Orientalist romanticism and Westernist anti-Semitism
The Western visitor, wandering about Jerusalem’s streets, is bothered by Orthodox men speed-walking, pities women covered up in skirts, wigs, or huts, and grimaces in pain when haredi sensibility about modest clothing is to be respected.
Haredim in Mea Shearim [illustrative] Photo: Marc Israel Sellem
Jerusalem, the “thrice sacred city,” is incredibly diverse, including Orthodox
Jews belonging to different groups, Christian priests of various confessions,
and Muslims of numerous trends. Western visitors, ambassadors or pilgrims,
professionals or humanitarian activists, visiting students or tourists, are
innately attracted by priests’ garments, unusually intrigued by traditional Arab
vests, and unfailingly repulsed by mantels, peyes, and streimels. Why? A
plausible answer is the imperceptible influence of orientalist romanticism,
whereby the myths of the “good savage” and indigenous frugal life enchant those
weary of comfortable Western costumes and traditions.
Arab culture, and
the Beduin in particular, charm Western dreamers who identify in ancestral
traditions those societal values that have progressively been obliterated by a
degenerated West (such as social solidarity, family ties, traditional jobs,
The second reasonable answer lies in a relentless
Western anti-Semitism, which despises the Jew who dresses in 18th-century
Polish, Lithuanian, or Ukrainian outfit. Beard, earlocks and yarmulke
still evoke atavistic anti-Judaic sentiments.
A great many people react
spontaneously. The Western visitor, wandering about Jerusalem’s streets,
is bothered by Orthodox men speed-walking, pities women covered up in skirts,
wigs, or huts, and grimaces in pain when haredi sensibility about modest
clothing is to be respected.
Useless is any explanation about Orthodox
running not to waste time for studying, about contemporary complex and changing
haredi society, about the peculiar codes of Mea She’arim neighborhood. Jokes on
traditional outfits and wigs spew. Modernist sermons condemn women’s submission.
Shabbat and kashrut rules are derided as antiquated and preposterous. Streimels
in dog days aggrandize the spiteful suspect against a distrusted
Not far away, where streimels become less frequent in favor of
galabias and Arab women’s veils, jubilant smiles admire the exotic spectacle of
veiled women in red-embroidered black dresses, selling mint on a white rag, of
men shouting on market tables, and of brown-skinned kids selling
Thus we see that the Orthodox Jew is despised out of a love of
modernity. Compassion for the oppression of Jewish Orthodox women does not
explain the nostalgic condescension for the Islamic veil. The real reasons are
far more profound, very well expressed by the 20th century’s Orientalism, which
bequeathed romanticist sympathies toward the Arabs and the Westernist contempt
for the Jews.
LAWRENCE AND Glubb Pasha have been eloquently portrayed in
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, but in order to understand Orientalists’ relationship with
both Arabs and Jews, Freya Stark reveals a far more stimulating
Dame Stark, fascinated by the Middle East when all English
nobles preferred India, was a successful travel memorialist and active in
English foreign policy in the Middle East during World War II. Her books, and
East is West maybe more than others, describe the Near East as disaster-land for
Ottoman legacy, inhabited by a few elegant Arabs who had lived in Europe and
resided in Damascus or Beirut, crossed by proud Beduin, and the object of
ridiculous Zionist designs.
Her diaries and letters show the charm Arab
culture wielded on her and the repugnance she felt for the Jews. Arabs live in
houses with gardens and refreshing fountains; with Arabs she used to drink mint
or sage tea while declaiming poems; with Beduin she would cross desert routes
and hostile lands on the back of a donkey.
With “friends of Jewish
nationality,” she would instead feel in Europe, although Jews would stick to
that ancient Orient, which they have never left aside, where they were already
“unpopular among neighboring peoples.”
No one could ever write something
so manifestly anti-Semitic today, and that is why reading the 20th century’s
orientalists helps us to understand what today many people think, but prefer not
to say outright.
This is how Western anti-Semitism manifests, well
expressed in Singer’s novels, in which assimilationists and anti-religious
complain about Jewish “devotion to the biblical Orient.” As anti-Semites opine
that the alleged extraneousness of Jews in the West stems from their devotion to
the Orient, similarly, anti-Semites are convinced that the alleged
extraneousness of Jews in Israel stems from their devotion to the
West. That is how anti-Semitism comes out in despising the streimel and
fancying the galabiya.
This should not surprise, considering that Europe
is fond of yiddishism and klezmer music. The world of the shtetl, annihilated by
the Shoah, bewitches Western multiculturalists: fiddle on the roof, storytellers
with peyes and mantels, disregarding misery, pogroms, anti-Semitic violence,
discrimination and marginalization.
Likewise, the romantic figures of the
Arab and the Beduin beguile in romantic dreams those who consider the indigenous
the last representative of a traditional pureness that contrasts with modernity,
unbearably Western, always a bit Americanizing, and irritatingly
The writer is a PhD in International Studies, and is a legal
commentator for the Italian think tank and media watchdog Informazione Corretta.