Can Damascus 1840 be Re-oriented? From Shami historical memory to Sephardi and Mizrahi agency

Noah S. Gerber*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The Damascus blood libel of 1840 had a significant role in shaping modern Jewish historical memory. It generated a sense of solidarity demonstrated by Western European Jewish men of affairs (such as Moses Montefiore) with their less fortunate non-European brethren, setting the stage for the global practice of both Jewish politics and philanthropy for the betterment of the latter. Zionist historiography expanded on this theme while enhancing the gulf between Western Jewish saviours and the historical passivity of helpless Middle Eastern Jews. This essay demonstrates how the direct beneficiaries of the original event, the Shami (Syrian and specifically Damascene) Jews, while gracious to their saviours, attributed in fact no meaning to this event in their own communal construction of the past. The one native account of what happened was facilitated to begin with, and its rabbinic author largely oblivious to the significance of what had transpired. Even the presence of the Alliance Israélite Universelle in fin di siècle Damascus, a direct outcome of 1840, failed to further generate native historical consciousness. Subsequently the essay probes early Zionist efforts to codify a more regionally rooted memory of the affair for the sake of harnessing the local Jewish community to a land of Israel centred future. These efforts, however, failed to prevent Sephardi and Mizrahi Israelis from feeling sidetracked by an emerging Eurocentric Zionist foundational narrative. By revisiting the Israeli Pillar of Fire affair we conclude by identifying a specifically Syrian-Jewish predicament of being left out of this drama.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)95-116
Number of pages22
JournalJournal of Modern Jewish Studies
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2021


  • Albert Antebi
  • Avraham Elmaleh
  • Ben-Zion Dinur
  • Damascus blood libel
  • Jacob Antebi
  • Jewish Orientalism
  • Joseph Joel Rivlin
  • Louis Loewe
  • Moses Montefiore
  • Ottoman Syria
  • Sephardi and Mizrahi Jewry
  • Zionist historiography
  • historical memory
  • ritual murder
  • special Purim


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