The intellectual life of Jews in the Middle East from 1800 to 1950 is a rich and complex field that has yet to be fully explored. The abrupt uprooting of ancient Middle Eastern Jewish communities in the 1950s meant that vast quantities of material (books, manuscripts, journals, newspapers, films, artwork, photographs, musical recordings, and personal documents) were left behind or survived only in fragments. The political and social circumstances of the transfer of these communities to Israel—along with the real ways in which the fates of Middle Eastern Jews and Palestinian Arabs become intertwined—bear the burden of a whole set of issues directly affecting the history of scholarship and general perceptions regarding the intellectual life of Middle Eastern Jews.
Middle Eastern Jews were typecast in the role of “primitive survivors” of an archaic past, and Israeli educational, social, and cultural institutions stigmatized them, reinforcing the boundaries of a class society based on ethnic, cultural, and linguistic background. Severed from their native space and cultures, a majority of these new immigrants found themselves in a vacuum. The very idea that these communities possessed densely textured and creative public and private intellectual lives ran against every stereotype embedded in the institutional structures and common rhetoric of the new state. In this context the intellectual life of these Middle Eastern Jewish communities—initiated at the dawn of the technical age and forged in the cauldron of colonialism and nationalism—was almost unimaginable. While mainstream Israeli discourse claimed to have saved these communities from backwardness and stagnation, it simply cut from the script the real and substantial participation of Middle Eastern Jews in crucial and transitional moments of modernity. Thus academic and rabbinic scholars, intellectuals,