The Jews of the Middle East and North Africa in Modern Times

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The Jews of the Middle East and North Africa in Modern Times, edited by Reeva Spector Simon, Michael Menachem Laskier, and Sara Reuger. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003. 549 pp. $26.00.

The past fifty years have witnessed the emergence of an extensive scholarly literature, across a range of disciplines, on Middle Eastern and North African Jewries. Although this scholarship is no longer as marginal as it once was in Jewish Studies, there has yet to appear a coherent synthesis of modern Jewish history in the region. It is to fill this gap that Reeva Spector Simon, Michael Menachem Laskier, and Sara Reuger offer The Jews of the Middle East and North Africa in Modern Times. Whether or not the editors have succeeded in compiling a coherent and compelling synthesis, we are fortunate that they have made the attempt. The result is a useful collection that furthers the cause of both expanding the scope of Jewish Studies and integrating Jewish history into the broader historiography of the region.

Insofar as one theme unites the historical narratives compiled in this edited volume, it is the conventional theme of the transition from tradition to modernity. Beyond this, and even though nearly one-third of the chapters are authored by the editors themselves, there are notable tensions and contradictions between specific contributions. To take one significant example, there is a disagreement between some of the authors regarding the extent to which local rabbis "had a vested interest in the continuation of traditional ways" (p. 287) as opposed to the extent to which rabbinical authorities emphasized "the capability of accommodating Judaism to modern conditions" (p. 72). This tension, no doubt, reflects diverse rabbinical responses to modernity, but it also reflects differences in the extent to which the authors themselves approach tradition and modernity as concrete, successive, and mutually exclusive domains. Taken together, the chapters go far in demonstrating the variety of specific European interventions in the region and the forms of local Jewish response thereby entailed, but only some of the chapters resist reducing this variety to the master narrative of modernization. In particular, the chapters by Zvi Zohar (religion), Ammiel Alcalay (intellectual life), and Harvey Goldberg (Libya) productively challenge the putative features of tradition (i.e., retrogression, stagnancy, resistance to change, insularity) and demonstrate the nuances and ambiguities of Jewish modernity in North Africa and the Middle East.

What distinguishes this volume, then, is less its coherent synthesis and more its encyclopedic form, its accessible style, and its potential interest to a varied audience. The volume comprises twenty-six chapters, half of them organized thematically (economic life, education, music, etc. …