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 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Haredim in Mea Shearim 370
(photo credit: 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, folkloric cuisine).
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 people.
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 stuff.
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 perspective.
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 Jewish.
The writer is a PhD in International Studies, and is a legal commentator for the Italian think tank and media watchdog Informazione Corretta.