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04.09.2022 | ח אלול התשפב

How did German Jews Perceive the Colonial “Other”?

Research by Prof. Doron Avraham, of BIU’s Department of General History, reveals a sense of solidarity along with arrogant attitudes toward the colonized

דורון אברהם

Research conducted by Prof. Doron Avraham, from the Department of General History at Bar-Ilan University, focuses on German Zionists, Orthodox and liberal Jews, as well as those of other political orientations, during the period of German colonialism, in the years 1884-1919. 

He examines the Jews’ postures toward Germany’s expansion beyond its national borders; their response to racism toward the local population in the colonies; how they reacted when they heard about the German army’s mass murder of the Herero and Nama tribes in Africa; and in what way did the colonial expansion contribute to growing racism toward Jews in Germany. “My research focuses on an issue that has not previously received academic attention. It examines the way in which German Jews conceptualized colonial expansion at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, a subject that, until a few years ago, was not studied at all.”

Prof. Doron Avraham recently won a second grant from the Israel Science Foundation (ISF), which will enable him to complete his research on colonialism and to write his third book on German history.

Prof. Avraham’s research shows that the position of German Jews on the issue of colonialism and the approach toward the “other” was ambivalent:  most Jews welcomed Germany’s colonial achievements, shared the sense of German national pride, and even manifested arrogant attitudes regarding the apparent racial inferiority of blacks in Africa and of various peoples in Asia. However, there were also Jews who expressed solidarity with the local population in the colonies, especially in view of the massacres committed by the Germans, as these proved for racist and anti-Semitic circles the supposedly “scientific” validity of racial theories regarding the inferiority of non-European peoples, including the Jews themselves.

“My research shows that German expansion overseas and the encounter, both direct and indirect, with the indigenous populations, were of primary importance in shaping the identity of the Jews as Germans on the one hand, and in their reactions to racist and exclusionary attitudes, similar to those directed toward black and Asian inhabitants in the German colonies, on the other hand,” says Prof. Avraham. “In this respect, colonialism offers a new perspective to follow the formation of German Jews’ identity at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century.”

Prof. Avraham wrote his doctoral thesis at Tel Aviv University, and immediately following its completion, pursued postdoctoral research at Humboldt University in Germany, where he completed his first book, which appeared in German and dealt with Prussian-German conservatism.

Shortly after his return to Israel, he began teaching at Bar-Ilan University’s Department of General History, won an Alon Fellowship, and was chosen to represent the university at the Humanities Youth Forum of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities. During this period, he worked with colleagues on a collection of studies about political violence in Germany, which was published in German.

Later he went on sabbatical as a research fellow at the Faculty of History at Oxford University in England, where he worked on his second book dealing with the religious awakening in Germany in the 19th century and its significance in relation to the nationalization of Jewish identity: German Neo-Pietism, the Nation and the Jews: Religious Awakening and National identity Formation, 1815-1861, London, New York: Routledge 2020.