Introduction: The Cultural and Historical Stabilities and Instabilities of Jewish Orientalism

By Omer-Sherman, Ranen | Shofar, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

Introduction: The Cultural and Historical Stabilities and Instabilities of Jewish Orientalism


Omer-Sherman, Ranen, Shofar


My objective in soliciting the essays for this special issue of Shofar was to increase the awareness among scholars of a wellspring of neglected affinities between the discursive field that the late Edward Said (1935-2003) identified as "Orientalism" and what has been occurring with some urgency of late in the held of Jewish Studies. Only recently have scholars begun to probe the contours of what holds immense promise as one of the greatest potential lines of inquiry for the future of a vigorous and self-interrogating Jewish Studies.1 I heartily concur with Ivan Kalmar and Derek Penslar's insistence that "orientalism has always been not only about the Muslims but also about the Jews . . . the Western image of the Muslim Orient has been formed, and continues to be formed in inextricable conjunction with Western perceptions of the Jewish people."2 Indeed, the key tropes of Orientalism evolved as crucial motifs embedded within Jewish self-fashioning much as they did within the discourses of host cultures with significant populations of Jewish Others. This issue of Shofar illuminates some of those crucial interstices, particularly in the realm of literary research but in other spheres of representation too, and hopefully will inspire still further investigations.

As a skeptical but engaged reader of Said (who is widely credited with pioneering the field of contemporary postcolonial studies and much more that has both invigorated and troubled academia in the last few decades), I have long been provoked by a glaring blind spot in his Orientalism3 insofar as his critique of the Orient's "imaginative geography" does not fully account for either representations or the positions of Jews in Occidental culture. My sense of necessity in soliciting innovative work from scholars able to demonstrate the function and dynamic effect of Orientalism in Jewish cultural, social, and political life has been influenced in part by a new generation of Israeli critics such as Judd Ne'eman who have begun to argue for the need to perceive that "one of the roots of Zionism, and thus of Israeli cinema, that has not been appropriately recognized was a hidden identification of the European Jew with Arab Islamic peoples. As early as 1912, Martin Buber wrote that 'while adopting the customs and the languages of their hosting peoples, [European Jews) have nevertheless considered themselves historically the children, and sometimes even natives, of the Near Eastern Orient.' The sensibility of the Orient that the Jews always preserved in their hearts has become the deepest foundation of Jewish self-consciousness."4 As Ne'eman suggests, there is a striking contrast between Buber's observation about the Jewish "sensibility of the Orient," his claim that it is "the deepest foundation of Jewish self-consciousness"-and Said's perception that Europeans consistently assume "a position of irreducible opposition to a region of the world it considered alien to its own . . . failing to see it as a human experience."5 By largely omitting important German and Russian scholarship, Said, whatever his motives, conveniently excluded a great deal that might have significantly complicated his thesis, namely that, from the eighteenth century on, the "West" (though he analyzes only the works of English, French, and American scholars) produced distorted or static descriptions of Arabs and Islamic culture in order to shore up its own false image and political or military ambitions. One of the prominent examples I have in mind is the intellectually charged cosmopolitan environment of Weimar-era Berlin.

In his recent study of the strange life of Lev Nussimbaum/Essad Bey, Tom Reiss calls this vital cultural milieu a virtual "hotbed of Jewish Orientalists" who justified their vocations as interpreters and translators of the mysterious "East" by regarding themselves as the West's resident Orientals.6 There were even Zionists in that unique time and place who envisioned the historical Muslim "Orient," extending from Andalusia to the Middle East, as a realm that had somehow eluded the ethnic and sectarian demarcations that had brutalized modernity. …

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