The best books on Jewish histories of the Middle East

Lior B. Sternfeld Author Of Between Iran and Zion: Jewish Histories of Twentieth-Century Iran
By Lior B. Sternfeld

Who am I?

I always felt that Middle Eastern studies is different from other fields of history. Its ever-presence in our life, the news cycle, religious life, political life, yet, because of language barriers and other filters, there’s a gap in knowledge that is highly conspicuous when forming one’s opinion. When I started my academic training, I felt like I was swimming in this ocean of histories that were completely unknown to me. I studied the Jewish histories of the region only later in my training and found that this gap is even more visible when talking about the history of Jews in the Middle East, because of misconceptions of antisemitism, the Israel-Palestine conflict, political tilt of media outlet, and more. For me, entering this field was a way to understand long-term processes in my own society, and expand the body of scholarship to enrich the public conversation on top of the academic one.


I wrote...

Between Iran and Zion: Jewish Histories of Twentieth-Century Iran

By Lior B. Sternfeld,

Book cover of Between Iran and Zion: Jewish Histories of Twentieth-Century Iran

What is my book about?

Iran is home to the largest Jewish population in the Middle East, outside of Israel. At its peak in the twentieth century, the population numbered around 100,000; today about 25,000 Jews live in Iran. Between Iran and Zion offers the first history of this vibrant community over the course of the last century, from the 1905 Constitutional Revolution through the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Over this period, Iranian Jews grew from a peripheral community into a prominent one that has made clear impacts on daily life in Iran.

The books I picked & why

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The Dispersion of Egyptian Jewry, 11: Culture, Politics, and the Formation of a Modern Diaspora

By Joel Beinin,

Book cover of The Dispersion of Egyptian Jewry, 11: Culture, Politics, and the Formation of a Modern Diaspora

Why this book?

Until two decades ago, the historiographical school of Jewish pasts in the Middle East was broadly aligned with what we call the neo-lachrymose approach. This approach usually examines the Jewish communities in the MENA region as if they lived in isolation from the non-Jewish majority society. Beinin’s book paved the way to profoundly different directions in studying the Jewish communities of Egypt and the region. Beinin analyzed the various Jewish communities that existed in Egypt (primarily prior to 1956), placed them in the context of global, regional, and Egyptian national history. Moreover, he forever dismantled the notion that we can essentialize the life, experience, and narratives of almost 1 million MENA Jews and have one simple account in the output.

The Dispersion of Egyptian Jewry, 11: Culture, Politics, and the Formation of a Modern Diaspora

By Joel Beinin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Dispersion of Egyptian Jewry, 11 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this provocative and wide-ranging history, Joel Beinin examines fundamental questions of ethnic identity by focusing on the Egyptian Jewish community since 1948. A complex and heterogeneous people, Egyptian Jews have become even more diverse as their diaspora continues to the present day. Central to Beinin's study is the question of how people handle multiple identities and loyalties that are dislocated and reformed by turbulent political and cultural processes. It is a question he grapples with himself, and his reflections on his experiences as an American Jew in Israel and Egypt offer a candid, personal perspective on the hazards of…


Iranophobia: The Logic of an Israeli Obsession

By Haggai Ram,

Book cover of Iranophobia: The Logic of an Israeli Obsession

Why this book?

Haggai Ram was one of my Master’s thesis advisors. In this book, he shows how the idea of the Iranian threat was developed, partly as a process of Israeli self-reflection. Iranophobia is indispensable for the reader who would like to know about the roots of animosity between Iran and Israel, the history of the imagination of Iran and Israel vis-à-vis The West, and critical gaze on Zionism and Jewish Statehood in the Middle East. This book exemplifies the importance of looking beyond filters of mythmaking and the political tendencies of history writing and being on the lookout when reading contemporary history for political persuasions and connections between politics and academia.

Iranophobia: The Logic of an Israeli Obsession

By Haggai Ram,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Iranophobia as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Israel and Iran invariably are portrayed as sworn enemies, engaged in an unending conflict with potentially apocalyptic implications.Iranophobia offers an innovative and provocative new reading of this conflict. Concerned foremost with how Israelis perceive Iran, the author steps back from all-too-common geopolitical analyses to show that this conflict is as much a product of shared cultural trajectories and entangled histories as it is one of strategic concerns and political differences.

Haggai Ram, an Israeli scholar, explores prevalent Israeli assumptions about Iran to look at how these assumptions have, in turn, reflected and shaped Jewish Israeli identity. Drawing on diverse political,…


New Babylonians: A History of Jews in Modern Iraq

By Orit Bashkin,

Book cover of New Babylonians: A History of Jews in Modern Iraq

Why this book?

Iraq was home to about 150,000 Jews until 1948-1951. Baghdad was a very much Jewish city. Iraqi Jews were very assimilated, but there was very little known about the political and social history of Iraqi Jews beyond the Zionist story. While many of the Iraqi Jews did indeed view Zionism as a viable solution for them, overlooking Jewish involvement in Iraqi national and communist organizations misses several of the most fascinating transformations of any Jewish community in the world. In this book, Bashkin analyzed the social, cultural, and national participation of Iraqi Jews from within the perspective of Iraqi society. Interestingly, many of the patterns continued even after their migration to Israel.

New Babylonians: A History of Jews in Modern Iraq

By Orit Bashkin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked New Babylonians as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Although Iraqi Jews saw themselves as Iraqi patriots, their community-which had existed in Iraq for more than 2,500 years-was displaced following the establishment of the state of Israel. New Babylonians chronicles the lives of these Jews, their urban Arab culture, and their hopes for a democratic nation-state. It studies their ideas about Judaism, Islam, secularism, modernity, and reform, focusing on Iraqi Jews who internalized narratives of Arab and Iraqi nationalisms and on those who turned to communism in the 1940s. As the book reveals, the ultimate displacement of this community was not the result of a perpetual persecution on the…


Ottoman Brothers: Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Early Twentieth-Century Palestine

By Michelle U. Campos,

Book cover of Ottoman Brothers: Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Early Twentieth-Century Palestine

Why this book?

Students of Middle East studies learn a lot about Ottoman history, specifically about the Ottoman Empire's last decades, before WWI. But historians gave very little attention to the Arab provinces of the empire in comparison to Istanbul and the imperial center. In this book, Campos presented the fascinating case of Ottoman Palestine. Campos shows the most convincing rebuttal for the theories that attributed no Ottoman identity in the peripheries. The fantastic picture of Jerusalem during the last years of the empire can teach us a lot about the relations between Jews, Christians, and Muslims in Palestine, the understanding of national and imperial frameworks at the turn of the century, and the optimistic reader may find ideas to deadlock conflicts in the 21st century.

Ottoman Brothers: Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Early Twentieth-Century Palestine

By Michelle U. Campos,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Ottoman Brothers as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In its last decade, the Ottoman Empire underwent a period of dynamic reform, and the 1908 revolution transformed the empire's 20 million subjects into citizens overnight. Questions quickly emerged about what it meant to be Ottoman, what bound the empire together, what role religion and ethnicity would play in politics, and what liberty, reform, and enfranchisement would look like. Ottoman Brothers explores the development of Ottoman collective identity, tracing how Muslims, Christians, and Jews became imperial citizens together. In Palestine, even against the backdrop of the emergence of the Zionist movement and Arab nationalism, Jews and Arabs cooperated in local…


Memories of Absence: How Muslims Remember Jews in Morocco

By Aomar Boum,

Book cover of Memories of Absence: How Muslims Remember Jews in Morocco

Why this book?

When we talk about the need to read Jewish history in the Middle East within its original context, and within the understanding that Jews lived among non-Jews, interacted with non-Jews, and had a tremendous influence on their respective societies, from time to time, we need to change the perspective and see how their non-Jewish compatriots viewed them and remember them. In this book, Aomar Boum recorded the ways in which the Muslims of Morocco remember the large Jewish communities that lived in that country for millennia and shrunk to a fraction of their former self after 1956-1967. This book allows us to examine multiple perspectives simultaneously. The national and colonial identities, the essence of Middle Eastern Zionism, and the place of the memory of Jews after they had left in the modern societies.

Memories of Absence: How Muslims Remember Jews in Morocco

By Aomar Boum,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Memories of Absence as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

There is a Moroccan saying: A market without Jews is like bread without salt. Once a thriving community, by the late 1980s, 240,000 Jews had emigrated from Morocco. Today, fewer than 4,000 Jews remain. Despite a centuries-long presence, the Jewish narrative in Moroccan history has largely been suppressed through national historical amnesia, Jewish absence, and a growing dismay over the Palestinian conflict.

Memories of Absence investigates how four successive generations remember the lost Jewish community. Moroccan attitudes toward the Jewish population have changed over the decades, and a new debate has emerged at the center of the Moroccan nation: Where…


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