Rethinking the Model Migrant: New Perspectives on Jewish Migration

AHA Session 18
Thursday, January 5, 2012: 3:00 PM-5:00 PM
Chicago Ballroom H (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Tobias Brinkmann, Pennsylvania State University
Leah Platt Boustan, University of California, Los Angeles

Session Abstract

Despite the centrality of migration to modern Jewish history, scholars have only recently begun to question deep-rooted assumptions about the phenomenon. Our session contributes to the new historiography by reconsidering three key issues in the field of modern Jewish migration. First, we look at the interplay between national and transnational aspects of Jewish migration. We part from historians’ tendency to treat Jewish migration to different destinations as distinct histories, and adopt a comparative approach. We study Jewish movement to and from multiple destinations and consider the role of regional and global economic systems and international organizations. But we also examine the part of nationalist ideology in sending countries and host societies in shaping migrants’ experiences and national identities. We pay close attention to the way the migrants themselves interacted with, responded to, and influenced these larger actors. Second, we throw light on migration stages and immigrant groups that are normally excluded from Jewish migration history but also from general migration history. Rather than focus on the immigrants who ‘made it,’ we examine migrants who eventually re-migrated back to their countries of origin, trans-migrants who were stranded between sending and receiving countries, migrants who moved back and forth, migrants who failed in their economic endeavors or attempts to adapt, and migrants who refused to conform to the expectations of their host or sending societies. And third, we reexamine the ideas of ‘diaspora’ and ‘exile,’ challenging the traditional approach that assumes Jews’ yearning for Zion. We ask how migrants understood the concepts of exile and homeland, and how these concepts changed as a result of the migration process. Within this context, we reexamine the role of ideology in migration to and from Palestine and Israel. While the session focuses on modern Jewish migration, it raises broader questions about how human mobility affects relations between individuals and larger social, political and economic frameworks.

Rebecca Kobrin focuses on immigrant Jewish bankers in New York City between 1900 and 1930. By examining the case of immigrant bankers who failed, she highlights how immigrant Jews’ transnational entrepreneurial endeavors transformed the development of American capitalism and shaped the economic dimensions of Jewish immigrant identity in America. Magdalena Wrobel examines Polish immigrants in mid-1920s Palestine and studies their contact with the local Jewish population. She traces the development of their integration in the host society from initial exclusion to eventual inclusion. Shira Klein compares the adaptation of Italian Jewish refugees in the United States to that of Italian Jews in Palestine during World War II. She shows that while nationalist forces in both countries shared a desire to reshape the identities of permanent immigrants, the Zionist movement branded returning emigrants as traitors while Americans did not. Ori Yehudai discusses a case of Israeli emigrants in the early 1950s who found themselves stranded in several European cities on their way to America. He discusses the conflict between these transmigrants’ self-perception and the institutional approach towards them, and shows how they were treated as a pariah group.

See more of: AHA Sessions