Orientalism between Empires: Abraham Shalom Yahuda at the Intersection of Sepharad, Zionism, and Imperialism

Michal Rose Friedman. Jewish Quarterly Review. Volume 109, Issue 3. Summer 2019.

In a glowing letter of recommendation for his former student, Theodor Nöldeke, the leading expert in Islamic studies of his time, described Abraham Shalom Yahuda (1877-1951) in the following manner: “A very capable pupil of mine. Dr. A.S. Yahuda, born in June 1878 at Jerusalem of a distinguished and well to do Baghdad family, came to Frankfurt when a young man and in a little more than 2 years not only completely mastered our language, which had hitherto been entirely unknown to him, but became an Occidental with a good scientific education.” This description of Yahuda as an “Oriental turned Occidental” foreshadows how Yahuda’s public identity would become widely perceived and how it influenced the self-fashioning of his public and academic persona.

Taking the paradigm of a bridging of “Orient” and “Occident” as a point of departure, this essay will illustrate some of the ways in which Yahuda mediated this perceived divide, as he stood at the intersection of multiple and at times conflicting scholarly and ideological movements, including Wissenschaft des Judentums, Sephardism, Zionism, and imperial affinities. Through discussion of his interactions with Jewish and Spanish scholars, leaders of the Zionist movement, and British colonial officials, I demonstrate how Yahuda profitably engaged in these relations, as he merged his sensibilities from the world of powerful Sephardi oligarchs in Jerusalem and what has been rendered the “politics of notables” of the late Ottoman period, with an Orientalist scholarly orientation. Central to this orientation was Yahuda’s rendering of Jews as intercultural mediators—following in the footsteps of scholars of the Wissenschaft des Judentums, for whom the history of the Jews of the Iberian Peninsula proved a pivotal source of inspiration—and his own cultural identification with the Judeo-Arabic legacy, including that of Al-Andalus.

It was perhaps serendipitous that Yahuda’s initial platform for publicly exercising such multiple roles was in Spain, Western Europe’s “Orient,” where he arrived in 1914 to deliver a series of lectures that would later materialize into his appointment through a special royal decree as the chair of rabbinic language and literature at the University of Madrid in 1915. Yahuda’s appointment to what was notably the first Jewish studies chairmanship created in the Western Hemisphere in a secular university in the modern era—discussed by Allyson Gonzalez in her essay in this issue—connected to the interests of Spain’s robust philo-Sephardist movement, as well as to transnational Jewish scholarly aspirations. While Yahuda hailed from a well-established Jerusalemite family of Baghdadi origin on his paternal side and Ashkenazi descent on his maternal side, upon his settlement in Spain he embraced a genealogical narrative of distinguished Iberian-Sephardi lineage dating as far back as the twelfth century, claiming a maternal ancestor in the service of the Court of Alfonso VIII of Castile (1166-1214). In the Spanish context this genealogical (re)fashioning allowed Yahuda to place himself comfortably between Al-Andalus, the subject of much of his scholarship, and a de-Arabized Christian “Sepharad.” Spanish notions of Sephardi supremacy, significantly inspired by contemporary Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jewish mythologies about “Sepharad,” were moreover particularly racialized in Spain—Sephardi Jews were considered superior to Ashkenazi Jews because of having “mixed” with Christian Spaniards. Such genealogical (re)construction also served Yahuda in the Jewish world of the time. An interview with Yahuda published in the British Jewish Chronicle on the occasion of his arrival in London in 1919 noted not only that Yahuda was “one of the most romantic figures of the Jewish world” of his time, but that “it is a curious coincidence that his distinguished descendant should once more serve an Alfonso on the throne of Spain.” While clearly phrased so as to create the greatest effect, the notion that Yahuda was “serving” the king of Spain was also indicative of British Jewish notions of Sephardi supremacy, as well as a longer Jewish diasporic history predicated on the idea of the Jews as “servants of Kings.”

Yahuda’s activities during his time in Madrid, moreover, suggest that he conceived of his role as the anointed guardian and curator of Spain’s Jewish past while mediating the renewal of Jewish culture in Spain and Spanish-Jewish reconciliation. At the same time, he advocated for broader Jewish causes. Small numbers of Jews had begun to return to the Iberian Peninsula in the nineteenth century and Yahuda became quite invested in fostering Spain’s modern emergent Jewish community. He was, for instance, instrumental in the founding of Madrid’s first modern synagogue and of Jewish organizations in Barcelona. Yahuda likewise formed close ties with Spanish scholars, intellectuals, and politicians dedicated to the recovery of the Jewish past of their nation, as well as with foreign Jewish scholars attracted to this project. It may be argued in this context that Yahuda, as well as other Occidental Jewish scholars outside Spain, viewed Spain as a vast Jewish archive—a Jewish space to be reclaimed, mined, and nurtured through active historical recovery in Europe’s “Orient.” This process engaged notions of Jewish and Spanish exceptionalism, as well as self-Orientalization. As uniquely conceived by Yahuda, such a role encompassed the fusion of scholarship and advocacy for Jewish political causes. In the process, Yahuda exhibited and performed multiple loyalties: to Spain and the Spanish philo-Sephardist movement, to the British Empire, and foremost to the Zionist project for which he avidly advocated, even after having realized that his advocacy and role in the establishment of a Jewish homeland had been marginalized, if not entirely erased, from the history of the movement.

In his effort to generate support for his Spain-based programs, Yahuda consistently and insistently corresponded with North American Jewish scholars in the hope that they would support his work. Among those to whom he wrote most persistently was Cyrus Adler (1863-1940), the U.S. Jewish Semitist, publicist, religious leader, and the first president of the Dropsie College of Hebrew and Cognate Learning in Philadelphia. Adler and Dropsie College were closely connected to Philadelphia’s rich Sephardi legacy, which was unlikely to have been lost on Yahuda: Dropsie College’s principle benefactor, Moses Aaaron Dropsie (1821-1905), was one of the leaders of Philadelphia’s Sephardi Mikveh Israel synagogue, and Adler was a disciple of Sabato Morais (1823-97), the Italian-born Sephardi scholar who served as rabbi of Mikveh Israel. As noted by Stefan Schorch in this forum, Yahuda’s correspondence with Adler was extensive. In its early stages, the correspondence reveals reciprocity. In fact, even before Yahuda officially assumed the chairmanship in Spain, Adler wrote to him that he hoped that “through your presence in Spain you will be able to make valuable contributions to the publications of our Society” and assured him that “any communication from him would be “very welcome.” In attempting to advance his emergent Spanish enterprise, Yahuda repeatedly tried to bring his initiatives and the materials he located to Adler’s attention and called on him as a prominent leader of North American Jewry and Judaic studies to actively support his activities there.

Such sharing was accompanied by concrete demands that often bridged the scholarly and the political. For example, Yahuda demanded that Adler and other Jewish scholars express their appreciation for Spanish scholars’ dedication to Jewish history, beginning with Father Fidel Fita, president of Spain’s Royal Academy of History:

I would like to inform you that Fidel Fita, the President of the Real Academia de la Historia has turned 80 and I venture to suggest to you that the Jewish Historical Society elect him on this occasion as honorary corresponding member and direct a message of congratulations to La Real Academia de la Historia […] Of course you know that he has done very much for the research of our history in Spain and for that reason we Jews ought to appreciate very highly his work and his very sincere sympathy for our people. I am sure that his election as honorary member of the Jewish Historical Society would be an honor for the society itself as would also flatter the feelings of the Academia.

Yahuda, acting as mediator and academic matchmaker of sorts, added that if Adler saw fit to send the Jewish Quarterly Review to the Royal Academy, he would see to it that Dropsie College receive the academy’s monthly bulletin. Yahuda thus attempted to generate interest in Jewish studies in Spain while fostering relations between North American scholars of Jewish studies and Spanish scholars, a reflection of his understanding of scholarship as a vehicle of intercultural rapprochement. Such efforts moreover challenged long-standing perceptions of Spanish backwardness in the Western European context and the embrace of such perceptions by Jewish scholars.

Beyond his investment in Spain-based Judaica scholarship and Jewish-Spanish rapprochement, Yahuda was an avid supporter and advocate of Zionism(s). Yahuda had been devoted to the project of establishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine/the Land of Israel well before his arrival in Spain, and he even attended the first Zionist Congress in 1897. Yet Spanish liberal philo-Sephardism and Spain’s neutrality during World War I rendered Spain an auspicious platform for advocacy for Jewish causes which Yahuda undertook with vigor. He intertwined his political advocacy with his scholarly enterprise, as one example of such entanglement reveals. In a May 1919 letter to Adler informing him of his scholarly activities in Spain, Yahuda proceeded to reprimand Adler for his lack of support for the Zionist movement: “I was happy to see you personally at work on behalf of our persecuted brethren, but should still be happier if you would help also those who are striving to secure a home for our people in our land, where they would be safe from such persecution.” Yahuda, drawing on a common contemporary trope comparing Lord Balfour to Cyrus the Great, further suggested that the Persian Cyrus could set an example for Adler in this regard: “Why should you be of a different opinion from another Cyrus, and not say with him [quoting in Hebrew from the so-called Edict of Cyrus] ‘Any one amongst you of all His people, may the Lord his God be with him and let him ascend.'” While Adler did not respond directly to this reproach, Yahuda’s efforts remained unheeded and the initial enthusiasm about his Spanish enterprise dissipated, most likely due to a combination of modern Spain’s peripheral place in the imaginary of Western Jewry, Yahuda’s short-lived tenure in Spain, and Adler’s growing frustration with Yahuda.

Yahuda’s advocacy for Zionism is, however, most notable for his mobilization of Spanish notables to congratulate the Zionist leadership in the laying of the foundation stone of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 1918, as well as to secure Spanish support for the ratification of the Palestine Mandate at the League Council meeting, on July 24, 1922. Yahuda demanded that his Jewish interlocutors, namely, the Zionist leadership, respond in kind by acknowledging Spain’s gestures. Nonetheless, as Yahuda’s extensive correspondence with Chaim Weizmann reveals, Yahuda’s efforts on this issue, alongside others, fell on deaf ears. Years later, in his celebrated autobiography Trial and Error (1949), Weizmann, who knew Yahuda very well, described a “Spanish professor” who was a “marrano” as having come to their aid, never mentioning his true identity. Yahuda took this mention to refer to himself, and it was in this context, his pride clearly bruised by this humiliating slight and the erasure of his role in advocating for the movement, that Yahuda—who regarded himself as the gatekeeper of access to Spanish influence on behalf of the Jews—authored his damning pamphlet titled Dr. Weizmann’s Errors on Trial: A Refutation of His Statements in “Trial and Error” Concerning My Activity for Zionism During My Professorship at Madrid University, which included facsimiles of his letters from Weizmann.

Yahuda’s gradual falling out with Weizmann and the Zionist leadership after 1922, over the “Arab Question,” among other matters, most likely drove him to not only embrace the so-called Revisionist Zionist Movement led by Zeev Jabotinsky but also to become one of its ardent promoters. Yahuda’s turn to Revisionism, more decidedly around 1930, moreover signaled the growing tensions in his relations with Britain, which had until then been rather close. Yahuda—a British national who, unlike many of his Sephardi contemporaries, did not appear to identify with Ottoman imperial citizenship—was an eager colonial player, who exhibited an Orientalist identification in finding common ground with British officials on several occasions, including during an expedition he initiated to negotiate the transfer to London of Mesopotamian antiquities from a German vessel shipwrecked off Portugal in 1914. Working in the interests of British diplomacy and the imperial quest for the acquisition of Near Eastern cultural heritage, Yahuda insisted that the antiquities in the possession of Portuguese authorities be transferred to the British Museum. High-level communications among British foreign office deputies about the matter, moreover, indicate that Yahuda’s authority as a Semitic studies scholar, and his services on behalf of the empire, were well regarded, including by such prominent figures as Edwin Montagu and Lord Curzon. That Yahuda was held in high esteem by British officials was further illustrated in 1919, when the British ambassador in Madrid officially requested “in the name of His Majesty’s Government” that the Spanish government grant Yahuda leave from his faculty obligations in Madrid so he could share his new research on the Pentateuch with British scholars. Yahuda’s frequent absences from the university, among other issues, caused displeasure among the faculty, yet Spanish notables and officials came to his defense. When in 1920 Yahuda requested an extension of his leave, the Spanish ambassador to England, Sen˜or Merry del Val, argued that these invitations held not only scholarly but “a great political interest, being instrumental, in a very efficient manner, in the establishing of closer and friendlier relations between England and Spain.” Such a statement illustrates the close connection between scholarship and politics as Yahuda’s contemporaries viewed him as strategically brokering long-standing and critical imperial rivalries.

Yahuda’s romance with Sepharad and Spain nonetheless concluded somewhat dramatically in 1922, when, despite the support of the Spanish minister of education and other Spanish liberal dignitaries who defended him against accusations from the faculty, he resigned his chairmanship at the University of Madrid. Yahuda relocated to London, yet his growing alliance with Jabotinsky would eventually come to the attention of the British foreign office, as well as British intelligence, leading to the disintegration of Yahuda’s relationship with Britain and of his views on BritishZionist-Arab relations. On one occasion, Yahuda became engaged in a prolonged property assessment dispute with British authorities over land he owned in Palestine. Despite apparently having agreed to pay the required amount of taxes on his property in 1934, several years later—in September 1939, three months after the British had issued their White Paper policy—Yahuda submitted a petition claiming that his representative in Jerusalem had not been notified of the assessment fixed for his property in Jerusalem since 1934, making it impossible for Yahuda to have appealed it; and moreover, that the taxation of his property was disproportionately high in comparison with that of the adjoining property belonging to his Arab neighbor, Hasan Juseebe. In his correspondence

with British authorities over the matter, Yahuda shifted his tone from reconciliatory to defensive and eventually hostile. This belligerent tone turned political—refracted through British, Jewish, and Arab tensions in the region—and reflected the residual politics of a fading power structure of the Sephardi notables in Mandatory Palestine, as well as Yahuda’s shifting alliances:

In both cases the attitude adopted towards me would be of a very grave nature: Because in the first event it would mean a discrimination glaringly contrasting with all the assertions made by the Colonial Secretary and the Palestine Administration to the effect that no discrimination whatsoever is allowed in dealing with Jewish and Arab rights […] I feel that in appealing to you, I am entitled to your protection, not only because it is a case of utter injustice, but also as a British subject, who has always done his best to render to this country services which on several occasions have been generously appreciated by His Majesty’s Governments. I beg to remain, Sir, yours faithfully.

Yahuda thus touted his past loyalty to Britain on the one hand, and pointed to injustice regarding Jewish rights under British rule in Palestine on the other. In an internal communication, the British high commissioner for Mandate Palestine commented that Yahuda’s involvement with the New Zionist Organization (NZO), the revisionist group headed by Jabotinsky, was taken into serious consideration by the British: “While it would savour of injustice to discriminate even mentally against Professor Yahuda on the ground of his being a prominent member of the N.Z.O. I feel that the margin of our sympathy, if any, should lie with the government in this case. We are not […] in law to afford an opportunity for reassessment retroactively to Professor Yahuda.” It appears that in a period of mounting anti-Semitism and a growing and more antagonistic presence of the NZO in the Yishuv, alongside the support that the NZO enjoyed among some English Zionists, British officials were keenly sensitive to how such a ruling against Yahuda might be perceived.

At the same time that his valuation petition was subjected to scrutiny, Yahuda had requested an exit permit to give a series of lectures in the United States. The Foreign Office, however, referred the request to MI5, Britain’s domestic intelligence agency, for commentary because of Yahuda’s involvement in the NZO. MI5 confirmed that Yahuda, who was living in London at that point, “is associated with the New Zionist Organisation which is bitterly opposed to any form of partition in Palestine” and that the type of government “its leaders envisage for Palestine would be on the lines of the Corporate State. Some of its members, in Palestine, have been suspected of supporting acts of reprisal against Arabs, and several have been detained in connection to activities against Public Order.” It was also noted that Yahuda “has addressed meetings of the N.Z.O. and has lent his private house for private meetings of the same body. Clearly, Yahuda’s involvement with the NZO, especially given that body’s more militant presence in the Yishuv, became enough of a concern for the Foreign Office to have contacted Britain’s counterintelligence and security service. Yahuda’s rift with Britain thus appears to have revolved around shifting British policy in the region, including its embrace of partition. His perception of British policy in Palestine as favoring Arabs over Jews, along with his shift to Revisionism, therefore, complicates our image of Yahuda as fully invested in Arab-Jewish reconciliation.

In conclusion, an examination of Yahuda’s committed mediation of the interactions of Jewish and Spanish scholars and leaders of the Zionist movement and British colonial officials illustrates how he inflected the “politics of notables” of the world of Sephardi elites of late Ottoman and early Mandatory Palestine with his Occidental scholarly orientation, including Wissenschaft des Judentums. In his engagement with officials at the highest echelons, Yahuda presumed that his cultural and professional standing would largely suffice to bring about the ends he sought. This presumption was predicated on Yahuda’s assimilation of the expectations others had projected onto him as an “Oriental turned Occidental”; such self-fashioning allowed Yahuda to move in and out of different milieus rather fluidly, but it also complicates our understanding of the process of de-Orientalization to which Noldeke and other academic mentors such as Ignaz Goldziher alluded. As I demonstrate, Yahuda was in fact very much caught up in the scholarly Orientalism and ongoing imperial politics of his time, whether by positioning himself as a colonial player, as a scholarly authority on “the East,” or by rhetorically and discursively indicating commitment to projects such as Jewish-Arab reconciliation, which stood in tension with his actions and political beliefs expressed in other contexts and alliances. These alignments problematize our understanding of Sephardi power structures in late Ottoman and Mandatory Palestine and their reach across national borders. Ultimately, the divides and hemispheric conflicts Yahuda attempted to bridge were his undoing. He was unable to transcend imperial and other divisions along the Oriental-Occidental axis through his performance of a politics of identity, and his efforts were foiled by the same forces he attemped to mediate.