February 16, 2022
To the National Endowment for the Humanities:
The past few years have seen an extraordinary flowering of interest in Middle Eastern Jewish life and history. Internationally, the Abraham Accords have opened new opportunities to excavate and reinvigorate Jewish culture and history in Arab nations, while Israel has increasingly paid heed to ensuring that Mizrahi and Sephardic Jewish life is incorporated into collective national narratives. Domestically, we have seen an unprecedented rate of growth in academic initiatives focused on the histories and culture of Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews, from K-12 through higher education. Most recently, the US National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) has awarded a nearly $250,000 grant to fund a scholarly project dedicated to “Reimagining Jewish Life in the Modern Middle East, 1800 – Present.”
As organizations representing Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews, Jewish communities from the Middle East and North Africa, we view the growth in interest in Middle Eastern and North African Jewish history as a welcome and long overdue development. This federally funded NEH grant exhibits growing public interest in our communal histories and as a publicly funded project, invites citizen engagement. As American citizens from the communities the grant seeks to “reimagine” we issue this statement to the NEH to sound a note of caution regarding certain trends which, regrettably, we have regularly seen manifest in writings about Middle Eastern Jews. We do so in the hopes that we can forestall potential distortion and politicization, and intolerable weaponization, of the memory and history of Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewry.
Too often there exists a marked gap between those writing about Middle Eastern Jews, on the one hand, and the views and experiences of the Middle Eastern Jewish community itself, on the other. Frequently, this gap manifests in ill-conceived, tendentious, and often ideologically-motivated “histories” that opportunistically flatten our experience to fit contemporary political agendas. Such works are typically self-consciously partisan and fail to do justice to the complex and layered relationship Middle Eastern Jews have with, among other things, Arabic or Persian language and culture, Zionism and anti-Zionism, Israeli state policies of inclusion and of exclusion, and experiences of dispossession and expulsion in lands Jews had called home for millennia. That these are fraught and politically-contested topics does not justify polemicists deciding to rewrite our stories and histories for their own partisan ambitions.
Other times, Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews are “represented” via interactions with an unrepresentative and marginal set of activists and scholars whose views are presented as authoritative even as they characterize only a small sliver of Middle Eastern Jewish perspectives. Individual books, articles, and theses have been cherry-picked and wrongly presented as if they are the only authoritative word on Middle Eastern Jewish life.
The result has been to render narratives about Middle Eastern Jews, including those found in major textbooks or public discourse, often virtually unrecognizable to Middle Eastern Jews. This, in turn, has profoundly alienated many in our community from the very projects and literature that should be most essential in preserving our history and facilitating our place in Jewish, Middle Eastern, and global society—an inestimable tragedy for Middle Eastern Jews and, we submit, for the scholarly community that should be more invested in accurate historical narration than in scoring transient political points.
Middle Eastern Jews in America, Israel, and around the world must not be rendered tertiary characters in our own stories; a frequent occurrence when minority communities become the academic subjects of mainstream, Western scholarship. Some in our community have expressed concern that the new NEH-funded project, helmed by Professors Lior Sternfeld, Michelle Campos and Orit Bashkin, may replicate these well-known and harmful trends in scholarship about Middle Eastern Jews.
It is, of course, impossible to judge a book that has not yet been written. However, some of the authors have made concerning statements that suggest either unfamiliarity with, or derision towards, already-existing histories and accounts of Middle Eastern Jewish perspectives. It is entirely true, as one co-author put it, that Middle Eastern Jews were not merely “a group of people waiting for redemption by Zionism but” were also people who “live[d] and prosper[ed] and work[ed] and suffer[ed] … in the Middle East as part of Middle Eastern societies.” It is not remotely true to suggest this is a novel observation representing the need for a full-scale “reimagining” of Jewish life in the Middle East, or that existing literature from Mizrahi Jewish writers have presented their accounts in such a flat and superficial manner.
Our intention in writing this letter is to insist that all scholars partaking in the emergent wave of scholarship about Middle Eastern Jews, of which this project is but one, take affirmative steps to guard against painting a false or misleading portrayal of Middle Eastern Jewish history that is more loyal to ideological or political commitments than to complex social histories. This includes avoiding, downplaying, or misrepresenting the state of existing scholarship and history about Middle Eastern Jewish communities, as well as denigrating or denying the values and choices Middle Eastern Jews have made, past and present, including those about Zionism and Israel. The undersigned groups, deeply rooted in our communities’ daily life and with decades of experience collecting and curating the history of diverse Middle Eastern Jewish communities welcome the opportunity to collaborate and contribute to this new wave of academic interest in our heritage and history.
Finally, we recognize that the flowering of new research on Middle Eastern Jewish experience will inevitably produce articles, chapters, or manuscripts that provoke significant controversy and debate. This is unavoidable and part and parcel of a laudable commitment to academic freedom and free inquiry, however, we the undersigned organizations insist on the lodestone commitment that discussions about these controversies and debates do not sideline Mizrahi and Sephardic Jewish voices.
No single author or manuscript can be expected to capture the full richness and diversity of Middle Eastern Jewish experience, nor do any write upon a blank slate. The new wave of emergent scholarship can and should be placed into conversation with the many excellent works that already exist. As we await the fruits of the next generation of research, and the inevitable discussion, debate, and disputation that will arise, we would like to bring attention to this bibliography of academic works on Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews, that can help guide learning about our community in a way that is respectful of, and resonant with, our own lived experiences.
30 Years After
Beit Sasson – The Sephardic Congregation of Newton
Congregation Bene Naharayim of Queens, New York
Eretz Synagogue and Cultural Center
Iranian American Jewish Federation
JIMENA: Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa
JJAC: Justice for Jews from Arab Countries
SAMi: Sephardic American Mizrahi Initiative
Sephardic Congregation of Paramus, New Jersey
Sephardic Education Center
Sephardic Jews in DC
Sinai Temple of Los Angeles
Temple Moses Sephardic Synagogue of Miami