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Jewish Troubles in the Sephardic Atlantic World

Mon, December 17, 3:00 to 4:30pm, Seaport Hotel & World Trade Center, Waterfront 2 Ballroom

Session Submission Type: Lightning Session

Abstract

Israeli philosopher Israel Eldad famously argued, “Before emancipation, before the Jews attained their civil liberties, there was no ‘Jewish problem.’ The Jews had their troubles and their difficulties, but Jewishness and Judaism constituted no problem” (The Jewish Revolution: Jewish Statehood). This panel challenges that idea by looking at precisely how pre-emancipation Jewish “troubles” such as crime, adultery, financial ruin, messianism, and, false converts undercut Jewish communities visions of Jewishness and Judaism. Just as zionism did not solve Jewish problems, so too emancipation did not invent the Jewish problem. Rather we argue, troubles are crucial for understanding Jewishness in two centuries leading up to Jewish emancipation.
This panel explores the outsized role that Jewish problems play both in history and historiography. It seeks to shed light on the larger pattern of how Jewish communities coped with internal strife that often exposed them to external critique. While later proponents of Jewish tolerance in England would claim that it wasn’t “fair to cite cases of Bad Jews, and then say these are the ordinary types of the whole race,” our examples show that Jewish communities often responded to “bad Jews”--or at least undesirable behaviors by Jews--with the assumption that such people and their actions would indeed make the entire Jewish community look poorly in non-Jewish eyes. As such, Jewish troubles reveal the ways Jewish communities levied authority in order to shape public opinion, as demonstrated by Oren and Surowitz-Israel. As several of the panelists such as Hoberman, Lieberman, Mann, and Leibman show, Jewish troubles continue to plague the historical record today, “troubling” how we interpret the past and make sense of a “Jewish” past. While our examples primarily focus on Western Sephardic communities in the Atlantic World between 1600-1830, our goal is for the session to raise larger questions about how we choose and work with “troubling” historical subjects.

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