The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), one of the two largest grant-givers in Pennsylvania, is funding a “large-scale collaborative project to rewrite the histories, narratives and memories of and by Jews in the Middle East in the 19th to 21st centuries.” The money is to be spent on a multi-authored monograph as well as a special edition of Jewish Social Studies, considered by many to be the most prestigious journal in the field of Jewish studies.
NEH has a reputation for pushing a left-wing agenda and is controversial enough for the Trump administration to have wished to have it defunded.
“We’re talking about the history of 1 million people,” Sternfeld told his university, Penn State. “Most history books just want to show that Zionism was the only alternative for Jews living in the Middle East. To say that Jews were subject to restrictions that would not allow them to prosper and live in the Middle East is just nonsense. Jews were part of the society from Morocco to Afghanistan, and from central Asia to Yemen. We are going to look at Jews not as a group of people waiting for redemption by Zionism but as people who live and prosper and work and suffer and cry and laugh in the Middle East as part of Middle Eastern societies.”
Sternfeld is the author of a book on the minuscule number of Jews who supported the Islamic revolution. Campos wrote a nostalgic account of Ottoman pluralism and in her book New Babylonians, Bashkin portrays Iraqi Jews as privileged nationalists. By describing Jews as “part of society” these academics deny a separate Jewish identity and ultimately peoplehood.
Both Campos and Sternfeld were signatories to anti-Israel resolutions brought before the American Historical Association. More recently, Campos, Sternfeld and Bashkin signed on to the Statement on Israel and Palestine in Jewish Studies accusing Israel of engaging in “state violence” against Hamas.
The book may be used to obfuscate the causes of the exodus, to denigrate Israel and to restate the myth of peaceful coexistence between Jews and Muslims before 1948.
Sternfeld has pooh-poohed efforts to memorialize the exodus of Jews from Arab countries as a “large-scale national project—the writing of a ‘lachrymose’ history of the Jews of the Middle East, so as to justify contemporary Israeli policies, and to make up for a generations-long marginalization of Oriental Jews in Zionist historiography.”
Much as Sternfeld might wish to downplay the story of the exodus, it is a fact that 99 percent of Jews have left Arab and Muslim countries. Jewish refugees did not all go to Israel, but Israel made it its mission to rescue vast numbers of Jews who had no chance of being given refuge anywhere else.
Announcing the grant, Tobias Brinkmann, associate professor of Jewish studies and history at Penn State, said: “Campos, Sternfeld and Bashkin are questioning the powerful narratives that depict Jews in the Middle East as backward and isolated. With this project, they are shining an important light on the long history of close interactions between Jews and other groups in the Middle East before the dramatic changes that occurred during the first half of the 20th century. This NEH grant is clearly a recognition of research excellence.”
No one is questioning that Jews lived and could prosper in the Middle East and North Africa. Indeed they did so for a lot longer than Arabs, who conquered the region 1,000 years after Jews had settled there. No serious scholar would argue that life for Jews was one, continuous chronicle of misfortune. Jews interacted with the society around them, especially in trade and business. Arabic was the most widely spoken Jewish language for centuries.
But Jews were always a vulnerable minority, suffering from institutionalized discrimination as dhimmis under Islam. As one pundit has observed: “The NEH would never fund revisionist history that denied that black people were discriminated against during segregation. Why is it funding the same sort of revisionism against Israel?”
Sternfeld elides the pre-colonial condition of dhimmi status—where unquestionably, Jews suffered restrictions and a precarious existence—and their situation during the colonial era when Jews benefited from education and greater security. The good life that many enjoyed under the British and French protectorates and mandates was fatally threatened by the rise of Arab nationalism and Islamism, resulting in their forced exodus.
There is a deeper problem here. The prominence given by post-modern academics to cultural and socioeconomic factors over people, historical events and politics has served to falsify the history of Jews from Arab countries. Take, for example, the work of Bashkin, whose New Babylonians was reviewed by professor Norman A. Stillman.
Stillman says Bashkin is at “her insightful best” in describing the intellectual and cultural ferment in the Iraq of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. However, her chronicling of the watershed events of the 1940s leading up to the mass exodus of 1951 “lacks the same degree of analytical insight,” he writes.
“This is due, I suggest, to her basic approach as a cultural studies scholar who interprets texts, but does not fully take into account the actual events, people, and politics. It is also due to a priori ideological assumptions. Bashkin from the very outset acknowledges her intellectual debt to contrarians such Sami Zubaida, Ella Shohat and Gilbert Achcar, and the ghost of Edward Said often lurks in the background un-named. Previous historical work on the Jews of the Islamic world is reduced to an oversimplified caricature: ‘a model of harmonious coexistence’ or ‘a tale of perpetual persecution,’ and ‘alongside these ideas, an orientalist interpretation.’
“More seriously, there is an element of naïve wishful thinking which constantly views positive examples of Jewish acculturation and patriotism, on the one hand, and the openness of some Arab liberal intellectuals and politicians, on the other, as proving that the dark forces of radical Arab nationalism were not really as powerful as they appeared in retrospect.”
A shared culture and language with Arabs did not save the Jews of Iraq, any more than the Jewish contribution to German culture or their love of Mendelssohn and Goethe saved German Jews from Nazism. All MENA Jews, including anti-Zionists, Communists and the most Arabized, were forced to take the road to exile. And thus a study of how groups interacted before the great exodus becomes irrelevant, because it does not take into account actual events, political factors and actors such as Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Arab League, Nasser and Saddam, leading to the exclusion and persecution of Jews and other minorities.
Lyn Julius is the author of “Uprooted: How 3,000 years of Jewish Civilization in the Arab World Vanished Overnight” (Vallentine Mitchell, 2018).