NEH grant will help scholars challenge current views of Jews in the Middle East

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Lior Sternfeld, associate professor of history and Jewish studies, and Michelle Campos, associate professor of Jewish studies and history, have received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) for a project that challenges conventional thinking about the history of Jews in the Middle East. The nearly $250,000 grant is one of the two largest NEH grants awarded in Pennsylvania this year.

Titled “Reimagining Jewish Life in the Modern Middle East, 1800 – Present: Culture, Society, and History,” the project grew out of a concern that historical accounts of Jewish life in Middle Eastern countries fail to tell the comprehensive story. The project will ultimately result in 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.

Project directors Sternfeld, a historian of Iran, and Campos, a historian of the Ottoman Empire, are joined by Orit Bashkin, professor of Modern Middle East history at the University of Chicago. Bashkin focuses her research on Jews in Iraq.

According to Campos, the project idea emerged following a 2014 “Jews in the Middle East” roundtable organized by Bashkin, with Sternfeld and Campos as contributors. The roundtable was published in the International Journal of Middle East Studies.

“We talked about the need to pull together a work that would properly address the tradition of Jews in the Middle East,” Campos said, noting the existence of “outdated and bad textbooks” on the subject. “It’s very clear that there needs to be an essential revision for the broader regional narrative.

“Applying to the NEH for funding was almost an afterthought,” Campos continued. “We were determined to do this no matter what, but the grant gives us the resources to support our efforts and make it bigger and better than we had envisioned.” 

“We’re talking about the history of one million people,” Sternfeld added. “Most history books just want to show that Zionism [a movement for the re-establishment and the development and protection of a Jewish nation in what is now Israel] 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.”

“Campos, Sternfeld and Bashkin are questioning the powerful narratives that depict Jews in the Middle East as backward and isolated,” said Tobias Brinkmann, Malvin E. and Lea P. Bank Associate Professor of Jewish Studies and History and director of the Penn State Jewish Studies program. “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.”

A cohort of international scholars

Before they applied to the NEH for funding, Sternfeld, Campos and Bashkin planned an international workshop and called for papers from Jewish studies and Middle Eastern studies scholars from around the world. Expecting 15-20 papers, the project directors were shocked when they received approximately 90 papers representing multiple disciplines — sociology, politics, economics, literature, language and more.

Thirty-five papers were selected, and a three-day workshop, held via Zoom in February 2021, was convened with the intention of creating a collaborative monograph with 40 co-authors (35 workshop attendees, the three project directors, and two key collaborators from Israel’s Ben Gurion University of the Negev — Menashe Anzi and Orit Ouaknine Yekutieli — who will also serve as co-editors of the book).   

“As you might imagine, it’s a pretty small subfield of people who work on Jews in the Middle East from a relational perspective,” Campos said. “This means using Arabic or Farsi or Turkish sources as well as Hebrew or other indigenous languages. We need to study Jewish populations as embedded in their surrounding society, which one does not see if only reading Jewish languages.

“Our book project aims to synthesize this,” Campos continued. “It will show that the Jewish experience in the Middle East was not all the same, was not all terrible persecution, was not all this wonderful paradise of coexistence. And what’s particularly exciting is the way we are writing this book. We are a large cohort of scholars who are writing it together, drawing on each other’s strengths and expertise to generate new conceptualizations, comparisons and analyses.”

Sternfeld added, “The book is not just for scholars. We want it to be accessible to high school students, to professors and to anyone interested in Jewish history. The grant has given us a budget for good copy editing that will unify the style and language and prose of the scholars, many of whom do not speak English as their main language. But this is the beauty of it because they all come with extremely important firsthand knowledge of the subject matter.”

Expected to be published in 2024, the book will include 11 integrated and connected chapters — “neither a one-historian treatise nor an encyclopedic volume of separate essays by individual scholars,” noted Sternfeld.

In addition to providing funding for the book project, the NEH grant will subsidize a website featuring primary sources and articles, a special February 2022 issue of “Jewish Social Science” (edited by Sternfeld, Campos and Bashkin), a follow-up workshop in April 2022 during which working groups will present their chapters, and at least one public facing workshop that will offer Penn State students the opportunity to hear from the scholars involved in the project.

“It’s wonderful to see our recent investment in Middle Eastern history paying such tremendous dividends so quickly," said Michael Kulikowski, Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of History and Classics and head of the Department of History, noting that the department recently launched a program in Middle Eastern Studies. “NEH collaborative research grants are among the most important awards that scholars in the humanities can receive. This grant really underlines the significance of Lior’s and Michelle’s work on the making of the modern Middle East and the superb quality of the research team they’re putting together.”

Sternfeld said the NEH reviewers commented that the project will add not only to the understanding of Jewish life in the Middle East, but also to the understanding of the Middle East itself.

“The Middle East is not a monolith,” he said. “It is made up of diverse, multi-class, multi-ethnic societies, and we believe our work will be of interest to Jewish studies scholars as well as those who want to know more about the Middle East in general. It is phenomenal to see and showcase the groundbreaking work that people are doing, and the NEH grant allows us to dream even bigger.”

“This project is of global interest,” Campos concluded. “We’re not presuming to be able to tell the entire story, but our job is to home in on themes that have exciting new horizons, that have something to say about the Jewish past that is important for Jewish history and Middle Eastern history and that is relevant to students, families and communities both here in the states as well as in Israel, Europe and the countries of the Middle East.”

Lior Sternfeld, associate professor of history and Jewish studies, co-principal investigator on new NEH-funded project about the history of Jews in the Middle East. Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

Michelle Campos, associate professor of Jewish studies and history, co-principal investigator on new NEH-funded project about the history of Jews in the Middle East. Credit: Michelle CamposAll Rights Reserved.

Last Updated November 03, 2021