This volume began with an informal discussion by the three editors at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in 1992. Recognizing the proliferation in the United States of college and university departments in both Middle Eastern and Jewish history, we noted the increasing interest in the role of Middle Eastern and North African Jews in shaping their societies. However, even with the significant monographs that have appeared since the 1980s highlighting aspects of the history and culture of the Jews in the Ottoman Empire, Eretz Israel (Palestine), Iran, North Africa, and their successor states of the twentieth century, we, like many of our colleagues, were frustrated that no one had done a coherent synthesis to present to our students in our courses on Jews of the modern Middle East.
This lacuna in both Jewish and Middle Eastern studies is partly because general histories of the region write Jews out of the standard narrative. As part of the religious and ethnic mosaic that was traditional Islamic society, Jews were but one among numerous minorities. As dhimmis, they played a subordinate role in the dominant Muslim society and appear intermittently, most notably as individuals who participated in certain economic niches.
Until modern times the story of the Jews in the region appeared in travelers' accounts and responsa literature (decisions from rabbis in response to submitted queries). With the development in the West of a scientific approach to the study of the Jewish people, however, Jewish historians of the nineteenth century analyzed their society in the context of the “Jewish question” posed by the Christian West. From a Eurocentric perspective the Jews, along with the non-Christian peoples in the Middle East and Asia, were perceived as the Other.
But just as European Christians touted the superiority of the West over the “Orient,” European Jews examined their own history Eurocentrically and praised the aristocrats of European Jewry, the Sephardim who achieved parity in multicultural medieval Spain, and in turn lamented the plight of Ashkenazi Jewry, persecuted and exiled from community to community. European Jews marginalized the other (non-European) Jews and Sephardim who settled in Europe and examined them in all their Otherness and