Members of the University’s Frankel Institute for Advanced Judaic Studies gathered in Rackham Graduate School Monday evening to talk about Jews, Arabs and colonialism.
The second annual Wieseneck Family Israel Symposium focused on the Jewish experience as part of a broader international context.
Institute fellows and visiting professors presented papers on topics such as food, film and literature. Common among these discussions was a focus on European influence in defining cultural identities among Jewish, Muslim and Christian communities in the Middle East.
The Frankel Institute for Advanced Judaic Studies is a University research unit that provides one-year grants for scholars to conduct research across a range of topics and disciplines. Each year, research conducted by the fellows centers on a specific theme. Fellows are required to give a lecture over the course of the year to help make research more available to the public.
The theme for the 2014-2015 fellowship was “Jews and Empires,” which looked to highlight the role of imperial powers in Jewish history — from the exodus from Egypt to the Holocaust and establishment of Israel.
Judaic Studies Prof. Mikhail Krutikov said this theme drew attention to a common misunderstanding that colonialism embodies a dichotomy — groups can be defined as either the colonizers or the colonized. At various points in history, he said, Jews have fallen into either one of these two groups. At other times, neither can accurately define them.
The event also promoted discussion across boundaries and time periods. Institute Director Deborah Dash Moore said a mission of the institute is to encourage fellows to discuss issues outside their primary area of study, which allows parallel narratives to be drawn across time and geography in cultural studies.
Examples of this multidisciplinary research were visible throughout the symposium.
Eitan Bar-Yosef, a fellow at the Frankel Institute, delivered a presentation highlighting the cultural evocation of elements from Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” in Israeli culture. The novel, originally published in 1899, tells the story of European ivory traders traveling up the Congo River into the jungles of Central Africa.
“Although ‘Heart of Darkness’ never became a truly popular text, the myth that stands at the heart of Conrad’s novella — namely the journey into the heart of Africa as an allegorical tale of human degeneration, greed, violence and madness — has certainly colored the Israeli experience in Africa,” Bar-Yosef said.
Deborah Starr, associate professor of modern Arabic and Hebrew literature and film at Cornell University, examined the movies of Egyptian filmmaker Togo Mizrahi, whose Jewish heritage played both implicit and explicit roles in his narratives, which were filmed mostly during the 1930s and 1940s. Starr’s analysis focused on two of Mizrahi’s films, “On a Rainy Night” (1939) and “The Straight Path” (1943), and the interplay between Egyptian and Jewish representations in both.
“Togo Mizrahi’s films … explore the ambivalences of Egyptian-Jewish identity within and through colonial institutions,” Starr wrote in her research paper. “Although these films lack explicitly Jewish content, I aim to tease out how they reflect distinctly Jewish anxieties of belonging in Egypt under the British sphere of influence.”
In discussing the research, Bar-Yosef — following similar sentiments expressed by several members of the audience — pointed to the complexity of the impact of colonialism on Jewish and Arab communities.
“Zionism, the Zionist project and its relationship to colonialism, are complex,” Bar-Yosef said. “Just to see one of these angles would be to miss the larger picture … That’s what we’re trying to do here, point to complexity of these different images.”
Krutikov said the University is one of only three in the world with a program in advanced Judaic Studies — similar programs exist at the University of Pennsylvania and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Currently, the University also offers an undergraduate major and minor in Judaic Studies. Krutikov said the minor is a great opportunity for students who may not get a similar opportunity after graduation.