benefits colonial studies, right? What is it that somebody who studies the British empire, broadly speaking, or somebody who studie, North Africa, or who studies the colonization of Australia, or the history of Native Americans in the U S., what do they gain from looking at these histories of the Jews and colonialism?
MM: I was gesturing at this a little bit before when I was talking about the ways in which Jews challenge the simple binaries of colonial history. They’re certainly not the only way of doing that, and there’s been lots of fruitful scholarship that that has begun to do that. But they are definitely one powerful framework for challenging some of the traditional ways that um colonial historiography was constructed.
JL: Do you maybe want to say a little bit more about what you mean when you say how things have been “traditionally constructed”?
MM: Sure. I mean, I think I was also going to follow up by saying that some of the post-colonial scholarship, really, also I think we can say avoided grappling with the ways in which Jewish history intersected with colonial history, or was part of colonial history, for some reasons we have gestured to already around Zionism. But also for the ways in which comparisons about suffering of Jews in Europe versus other subaltern populations in colonial contexts seem to muddy the waters for definitions and understandings of suffering. And it really does seem that some of the recent scholarship, by breaking open those categories and by getting scholars to talk to each other across divides, starts to see really interestin— and not unproblematic historiographically—but really interesting ways in which thinking about the ways in which European. violence and race categories were constructed, and then thinking about the ways in which those played out in colonial contexts, were part of a much larger story of European domination and control and violence that that had gone, I think, quite unnoticed until recently—or maybe initially unnoticed and then not really investigated until more recently.
EK: I’ll just add quickly, and we talked about this briefly in the introduction… I mean, in some manner, this conversation actually did begin—but it turned out to be kind of a stillborn conversation—right after the Second World War, during the era of decolonization. There were a number of important works by people like Hannah Arendt and Franz Fanon and Albert Memmi that deal in some depth with ideas about interconnections between antisemitism and the Shoah, on the one hand, and racism and sometimes genocide in overseas colonies. But that didn’t develop into a sustained conversation at the time, and a lot of that work has been kind of—I wouldn’t say rediscovered, because it wasn’t altogether forgotten—but it has received a lot of renewed interest in recent years, in part through the work of people like Michael Rothberg who have been trying to bring together some of these histories of antisemitism and colonialism, also through the work of other scholars. And so, in some manner, the connections were always there but hadn’t been picked up again.
Why A Renewed Interest in Empire Now?
JL: I think that might provide like a good segueway to this question of, what is it about the present moment, the past few years—you know, when you had this conference, you were putting together this volume, and as new scholarship has been developing—that we can talk about this renewed interest in this conversation? You mentioned that It was already taking place, but perhaps did not really come to its full fruition. W hy is it that, as you suggest, s cholars of the Jews have avoided talking about the question of empire and colonialism, and vice-versa that scholars of colonialism have avoided the Jews? Is it just about this issue of Zionism or is there something more complicated that’s going on here, in terms of why these issues are coming back to the forefront now?
LL: I mean, some of it—not to get overly “great historian” theory of how history progresses—but I would say some of it is the really important work of Sarah Stein, that her books which look at Jews in non -European contexts and often under colonialism have been incredibly important in pushing us to think differently about the engagement of Jews with colonialism, that Jews occupy in many different places a kind of in-between status where they’re neither exactly the colonizers nor exactly like other colonized (people). And I think those books have been getting different conversations going. N ow, you know, you would say, maybe, Jason, there’s a reason why we’re receptive to this, but I just want to point to her significance as scholar.
EK: I certainly agree with that. I would also just say that the expansion of the field of Jewish history has encouraged all kinds of new conversations. Y ou know, if we compare the number of places where Jewish historians have been getting trained in the United States and Israel for the last 10 years to say 30 years ag,.it’s a massive increase, it’s a transformation, really. And many people—I mean the three of us Are not unique in having been trained broadly in European history and broadly in Jewish history. And I think given where the European historiography has come in terms of much greater interest in colonialism and in multiple positionalities of multiple ethnic and religious minorities, these kinds of issues that have really come to the fore. I think there’s a whole group of people who were trained in Jewish history in places where they were all studying European history in a moment where that historiography had shifted such that these questions, for many of us, became sort of almost like natural questions that just grew out of where the fields were in our training in a way that was very different from a generation before.
MM: Yeah, and maybe another version of saying the same thing is: why not now? That is, with the field of Jewish studies entirely normalized now in the wider fields of history, it would be quite shocking actually if there were major t rends in European history or the history of the world—since Jews are spread all over the place—that don’t also affect the way Jewish historians start to think about their subfield.
What This Contributes Beyond the Academy
JL: One thing that I wanted us to think about perhaps a bit more is, we keep talking about historiography, right, about the changes in the way in which Jewish history has been written, the way in which these issues have been grappled with by scholars. And one of the things to think about here and to consider is, how does this reflect not just what’s happening within the academy but (also)how these issues are significant and important for a much wider audience? As we are in a world where Jews are, for the most part, not really persecuted in the way that they were before, and Jews are not living in the colonial contexts that they were in the past, it’s a question of: what is it about these topics that draws so much interest, and the way in which it is of great importance, not just for scholars, but for a much wider set of people in the public who are interested in trying to understand the nature of colonialism? In an age when, like I started to mention before, the great empires and the state-based empires of the past are not as powerful and we are perhaps in a new type of global empire, and as we try to understand that, I think there’s something to be said about these efforts to complicate our understanding of empire that speaks to the the need for a more nuanced way to understand empire in our own age.
LL: I think that’s right, Jason. And I think also there’s another side to it, which is the kind of changes in how we think about who Jews are, in terms of our where do Jews come from? I think, you know, when I think about myself and why these kinds of questions—just from my own life, not historiographical speaking, but as you say, from the world—why they came to me, I think from my experience living in France, encountering Jews from very different backgrounds—since so many Jews in France today actually traced their origins to North Africa, right?—you think about who are the Jews, and what do I think of Jewish history as having been? And I think for those of us who spend time in Israel or spend time in France, these encounters with Jews in other settings forces us to look at Jewish history differently.
EK: I mean, I would just add: You said that Jews are not living in colonial settings… I mean, look, these are sensitive questions and there’s a lot of debate. But the fact of the matter is, we now have almost exact demographic parity between the United States and Israel in terms of the largest Jewish populations of the world. I think it’s pretty unmistakable that there are colonial dimensions to some aspects of Israeli society. There are people who would go much farther than that. There are, I’m sure, some listeners who are uncomfortable with that statement in itself. But I think it’s hard to dispute that there are certain colonialist dimensions to the current story of Israel and the occupation and Zionism and the conflict with the Palestinians. So it depends on how we want to define Jews living in colonial societies. And by the same token, as Americans we like to think that we’re outside of the story of empire, or that our only relationship to a story of empires (was)gaining independence from the British empire a long time ago. But there’s a pretty strong body of writing now about American empire in the twentieth and twenty-first century. And as we alluded to in the very first paragraph of the book, the relationship between Jews and American empire is something that has actually gotten a lot of popular attention, you know in kind of a bleak way, but in terms of the way that Jewish power in America in relation to foreign policy has been written about particularly since the beginning of the second Iraq war, and of course Jews in France, the third largest population, are very much a part of a story of a country still dealing with an ongoing process in many ways of decolonization. So in some ways, actually, I think the largest Jewish populations in the world are very proximate to questions about empire. And when you ask the question of popular conceptions, this may be actually a reason why these questions seem more pressing and interesting.
What We Learn From This Volume
JL: To clarify a little bit, I think part of what I was thinking about before when I was talking about Jews being less in colonial contexts has to do with that the colonial contexts perhaps have shifted. Perhaps one of the things that the work you guys are doing and the other scholars who are part of this this volume and this growing field in general (are doing)can help us to rethink American Jewish history as a history of Jews being involved in the settler-colonial project of the American West, for instance, or of the growth of global capitalism. Those are just two possible examples.
But, I want to talk about the book. We’ve been talking a lot about the field as a whole. And, I guess, one of the things that I’m curious about from your perspective as the editors of the volume is: do you see the essays as giving kind of a broad consensus on some of these questions about Jews and colonialism, or do you see that there’s sort of a broad synthesis that comes together when looking at this volume?
MM: I think that the volume itself, as most compilations of essays, doesn’t have a single or even multi-pronged argument that it’s trying to drive throughout. And in fact, I would be suspicious of a book of essays that did that, since it’s sort of by definition covering an enormous swath of territory and a vast array of kinds of people and a pretty sizable chronologic span. So we want to be careful. And in fact, even as I was listening to the conversation about the parallels between the things we studied and why it’s interesting today, I was thinking I should say, we also want to be careful as historians not to just flatten real differences as well.
And in fact, I think one of the rich sections of this book, which perhaps we’ll get to, is the debate or the discussion between Derek Penslar and some of those responding to him about Zionism as colonialism. And one of the great interventions of that whole discussion is the importance of really historicizing something that is of highly contemporary political valence, and trying to understand it in its time and place. And so, just to say that I would be suspicious of a thesis about modern Jewish history that emerges as a collective out of these sets of essays. But where I think the thesis goes is some of the things that we’ve already talked about around challenging the nation-state structure as the only way of thinking of modern Jewish history, grappling with Jews both powerful and powerless and all the things in between, thinking about the ways in which constructs of inequality can intersect with evolving notions of greater rights in the emerging nation-state, etc. And there, I think there is an add-up across the essays, of really challenging us to rethink the story of Jewish modernity.
EK: I think, to largely echo Maud, I think it’s always a real challenge when you’re doing a volume and you want to cover a significant amount of ground to at the same time face the reality that you’re not going to—and you shouldn’t try to—achieve anything like comprehensiveness. And so there are all kinds empires left out of the book. T here are all kinds of settings and questions that are left out of the book. B ut I think that everything Maud said is exactly (right)about some of the things that emerge from the pages as a whole. I also think that situating Zionism, both in its own history and comparatively, is something that emerges from a lot of the essays, not only the forum but also for instance the essays of Tara Zara and David Feldman, and just from the larger conception and findings within the book. A nd I think that on the whole, it’s probably a book that challenges the assumptions that we have about Jews in European history, in some ways more than about the indigenous Jews in colonial settings in terms of the balance of the essays.
So I think that in the first of those areas, you have a lot of material that overlaps in terms of the approaches of many of the scholars, in terms of linking stories that we thought we knew what was going on in mainland Europe with Jews or mainland European countries to findings from their relationship to the colonies, and what those do to complicate those stories.
JL: Yeah. I mean, it’s a big challenge, right? These are all essays that are being written by a diverse set of scholars. Everybody has a different opinion, a different take on all these issues. But I think that when we do look at the volume as a whole, there are these organizing themes that really bring it together: where you talk about Jews as both the subjects and the agents of empire, when you talk about the ways in which Jews are involved in colonial politics, and then of course with this whole issue of Zionism, where both of those issues really come together—where you see Jews clearly as the agents of colonialism, but also this partner question of the nature of the Zionist project. You know, one can look at it going back to Herzl, where sort of the core of his entire project was this alliance with the colonial powers who he believed would grant the Jews a little plot of land, hopefully in Palestine but wherever, and we can really see Herzl as someone who was aligned with these colonial powers. And I think that looking at the book as a whole, I think one of the major overarching contributions that it really gives, and I guess we already talked about a little bit, i t’s just the need to talk about Jews and colonialism, together. That’s my take on it.
LL: Jason, I would add to that some of what works best here in the essays is when it takes a comparative framework, that it’s not just Jews and colonialism in a vacuum. But for example, in Penslar’s essay that we make the kind of cornerstone of that forum part, about (whether)Zionism is a colonial movement, is that he compares it to other nationalist movements that develop in the British empire at the same time, and I think that helps kind of make it more possible to talk about it and be specific about how Jews are relating to colonialism.
MM: I would just echo, again, that I think one of the things that’s most valuable about that is to really force us to grapple with historical context and historical arguments, which by definition take us to nuance and complexity rather than really simplistic political name-calling in an arena of the world where that happens a lot. So again, if there’s a very large thesis to take away from the book, it would be a plea for in-depth historical scholarship of, or at least in that section but really throughout, of questions that can become reduced to pretty simple frameworks at least in a political context.
Zionism and Colonialism
JL: Absolutely. I think, you know, it raises a series of important issues and questions. And I think we need to talk about Zionism, right? Because Zionism was not really a major part of the conference that you put together, when you were bringing together the scholars who would eventually produce the contributions for this volume. And yet, as you’ve said now a couple of times, Zionism is really central to thinking about the complexities of this question of Jewish history and colonialism.
LL: Yeah, that’s right. I mean, I think it was interesting, when we put together the conference, how we wound up excluding Zionism from it. I think it’s because I mean all of us, you know, as professional Jewish historians, we’re pretty knowledgeable about Zionism. And we’re also very aware how talking about Zionism can make it actually quite difficult, because it polarizes us. So by excluding it, we were able to for example talk about Jewish power and powerlessness in ways that didn’t feel as dangerous, because we put them into historical periods in the past that are over, in places that are not as subject to our polemics. That allowed us to get to some analytical insights that, I think, then, you bring it back to a discussion of Zionism, and all sudden you have a new way to help make sense of what’s going on with Zionism.
MM: I think that’s right. And I think the other point I would add about that is, by taking an essay of certainly one of the most accomplished modern Jewish historians of our day, Derek Penslar, and putting him into conversation with two scholars who come at the questions of colonialism not from at all from the perspective of Jews and Judaism, but from French North African history and Middle Eastern history, Lebanese history, we were able to, I think, take the level of the debate to a much more sophisticated space. And then, of course, to have Penslar respond, it really feels like a conversation.
JL: I think that it’s an important conversation. Because this essay that you included in the volume, which I believe was from 2006, “Is Zionism a colonial movement?”—it needs to be discussed. And I think one of the questions to ask here, and I think that your volume really presents in including this forum, it presents a great opportunity to think about really what has changed in the past twelve years, now, since Penslar wrote this essay. How has the world changed? How does that affect the way in which we understand Zionism and has the scholarly consensus on the nature of the Zionist movement and the Jewish settlement in Palestine changed, and in what ways has it changed, over this period?
EK: I would say that it has not. I don’t think there’s a scholarly consensus. I mean, I think now there’s a large body of scholarship that really began in the ’90s with the so-called “New Historians” in Israel, that is critical in substantial and important ways of the Zionist project in a way that a lot of earlier Zionist historiography was not. And that points to all kinds of power dynamics and the complexity of the relationship between Zionism and settler-colonialism and the British empire and, of course, all the racializing elements of Zionism over time vis-a-vis the native Arab population. But the problem, from my perspective, is that we are living in a moment where the broader divides in the American Jewish community over Israel and over the nature of Zionism today show no signs of abating, and in some ways they’re much sharper than they were twelve years ago. And as long as that’s the case, you will have a number of scholars, I believe, who will continue to write about this topic in ways that are there at least somewhat, and often substantially, polemical. And so I think that makes it very difficult to achieve anything like scholarly consensus, because the topic is so live, the stakes are felt by many people, to be stakes about their conscience of Israel or the existence of Israel and its defensibility. And when people feel stakes like that, that are so high, they don’t write from the kind of scholarly remove that we strive for.
LL: Another thing that has remained kind of in the news, and has maybe has gotten even more so, is the perspective on the history of Zionism that David Feldman brought to the volume, which is the question of the relationship between the British Labour party and Zionism as an ideology and as a movement. I think when David came to the conference and delivered this paper, it was fascinating to think about the long history of that relationship and that what might have been seen as natural at one moment is no longer necessarily that way today. And that’s become even more an important topic since the book came out.
JL: I mean, I think if anything the history of Zionism and this whole question of colonialism shows that this topic really is important, that we need to have a solid grasp, a solid understanding of all these issues surrounding colonialism and the Jews in order to begin to make sense of the nature of the state of Israel.
LL: Tight, and not just the state of Israel. I guess that’s what I meant to say by bringing up David’s essay, that Zionism is not just a factor when we talk about Palestine or the state of Israel, but it’s also a factor in British history and it’s also a factor in Polish history. And I think that’s one of the interesting things that the volume does is kind of talk about Zionism and its relationship to colonial ideology or practice, not only in the Middle East but also in these two different sites in Europe: Britain, which was a colonial power in the Middle East, and how Zionism interacted with politics in Britain, but then also how Zionism interacted with politics in Eastern Europe, where so many Zionists came from.
How Historians Can Contribute to Wider Conversations
JL: I think that’s that’s a great point, I think one of the things to think about here is this big question of, to go back to something that I think Ethan mentioned, this way in which this whole set of topics is so fraught with polemics and with political implications. And it raises, I think, a really important set of questions about the role of scholars in all these debates. Do we just let them play themselves out in the public sphere? Do we intervene and offer these more complicated approaches, when so often this whole debate about colonialism and especially about Israel is so—on all sides of debate—so unnuanced and so oversimplified in order to create a sort of political discourse? And so all this is to kind of say, what does this say about the role of scholars who are engaging with these issues? Do scholars remove themselves in an attempt to try to achieve the ideals of “scholarly distance”? Just to think about it, the way in which you—perhaps not on purpose, but you just didn’t bring in this whole question of Zionism into your conference, to avoid the topic, you know, or is it more important to engage with it head-on, in a way?
MM: Well, I mean look, I don’t really believe any scholarship is “objective.” We are all shaped by the politics of our time, the questions that we ask. I mean, even your question before, about why this topic now in some ways, it’s always going to be a reflection of the contemporary moment and why people study what they do. And scholars, and historians in particular, I think, play a crucial role in helping us understand thorny problems. We may not have as great an impact on political discourse as we would like, and there’s probably all kinds of reasons one could try and explain that, but there’s no question, if you look at past thorny historical problems and the ways in which scholars have over time had an impact on the way we understand and think about them, I think that is just another way of saying it’s essential for scholars to take on these difficult issues. But as in all matters, sometimes distance helps, the distance of time in history. And I’m somebody who does really contemporary work, so I am not celebrating kind of healthy time gap. But that can help in giving insight into something that’s thorny. Or you can have a thorny political issue of the day, like Zionism, which has always been thorny but in different ways and changing over time, so sometimes the very kind of complex political questions of today help us ask questions that let us see things that we weren’t able to see in the particular moment that something happened before. So thinking exactly of the framework of Zionism as colonialism or not as colonialism has opened up ways of thinking about the early history of Zionism that people—I wouldn’t just say that people were avoiding or not talking about—I actually think people didn’t see. And I think that it’s taken some of these insights from other kinds of scholarly conversations to begin to crack that open. But we have a long way to go and that’s why people have to keep working on these topics.
LL: Yeah, and I just add, Jason, to the question of (whether)historians (should)intervene: I think one way to think about that is, there’s a time as a historian to intervene and there’s a time where it’s better to speak among historians and get some distance. I think it’s important for us to do both, and go back and forth in our careers and speaking in different forms in different ways. Because each one adds something, and there’s historians who are never going to want to intervene in public debates and they’ll do work that other people read and communicate to the public and show the relevance. Of I don’t think every historian in every work should be trying to intervene.
Colonialism and Why Jewish History Matters
JL: I agree that not everybody can and should sort of be a part of the public debates. But I think this is, in a certain way, one of the core ideas of this entire initiative, of this podcast, that these topics really do matter and that they’re important. So I think that this is perhaps one way to to move towards the end of the conversation and this big issue that I want us to try to grapple with, which is to say that you talk in the book about this Jewish imperial turn. I’m curious what it tells us about the direction of Jewish studies, and how it helps us to understand how empire and colonialism matter right, and how they help us to understand why Jewish history matters broadly speaking.
EK: I’ll take a little crack at a piece of it. I mean, one of the arguments about why Jewish history matters to broader national and global history is that you learn a lot by looking at the margins of any society, the margins of any entity, and how various developments were playing out there and then you turn them back on larger questions. And I think there’s been a very fruitful move in European history, more broadly, it’s been moved by certain Jewish historians as well. And the fact is that, as we as we spoke about earlier, Jews are this somewhat strange entity in empires because they don’t fit a lot of the binary conceptions of both imperial actors and imperial historiographies, and also, you know, very much linked popular perceptions about empire today.
By looking at the margins, we’ve concluded you can learn a lot about the wider society, the wider entity. Jewish history, in some ways, has been an exemplar of that. And empires are a place where there’s a move toward looking at groups that don’t fit binaries like colonizers and colonized, ruler and ruled, powerful and powerless, citizen and subject. And what we’ve been learning is how much those categories are messier than they were outlined to be in a lot of imperial documents and a lot of earlier writings about empire. And then they remain in a lot of perceptions about empire and so Jews are a way of thinking about the messiness of empire in very concrete ways.
So therefore colonial history becomes a place where Jews are this marginal. Because Jews are, in most imperial settings, they are very small group demographically. Right? We haven’t come out and said that now (in these)terms; it is undoubtedly another reason the Jews were not discussed as much in certain imperial histories for a long time. But they are very emblematic of certain complicated aspects of empire that are easy to ignore. And so in that way, looking at Jews in the imperial setting is very reflective of their larger significance as a marginal group.
JL: I think that speaks to a broader set of issues about why history matters, that it’s useful to look at groups that are on the margins. That, relatively speaking, the Jews are a small number of people, but they help to highlight many of the forces and the issues that we can talk about in larger terms.
MM: I agree actually with Ethan’s broad point, generally, about the focus of Jewish history and the way in which studying the margins helps us understand the center. So I certainly agree with that in a broad sense. And I think, you know, in a more narrow sense—well, actually, it’s not even that narrow—I really do think that the colonial turn has a pretty seismic impact on the way we think about modern Jewish history, and vice versa. So I see this as as a powerful intervention. I see it as the beginning of a conversation. I think there’s a lot of work still to be done along the lines of something things we’ve already discussed, and I look forward to seeing what comes next.
LL: I totally agree that there is a value in looking at the margins and seeing what it tells you about the center. But I also think it is interesting, when you look at how much press the question of Zionism gets, and especially about Zionism as a form of colonialism, or as it’s often described… I think that really shows you how the question of Jews and colonialism is such an important public topic right now. And it’s a moment where people who have done a lot of research on the topic and have a sense of its nuances can really help us understand the complexity of this issue and not simplify it in the way that we tend to see.