Sasson Somekh was born in Baghdad to a secular Jewish family. In 1951, Somekh and his family immigrated to Israel in the wake of growing pressures on the Jews of Iraq to leave the country. He did not know Hebrew at the time, but started learning it in earnest in order to achieve his goal of becoming a translator of Arabic poetry into Hebrew. His first translation was published in 1954 in Ner, a journal published by Ihud ("Unity"), an association dedicated to the advancement of Arab–Jewish reconciliation established by Judah Magnes.
Somekh earned a Bachelor's degree in Hebrew Language and History from Tel Aviv University, and a Master's degree in Linguistics of Semitic languages at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In 1962–1965, Somekh served as scientific secretary of the Academy of the Hebrew Language. He did his doctorate at Oxford University in 1966–1968. His subject was the novels of Naguib Mahfouz, concentrating on the Cairo Trilogy. Over the years Mahfouz and Somekh became friends. The thesis supervisor was Egyptian scholar Mustafa Badawi. Upon his return to Israel he became a lecturer in Arabic Literature. He served as chairman of the Arabic Language and Literature department at Tel Aviv University in 1972–1984. In 1980, he became a full professor. Between 1982 and 2003, he held the Helmos Chair for Arabic Literature. In 1996–1998 he was head of the Israel Academic Center in Cairo. He was a visiting professor at Princeton University, St Antony's College, Oxford, Annenberg Research Institute, NYU and Uppsala University. In 2004, he received an honorary doctorate from Ben Gurion University.
He is among the founders of the Arabic Language Academy in Israel, established in December 2007 in collaboration with several former students.
He wrote 10 books, many translations from Arabic to Hebrew, among which are 4 anthologies of modern Arabic poetry, and about 90 articles in academic journals. Over the past 50 years Somekh published hundreds of articles in literary magazines and supplements such as Iton 77, Halikon and Moznayim. His articles deal mainly with modern Arabic literature and writers, connections between Arabic and Hebrew literature and the Cairo Geniza. He is a regular contributor to Haaretz newspaper.
Awards and recognition
At the age of 70, Somekh wrote the first volume of his autobiography, Baghdad, Yesterday: The Making of an Arab Jew. The book was published in Hebrew and has been translated into Arabic, English and Turkish. In the book he describes his life as a Jewish child and teenager in Baghdad during the first 17 years of his life. He speaks of being a secular Jewish child from a secular Jewish home. He shows that the educated middle class that achieved prominence in the 1930s and 40s was the main influence on the norms of life in the Jewish community. Also, he shows that the Jews of Iraq enjoyed neighborly relations with their Muslim neighbors. Perhaps not ideal relations, but mutual respect between neighbors.
The second volume, Yamim Hazuyim ("Call it Dreaming")  was published in 2008. It describes his life between Tel Aviv, Oxford, Princeton, and Cairo between 1951 and 2000. The book moves between the four major stations of his life: Tel Aviv - where he lived and worked for 40 years as a professor of Arabic literature, Oxford - where he received his PhD, Princeton - where he was occasionally a visiting professor in the 1970s and 80s, and Cairo - the city he did much literary research in, and where he was the head of the Israel Academic Center.
Published works in English
- Baghdad, Yesterday : The Making of an Arab Jew / Sasson Somekh. Jerusalem : Ibis Editions, 2007
- The Changing Rhythm: A Study of Najib Mahfuz’s Novels/Sasson Somekh. Leiden: Brill, 1973
- Genre and language in modern Arabic literature / Sasson Somekh. Wiesbaden : O. Harrassowitz, 1991.
- "The Sad Millenarian: An Examination of Awlad Haratina", Middle Eastern Studies 7, 49-61, 1971
- "Two Versions of Dialogue in Mahmud Taymur's Drama", Princeton Near East Paper No. 21, Princeton, 1975
- "Language and Theme in the Short Stories of Yusuf Idris", Journal of Arabic Literature 4, 89-100, 1975
- "The Transformation of 'Ghalwa", Journal of Arabic Literature 6 (1976), 101-119
- " The Diglotic Dilemma in the Drama of Tawfiq al-Hakim", Israel Oriental Studies 9, 392-403, 1983
- "The Function of Sound in the Stories of Yusuf Idris", Journal of Arabic Literature 16, 95-104, 1985
- "The Participation of Egyptian Jews in Modern Arabic Culture", The Jews of Egypt in Modern Times, Shimon Shamir (ed.), Boulder: Westview, 130-140, 1986
- "A Minute to Midnight: War and Peace in the Novels of Naguib Mahfouz", Middle East Review 20:2, 7-19, 1987
- "Shelley in Neoclassical Arabic", Edebiyat, NS, Vol. I, No.2, 89-100, 1989
- "Modern Arabic Poetry and its Medieval Palimpsest", Edebiyat, NS, 3:1, 105-118, 1989
- "Cold, Tall Houses: The Jewish Neighbor in the Works of Arab Authors", Jerusalem Quarterly 52, 26-35, 1989
- "Lost Voices: Jewish Authors in Modern Arabic Literature", in Jews Among Arabs: Contact and Boundaries, Mark R. Cohen and Abraham L. Udovitch (eds.), Princeton: Darwin Press, 9-20, 1989
- "The Essence of Naguib Mahfouz", The Tel-Aviv Review 2, 244-257, 1990
- (with Mark R. Cohen), "In the Court of Ya'qub Ibn Killis: A Fragment from the Cairo Geniza", Jewish Quarterly Review 80, 283-314, 1990
- "The Neo-Classical Arabic Poets", in Modern Arabic Literature, Cambridge History of Arabic Literature, M.M. Badawi (ed.), Cambridge: CUP, 26-81, 1992
- "Colloquialized Fusha in Modern Arabic Prose Fiction", Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 16, 176-194, 1993
- "Structure of Silence: A Reading of Yusuf's Idris's 'Bayt Min Lahm'", Writer, Culture, Text: Studies in Modern Arabic Literature, Ami Elad (ed.) Frediction: York Press, 56-61, 1993
- "Biblical Echoes in Modern Arabic Literature", Journal of Arabic Literature 26, 186-200, 1995
- "Vestiges of Saadia's Tafsir in Modern Arabic Bibles", Judaism and Islam: Boundaries, Communication and Interaction: Essays in Honor of William M. Brinner, B. Hary, F. Aster, J. Hayes (eds.), Leiden: Brill, 227-236, 2000
- Life After Baghdad, Sasson Somekh
- "Israel Prize Judges' Rationale for the Award (in Hebrew)". Israel Prize Official Site. Archived from the original on 29 June 2010.
- Review of The Making of an Arab Jew
- Arab Poetry for Jews: Sasson Somekh, Haim Watzman, December 2, 2008, Jewcy