The Arab Ashkenazi: The Forgotten History of Jewish Eastern European Integration in the Levant
A seminar with Dr. Yair Wallach in cooperation with the Critical Historiography research group at IAKH.
Around 100,000 Ashkenazi Jews migrated from Central and Eastern Europe to the Levant - from the early 19th century to 1914. The large majority of these migrants settled in Palestine, with smaller numbers in Egypt, Lebanon and elsewhere. This migration is typically understood as ideologically driven by Zionist or proto-Zionist sentiments, and the relationship between the migrants and their Arab environment is seen as essentially antagonistic, framed through dichotomies of Europe and the Orient.
Wallach's research challenges this assumption, revealing the myriad paths of Ashkenazi integration and acculturation in the Levant: learning Arabic, adopting local dress and music, building neighbourly relations, commercial and political alliances. Belly dancers, soldiers, communist comrades, students, business partners, doctors, lovers and partners in crime: Ashkenazi-Arab relations were manifold and meaningful. But this integration was insufficient to withstand the political forces of the 20th century. The advent of Zionism and Arab resistance to it inevitably and retrospectively positioned local Ashkenazi Jews as European settlers against local Arabs. Ashkenazi “Arabisation” was undone and was erased from cultural memory and historiography. Challenging this reductive reading, Wallach places Ashkenazi migration to the Middle East within the larger story of migration into the Middle East, to explore the different paths of Ashkenazi integration, and the divergent political horizons it facilitated beyond separatism and settler colonialism.
Yair Wallach is a senior lecturer in Israeli Studies at SOAS, the University of London, where he is also the head of the SOAS Centre for Jewish Studies. He has written on urban and material culture in modern Palestine/Israel. His book, A City in Fragments: Urban Texts in Modern Jerusalem (Stanford 2020) dealt with the street texts of late Ottoman and British Mandate Jerusalem. He has also written for the Guardian, Haaretz, 972+, Newsweek and other publications.