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2014-2015 Jews and Empires

Since the earliest age of Jewish history, Jews have maintained highly intense, complex, and ambivalent relationships with the imperial powers of the day. While providing an exact definition of empire would be difficult, and perhaps unnecessary, one can safely state that empires were large political entities that sought world domination and had under their control diverse ethnic groups and territories. Although the Roman Empire gave the name to the concept and served as a model for future Western empires, relationships between Jews and empires, both mythological and real, extend into the distant past, reaching into ancient Egypt, Assyria and Babylonia, and the Hellenistic empire of Alexander the Great.

Sometimes productive and sometime destructive, but always complex and ambivalent, these relationships in many ways determined the course of Jewish history and shaped Jews’ religious, ethnic, and national identity. Due to their specific ethno-religious identity and exterritorial status, Jews always occupied a special position in the imperial order, which bore both advantages and troubles. Many of the fateful events in the Jewish past and up to the present time are connected in diverse ways with empires: the exodus from Egypt, the Babylonian captivity, the birth of Christianity and its expansion into the Roman empire, the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, the expulsion from Spain, the Holocaust, the establishment of the State of Israel.

Memories of the triumphs and losses in Jewish relationships with the empires of the day are preserved in religious festivals and fasts, such as Purim, Hanukah and Tish’a be-Av, while biblical and post-biblical characters that figure in accounts of empires provided archetypical roles for future generations. Joseph and Moses, Mordecai and Esther, the prophets and the Maccabeans, Rabbi Akiva and Bar Kokhba, all served as models for subsequent generations of Jews, who often turned to them when seeking support for or fighting against imperial powers. These figures exemplified behaviors and typified values for Jews, suggesting imperial power to shape Jewish self-perceptions and understanding of Jews’ roles in history. A diverse set of Jewish intellectuals, courtiers, military commanders, financiers, industrialists and politicians, from Josephus to Joe Lieberman, played important, often crucial roles in the politics, economies and cultures of imperial powers. One can argue that today’s situation of Jews in the world, with all its advantages and problems, is a direct outcome of the collapse of the European imperial order in the twentieth century.

Despite its great significance for Jewish history, religion, and cultural creativity, the theme “Jews and Empires” has so far received relatively scarce scholarly attention. Although “Imperial Studies” seems to be an increasingly popular area of research, both as specific case studies and as a comparative perspective, the Jewish dimensions of this theme are usually treated as side effects, mostly in the context of modern Eastern and Central Europe. Thus scholars have examined Jews in the Ottoman, Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and German Empires of the 18th-early 20th century as examples of larger issues, such as modernization, minority rights, and secularization

The 2014-15 Institute Annual is available online, and features essays by all of the fellows highlighting their research on "Jews and Empires".


Mira Balberg
Northwestern University
"Blood for Thought: The Rabbinic Reinvention of Sacrifice in Its Roman and Early Christian Context"

Eitan Bar-Yosef
Ben-Gurion University
"Zionism, the British Empire and the Making of Israeli Identity: Mimicry, Resistance, and Nostalgia"

Joshua Cole
University of Michigan
"A Riot in France: Violence and Colonial Reform in Algeria, 1919-1940"

Sara Feldman
University of Michigan
"People of the Russian Book: Translating Pushkin into Jewish Languages"

Zvi Gitelman
University of Michigan
"Under and After Empire: Jewish Public Life After Communism"

Reuven Kiperwasser
Open University of Israel
"Rabbis Between Two Empires"

Gil Klein
Loyola Marymount University
"The Roman Architecture of Empire and the Establishment of Rabbinic Space"

Mikhail Krutikov
University of Michigan
"Spaces of Memory: Imagining the Soviet Past in Post-Soviet Russian Jewish Writing"

Devi Mays
Jewish Theological Society
"Reorienting Imperial Jews: Constantinople at the Crossroads of Jewish Identities "

Alexei Sivertsev
DePaul University
"Jews and Roman Imperial Culture in Late Antiquity"

Claude Stuczynski
Bar-Ilan University
"Iberian Conversos: Victims, Agents and Thinkers of Empire"

Jindrich Toman
University of Michigan
"Bohemia's Jews and their Decentered Empire"

Jeffrey Veidlinger
University of Michigan
"Border Jews: Between Empires"

Deborah Yalen
Colorado State University
"Forging the Anti-Imperial Empire: Jews, Ethnographic Science, and the Soviet Family of Nations"