Provincializing European Jewry: R. Yosef Hayyim of Baghdad and Ottoman Modernity – Interview with Avi-ram Tzoreff

Avi-ram Tzoreff is a EUME Fellow at the Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studienin 2018-19. He wrote a dissertation entitled Jewish-Arab Coexistence against the Secular Discourse: Theology, Politics and Literature in the writings of Yehoshua Radler-Feldman (R. Binyamin, 1880-1957) at the department of Jewish history at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Be’er Sheva. His main research interests are Jewish-Arab relations in Ottoman and Mandated Palestine, the cultural and political history of Iraqi Jews in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and the cultural and political history of Jews in Galicia.

Avi-ram, you are studying the thought of Yosef Hayyim (1835-1909), an influential Baghdadi Rabbi and Kabbalist. How did you become interested in the person and work of Hayyim?

My grandparents from my father’s side were born in Basra and Baghdad and migrated to Israel in 1951. As a child who was named after his Baghdadi grandfather, the history of the Iraqi part of my family attracted my attention from the very beginning, despite the fact that this Jewish cultural existence had no presence in the actual public spheres that I was part of during my childhood. The meetings of the larger circles of my family at my grandmother’s house on Fridays and on Jewish holidays were the main events where my Iraqiness had the chance to be celebrated, where the sound of Iraqi Arabic was voiced out loud, and where traditional Iraqi melodies for the Jewish holidays were the main part of the celebration. However, the Iraqi Jewish textual and rabbinic culture was absent. I was aware of names such as R. Abdullah Somekh and R. Yosef Hayyim, but I had no real acquaintance with them. One day, when I was helping my grandmother clean and prepare her house for the Jewish holiday of Passover — in that time I was studying in a yeshiva — I discovered some old books on a shelf covered with black and gray binding with my grandfather’s signature. These were three volumes of R. Yosef Hayyim’s legal responsas, titled Rav Pe’alim. I asked my grandmother if I could take these books, and I started to study them along with the head of my yeshiva. This moment was the starting point of my interest in the person and his works.

Avi-ram Tzoreff

Which aspect of Hayyim’s thought appears most innovative to you?

Hayyim served as an official in the Baghdadi branch of the David Sasoon company, which played a major role in the colonial trade networks in the Indian Ocean. His actions oriented towards the maximization of the company’s profits were often directed against the interests of the poor families in Baghdad. In 1879, some of the poor Jewish families turned publicly against Hayyim while he was preaching in the big synagogue in Baghdad. Following this event, and after his impoverishment during the 1880s, which was accompanied by his disengagement from the trade networks he was connected with, Hayyim crystallized different concepts and understandings of poverty and the distribution of wealth, unequivocally criticizing the ways in which the rich Jewish elite used the communal mechanisms of wealth distribution to fulfill their own economic interests. The emergence of this conceptualization of poverty and wealth also included notions of class struggle, such as the recognition of the worker as the owner of their labor and its products, and the critique of the capitalist elite’s attempts to turn differential taxes (such as the badal askari — the exemption tax from the army service) into indirect taxes, while using their power in the communal institutions for the sake of their own interests and enlarging the economic burden on the lower classes. I think that this aspect of Hayyim’s writing appears most innovative to me.

You are researching, among other things, Jewish cultural networks in the Ottoman Empire and Europe of which Hayyim was part of or which referred to Hayyim’s thought. Could you elaborate on the transregional dimension and significance of his work?

The understanding of the transregional networks that Hayyim was part of is of crucial importance, also when taking into consideration the fact that the Baghdadi locale itself was a contact zone of different representatives of these networks, through which competing discourses and understandings of modernization emerged. Hayyim’s engagement with the British-affiliated trade networks — as well as his disengagement from them, his status as a Baghdadi citizen of the Ottoman state, and his acquaintance with the emerging cultural tendencies amongst European Jews —through Jewish press, books and correspondences, are all important factors for the understanding of the concepts he developed in his writings. For instance, Hayyim related differently to European emancipation, which he identified as a Christianizing mission accompanied by the gentle proposal of liberty and equality, and to the Ottoman imperial Tanzimat Reforms, which he considered as a manifestation of a little redemption that can serve as a basis for the revelation of secret wisdoms. This distinction is more understandable when placed in the context of the missionary activity of the London Society for Promoting Christianity amongst the Jews in Baghdad alongside the Tanzimat Reforms, which can illustrate the characteristic of Baghdad as a contact zone of different transregional networks.

What is the significance of Hayyim in contemporary Israel?

In the Israeli context, the study of the history of Middle Eastern and North African Jewish communities, as well as the writings of the main figures from these communities, hold the meaning of a return to the sites of memory that were usually negated or nationalized in the hegemonic Zionist discourse. These painted Mizrahim (Jews from Middle-Eastern or North-African origin) as lacking the cultural baggage needed for the construction of a modern, national and political Jewish community. My research can be considered, in some ways, as a part of this tendency. However, this reclaiming of the Mizrahim story has its own blind spots, manifested in the disregard of coexisting patterns of oppression in the Israeli context and the lack of perspectives on class and gender, which problematizes the possibility to draw an ideal historical picture. Thus, I think that the character and writings of Hayyim — as someone who demonstrates both the non-holy connection that existed between capital and rabbinate and the possibility of its disintegration — can play a role in writing a more nuanced history that identifies the different patterns of oppression. This can also be manifested in Hayyim’s critique of the European emancipatoric model and his preference of the Ottoman model of the Tanzimat. This distinction, which marks a negation of the European nation state’s strive for universality and the identification of collective autonomy as the total fulfillment of civic equality from a Jewish perspective, is crucial for the critique of the Israeli policy of distinction between civic equality and collective autonomy concerning its Palestinian citizens. Following the European, as well as Israeli, models of emancipation, Palestinians are demanded to renounce their collective autonomy and its various manifestations in order to become integrated as equal (and private) Israeli citizens, as was manifested recently in Israel’s Nationality Bill. In this context, I see Hayyim’s critique of emancipaton as a basis for the crystallization of a traditional and religious Mizrahi perspective that can face the various modes and spheres of oppression.           

Questions: Ewa Dąbrowska



Citation: Provincializing European Jewry: R. Yosef Hayyim of Baghdad and Ottoman Modernity – Interview with Avi-ram Tzoreff, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 06.03.19, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/18112.


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