Syrian Jewry in Transition, 1840-1880

By Yaron Harel

Contributions by: Dena Ordan

In offering a comprehensive account of Syria's key Jewish communities at an important juncture in their history, this pioneering study - now available in paperback - also throws light on the broader effects of modernization in the Ottoman empire. The Ottoman reforms of the mid-19th century accelerated the process of opening up Syria to European travellers and traders and gave Syria's Jews access to European Jewish communities. The resulting influx of Western ideas led to a decline in the traditional economy, with serious consequences for the Jewish occupational structure. It also allowed for the introduction of Western education, through schools run by the Alliance Israelite Universelle, influenced the structure and the administration of Jewish society in Syria, and changed the balance of the relationship between Muslims, Christians, and Jews. Initially, Syria's Jewish communities flourished economically and politically in these new circumstances, but there was increasing recognition that a better future lay overseas. After the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, the bankruptcy of the Ottoman empire in 1875, and the suspension of the Ottoman constitution in 1878, this feeling intensified. A process of decline set in that ultimately culminated in large-scale Jewish emigration, first to Egypt and then to the West. From that point on, the future for Syrian Jews lay in the West, not the East. Detailed and compelling, this book covers Jewish community life, the legal status of Jews in Syria, their relationship with their Muslim and Christian neighbors, and their links with the West. It draws on a wide range of archival material in six languages, including Jewish, Christian Arab, and Muslim Arab sources, Ottoman and European documents, consular reports, travel accounts, and reports from the contemporary press and by emissaries to Syria of the Alliance Israelite Universelle. Rabbinic sources, including the archive of the chief rabbinate in Istanbul, are shown to be particularly important in opening a window onto Syrian Jewish life and concerns. Together these sources bring to light an enormous amount of material and provide a broad, multifaceted perspective on the Syrian Jewish community. *** For the first time in the historiography of the Jews of Muslim countries we are presented with a rich picture, well written and riveting, of the history of important Jewish communities in the period of the Tanzimat. -- From the award citation for the Ben-Zvi Prize for Research in Oriental Jewry *** Yaron Harel's exceptionally rich and rewarding book marks a major milestone in our understanding of the history of Jews in the Arab lands and, more generally, the changing position of Ottoman religious minorities...No other account of Jewish life in the Ottoman Empire of which I am aware combines archival depth and attention to detail with conceptual breadth and a willingness to challenge existing assumptions in quite this way...a classic in the genre...a work of consummate scholarship and subtle insight. Those with a specialist interest in such phenomena will find it a veritable treasure trove. It will undoubtedly be required reading for anyone interested in the history of the Jews in Muslim lands and for scholars working on the Tanzimat era. But it deserves to find a wider readership than this. For such a richly documented account of the evolution of Syrian Jewry on the threshold of modernity serves as a useful counterpoint for scholars interested in the transformation, emancipation, and acculturation of Jewish communities in other areas of the world. -- Abigail Green, English Historical Review *** A work to be appreciated not only on its own merits, but also as an example of the kind of research that the Jews of the nineteenth-century Middle East deserve...I am impressed by the solid base of primary historical sources in which the research is grounded, as well as by the thoroughness and scope of this professional and serious work, which fills the lacuna that existed until now in modern Jewish historical scholarship. -- Zvi Zohar, Zion (review of the Hebrew edition)

318 pages

Publication Date: 3/6/2014
Format: Paper
ISBN: 9781906764562

Available in other formats