Ori­en­tal­ism and the Hebrew Imagination

Yaron Peleg
  • Review
By – June 15, 2012

In 1978, Edward Said, the late pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish lit­er­a­ture at Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty, and a fig­ure so con­tro­ver­sial that there are even ques­tions as to his place of birth, wrote in his land­mark book Ori­en­tal­ism that colo­nial rule was jus­ti­fied in advance by Ori­en­tal­ism, rather than after the fact.” His the­o­ry, which has today become intel­lec­tu­al gospel, is that the uni­ver­si­ty back­wa­ter of Ori­en­tal stud­ies some­how gave the West the capac­i­ty for man­ag­ing polit­i­cal move­ments, admin­is­ter­ing colonies, [and] mak­ing near­ly apoc­a­lyp­tic state­ments rep­re­sent­ing the White Man’s dif­fi­cult civ­i­liz­ing mis­sion.” Said’s out­size claims essen­tial­ly sug­gest that Europe came to dom­i­nate the world because Euro­peans came to love trans­la­tions of The Thou­sand and One Nights.

Yaron Peleg, an assis­tant pro­fes­sor of Hebrew at George Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­si­ty, doesn’t come to bury Said, but nei­ther does he come to praise him. He presents a close read­ing of sev­er­al works from the peri­od of the Hebrew Revival (1880 – 1930) in which he stress­es that Hebrew Ori­en­tal­ism was an impor­tant, if short-lived, lit­er­ary move­ment which dif­fered from clas­sic colo­nial­ism in that Jew­ish his­to­ry and thought had broad, organ­ic ties to the Mid­dle East. Whether he will suc­ceed in mak­ing the acad­e­my recon­sid­er its auto­mat­ic brand­ing of this lit­er­ary body as colo­nial­ist is doubt­ful; the fact that he is will­ing to pad­dle up so pow­er­ful a stream is praiseworthy. 

Peleg presents reviews of numer­ous writ­ers of this now less­er-known peri­od of Hebrew lit­er­a­ture, with a spe­cial focus on David Frishman’s Bamid­bar, Moshe Smilansky’s Sons of Ara­bia, and A.I. Arielli’s play, Allah Karim! His tren­chant analy­ses seek to res­cue these works from the dust­bin of aca­d­e­m­ic dis­dain, and to a great degree, he suc­ceeds. At the very least, he presents a ful­ly dimen­sion­al intel­lec­tu­al world in which these works reside, and this is no mean accom­plish­ment. Index, selec­tive biblio. 


Jeff Bogursky reads a lot, writes a lit­tle and talks quite a bit. He is a media exec­u­tive and expert in dig­i­tal media.

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