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  • Port Jews of the Orient—Asia's Jewish Diaspora
  • Bonnie M. Harris

Jewish Diaspora and the "Port Jew" Identity

The "Jewish diaspora" is a term rightfully included in nearly every era of human history. In its broadest application, it refers to any and all communities of Jews who by reasons of exile or escape, eviction or migration, reside in any part of the world outside their homeland of Israel. The Hebrew term galut describes forced relocations of the Jewish people since the time of Moses and the Exodus from Egypt, the wanderings of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and perhaps even since the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. But whether we are talking about ancient historical Jewish expulsions, such as those executed by the Assyrians in the eighth century BCE, by the Babylonians in the sixth century BCE, by the Romans in the second century CE, or about forced migrations in the modern eras induced by persecutions from Christians and Muslims, communists or fascists, the result has always been the same—Jews of the diaspora surviving through methods of acculturation, assimilation, and accommodation. The question of how a Jew remains a Jew while living in a non-Jewish world has created schisms of thought for centuries. At the end of the twentieth century, scholars identified a cultural and economic adaptation of a certain social class of Jews in the diaspora, and labeled it the "port Jew" identity.1 As I began examining the diaspora of Jews in East Asia, especially as it applied to my dissertation's focus on the various migrations of Jews to the Philippines, it became evident that certain opinions supporting port Jew theories could be, and I argue should be, applied to the long yet fractured history of Jewish settlement in Asia in general, and in the Philippines, specifically.

When David Cesarani discussed the topic of port Jews, he noted that 1930s Jewish scholar Salo Baron had likened the influence of Jewish merchants in Atlantic port cities to the role of their contemporaries, the court Jews of Central Europe during the Age of the Enlightenment.2 In the field of modern Jewish History, epics have been written discussing the Haskala, Jewish Enlightenment, and the sequence of events that led to the acculturation and sometimes assimilation of Jews into western European society between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. At the heart of these studies stood the thesis of court Jews as instigators of the modernization of Europe's Jews. But it is only [End Page 51] in the last twenty years that historians identified others as models of Judaic modernity; namely, the port Jews. Contemporaries of court Jews, these port Jews shared several distinctions with their mercantilist counterparts in Europe's royal courts and it is in both their similarities and their differences that the port Jew identity lays. Court Jews, mostly Ashkenazim of central Europe, fulfilled basic economic functions for the royal courts of Europe that secured these Jews favored positions of power and prosperity. Today these same services of economic utility identify port Jews as fellow "avatars of modernization in a Jewish ascent."3 However, it was primarily the Sephardic communities of Spain and Portugal, and not the Ashkenazi of central Europe, which provided the seagoing wayfarers who established trading networks connecting Jewish merchants in the Mediterranean with new ports of industry and trade throughout the Atlantic seaboard.

The assignation of port Jew theories traces back to Lois Dubin and David Sorkin who published their first treatises on the subject in 1999. Both conceptualized port Jews in terms of understanding the path that moved European Jewry into the modern age. Dubin discussed the northern Adriatic port city of Trieste, a major commercial shipping site of the Hapsburg monarchy, as a case study demonstrating how Ashkenazi Jews from Europe joined with "Sephardim and Levantine" merchant Jews to form a port Jew identity that provided insights into the relationship between the economic utility of merchant port Jews and the enlightened regeneration of Jewish life.4 While Dubin maintained that this "cosmopolitan Jewish community had wide-ranging personal and commercial ties and broad cultural horizons,"5 Sorkin cautioned against using the port Jew identity...


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