Discover more from WOID
Puppies! Part 2
The road to Israel is paved with good intentions. Take Rebecca Solomon’s painting, The Young Teacher, recently acquired by Britain’s Tate Gallery. The picture was painted in 1861, eighty-seven years before the foundation of Israel as a state; yet the concepts and assumptions behind the painting’s theme foreshadow the conundrum that is Israel today.
As mentioned earlier, the painting shows two figures in a mirror image of one another: a dark-skinned woman in an orientalist cap and fichu, and a young, blonde girl who, we infer, is teaching the older woman to read. The theme of Jews teaching other Jews is a commonplace of Jewish lore and daily practice. In Talmudic teachings it falls under the heading of Tzedakah, “Justice,” referring to the moral obligation on Jews to help one another.
The context behind this painting is the mission of the Alliance Israélite Universelle, founded in Paris in May of 1860 with the primary purpose of “work[ing] everywhere for the emancipation and moral progress of the Jews.” The project was widely discussed in the Jewish press throughout Western Europe and the artist, who was deeply involved in the politics of Jewish integration, was surely aware of it as she worked on her painting. By the time The Young Teacher was completed the Alliance had established itself as an international presence with a flourishing branch in England.
Years later, looking back, one English member of the Alliance apologized that in earlier days
“We English Jews did not sufficiently identify ourselves with the mass of our brethren in imperfectly civilized countries…”
Solomon’s painting sets out to rectify that lack of empathy without altering the suggestion that a country like England—as symbolized by the little blonde girl—was “perfectly civilized” while others—symbolized by the Black woman in orientalist costume—were not. Like Solomon’s painting the Alliance focused on the education, moral and otherwise, of Mizrahi (“Oriental”) Jews in North Africa and the Middle East. The first Alliance school was founded in Tetuan, Morocco in 1862, followed by another in Tangiers and a third in Baghdad. An agricultural school was founded in Palestine in 1870, the first of its kind, and peopled with colonial transplants from Eastern Europe.
Scholars of late have coined the term Ashkenormativity to define the assumption that the values and practices of Eastern Central and Northern European Jews are the appropriate model for all of Jewish life and culture. Perhaps we need a new term, Euronorming, which would define the frustrating dilemma of European Jews in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, what Steven Beller calls the heads-they-win tails-we-lose bargain with modernisation: to be members in full standing of the European community of nation states meant giving up everything that defined you as a Jew.The French State, with its own claim to a particularly French universalism, offered an extreme, if fraught, solution:
“Despite its title and the fact that the great majority of its members were not nationals of France, the Alliance Israélite Universelle was never in any useful, operative sense universal. It was from France.”
The Alliance took up wholesale the concept of the “mission civilisatrice,” the call to spread the culture of the French Enlightenment throughout the uncivilized world. Their mission after all was not to make their “uncivilized” brethren into civilized Jews in the Ashkenazi mode, nor members of a regenerated nation in the Zionist sense, but to make their “uncivilized” Mizrahi brethren members in good standing of that “civilized” European nation that was France. This may well have been the first instance in Modern times of a colonialist project claiming to operate under the principles of Judaism; in truth it was just another colonialist project that happened to be directed at colonizing the minds of non-European Jews.And, like all colonialist projects, it exacerbated the conflicts within the colonizing countries themselves, and among the colonized. For one thing the Alliance and its offshoots in England and elsewhere were so dependent on the goodwill and support of their respective home countries that they tended to overlook the anti-Semitism in their own backyards. For another:
In 1870 Adolphe Crémieux, President of the AIU and at the time a minister in the Provisional French Government, issued the ruling known as the décret Crémieux: Indigenous Jews of Algeria were made citizens of France, Indigenous Muslims were not. A majority of Algerians were denied French citizenship in their own land, which had been claimed as French since 1848. In effect the French State presided over a “Herrenvolk democracy,” a government “democratic for the master race but tyrannical for the subordinate groups”Now, with the décret Crémieux, the Jews of Algeria were given the opportunity join the dominant group—not so much to become Ashkenazi as to become French, or rather “conditionally White.”
On May 30, 1968 at the height of the Uprising, I was standing at the end of Boulevard Saint-Germain, where it leads toward the Place de la Concorde. Suddenly a Citroën drove by, crammed with government supporters from a demonstration on the Champs-Élysées shouting “Algérie fran-çaise!” and waving French and Israeli flags. It was an interesting turn: the Pied-noir Mizrahi from Algeria were reclaiming their Frenchness (their Whiteness) at the same time it was being withdrawn from Ashkenazi Jews like myself and Daniel Cohn-Bendit.
And Rebecca Solomon? Her beloved brother Simeon was the family star, admired for his painting, his aesthetic lifestyle, and his White Jewish looks, “handsome in a way that was Jewish and and yet with its well-cut profile almost classical.”Simeon might have been the model for the little white girl in Rebecca’s painting. Within a few years he had been cast out as gay by his gay aesthetic friends. He ended up the model of the Bad Jew, a skid-row bum and sexual predator. Heads they win, tails you lose.
Quoted in Zosa Szajkowski, “Conflicts in the Alliance Israélite Universelle and the Founding of the Anglo-Jewish Association, the Vienna Allianz and the Hilfsverein,” Jewish Social Studies Vol. 19, No. 1/2 (Jan. - Apr., 1957), note 4, p. 39.
Steven Beller, Antisemitism. A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 33; see also Karl Marx, „Zur Judenfrage“, Karl Marx. Friedrich Engels. Werke, Band I (Berlin: Dietz Verlag, 1981), pp. 347-377.
David Vital, A People Apart. The Jews in Europe 1789–1939 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 477, 479.
For a possible forerunner See Jonathan I. Israel, Revolutionary Jews from Spinoza to Marx. The Fight for a Secular World of Universal and Equal Rights (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 202), p. 277.
Gabriella Kamran, “Off-White: Al-Khazraji and Shaare Tefila's Potential to De-Essentialize Antidiscrimination Law,” Florida A & M University Law Review, Vol. 17, No. 1, Article 12 (Fall 2022), p. 139.
Pierre Van den Berghe, Race and Racism. A Comparative Perspective (New York: Wiley, 1978) p. 29.
William Gaunt, The Aesthetic Adventure (London: J. Cape, 1945), p. 45.