UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When Lior Sternfeld, assistant professor of history and Jewish studies, attended school in his native Israel, he fully intended to become a high school history teacher. Needing to choose an additional course of study, though, he thought Middle Eastern studies might be interesting.
"Increasingly, I realized that it should be my focus," he said.
The course in Middle Eastern studies led Sternfeld to Ben Gurion University, where he developed an interest in Iran.
"I took a seminar on Iran, and it was such an eye opener," Sternfeld explained. "I realized how exciting and interesting it was and how necessary it was for our context to know the country's history. We can't understand anything about the Middle East in the 21st century if we don't understand Iranian society."
For his master's degree at Ben Gurion, Sternfeld focused on the nationalist movement in Iran in the 1950s from a regional perspective. Intending to continue his doctoral research on the same path, Sternfeld came to the University of Texas at Austin, where his interest shifted to something he never expected. About two years into his program, and after taking a course to "just get it out of the way," Sternfeld found himself writing about the Jews of Iran.
"I never planned to study the Iranian Jewish community," he confessed. "But I came upon some stories about Jews in the revolution of 1979 and the role they played. I realized that perhaps I should change my focus to Iranian Jews."
The shift led to Sternfeld's joining the Penn State faculty in 2015, where he was hired as a Middle Eastern studies and Jewish history scholar, and to his first book: "Between Iran and Zion: Jewish Histories of Twentieth-Century Iran." Published in 2018 by Stanford University Press, the book examines Zionism and constitutionalism against the backdrop of Iranian nationalism as well as the development and integration of Jewish communities in Iran into the nation-building projects of the last century.
The book's subsequent translation into Hebrew led to an August 2020 cover story in Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper founded in 1918.
"The interviewer from Haaretz read my book and told me it was amazing that no one wanted to talk about Iranian Jews," explained Sternfeld. "Iranian Jews are a continuous part of Iranian society, not just a passing subject."
The book and the Haaretz story have sparked both positive and negative responses, said Sternfeld, noting that people feel very strongly about it.
Ultimately, though, the book and the article accomplish what Sternfeld always hoped: "I did it to stimulate academic and public conversation about Jewish history and Iran."
"Dr. Sternfeld is a pivotal figure in our department's cluster of excellence in Middle East history, including three newly hired faculty," said Michael Kulikowski, Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of History and Classics and head of the Department of History. "His work on the Jewish community in Iran has attracted major international attention, including a widely read interview in Haaretz, and is widely and justly praised. He's also built up an impressive series of public events, including virtual seminars and rarely- seen films and documentaries on the recent history of the region. The University is very lucky to have rising stars like this on its faculty."
"Penn State is becoming one of the best places for Middle Eastern studies in the world," concluded Sternfeld. "I don't know another history department in the entire U.S. that has 10 faculty members focused on the Middle East and the Muslim world. We have cutting edge scholarship, and we are starting all sorts of exciting initiatives. We are really going to shape the discipline in the years to come."