Feldman Fellows Revisited: „A Closer Look at the In-Between Space of the Mediterranean Can Show How Interconnected Europe and Palestine Were“ – An Interview with Björn Siegel

In the series „Feldman Fellows Revisited“ we regularly interview former and current Feldman fellows on aspects of mobility in academia, transregional approaches abroad and where they stand on definitions of transregional studies as voiced in our series “All Things Transregional”. The Feldman fellowships allow young researchers to pursue research in two to three host countries with institutes and branch offices of the Max Weber Foundation.  Named after the American historian Gerald D. Feldman (1937-2007), these fellowships enable selected researchers to spend up to three months abroad to visit archives, libraries and other research facilities on site. With the format of the funding being already transregional, we are wondering: to what extend does transregional funding promote transregional research? 

What project were you working on during your fellowship?

Landing of Jewish Immigrants Near Naharija (1948) | Bundesarchiv, Bild: 183-R68235 | CC-BY-SA 3.0.

The project I am currently working on is entitled “The Ship as a Place in Jewish History” and reevaluates the processes of Jewish migration.  The project’s aim is to give new insights into the complex economic, ideological and imagined networks, which determined the different migrations to British Mandate Palestine. It questions traditional narratives, which define migration as a movement from A to B, and instead suggests a broader concept, that allows examining all processes relevant for migration, including the power of imaginations, the flow of ideas and the influence of an increasing mobility.

By discussing strategies of European shipping companies, their actual building policies, their advertisement strategies as well as their political influence, the project looks beyond a narrow and national understanding of migration. Instead, it studies the efforts and impacts of shipping companies along the routes of migration, such as co-operations with railway companies, port authorities and immigration bureaus. The study takes also the main emigration ports to Palestine into account – Marseille (France), Trieste (Italy) and Constanta (Romania) – and examines how shipping companies used their influence and interests to preserve and/or expand their market shares, played with newly emerging images of the Near East and the Orient, while introducing a new sense of luxury and leisure to a growing market of mobility. Therefore, the project evaluates migration, especially the one to the newly founded Mandate of Palestine under British rule, not only against the background of a beginning mass movement to the shores of the Eastern Mediterranean, but also in the broader context of travelling and tourism. Jewish migration to Palestine in the 1920s and 1930s coincided with a similar, increased interest of the non-Jewish/non-Zionist European upper strata in travelling and visiting the Orient, which was still regarded as a mysterious place. Thus, migration became more than a linear movement from A to B, but rather an interwoven process, influenced by new social developments, ideas and mobility.

Crowd in front of the Palestine & Orient Lloyd Travel Office, Charlottenburg, Berlin (1939) | Bundesarchiv, Bild: 183-E01073 | Public Domain.

Besides these economic aspects, the project also includes an analysis of the ideological reasons, which became influential in the Interwar years. The Zionist movement, which was founded at the end of the 19th century and associated with Theodor Herzl, understood migration as one of their central missions. By immigrating to Palestine, the Zionists wanted to pave the way for the establishment of a Jewish state. Moreover, by moving to Eretz Israel they were convinced that every immigrant could spiritually elevate him- or herself; leaving the diaspora behind and revitalizing the historic center, Eretz Israel. Making Aliyah, literally “the climb” or “the ascension”, the immigration to Palestine became ideological charged. The land of Israel emerged as a central theme in Zionist imagery and thought and became a unique element in the concept of the revitalization of the Jewish nation. But this regeneration efforts were not just ideologically connected to a (re-)migration to the land of Israel, it was also closely intertwined with images of the sea, which took a special place in Zionist imagery, and related demands for naval conquests. By training Jews as sailors, captains or fishermen, the Zionist movement aimed to restructure Jewish society and to create a new national body.

Thus, economic interests and emerging ideas of mobility and tourism did not only influence Jewish migration to Palestine, but also the new Zionist vision of a revitalized Jewish nation through a Jewish claim to the sea.

What role does mobility play in your research? How important is it for your project to work transregionally? Did you have any previous experience with the research facilities in your countries of destination?

Quite logically, my research project demands a transregional and even a translocal approach, which takes the multi-dimensional processes of migration, in particular, and mobility, in general, into account. This kind of approach helps to understand migration as a phenomenon, which is not solely determined by national discussions and borders, but always involves numerous regional contexts, different places, actors and spaces. Such a multi-dimensional approach offers a much broader perspective on migration, its impact on the personal level, its social pre-conditions and effects, its underlying language and images, as well as its interconnection with general trends of an increasing mobilized world. It allows us to trace the movement of people as well as the migration of financial assets and ideas. By doing so, my approach includes many regional contexts and even cultural discourses. In this specific example, the Mediterranean emerges as a space in which numerous encounters took place that resulted in both fruitful discussions but also conflicts and crisis.

Thus, my approach toward migration not only uncovers the interconnections between many regional contexts and ideas, but also discusses the evolution of new spaces of encounters and conflicts. Similar to the concept of the Atlantic in Christine Hatzky’s interview, a closer look at the in-between space of the Mediterranean can show how interconnected Europe and Palestine were and how they mutually influenced each other on equal terms. It even demands a reconsideration of colonial thinking, which established a hierarchy of the old and new world, respectively, of Europe and its colonial spheres of interests. Accordingly, my project on the Ship as a Place in Jewish History reconsiders migration, its processes, impacts and ideologies – like many other transregional studies do – and offers thereby a fresh perspective on ongoing encounters and influences across traditional borders.

Logo of the Institute for the History of the German Jews (Institut für die Geschichte der deutschen Juden, IGdJ)

Essential for such an approach is the knowledge of different national and regional contexts, and additionally the different memory politics and preservation strategies. The tremendous amount of sources, which are scattered all over different countries and regions, is one of the greatest challenges of such an approach. Therefore, the expertise of the German Historical Institutes in London, Paris and Rome were important to uncover the different archival settings and collections, not only in the three European capitals, but also in other national cities, such as in Trieste. Moreover, the GHIs’ academic networks helped me to get into contact with national or regional experts in the field and begin an academic discussion. Beyond borders, disciplinary limits and language barriers, such a transregional project does tremendously profit from a transregional and international research network, such as the German Historical Institutes, or the Max Weber Foundation, respectively.

Did you have a look into our interview series “All Things Transregional”, and if so, where do you position yourself within the debate on what our various interview partners defined as transregional research?

It is inevitable if you work on a project like mine to think about transregional concepts and ideas. This kind of research changes the conception of history and cultural identity and opens strict and nationalized perspectives on global themes. Transregional research is an on-going process or, as Barbara Mittler has pointed out, still a work-in-progress, which can change our thinking and the perception of history. Transregional spaces, which have come into the focus in the last decades, offer an interesting insight into the processes of identity formation, political and cultural encounters and conflicts without necessarily implying a hierarchy of things and/or cultures. While these transregional spaces, e.g. the Mediterranean or the Atlantic, as Christine Hatzky has stated, are constructed entities, they also serve as a prism to study history from different perspectives and reevaluate traditional narratives and perceptions, especially in times of increasing globalization and mobility.

Our modernized world offers, but also demands, an ever growing level of mobility of people, goods and ideas, fuelled by the digital revolution that reshaped these processes of migration, trade and encounters. Michael Goebel already mentioned that digitalization had a tremendous impact on transregional approaches and made them more accessible. The digital world opened (or rather re-opened) the access to material and archival sources, which enables new questions and demands interdisciplinary and transnational discourses, which in turn brings research networks and academics closer together.

Did you notice any differences in academic approaches towards transregional research in the respective countries you have visited?

While the transregional approach implies an almost universal idea, it sometimes collides with reality. Traditional links between political entities or academic networks continue to produce specific conditions. Language barriers as well as traditional close cultural and political connections determine support for ongoing research projects. Thus, even though transregional methods can uncover special in-between spaces and stress the interconnections of different processes and/or politics, there are still forgotten places and spaces, which offer different perspective on a predominantly nationalized history. Such a development is due to ongoing restrictions on archival material or political co-operations, but also to a lack of researchers acknowledging transregional connections and links.

Do you have any advice for young scholars who are interested in doing research in/on the same regions?

Transregional research not only questions traditional narratives and gives new insights into in-between spaces, such as the Mediterranean, but also challenges our own perceptions of history. By using such an approach it becomes visible how strongly knowledge production depends on cultural context, and how imaginations, stereotypes and prejudices, as well as power hierarchies, persist and continue to influence perceptions of the past. Moreover, in a globalized world, transregional research demonstrates how important languages skills have become in order to join academic discussions, to look beyond national myths and narratives, and to examine multi-cultural and multi-lingual encounters. Ships as actual places and the ideological debates on Jewish shipping industries in the Mediterranean as spaces of conflicts and discussions are therefore prime examples of often forgotten spaces in Jewish history, which can offer a fresh perspective on the history of Jewish migration to Palestine transcending disciplinary limits or language barriers.


Björn Siegel | Photo: private.

Dr. Björn Siegel is a researcher at the Institute for the History of the German Jews in Hamburg (Germany). He studied Modern Jewish History and Religious Studies at the Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich (Germany) where he completed his MA and PhD. As a post-doctoral research fellow at the Franz Rosenzweig Minerva Research Center at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem (Israel) and DAAD-Fachlektor at the Centre for German-Jewish Studies at the University of Sussex (UK) he worked on questions concerning Jewish migration, transnational relief efforts as well as Jewish philanthropy. His current research project, “The Ship as a Place in Jewish History: European Shipping Companies and the Jewish Migration to Palestine, 1920–1939” was supported by the Gerald D. Feldman Fellowship in 2012/2013.


Citation: Feldman Fellows Revisited: „A Closer Look at the In-Between Space of the Mediterranean Can Show How Interconnected Europe and Palestine Were“ – An Interview with Björn Siegel, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 07.03.2017, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/6103.

Max Weber Stiftung

The Max Weber Foundation promotes global research, concentrated around the areas of social sciences, cultural studies and the humanities. Research is conducted at ten institutes in various countries across the globe with distinctive and independent focal points. Through its globally operating institutes, the Foundation is able to contribute to the communication and networking between Germany and the host countries or regions of its establishments. By promoting scientific dialogue and merging academic as well as non-academic employees from several countries with different cultural backgrounds, the Max Weber Foundation is able to strengthen the Internationalization of research in its three fields of dedication.

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