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Author Q&A: Martin Jacobs, Reorienting the East

Reorienting the EastNext in our series of Fall 2014 Author Q&As is Martin Jacobs, whose book, Reorienting the East: Jewish Travelers to the Medieval Muslim World, explores the Islamic world as it was encountered, envisioned, and elaborated by Jewish travelers from the Middle Ages to the early modern period. The first comprehensive investigation of Jewish travel writing from this era, this study engages with questions raised by postcolonial studies and contributes to the debate over the nature and history of Orientalism as defined by Edward Said.

(Previous Q&As: Cathy Lisa Schneider, Police Power and Race Riots; Jennifer Curtis, Human Rights as War by Other Means; Matt Cohen and Edlie Wong, The Killers: A Narrative of Real Life in Philadelphia; Jacqueline Bhabha, Human Rights and Adolescence; Rebecca Cook, Abortion Law in Transnational Perspective: Cases and Controversies; Megan Threlkeld, Pan American Women: U.S. Internationalists and Revolutionary Mexico; William Paul Simmons, Binational Human Rights: The U.S.–Mexico Experience

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Penn Press: Why is it that most extant accounts of East–West travel, specifically in Hebrew, involve trips from West to East and not the other way around?

Martin Jacobs: As a literary genre, the Hebrew travel account emerged in the wake of the Crusades when European Jews, much like European Christians, took advantage of the increased traffic between the Western and the Eastern Mediterranean. From the time period discussed in the book (mid-twelfth to early sixteenth centuries), by contrast, there are comparatively few extant travel writings that were written by Jews from the Islamic cultural orbit, whose language of choice was Judeo-Arabic rather than Hebrew. 

To what extent did the variable legal standing of Jewish subjects of Mediterranean states influence the perspectives they adopted as travelers?

In neither Christian nor Muslim-ruled societies were Jews equal citizens prior to the nineteenth century. However, their social and vocational integration varied greatly and these differences indeed impacted the perspectives the travelers adopted toward the countries they visited. European Jews, during medieval and early modern times, were excluded from guilds and numerous professions, while their Near Eastern brethren experienced a greater degree of vocational integration. Some Jewish travelers from fifteenth-century Italy marveled at (and perhaps exaggerated) the business opportunities awaiting an enterprising Jew in the Levant.

What was the distribution of the world Jewish population in this time period? Did more Jews live in Christian or Muslim lands?

Since the book covers a time period of about 400 years (ca. 1150–1520) there is no simple answer to this question. During the earlier part, the vast majority of Jews lived in Muslim-dominated societies and Iraq probably hosted the highest percentage of world Jewry. This is reflected by the travelers from the crusader period, such as the Iberian globetrotter Benjamin of Tudela (twelfth century), who offers rather low population estimates for Jewish communities in Christian Europe but much higher ones for the Middle East—though the numbers he gives cannot be verified and sometimes seem spurious. As a result of migrations and wars, such as the twelfth-century invasion of southern Spain by the Almohads (a puritanical movement from North Africa), the Jewish population in Christian lands increased to some extent. However, it was only in the nineteenth century that European (Ashkenazi) Jews clearly outnumbered those in the Middle East and North Africa, as European population growth accelerated in general.

Are there any substantive connections to be made between narratives of this time period and narratives of the modern Zionist project or the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

The book is not meant as a political commentary. Still, no scholarship happens within a vacuum. Until recently, most scholars were interested in the travel writings discussed in the book for the evidence they provide for a continued Jewish attachment to and settlement in the land of Israel (many of the documents are accounts of a Jerusalem pilgrimage). However, little attention has been paid to the way the travelers depict Jewish–Muslim and Jewish–Christian relations, respectively. What may be most surprising to the modern reader is the fact that many of the travelers fiercely polemicized against a Christian presence in the holy land. The crusader occupation of Jewish holy places, such as Jerusalem’s Temple Mount (Ḥaram al-Sharīf), elicits far more criticism in the accounts than their (earlier and later) control by Muslims. In fact, there are numerous descriptions of Jewish–Muslim sociability at Jewish holy tombs, specifically those of biblical prophets in Iraq.   

How self-aware were Jewish narratives of being caught up in a larger power dynamic between Christianity and Islam? What attempts were made to relate to any kind of greater historicity than the contemporary geopolitics?

To different extents, the travel writings reflect the challenges of crossing borders between Christian and Muslim-held regions. The travelers from the crusader period, in particular, employ the Muslim world as a foil of Christendom—as its desirable counterpart. However, it is only with fifteenth-century Jewish travelers from Italy that we find detailed references to specific military events involving Christian and Muslim forces, such as the Ottoman siege of Rhodes (1480), in the aftermath of which some of my travelers visited the Mediterranean island. At the same time, Muslims are labeled Ishmaelites and Christians Edomites in the accounts, based on biblical typologies. Thereby, the travel writers express a worldview according to which all human history follows patterns already outlined in the Hebrew Bible.

How much Jewish travel took place in the service of trade as opposed to other types of travel—religious pilgrimage, diplomacy, etc.?

Arguably, most of the factual travel took place for the purpose of trade. That said, in the travel writings analyzed in the book, pilgrimage is the predominant theme and trade seems to be a subordinate motive. (In the accounts, there is no mention of Jews traveling in the service of diplomacy). This reflects the fact that during the Middle Ages the pilgrimage account was the most common and widely accepted form of travel writing, while more personal narratives emerged only in the late fifteenth century, under the influence of Italian Humanism.

How did the notion of exile (galut) change as Jews traversed the Mediterranean, even returning to the holy land?

On their way from the Western to the Eastern Mediterranean, Jewish travelers passed through and then depicted numerous Jewish diasporas. In fact, some of the accounts, such as Benjamin of Tudela’s, represent the then-known world as a continuous Jewish diaspora. Given that Palestine was under either Christian or Muslim rule, they also depict the local Jewish community as in a state of galut. In some of the accounts—Benjamin of Tudela’s once more comes to mind—Iraq seems to emerge as an alternative Jewish holy land, for there were numerous Jewish holy places to visit and the local Jewish community was headed by an alleged descendant of King David: the exilarch or rosh ha-golah (Head of the Diaspora). By contrast, some of the Jewish immigrants to Palestine, e.g. the fifteenth-century Italian rabbi Obadiah of Bertinoro, attempted a cultural reorientation and declared Zion their home as opposed to their country of origin. 

How does the eastern origin of much of Jewish tradition (i.e. in Babylonia and Persia) come to be reconciled with Western-ness by Jews who identify more strongly as European?

In the sources under discussion, there is little awareness of an East–West divide in the sense of the modern Orient–Occident dichotomy. In fact, many of the travelers seem to subvert or ‘reorient’—as stated in the book title—a Western-cum-Christian vision of the holy land, which they reappropriate for the sake of their Jewish readership. It is only among the later travelers discussed in the book—fifteenth-century Italian Jews, in particular—that we find a greater identification with the norms, values, and worldviews of the European home culture, to include certain negative (proto-Orientalist) attitudes toward Islam and Near Eastern ways of life. But even these quattrocento Jewish travelers claim as their own the legacy of classical rabbinic Judaism. In fact, the travel accounts echo the various ways in which premodern Jews negotiated their mingled identities, which were neither exclusively Western nor entirely Eastern.

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Martin Jacobs is Associate Professor of Rabbinic Studies in the Department of Jewish, Islamic, and Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at Washington University in St. Louis. Reorienting the East is available now.