”Islam and Judaism in Eastern Europe have their Unique Forms” – Interview with Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern

This article is part of the TRAFO series ”Emerging Topics. Insights from ‘Behind the Scenes’”. Today, we put the spotlight on the conference ”At Home: Jews and Muslims in Eastern Europe”. The workshop is organized in a cooperation by the research program Prisma Ukraïna – Research Network Eastern Europe and Deutsche Gesellschaft für Osteuropakunde (DGO). It will take place on June 28-29, 2018 at the Forum Transregionale Studien in Berlin.

Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern. Photo: private

Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern will give one of the keynote lectures of the conference. He is the Crown Family Professor of Jewish Studies and a Professor of Jewish History at the History Department at Northwestern University. He teaches a variety of courses that include early modern and modern Jewish History; Jewish Mysticism and Kabbalah; history and culture of Ukraine; and Slavic-Jewish Literatures.

Professor Petrovsky-Shtern, you are one of the keynote speakers at the workshop “At Home. Jews and Muslims in Eastern Europe”. According to you, what is the particular value of addressing Judaism and Islam in Eastern Europe as entangled religions or in a comparative perspective, in relation to studying them separately?

First, Islam and Judaism in Eastern Europe have their unique forms and modifications. Comparative perspectives help to explore the influence of East European socio-political environment both on the practitioners of Judaism and Islam and on the form of Jewish and Muslim religious practice. The Crimean Tatars are different from Chechnya Muslims, while the adherents of the Habad-Lubavich Hasidism in Byelorussia are different from the Gur Hasidism in Poland. The question of course is whether the influence of the socio-political circumstances on Jews and Muslims in one area is the same and whether their feedback is comparable. To answer these questions is to address a key scholarly desideratum.

Second, the administration in the Russian Empire and the USSR had a separate set of laws for Jews and a separate one for Muslims. Studying these legal differences, one acquires a much better view of the ethnic politics of the two empires, the repertoire of the Russian and Soviet legal options in treating (and mistreating) the two religions, the role of the treatment of an ethnic minority within the country for the making of the country’s foreign policy.

Third, covering Judaism and Islam in Eastern Europe, one is advised to remember that one talks about Jewish and Muslim individuals. To what extent did the vertically-oriented policies shape the horizontal relations between Jews and Muslims in Eastern Europe? Do rabbinic leaders and muslim clerics meet only on the imperial festive occasions when summoned by the institutes of power? Is there any kind of cooperation between the scholars of Islam and of Judaism? How about the grassroots level interaction between Jews and Muslims in trade or in liberal arts professions? What about Jewish and Muslim dissidents? These questions can be answered only in an enriching and highly plausible comparative perspective.

Workshop poster

Which new topics and perspectives are currently discussed in Jewish Studies with respect to Eastern Europe? Which of them did evoke your special interest?  

Over the last 25 years, East European Jewish history became a field in and of itself with its own networks of scholars, research priorities, and dozens of monographs published annually. I have just received three new books – a two-volume study of the synagogues in Central Ukraine by Sergei Kravtsov and Vladimir Levin, a book on the Velizh ritual murder of the 1820s, the longest blood libel trial ever, by Eugene Avrutin, and a book on the oral history of the Soviet Jews and their gender relations by Ana Shternshis. These books mark the trends which I admire: history of culture, gender studies, local studies, intersection between the political propaganda and the daily routine, of architecture and history, a very-well detailed and a zoomed-in research of a distinct phenomenon, preferably a microcosm. Yet I am afraid there is a misbalanced situation: there are many more works on the 20th century, much less on the 19th, almost nothing on the previous eight centuries.

I very much look forward to seeing a new book by Adam Teller on the Cossack revolution and the Jewish refugees of the mid-17th century. I hope that Alexander Kulik’s magnum opus – a collection of commented primary sources on Jews in Kievan Rus – will significantly alter the way we teach early stages of Jewish-Slavic relations.  I can only regret that a monograph on Jewish popular culture of the 19th century and Yiddish shund (lit.: rubbish) novels, the most favorite reading of the millions of the Yiddish readers at that time, as well as the study of the Tsene rene, the 300-years old top bestseller among Jewish female readership, have not yet been either conceived or written. And the study of the second half of the 20th century is centered around the refuseniks, the liberal intelligentsia, the Zionist underground, and the Jewish political and cultural resistance. Historians ignore the study of the vast majority of Jews who successfully coexisted with the Soviet power, albeit cursing it sotto voce, as most other Soviet people did.

You are studying Jewish-Ukrainian relations and entanglements in the 19th and 20th centuries, among other things. Which insights from your research are particularly relevant for contemporary Europe? 

Let’s talk for a second about Ukraine per se. Whatever happens in Ukraine now or in the past seems to be marginalized by the mainstream of European scholarship. Yes, conferences are held, articles appear in the press, and politicians make eloquent statements from time to time. But by and large, there is very little understanding of Ukraine, and research about the country remains an exotic Orient of European historiography. I do not know what kind of effort the leading intellectuals have to make in order to explain to French, British, German, and Italian politicians that the fate of Europe is sealed nowadays in Ukraine. That allowing a polity to redraw European maps – that is what Russia does in Ukraine – is absolutely detrimental for European stability. And ignoring the rhetoric of that polity is blinding and futile.

I cannot address these huge political issues: I prefer microhistories. But I seek to show how microhistories reflect with amazing precision big issues of paramount significance. In my book Lenin’s Jewish Question (Yale University Press, 2010), I spent several chapters explaining how the Bolsheviks and the Russian Far Right treated the alleged Jewishness of Lenin. I took the example of Moshko Blank, Lenin’s maternal great-grandfather, an informer, a convert, and a scoundrel from the shtetl of Staro-Konstantinov​, later from Zhitomir. I believe I managed to prove that the way the Soviet Russian communists and the Russian fascists treated the memory of Moshko Blank as part of Lenin’s legacy was strikingly similar and drew on a shared racial discourse. The ideologists of the USSR and their staunch opponents, the Russian fascists, shared the view that most scholars called antisemitism and I called racism. The vision of the Russian major opposing ideologies as racist would have explained quite a bit in the internal and external politics of the Russian Federation today. My Ukrainian critics and readers understood that immediately, and an insightful review from Süddeutsche Zeitung also realized that I touched a very sensitive cord. But the European media do not want even to entertain a possibility of such a vision, let alone explore it. They do not want to acknowledge that Russian treatment of Ukraine is blatantly xenophobic, increasingly imperialistic, and viciously racist. One can treat not only a Jew as racially inferior, but also Slavic brethren. What I found, discussing a non-entity from the nineteenth-century Ukrainian shtetl, is very much relevant to today’s Realpolitik in Europe.

 

Questions: Ewa Dabrowska

 


Citation: ”Islam and Judaism in Eastern Europe have their Unique Forms” – Interview with Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 06.06.2018, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/9655.

 


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