Restoring the Context and Comparative Perspective to Israel Studies

Posted: 10/21/2007 10:37:00 AM
Author: Gerald M. Steinberg
Source: This article appeared in SPME Faculty Voices on October 15, 2007.

Restoring the Context and Comparative Perspective to Israel Studies
by Gerald M. Steinberg, Bar-Ilan University

Much of the discussion on university campuses places Israel in a uniquely hostile and one-dimensional framework, using special criteria and double standards, while erasing the context of terror, war threats of mass destruction. The bulk of courses, guest lectures, conferences, rallies, film festivals, boycott and divestment campaigns, and other activities related to Israel focus on "the occupation", as if history began in June 1967, or, in other cases, with the spontaneous creation of the Palestinian refugee crisis in 1948. Palestinians are consistently and patronizingly portrayed as hopeless victims, Israel is painted as the arch villain.

To counter these distortions, courses, lectureships, debates, and other special programs in Israel Studies must confront this false paradigm. These and related activities need to place Israel back into context, if not as an ordinary country, at least as part of history and in a comparative framework among the countries of the world. Israel is not perfect and should not be portrayed in an idealized manner, no more than it should be demonized by boycotts and through terms such as “apartheid” and “ethnic cleansing”.

While the Arab-Israeli context cannot and should not be ignored, it is important to expand the discussion to include many other dimensions. These include culture, economics, society, politics and law - all standard elements in the examination of any nation.

The Jewish cultural renaissance, including literature, art, dance, architecture and film is a central part of the Israeli reality. In this realm, the role of the revival of the Hebrew language and the tension resulting from 4000 years of history placed into a modern secular framework provides important insights that are not restricted to Israel. Different aspects serve as an interesting basis for comparison with other societies attempting to bridge the ancient and modern, such as India, Turkey and China. And while the generations of conflict and violence certainly impact on Israeli culture, and are reflected in the writing of Agnon and Oz, for example, these are not the only significant factors, and should not be over-emphasized.

Similarly, in examining the complexities of Israeli society, there are many aspects that can be analyzed usefully in a wider comparative framework. The tensions over the role of religion in modern Israel can be assessed alongside similar situations in countries with a dominant Moslem context, particularly Iran but also Egypt and the North African nations; or relative to Christian dominated societies in North America and Europe.

In the political realm, Israel provides an interesting and significant case study among parliamentary democracies. The party system, which is a relic from the pre-state period and the Zionist movement, was developed in the context of European democratic movements of the 19th century, and can be compared and analyzed in this framework. The instability of a multi-party system and the influence of these groups on the economy and in social life are often compared to modern Italy and some of the newly democratic countries of Eastern Europe. Here too, Israel is by no means sui generis, and should not be presented as such.

The double standards, myths and singling out of Israel have spilled over to economics, including recent allegation by Naomi Klein and other ideologues that stress and overemphasize the military factors (more demonization). Some of the factors that explain the steady growth in the Israeli economy are relatively unique - such as the Russian aliya that increased the population by one-quarter in a decade. Many olim are well educated and skilled workers, and this contributed to rapid growth. But broader factors are involved, including the ideological transition from a socialist system controlled by political operatives in labor unions to a more open economy, a significant decrease in government control, and increased competition.

Returning to the conflict, the responses of Israel to terror and warfare should be broadened from the simplistic approach in which Palestinians are victims and Israel is uniquely evil. Instead, in this as in other areas of academic research and teaching, a comparative approach is called for, based on examining other ethno-national conflicts and peace making efforts (more or less successful). Terms such as "occupation", demands for a "right of return", a separation barrier (or "apartheid wall") and similar dimensions also apply to the conflict in Cyprus between Greek Christians and Moslem Turks. In Sri Lanka, the majority Sinhalese have been attempting to prevent minority Tamils from forming a breakaway state. As in the Israeli case, this conflict includes suicide bombing attacks and more conventional forms of warfare. Other examples with similarities, as well as important difference, include Northern Ireland and the Balkans (Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia).

The same approach is applicable when dealing with human rights claims and in discussions of Israeli responses to terror within the framework of international law. The vast majority of such discussions on university campuses again treat Israel as a singular case, without context or comparative perspective.

Instead of segregation and discrimination based on ideology and interest, the study and teaching of Israel, across the various disciplines, needs to be re-integrated into the general academic discourse. The sooner that this happens, the better.

Prof. Gerald M. Steinberg is chair of the Political Studies Department at Bar Ilan University and heads NGO Monitor. This essay is an expanded version of observations made at the September 2007 meeting of the Schusterman/AICE Israeli Professors and Scholars Conference.