An interesting article in the NYT about American Jewish students taking Arabic and studying in the Middle East. The article speaks to both enchantment and disenchantment, idealism and realism as they play out in relation to daily life and politics. For our own interests here at JPP, the article speaks to the place of Jews and Jewish culture in the Middle East, to both broad and capacious cosmopolitanism and narrow horizons, to cultural boundaries and to the crossing of boundaries.
The author of the NYT article pays special attention to those students, committed to Jewish culture, who have turned to the Middle East and to Middle Eastern Studies not in spite of those liberal Jewish cultural and/or liberal religious commitments but because of them. Unasked is the question as to whether or not this phenomenon contributes another chapter in the history of Orientalism, this one on the unique character of Jewish Orientalism, a variant of Orientalism going back to Central Europe in the early 20th and 19th centuries, a chapter left unexplored by Edward Said? Or might one want to relate it ti a kind of neo-Levantism, like the one promoted by Ammiel Alcalay, about which and whom I’ve posted earlier?
From a Jewish philosophical perspective, I find interesting how in the article is how amorphously articulated theological and philosophical concepts familiar to Jewish thought and culture, concepts like “the stranger” and “tikkun olam” play out. Not just in the self-understanding of the students, but how these concepts also appear in the pages of mainstream U.S. journalism; and most importantly, how they bang up and modulate against and vis-à-vis the quotidian and sometimes hard realities of daily life and local prejudice in the modern Middle East.
Maybe too the participation of Jewish students and faculty in Arabic language study and in Middle East Studies contributes to a little “normalizationm,” to the normalization of our understanding of Middle Eastern cultures, and to the normalization to the uncomfortable place, conceptual and material, of Jewish culture in the modern Middle East. Part of what normalization might include the ability to look beyond Israel and Palestine, not in order to sweep the conflict, but rather to come back it and to view it with fresh perspectives.
I use the word “normalization” intentionally and uncautiously. Left unexamined in the NYT article are what I’m sure are the mix of academic politics and identity politics that are specific to Middle East Studies and its academic bodies such as MESA in the United States. About this Aaron Hughes has a new’ish book, much of which is very critical, about Middle East Studies politics re: the creation and policing of those cultural boundaries, and the kinds of statements that are possible and not within that discursive environment. But that said, “normalization” might then be an interesting keyterm, with which to describe this phenomenon, assuming that there is this widespread and growing interest among American Jewish students in Middle Eastern Studies.
One way or the other, it’s hard for me to say from outside the academic field represented by MESA and other scholarly organizations. But as a Jewish Studies scholar who works in a department of Religion, it would seem to me that academic Jewish Studies might want to play its own corner of this field, which it can do by expanding the study of Middle Eastern Jewish Studies, or Arab Jewish Studies.