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Željka Oparnica

Inventing a modern diaspora: Balkan Sephardim 1890–1940

Željka Oparnica is a doctoral candidate in History at Birkbeck, University of London. She holds a MA degree in History of Central, Eastern and Southeastern Europe with a specialisation in Jewish studies from Central European University and a BA in History from University of Belgrade.

Her doctoral thesis, entitled Inventing a modern diaspora: Balkan Sephardim 1890–1940, explores the Sephardi Jews in the context of European Jewish politics and examines why and how the idea of diaspora became a political vehicle in the twentieth century. It centres around Esperanza, a student society for the promotion of Sephardi language and culture formed at the University of Vienna in 1897. Amid the blossoming Jewish nationalisms, Esperanza was the first modern exclusively Sephardi organisation in Europe and it soon outgrew its initial cultural and academia-focused ambitions. Esperanza’s alumni made the core of the Sarajevo-based ‘Sephardi circle’ that mobilised the Sephardi diaspora as a political body between 1910s and 1930s.

This project explores how the Sephardi movement opened space for minority politics within the Jewish national politics, but also within multinational, multi-ethnic societies, and specifically within the Austro-Hungarian empire and interwar Yugoslavia. Oparnica’s work sheds light on minority movements as agents of social change and their unintended influences. As her work shows, underrepresented voices forged their space in modern society, but they also shaped the terms of the debates and outcomes in the European twentieth century.