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Between Migrants and Colonisers: Rethinking Jewish European Migration to the Eastern Mediterranean
This paper seeks to re-examine and problematise the distinction between migrants and colonial settlers, by looking at Ashkenazi Jews in Palestine, Egypt and Lebanon in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The study of Jewish Ashkenazi (Central and Eastern European) migration to the Levant focuses entirely on Palestine, and typically takes 1882 as a watershed that separates religiously motivated migration and Zionist, nationally motivated settler migration. This paper re-examines this conceptualisation by paying attention to Ashkenazi integration and acculturation in the Arab/Ottoman levant, and by expanding the geographical frame to look more broadly at the region including Egypt and Lebanon. Studying Ashkenazim in Beirut, Alexandria and Cairo inevitably leads us to question the temporal, racial and spatial terms through which this migration had been understood. I argue that while Jewish migration in the second half of the 19th century had national and settler-colonial dimensions, there is also compelling evidence for integration (in cultural, social, economic, and political terms), which suggests that most Ashkenazim sought ways to find their place within the existing political and social order, rather than try to replace and undo that order as part of colonial intervention. However, most Ashkenazi migrants also retained their European citizenships and enjoyed consular protection, which set them apart from the local population, and, towards the first world war, cast them in the role of potentially disloyal elements, and tools of European colonial intervention. Furthermore, from the 1860s, Ashkenazi Jews expressed interest in colonisation projects in Palestine (and, to a much lesser extent, in other parts of the region: Jewish colonies were established in Cyprus and Anatolia). From the 1880s onwards, colonisation in Palestine acquired a Jewish national dimension. My argument is that rather than a neat divide between migrants seeking integration, and colonisers who operated under the European imperial umbrella, there was a spectrum of positionalities, which shifted according to the economic and political context. Thus, an ardent Zionist who came to Palestine to be a colonist ended up as an owner of a guest house in Beirut (a migrant in functional terms); while some Orthodox Jews whose families immigrated to Palestine well before Zionism, and were semi-acculturated in the local Arab environment, became colonists and internalised a discourse and praxis of confrontation with the neighbouring Arab villagers.
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