Orientalism and the Hebrew Imagination
by Yaron Peleg
Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005. 153 pp. $35.
Reviewed by Tzvi Kahn
Middle East Quarterly
As the specter of Edward Said's Orientalism persists in casting a defining imprint on Middle East studies, Peleg argues that Said's conception of Orientalism, the study by Westerners of the East, does not apply to European Jews, whose own view of the East was sui generis. Surveying various Zionist texts published during the last fin-de-siècle and then the early twentieth century, Peleg demonstrates that many Zionist authors viewed the Orient not as a force to be colonized and extinguished but as an attractive cultural emblem that reflected and inspired their own nationalistic yearnings. "Rather than fantasize a nonexistent East," writes Peleg, "many Zionist pioneers looked up to the local Palestinian-Arabs and mimicked the Arab way of life in the hope of reinventing themselves and creating a new Jewish culture inspired by their image." In this respect, the thesis that early Zionism constituted a Western colonial force that subdued the relatively weaker East lacks weight because the Zionists viewed themselves as an intrinsic part of the very Orient they were supposedly overcoming.
Peleg substantiates his argument by providing detailed exegeses of three Zionist texts that explore the Jewish relationship with the East in general and Palestine's indigenous Arabs in particular: David Frishman's Bamidbar (In the Wilderness), Moshe Smilansky's The Sons of Arabia, and A.L. Arielli (Orloff)'s Allah Karim! (Allah the Noble). In Frishman's writings, for instance, Peleg perceptively notes that the Hebrew Bible assumes the status of an Orientalist text, constituting the impetus for a "Jewish East" that spurs the Zionists' passion to rebuild their homeland. The Zionists sought not to conquer but to merge through the prism of the Bible with the Orient. Frishman's synthesis of Judaism and the Levant, Peleg argues, rends asunder the easy dichotomies of East versus West typically applied by Orientalist scholars to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Perhaps the book's most notable contribution lies in its forceful refutation of post-Zionist theories that advocate the abolition of Zionism due to its allegedly imperial and colonial underpinnings, which stem from its putatively "Western" orientation. By establishing that the tension between "East" and "West" in early Hebrew culture contradicts the "simplistic and strident categorizations" advanced by post-Zionist critics, Peleg reframes the debate on Orientalism and Zionism in refreshing new directions, demanding a new look at traditional conceptions of Orientalism in general and its specific application to Zionism and diaspora Jewry.
 Tel Aviv: Dvir Publishing, 1990.
 Moshe Smilansky, Kitve Moshe Smilansky (Tel Aviv: Hitahdut Ha'ikarim Be'eretz Yisrael, 1935).
 See A.L. Arielli, Kitve lamed alef arielli, Milton Arfa, ed. (New York and Tel Aviv: Keren Israel Matz Ltd. and Dvir, 1999).
Related Topics: Jews and Judaism, Middle East studies | Fall 2006 MEQ
receive the latest by email: subscribe to the free mef mailing list
This text may be reposted or forwarded so long as it is presented as an integral whole with complete and accurate information provided about its author, date, place of publication, and original URL.