Mia Spiro and Scott Ury join us to discuss a new issue of East European Jewish Affairs dedicated to the topic of Jewish migration which they edited alongside Semion Goldin. In this episode, we talk about why studying the history of Jewish migration matters, how new approaches might help revise some commonly-held beliefs about modern Jewish life and culture, perhaps unsettling ideas about the role of antisemitism and crisis as leading factors in Jewish history. And further, we’ll talk about how the cases of Jewish migration, especially those highlighted in this journal issue, help to illuminate the broader history of migration and what it tells us about the present.
- View the special journal issue, East European Jewish Affairs 47, nos. 2–3 (2018)
- Read articles which are available open-access:
- Scott Ury, “Introduction: Jewish Migration in Modern Times. The Case of Eastern Europe”
- David Feldman, “Mr. Lewinstein Goes to Parliament: Rethinking the History and Historiography of Jewish Immigration”
- Gur Alroey, “‘Between the Straits’: Jewish Immigration to the United States and Palestine, 1915–1925”
- Dariusz Stola, “Jewish Emigration from Communist Poland: The Decline of Polish Jewry in the Aftermath of the Holocaust”
- Marcos Silber, “Surmounting Obstacles to Migration and Repatriation amid Polish and Israeli Nation-Building”
Mia Spiro is lecturer in Jewish Studies at the School of Critical Studies at the University of Glasgow, and she is the author of Anti-Nazi Modernism: The Challenges of Resistance in 1930s Fiction. Scott Ury is senior lecturer in Tel Aviv University’s Department of Jewish History where he’s also the director of the Institute for the Study of Antisemitism and Racism. He is the author of Barricades and Banners: The Revolution of 1905 and the Transformation of Warsaw Jewry.
What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation.
Jason Lustig: Obviously, the issue of migration is of great importance—both within the realm of Jewish history and also in all sorts of issues today. So the question that I might ask to get us started is, what does the history of Jewish migration have to contribute to this wider discourse, both historically-speaking as well as in the present moment?
Mia Spiro: I think it would be a mistake to say that the case today for migrants and refugees is the same as it was for Jewish immigrants, whether that’d be at the end of the nineteenth century, or German-Jewish refugees in the ’20s or ’30s, or Jewish migrants from Arab lands post-1948. There are different political, economic, social causes and factors that come into play for any particular group of people. And in some ways, analogies are very common, especially in op-eds and media. But they’re a bit too easy.
On the other hand, I do think there are patterns and structures that one can observe about Jewish migration, that can perhaps illuminate or give meaning to some of the debates today. There are things we can learn from how Jews, as an underprivileged and disenfranchised group, reacted towards their experiences, the way the media perceived Jewish migrants, the ambivalence and fears of host nations, and the way that policies towards migration were negotiated. And these are all, importantly, shaped by the past. And current debates use the past in Jewish migration in negotiating those ideas. Even things like what does it mean for a person to be legal or illegal? How is belonging and identity negotiated? These are all significant factors in Jewish migration that come into consideration when looking at the present context, but in a way it’s also a story with a good ending, for the most part. You know, Jewish migration in most cases is one where immigration can lead to opportunity and then integration, expansion of the social fabric and in many cases.
Scott Ury: To chime in a bit, I think Mia and I are both working on parallel projects on migration and resistance and integration. And I think we’ve come at this from different methodological perspectives and different intellectual backgrounds. There’s not that much to add to what Mia said. It was spot on as, as usual. But I think, for me, maybe, it is a little bit different. This upsurge of interest in Jewish migration—and it’s not just the past few months, thinking about a certain policy or attempted policy in the United States and other places—I think the upsurge of interest in Jewish migration represents a kind of longing among many or some Jews for a time when Jews were not yet part of the mainstream, whether it’s in North America or certainly in Israel, for a time when Jews were transient or newcomers, or even strangers in different lands. Why some Jews have a need for this sense of foreignness or difference is a question we can explore. But I think there is something there that comes up repeatedly in academia, and in culture, and even the strangest of political formats. This turn to migration kind of freezes or turns back the clock to a certain point in time where Jews could think about themselves as strangers. And maybe it reminds others that Jews, although in many countries today they have achieved a certain level of integration and acceptance, this wasn’t always the case. So I think for these two reasons, migration is an important and growing topic of Jewish Studies.
JL: I think you bring up a really important point, Mia, when you say that for Jews there’s ultimately a happy ending, in many cases, when you’re talking about the history of Jewish migration. Whatever the challenges that individual Jews or Jewish communities have faced in the course of the history of migration, ultimately Jews have entered the mainstream. Jews have become very successful in the U.S. and in other places where they’ve settled, in contrast, I think, to what you’re pointing out, that there are so many ongoing challenges for so many groups of migrants and refugees throughout the world.
MS: I think there’s also an added perspective when when you look at Europe, as opposed to the States, where it’s difficult to separate the history of Jewish refugees—and very specifically German-Jewish refugees—in the years leading up to the Holocaust, post-Holocaust, from the current debates. And these analogies come up again and again.
SU: Are you comfortable with these analogies, Mia?
MS: I think they’re a bit too easy on an emotional level. You can understand why the media would use those analogies for moral lessons, and in some ways they highlight the urgency and importance of drawing attention to policy, to migration. It raises the stakes of the debate today. But in some ways it does miss out on those different contexts, in different political and economic contexts. It draws attention from Jewish migration being a series of experiences.
SU: It’s interesting, isn’t it? Because I wonder if we in Jewish Studies are also at fault for lending prominence to the certain ways and types of migration and overlooking or underplaying others. Maybe we’re also part of that.
JL: If I can jump in on this, when we’re talking about this question of Jewish migration and what it has to contribute broadly speaking, one way to think about it is to consider this question of how it was different for everybody. This is a very complex system. This is not just eastern European Jews making their way to America or to Palestine or wherever. It’s much more complex story.
SU: This is something that comes up in a lot of the articles in the volume. They cover really three different time periods: There were two or three articles that looked at the first wave of migrations, early twentieth century, from Eastern Europe to America. There was a cluster of three articles that look at Cold War and post-Holocaust migration between Poland and Israel and back and forth. And then there was a third set of articles that looked at late Soviet and post-Soviet migrations, and putting them together. That also reminds us that migration isn’t set or defined by one particular period. It’s a phenomenon that’s taking place in different times and places and in different historical and geographical and geopolitical contexts. It forces us, again, to think more broadly about what is migration, what is unique about Jewish migration, and what is universal or similar about the migration that Jews experienced and the migrations of other groups in these same time periods. So that’s what I was quite happy about, is crossing these different chronologies which quite often divide history and Jewish experiences into into defined and sometimes even self-contained time periods: Pre-World War II, Cold War-era, after the Cold War. We kind of wanted to throw it off together.
MS: I agree with you. Just broadening what it means to be Jewish migrant, and what Jewish migration means, opening up the nomenclature of refugee migrants, asylum seeker. These are all different terms that are important to today’s debates, but they’re also important to Jewish migration debates. What do we call things, how are people categorized, what does that mean in the widern discourse on migration?
JL: I’m glad that you guys are bringing our attention to the issue at hand, so to speak, to the journal issue. Scott, as you pointed out, each of these articles constitutes a individual case study. The nature of an article is that it’s going to focus on an individual case or set of historical examples. One of the things I think is so interesting is that by bringing them all together, it really asks us to try to synthesize them. In the age of JSTOR, it’s easy to just going to read one article (that we find online). But it’s in a context, especially with what you’re talking about, about the language that we use and this question of what it is that this series of articles you have brought together really accomplish in the issue. So many of them are focused on individual case studies, but I would also say that they probably also have something bigger that they’re trying to accomplish. If you had to try to bring together the articles and try to synthesize them in some way, what would you say is the major contribution or the major takeaway that these articles accomplish?
SU: We wanted to bring Jewish migration to the fore as an autonomous and independent topic of study, not merely as an asterisk or footnote in the history of American Jewish history of the development of Israel or the history of the Holocaust. To show that migration is a serious part of the modern Jewish experience and the modern experience as well. It deserves its own place at the table of modern Jewish Studies. By bringing together these different contributors and primary sources and, I think, six book reviews, I think we raise three or four main themes which to me frame the discussion on Jewish migration and move it forward a bit in a sense that it is important and needs to grow.
One of the questions or topics that I think these articles speak about and raise is a question of chronology. We often divide history into specific periods. Maybe this division is good for instructions, good for writing, but maybe it’s not so great because it leads to this kind of a division of time and division of experience.
The second main point that a lot of these these articles raise is the question of direction. I think we’re used to thinking about Jewish migration in the modern period from eastern Europe to the new world, whether it’s North America, Canada, South America or Palestine and later the state of Israel. But a lot of these articles are looking at different directions or different vectors of Jewish migration: Soviet Jews who aren’t so sure they want to go to Israel is something we touched upon by Suzanne Rutland in her piece, “Conflicting Visions: Debates Relating to Soviet Jewish Emigration in the Global Arena.” Jews who leave post-Holocaust Poland for Israel and then they want to go back to Poland in the ’50s and ’60s is something that Marcos Silber speaks about in his fascinating article, “Surmounting Obstacles to Migration and Repatriation amid Polish and Israeli Nation-Building.” And Dariusz Stola has a wonderful piece in our volume, “Jewish Emigration from Communist Poland: The Decline of Polish Jewry in the Aftermath of the Holocaust,” about how and when Jews could and couldn’t leave Poland in the Cold War era. So direction is an important thing and the question of direction in the other articles or by a lot of these people—Suzanne Rutland, Marcus Silber and Evgeny (Eugene) Tartakovsky—is really about the personal decisions that migrants often make. Oftentimes, I think that certainly historical literature—and Mia can chime in about literature itself—oftentimes these huge life-changing decisions are glossed over. But when you think about it, and some of us have changed countries and locations sometimes repeatedly in several times, these are major existential questions which are suddenly, finally, at this point in time, scholars are getting to the material that can uncover the personal dilemmas that migrants debated before, during and after their great decisions.
MS: I think a lot of the articles have interesting ways of framing antisemitism as well, and ideas of Jewish identity and belonging and opening up what attitudes towards Jews are, how they are perceived, how they are narrated, how they fall into the experience of Jewish migration and belonging and insider/outsiderness. I think those also come into play in a number of the articles as well.
JL: I think one of the things you are doing is that the articles, on the whole, are making a series of historiographical interventions to try to change the way in which scholars are approaching this question of migration. You mentioned, to make it into a topic that people are paying more attention to, and on a fundamental basis also changing the questions that people ask about it. But with that said, one of the things that really struck me in reading through the introduction to the issue was how you pointed out that there is a kind of a disconnect between how many people, especially in the popular sense, view the history of Jewish migration as well as the shifting consensus among scholars. What do you think is the difference between the way in which migration is popularly viewed and the way in which scholars are bringing new perspectives?
MS: I think in general that disconnects speaks to a wider, a disconnect in Jewish studies. Community interests tend towards bringing together communities cohesion, creating meaning and group identity and I think in an era where many Jews, or at least as Ashkenazi Jews in the US and very little about their family histories, even just two or three generation Spec or a commoner Camino story in migration that joins together the various strands of the community is very appealing. And on the other hand, the goals with academia very different than academia and scholarly work strikes to complicate, to criticize, to deconstruct common miss so that we can better understand the underlying structures of Jewish history and history or geography.
SU: I think we’re all aware of this ongoing tension between the needs and the goals of scholars of Jewish Studies and the needs and the goals of the members of Jewish communities. There’s nothing we stumbled upon. Salo Baron and Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi were quite aware of this when they were creating generations of scholars at Columbia throughout the twentieth century. And it’s fascinating. There are many cases where the community and scholars find themselves in different places on key questions. And of course, obviously there’s not one community, and there’s not just one voice among scholars either. But in general, there are many key questions where academics and scholars try to push or nudge the community in one direction, and the community kind of pushes back. And I think, in general, it’s a good thing. I think in the past generation or two, we’ve seen Jewish Studies in North America, Europe, and even in Israel grow and transform itself by leaps and bounds. So things are happening, although maybe it’s not always clear who’s pulling whom. And I think this kind of back-and-forth, in general, it’s a good thing. Although sometimes maybe it frustrates some people on both sides of the divide. And yet here we are together.
MS: I think David Feldman’s article, “Mr. Lewinstein Goes to Parliament,” is a really good example of the way that those myths are perpetuated and can be challenged in scholarly work. The way he rethinks the way that the history of Jewish migration from eastern Europe has been narrated in analyzing in Great Britain is a really good example of the way this volume, as a whole, challenges the paradigm that’s developed in Jewish community histories, in some major overarching Anglo Jewish histories in particular in Britain would. There’s these distinct forces that that Feldman identifies that have always been narrated as very separate: The poor immigrants from the East who have a vibrant religious practice and reactionary politics, who come into conflict with the British Jewish establishment who are acculturated, Western Jews. And then there’s the third force which is the British majority that’s hostile to both foreigners and Jews and the progress of change over generations and acculturation and integration. And he really questions that accepted idea, that Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe occupied a world apart from the non-Jewish inhabitants or from the British Jews. Among other things he really looks at the demographics of the Jewish East and the economic exchange, the trade unions, the benefits societies. All these show that immigrants have a lot more agency and relations and negotiations with their surroundings than one generally perceives in these accepted myths.
JL: I think that story you were telling is not just in the British case. You can see any number of instances where Jews are telling a similar kind of a story about the interaction between the new immigrants and the existing establishment, whether you look at New York and like the “uptown” versus “downtown” Jews, or anywhere else. What I would want to ask about here is: in breaking down some of these myths, what’s at stake here in terms of how the Jewish community understands itself? Is it just a question of revising how individuals have a sense of where they came from, and where their communities came from, or is there something bigger at stake here?
MS: I think there’s a risk in belittling the effects of persecution and the pogroms and stories of suffering that certainly many Jews went through, or to belittle the effects of antisemitism. And of course this is not the purpose, but rather to open up the variety of experiences and to bring Jewish migration more into a comparison with other forms of migration, to bring it into discourse that’s not exceptional, but rather part of a political, historical context.
SU: I think that it gets back to the previous question: This tension about which hats are academic scholars of Jewish Studies wearing. Are they wearing their “community hat,” in which they’re members, in many cases, of a Jewish community, whether it’s a religious community or social community or a cultural or political plane? Or are they wearing their “academic hat,” where they’re meeting and interfacing with academics working on South Asia or Latin America or broader topics? It will be fascinating to hear how the history of immigration of Asian Americans is told, or the issue of migration from other groups in the world is told. But, there’s just always this tension between one foot being in the community, and one foot being in the academic world.
And I think in general, these kinds of academic interventions along the lines that we see in these articles and in many other pieces about a Jewish migration written in the past ten or fifteen years… Think about the work by Gur Alroey from Haifa, which was in this volume, Rebecca Kobrin from Columbia, who was also just volume. There’s kind of a move towards a de-exceptionalization of the Jewish experience, an attempt to embrace or adopt the criticism of Salo Baron, what he criticized as the “lachrymose conception of Jewish history,” and to see if Jews actually a lot more in common with other migrants to the States and Latin America and elsewhere. And the question goes back to the previous question: Well, OK, this is a lot of academics talking back and forth, but does anyone else really hear them? That’s the $64,000 question. I’m not so sure that many people hear us, because as much as we try to change the discourse, the discourse in the popular realm or in the community around us turns to kind of a base level. So it’s fascinating. Does that mean that academics are really not relevant? Or does that mean that the communal narratives are just so strong that it just can’t or it will not move? And then the next question is, then why can’t it be moved? And what is it about these Jewish tales or narratives of migration that different people from Montreal, where Mia grew up, to Chicago, where I grew up, to Los Angeles, where Jason is now sitting—why don’t these stories of migration return upon themselves in Jewish families, in communities? What purposes, socially and culturally, are they serving? And whether or not communities can change and how? I think that’s where the academic scholarship is, but I vacillate between being hopeful and questioning whether or not anyone is actually listening.
JL: I think you bring up some really important points here in terms of thinking about what might be the result if people were actually reading this literature. A whole bunch of these articles from this issue are available open access; so people can read them. What is the implication of all this research for somebody who might be reading it, who might accept some of the predominant narratives about the history of Jewish migration? You point to the way in which Jewish migration is comparable to other instances of other ethnic and religious groups who have moved from one place to another. And one thing that I might suggest is that you guys were earlier a little bit wary of making some direct comparisons, but perhaps as we de-exceptionalize Jewish history it means that we can learn from it and ways that can help us to understand the broad history of human migration in modern times, and especially today.
SU: I sign off on that. I think it’s maybe not the primary goal of this volume and/or of my life, but I do think it is an important consideration in this volume and also when we’re teaching students: to learn about and think about the history of Jews and Jewish communities, and also to see that sometimes Jews and other communities had actually a lot in common, and not only differences that divide them. I think that might be one of the main achievements or accomplishments with a volume like this one, to take a step out of self-contained conception of Jewish history and community, and to look at what Jews may share with other communities and other histories. I certainly don’t think that there’s anything here to fear or to be anxious about. Comparisons are the bread and butter or academia, the bread and butter of the discipline of history. I think comparisons would only make the case for Jewish history, Jewish communities stronger. The ability to compare would come from a sense of security, a bit of confidence about where Jews are today. I think that’s a little bit what we’re seeing as we enter a new century.
MS: I think many of the analogies and comparisons have been swayed towards one perspective, which is that it helps us recognize harmful patterns of discrimination, certainly in the case of German-Jewish refugees, for refugees in the post-Holocaust era. These tend to, I think, overshadow some of the other possible comparisons that are there to be had, which look at subjective responses to agency. Some of these articles focus on the power of choice, and there are also “choiceless choices” in terms of migration in Jewish history. But I think that that comparison has overshadowed other types of comparisons that are possible.
SU: To jump in on this, the question of agency and choice is something which also comes up in the volume. And it does a wonderful job in the different articles. Whether it’s people writing about the Soviet experience, Suzanne Rutland and Egveny Tartakovsky, or it’s Marcos Silber and Dariusz Stola writing about Jews from Poland, I think when we give Jews this kind of sense of agency and choice it de-emphasizes, inherently, this kind of larger conception of antisemitism as being a driving force of Jewish life in history. It raises questions which often, in turn, kind of paint Jews as eternal victims. By giving them voice and agency and strength, we kind of make an adjustment, as it were, and especially a case for looking to the role the individuals play and, and, and, and kind of de emphasizing a long-term tendency to kind of look at the Jewish history and negative and purely programmatic sense.
JL: You mentioned Salo Baron. This speaks to a broader set of issues: This attempt to try to limit our reliance on the concept of a “lachrymose history” of the Jews. This certainly, I think speaks to this broader trend as well.
SU: I think so. This is also what healthy fields end up doing. They debate these things back and forth. And there’s certainly a healthy debate on this question. I think if this volume kind of nudges and pushes things in the direction away from the lachrymose conception, away from antisemitism as a central driving force within modern Jewish history, and says, well, maybe there are other things that are in play or maybe Jews aren’t always helpless victims. Ironically, of course this is also the bread and butter of the Zionist narrative that Jews take history and their fate into their own hands.
JL: And again, to bring this back to this broader question of how we compare Jewish migration with other migrations, it also raises how we think about why people migrate broadly speaking. Do people move from one place to another because their lives are horrible in that place or for other reasons?
SU: I think it also gets back to whether or not Jewish migrants are migrants like other migrants, or if they’re refugees. Many of these Jewish migrants from migrating before the term of refugee became ensconced in our academic or political discourse, but even here the nomenclature becomes critically important for how we view the Jewish experience.
JL: This is one thing that I did want to talk about it because Gur Alroey in his article brings up some of these issues about how we talk about Jewish migration. Do we call them refugees, do we call them migrants and immigrants, and so on and so forth. I think that especially today, we are constantly reminded within the ongoing debates about migration and immigration and refugees, that the terminology that we use is a really great importance. Do you think that the work that is being done by this particular article or in the journal issue, broadly speaking, has something to contribute to the language debate? You know, about how we talk about refugees and immigrants?
SU: I think what’s fascinating about this piece by Gur Alroey, is that he actually, for the past fifteen years or maybe even more, he has been basically arguing against the Jewish exceptionalism case and arguing that Jewish migration is really much like migration of other people to the States or across the twentieth century. In this article for our volume, he apparently argues with himself which is quite fascinating in finding a particular chapter in Jewish history in and around World War where he believes the Jews of Eastern Europe or with essentially refugees. But I think we see actually here within the course of one person’s career, and of course Gur has been quite prolific and amazingly so, we see that when you get to the resolution of each particular case study sometimes Jews are migrants and sometimes they’re refugees. Sometimes they migrate because of violence, sometimes because of opportunities, and sometimes it’s happenstance and sometimes it’s planned and sometimes it’s ideology and sometimes it’s boredom. And each particular case needs to really be broken down and and understood in the specific historical or particular conditions that point in time and really argue against using one large term for what is essentially an obviously fascinating and multifaceted phenomenon of human movement in the modern era.
MS: I think that this categorization highlights some really important aspects of the debate today, too, in terms of who is an asylum seeker, who is a refugee, who is an illegal, who is a migrant and immigrant. These issues are extremely political as well. And who’s doing the categorization is is quite important.
SU: I think this is incredibly fascinating and one way to kind of take a step back and think about the way these different terms mean different things in different places to different communities is just to look at the response on much of the American Jewish community over the past six months or a year now to Donald Trump’s attempts at immigration reform, which was basically a very vocal and spirited series of protests, and not only from left wing Jewish groups—it reached all the way to the Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer who held a very emotional press conference where many Jewish organizations and leaders are coming out in favor of opening the gates to migration, in favor of accepting migrants as refugees. And at the same time in the past month or two months, in Israel there have been recently calls and movement to expel tens of thousands of guest workers from African nations, to returned them to Africa. You see a different kind of public support for viewing these people as “infiltrators” or as “illegals,” and either tacitly or overly supporting their basically forced expulsion from Israel. So we really see also here in the way that social and political contexts lead to the larger Jewish communities in the world today, America and Israel, to view migration in radically different lenses. I think that that’s actually fascinating. What we do with it, I have no idea, but I find it fascinating.
JL: I think it really points to the stakes of thinking about migration and studying it, because this is not history. Obviously, all the cases that we’re looking at in this particular journal issue are historical cases. But the history of migration is ongoing, and the debates within which all of these cases existed are not over by any means.
MS: I think that’s true. And people are looking for lessons to be drawn, and I think these comparisons and debates are shaped by the past the’yre invoked for a reason.
SU: I don’t feel that people really have political agendas that are driving the research (in this journal issue). And yet, at the same time I felt that many of them were relevant, or many of them made us think or rethink. This gets back to your earlier question, about how will this perhaps encourage people to think about Jews in history and how will this thing encourage Jews to think about their own sense of past and present? One great example in our world today is as Jared Kushner. There was this huge debate or discussion several months ago on his response or lack of response to the immigration reforms proposed by Trump, and his own family history, and again we see a fascinating back-and-forth between past and present.
MS: I think also, in general, migration as a topic raises very real and profound issues about about belonging and identity. It reaches really into a core about belonging and identity that becomes a very powerful debate and an emotional one in many cases.
SU: I think that the volume will help the readers and the contributors and maybe even the editors think about the place of Jews as both participants in topics in these debates about migration today. I think, oftentimes in the States and in Europe, and even in Israel, the question of Jewish migration falls by the wayside. Perhaps this volume, and certainly the work being done by many scholars in the volume—many of them have written books on this topic; Dariusz Stola has written a wonderful book on Jewish migration from Poland; Gur Alroey has written a great book, David Feldman’s book as well—maybe these scholars will help people reinject Jews into this conversation in a positive way and not merely as this kind of the archetype of a victim of the twentieth century, where people who really have a stake in both the past and present discussions about migration and its implications for the world.
JL: Absolutely. I think that when we look at this question of migration, people don’t always think about it too much. I think that there’s a tendency for people to forget their origins. In episode three with Steve Weizmann, we talked about how people are so intensely interested in this question of Jewish origins, but we also find that especially in a political context, sometimes it’s politically useful to forget that you come from a family of immigrants or that this is a country, in the U.S. anyway, of immigrants.
SU: I’m not so sure it’s always so calculated. I think people are just kind of, especially in this day and age of of constant screening where people can’t go anywhere without their faces [Facebook] and their phones, I think the past is dead. I’m not sure it’s a sense of escaping ones roads in a classic east European or post-communist sense of escaping one’s Jewish roots. I think some people are generally not interested in what the past was about. They’re more interested in today or tomorrow. I’m not convinced that’s such a bad thing. But at the same time, there’s a huge number of people who are talking about these issues. And I think this volume shifts or contributes to these discussions about migration policy.
MS: I think in Europe the migration debates are really overshadowed by World War II and by the past. It definitely plays into debates today, and it comes up all the time. I think what people do forget is the ambivalence. When you look at op-eds from the 1920s or ’30s and compare them to those today of the ambivalence and mixture of hostility and sympathy on the part of the public towards migrants. And to forget how migrants contribute or bring a variety of experiences to a country. And in that way, the past does, does play an important part. Certainly Brexit and the debates going on now in the UK and in other parts of Europe. I think we’re very much affected by the recent past, not by perhaps the end of the nineteenth century, but certainly by World War II.
SU: This was a good point. And it’s a fascinating point, that the past is something different in many European countries than it is in parts of America. And the past is something completely different in Israel, as well. And so I think the past, history, historical consciousness play radically different roles in all three of these societies. And so I think you’re absolutely right—maybe you’re both right—in that in America, Trump is a great example of people evading or having some kind of amnesia about their past. Whereas in many European societies, like Hunary and Poland today, and perhaps Israel as an outgrowth to a certain extent, some European societies are deeply concerned if not obsessed with the past and what it means today.
JL: I think it might be useful to think about this a little more. I do think, obviously, that the past is important, and that it is constantly a part of our social discourse wherever we happen to be. When we’re talking about migration, though, what’s really striking, you know, you mentioned Brexit and the question of migration in Europe. Even among the more nationalist side of things, broadly speaking in these Western societies I think that we can talk about the way in which they don’t entirely forget the history of migration. This is true in the U.S. as well. I think that we can talk about a broad narrative of this idea that that particular society is based on a group of migrants, but at a certain point in time that migration “ended.” For instance, if you look at the history of French nationalism, German nationalism, English nationalism, and so on, there’s this notion, fundamentally based on this idea of the migration of peoples—in the German case the Volkerwänderung in the of the early medieval period, with these Germanic tribes from from Eastern Europe and ultimately Central Asia that made their way into the Roman empire and what came after. So, fundamentally, these ideas of the “nation” come from this idea of people migrating from one place to another. But then there’s this belief at a certain point in time that that ended, and that migration should not continue. It was the same thing in the U.S. I think that even the most anti-immigrant people would be hard-pressed to make a claim that America is not a country that was founded by immigrants. But then of course they say, well at a certain point in time that period has ended and now, from their perspective, they believe that we should be in a period where immigration is severely limited. So I think that there is this idea of immigration and migration that everybody depends on in one way or the other. But it’s a question of how people interpret it and understand it.
SU: This is a fascinating point. I never really thought a ton about it, but at what point in time does a certain group or generation or collection of people have the right to claim the right to be speaking for the new nation. We see this as a fascinating comparative phenomenon where at a certain point in time, earlier generations who are the descendants of migrants, in many cases inevitably become some of the people who are opposing migration. We see the same motif in American history, we’ve seen it in the history of other countries as well. I think it actually really, really fascinating, how newcomers become insiders. I think that this volume or this type of migration can remind readers or students that the world is constantly in flux and change and with very, very little or no permanence.
MS: Yeah, but I think also this model of of of the migrant or the categorization of the migrant fleeing from persecution doesn’t allow for what really comes out in these articles, which is that there’s a positive desire to improve one’s situation as a driving force, and that’s underplayed as well.
SU: Right. I think part of the scholarly literature is also, to some extent, responsible. If you look at a lot of literature on Jewish migration to the States or Jewish migration or aliyot to Israel, it’s very often a story about integration and migration and integration, a kind of successful story. And here Jason’s right, that there’s kind of a driving subtext that one wants to belong both in real time and historically or historiographically. One wants to be rewritten into the fabric of the nation. And part of that rewriting or part of that process of being rewritten into the fabric of the nation is an inherent drive for historical amnesia. And here, this gets back to the question that well, everybody wants to belong, I guess. And that drive to belong pushes the migrant and the community into the hands of the host society and serves as a very powerful incentive to claim a sense of belonging even when it doesn’t exist.
JL: I think this is something that we see, especially after migrants make their way into a new society and as they try to make sense of their own history. One of the things that often comes into play, especially as groups to varying degrees find success in the places where they settle is that it leads to—I think as you mentioned in the issue—it leads towards triumphalist or even teleological narratives, where the rise of communities in a particular country or even a particular city are sort of taken for granted. And I think this is one of the really interesting things as well, that the issue’s articles bring up. It uncovered some of the ways in which the history of Jewish migration and immigration, broadly speaking, is pretty contingent and multidirectional.
SU: I think each of the articles really looks at in great detail the different decisions that people made, or the extent to which decisions were determined by political policies or governmental decisions. And in that sense, we problematize these larger ideologies of Jewish migration, whether it’s an American story of America welcoming Jewish immigrants, or an Israeli story of migrants or olim coming to create a new nation. It shows us that in many cases, these decisions were were decisions that individuals made about their own lives, and people were actually autonomous subjects, not pawns of these great ideologies of the nineteenth or twentieth centuries.
MS: I think even the life stories that are included do this as well. Aside from the articles, there’s the primary sources that are part of the journal. The article by Rebecca Kobrin and Coby (Jay) Oppenheim, “The Long Silent Revolution: Capturing the Life Stories of Soviet-Jewish Migrants to the West, 1970–2010,” really brings out attention to those subjective voices and and the multiplicity of experiences as well.
SU: I think they do a great job of giving them a voice, of bringing their voices front and center and going beyond these large generalizations with these examples. I know that Rebecca Kobrin and Coby Oppenheim have this huge project on Russian-Jewish migration of the late Soviet and post-Soviet eras. And they’ve collected hundreds of life stories and autobiographies of Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union. And giving them the chance to speak about their experience really runs counter to some of these larger master narratives about the evil empire, the Soviet Union, and the struggle for Soviet Jewry, the desire to move to Israel or to create a new life, “from slavery to freedom.” And it says: Hold on a second, these are people who have lives and decisions and family members and dreams and disappointments and hopes.
JL: I think you’re pointing to something really interesting and important here. The way in which people very frequently try to fit any kind of historical story, but especially these questions of migration, into any number of a series of master narratives. You mentioned “slavery to freedom.” Well, the mythic Exodus from Egypt is the original master narrative of Jewish migration. And you often see this idea, which is fundamentally teleological—The idea of going from this downtrodden state or this downtrodden place to the land of milk and honey, or to the promised land, the description of America as the “goldene medine” and so on and so forth. All of this fits into this way in which people have framed these histories of migration, whether individually or as a community, in terms of these master narratives, which I think the articles in the issue really try to break down,
MS: I hope with the volume was able to add a fuller understanding of Jewish migration as a series of experiences rather than as an iconic experience.
SU: It hope so as well. And I think a lot of these articles really tease out and highlight the place of the individual and the individual’s agency, and turn them into human beings who make their own decisions about their own lives and are not his hapless pawns of larger ideologies or these victims of eternal hatreds.
JL: Again, this speaks to broader intellectual scholarly trends, the goal of resuscitating the individual, social history, shifting away from ideology towards other forces that are motivating factors in people’s lives.
SU: I think so. It’s fascinating. Many of the contributions in the journal issue were simply responses to an open call for papers. Contributors come from different countries in Europe, from the States, from Canada, from Australia, from Israel, and they’re all kind of still speaking in a similar sense about a new wave of research on migration and modern Jewish history, which I think is moving quickly away from large ideologies and massive structures and looking at it as history from below, about what the average Jane or Joe—or I guess it’s Yaakov or Sarah—felt and experienced and desired at this point in time. It complicates, in many cases, the role of ideologies. And the article by Marcos Silber about Jews returning to Poland in the midst of the Cold War is a fascinating example of how these larger ideologies just didn’t hold.
JL: One thing I would add there, especially when we talk about the history of Zionism and the history of the state of Israel, is that when we recognize that migration is not necessarily ideologically motivated, it undermines the idea of mandate Palestine or of the state of Israel as an ideologically-driven society. Look, for instance, at internal migration. What drives an individual Israeli is to move to a settlement in the West Bank? Are they doing it for ideological reasons? Or are they doing it because life there is heavily subsidized by the government? It really raises, I think, important questions in terms of thinking about how we understand that kind of a society.
MS: I think I would just reiterate that point, that I think a lot of what we talk about when we talk about migration is that drive and that desire to improve one’s situation, and that can be individually interpreted. What does improving the situation look like, that drives the migration and the direction of migrations?
SU: To jump in on this, I think two of the articles in the volume, by Gur Alroey and by Marcos Silber, do a great job of deconstructing these kind of larger myths of Zionist rescue and redemption and their connection to Jewish migration. They’re saying: Hold on a second, are there economic factors or social factors that are deeply personal factors about who you’re married to, what you’re going to do? And they complicate, very much so, these larger questions of time, larger ideological movements or sentiments like Zionism to questions of migration. And of course something that didn’t enter the volume is the question of the migration of Israelis over the past thirty to forty years from Israel to Los Angeles, Miami, and most recently Berlin, which are fascinating examples of subverting everything we thought we knew about the Jewish experience in twentieth century, and forcing us to rethink much of it through the lens of migration.
JL: There’s so much to talk about here, both in terms of how this helps us to understand the various trends and developments in modern Jewish history and also the development of globalization and migration. One thing we haven’t really talked about so much is the idea of diaspora. You mentioned Rebecca Kobrin, in her book on Bialystok for instance, she indicates both the importance of diaspora as a force within Jewish history—a history of a people who are moving from place—to place dispersion as a fundamental character of Jewish history, and also shows how there are multiple levels of dispersion. As people move from place to place, you have an Israeli diaspora, Jews from Israel living in Berlin or Los Angeles or anywhere else. You have Jews from the former Soviet Union who ended up in many of these places, and who often constitute communities in and of themselves. And by looking at the multidirectional nature of the migration, it indicates in a lot of ways the complexity of the developing Jewish life and culture throughout this entire history.
MS: I’m a literary scholar, so I think there’s a good possibility for an accompanying volume about this: Where do those ideas of diaspora and dispersion come out in cultural responses? Because that’s where my mind immediately goes to, is Jewish literature and art, and even music of migration, and the role that diaspora and dispersion plays out aesthetically. And so that’s where a cultural analysis is even a better place to look at that. Maybe in another volume on Jewish migration, of diaspora and dispersion as a theme in the way that’s complicated by cultural responses by Jewish artists and literary figures,
SU: It’s fascinating that in the one hand, all this work and all this great sculptural but desperate is inherently non-Zionist. It’s equalizing the playing field, saying that post-Soviet Jewish communities in Detroit or Los Angeles or small and medium cities in Germany are as valid as Soviet migrants coming to Ashdod or to Tel Aviv or even to some of the parts of the West Bank and Gaza. So in that sense, the volume or discussion about migrations is certainly non-Zionist and pro-Diaspora, with a sense that it’s just a sense of equalizing of Jewish communities worldwide. On the other hand, by the very nature of what we attempted to do here, and what many of the authors have done quite wonderfully here, is kind of to freeze these moments of movement and these periods of transition and not to bind them to larger national narratives. Then migration becomes the bread and butter of dispersion, of diaspora. So it’s both affirming and reaffirming the diaspora and critiquing it.
JL: We’ve been talking a lot about the intervention of these studies in Jewish migration within our understanding of modern Jewish history, and then to some extent also how it relates to broader political debates in the present moment. The question I would like to pose is: Why does the history of Jewish migration matter? For people who want to understand the history of human migration as a whole or the history of migration in modern times and the rise of globalization, in what ways does the history of Jewish migration, broadly speaking and also in terms of what the articles in this issue are really bringing together, what is the contribution here? Let’s say that you were teaching a course about human migration. You would probably include the Jews. Right? But the question is, in what ways does the history of Jewish migration add something unique, or even something typical, that somebody who’s not a Jewish historian would say, “I need to include the history of Jewish migration in this broader history.” For what reason? Why is it that it’s of particular interest beyond our own attempts to understand the history of modern Jewish life in and of itself?
SU: Certainly, the case to be made that discussions about migrants and migration today have something to learn from historical experiences, including the historical experiences of the Jews, whether they be in early twentieth-century America where they’re discussing the resistance and the opposition to Jewish migration, which led to the migration acts of the 1920s. And in that sense, there’s a great deal to learn from the Jewish experience.
MS: I think because Jewish migration has been a trope that has identified Jewish history and Jewish identity, and ideas of the Jewish story is so linked with migration, I think that it’s hard to avoid looking to Jewish migration, to look at some of the trends or perspectives or patterns or structures of migration that can illuminate, perhaps, some of the current political debates about migration. I think there’s a lot to be learned, but I think there’s also something that is to be learned in the multiplicity of those experiences that I think needs to be drawn out as well. And about the multidirectional trends, about the agency, the deexceptionalization Jewish experience, the subjective Jewish experiences that make up Jewish migration are really important to highlight as well.
SU: There was one other thing that I wanted to ask specifically, about the volume. One thing that really struck me, that I thought was really interesting about it, is that it’s not just peer reviewed articles. You also have a couple of primary documents, a couple of primary sources. And I thought that was really great. I was wondering if you could maybe talk about that a little bit. Why did you want it to include primary sources in a special journal issue, and what are you hoping that readers will get out of that in particular?
MS: Part of it is actually the policy of the journal itself (East European Jewish Affairs) to include primary sources. In this case, Rebecca Kobrin and Coby Oppenheim are working on this larger research project which provides such a great source base with more than 100 autobiographies of Jewish migrants from Russia to Germany and the United States from 1970 to 2010. I think that that article, where the authors describe the source and how it was collected, and then include the origin of participants in the places where they ended up and they’re focused on the, on the two autobiographers that the analyze in their essay, really do show how important these personal voices are to a fuller understanding of Jewish migration. I think that those personal stories are an important element, both for historians but also even for other literary and cultural studies scholars and interested readers as well.
JL: I thought it was great. One of the things that I think is a challenge for a lot of people, when it comes to teaching, is the primary sources that are available. When you’re teaching a class on modern Jewish history, if you limit yourself to the canonical “Jew in the Modern World,” for instance—and of course that’s not the only source reader—but if you limit yourself to that particular source reader, you’re limited in terms of the kind of story that you can tell about Jewish history, in as much as it limits the kind of sources that you can assign to students. It’s one thing to make these arguments available through secondary literature, but when there’s also these primary sources, I think that it opens the door also to being able to teach about these subjects in different ways.
MS: And even using that archive, which opens up now how archive material in general can be used to really enhance both teaching and scholarly work
SU: These sources, as we know from working with students and community members, are incredibly helpful. And it’s a wonderful service to the community and it makes a huge effort towards broadening the conversation, which is what we all want. We want this work enough to be inventing. We want to be relevant.