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The Jews of Arab Lands in Modern Times.

This is the companion volume to Professor Stillman's The Jews of Arab Lands: A History and Source Book (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1979). Where the former volume dealt with the history of Arab Jewish communities from the emergence of Islam to the nineteenth century, this one focuses on their development and eventual disappearance in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Like its predecessor, it combines a concise narrative history with a wide-ranging collection of documents concerning the social, communal, and particularly the political conditions of Arab Jewry in the modern era. An assemblage of photographs taken from both published and unpublished sources provides a rich visual complement to the text.

A chronologically organized narrative comprises the first third of the work. There is now a large body of monographic material dealing with the specific histories of the various Arab Jewish communities, as well as with the social and political trends which affected all or most of them in the modern period. Professor Stillman skillfully synthesizes this historical scholarship, supplementing it with original research in the voluminous memoir literature relevant to the subject as well as in the archives of Western governments, Jewish communal organizations, and the Zionist movement. The result is a solidly based, clearly structured, and generally judicious synthesis of a large body of material.

The interpretation offered is, by and large, a familiar one. The first two chapters of the historical narrative focus primarily on the communal, educational, and social development of Arab Jewry in the nineteenth century (to 1914), emphasizing their gradual Westernization and their concomitant alienation from the less-Westernized Muslim Arab populations among whom they lived. The conclusion in chapter two simultaneously summarizes the growing divergence between Muslim and non-Muslim Arabs wrought by the processes of "modernization" in the nineteenth century, and provides the leitmotif informing subsequent chapters: "The forces of modernization had the effect of widening the gap that already existed in Islamic society between believer and unbeliever".

It is the political consequences of this "polarity" between the Muslim Arab majority and Jewish Arab minorities in the post-World War I era of nationalism which is the main subject of the remaining five chapters of the historical narrative. Now largely ignoring the internal evolution of Arab Jewry, the narrative concentrates on the political relations of Arab Jews with the worlds around them--the increasingly nationalist, anti-Western, and correspondingly anti-minority milieu of the Arab countries in which they lived, and the impact of Zionism and the Palestine issue on both Arab nationalism and Arab Jewry--from World War I to the disappearance of most Arab Jewish communities in the 1950s and 1960s. The work's conclusion about the fate of the ancient Jewish communities of the Arab world flows logically from its earlier emphasis on the divisive effects of modernization/Westernization on Muslim-Jewish relations: "There never really was a place for them" in the new nationalist Arab world which took shape in the early twentieth century.

The history of the several Arab Jewish communities in the modern era is a large subject. What is offered here is clearly an overview of the social development of those communities up to 1914, and their political circumstances after that date. Readers interested in the communal and economic history of Arab Jewry will still need to consult the several regional or country studies upon which the book is in part based. It also gives relatively little attention to the complex subject of the changing intellectual orientations of Arab Jews as they experienced the conflicting pressures of social modernization and rising nationalism (although several of the personal statements provided in the documents provide valuable material about the issues of individual orientation and collective identity).

The work's account of the political fortunes of Arab Jewry in the twentieth century is more thorough. The one problematic area is Syria, where the documentation available seems to be thinner than that available for other regions and where the material which is presented is ambiguous. The overall conclusion that Syrian Jewry was "simply cowed" (p. 98; "cowed" used again on p. 108) into support for Arab nationalism from the 1920s onward appears to be based on external observers' reports which are at variance with other contemporaneous documents originating from within the Syrian Jewish community indicating a degree of Jewish contact and identification with the Syrian Arab nationalist movement in the 1920s. Why the former is accepted while the latter are dismissed is not made clear.

The remaining two-thirds of the volume is comprised of over 150 selections from historical documents relating to the history of Arab Jewry in the modern era. The range of documents offered is extremely wide (excerpts from published travelers' and autobiographical accounts in several languages; governmental reports; in greatest number letters, reports, and other documents drawn from the archives of the Alliance Israelite Universelle and the Central Zionist Archives). The arrangement of documents parallels the account found in the historical narrative; a smaller number concerning mainly communal and social developments in the nineteenth century, then a larger body of primarily political materials for the twentieth century.

On the whole, the documents support and expand upon the evaluation of Arab Jewish history found in the historical narrative. Those dealing with nineteenth-century modernization illustrate the increasing Westernization of Arab Jewry; those pertaining to the post-World War I period flesh out, in considerably more detail, the relations of Arab Jews with the political movements of the Arab world as well as with the Zionist movement toward which many Arab Jews in time gravitated. In places the documents allow the reader to see glimpses of aspects of Jewish life not dealt with in detail in the historical narrative. Most fascinating in this respect are those excerpts from contemporary press articles and later autobiographical accounts which give an insight into the evolving and sometimes ambivalent feelings of educated Arab Jews about their simultaneous Jewish and Arab identity as they underwent the personal and social transformations involved in "modernization." Perhaps the subject of yet a third volume in a most valuable series?
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Author:Jankowski, James
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1992
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