It feels strange to have traveled half way round the world from Beer Sheva to Los Angeles to participate in the annual conference of the Association of Israel Studies (AIS). The conference, which is held biannually in North America and in Israel on a rotation basis, signals the coming together of hundreds of scholars whose research and teaching focuses on Israel. Many of them have traveled from Israel only to meet each other thousands of miles away from their home and to engage in endless discussions on Israel with their counterparts from throughout North America and some European universitieis.
Multi disciplinary in nature, the participants come from a broad range of the social sciences and the Humanities, from Political Science and Sociology to Literature and Arts. As always, there is a large number of historians who continue to analyze and re-analyze Israel from a number of alternative and critical perspectives as they examine newly released documents and archival material and, in not a few cases, dispel many of the myths and historical narratives which have grown up over time.
In the light of events which have occurred in Israels universities during the past year, one of the major plenary sessions at this years meetings will be devoted to the topic of Academic Freedom. Drawing on the intervention of the Council of Higher Education in events at Ben-Gurion University, which drew in its wake an almost universal condemnation on the part of many major academic and scientific societies and organizations, a roundtable of senior academics will discuss the extent to which academic freedom in Israel has been threatened, and will raise broader questions concerning the borders and limits of academic freedom.
The questions come from both ends of the political spectrum. To what extent should scholars be entitled to be critical of their own society – and should it be allowed to reach the point of delegitimization? And to what extent should government and public authorities take it upon themselves to intervene in the research topics and the curriculum which are taught at the universities if, in their view, they do not meet the political correctness which semi-authoritarian governments try to impose upon educational institutions.
Many of the conference sessions will, as always, be devoted to “the” conflict – past, present and future. Perhaps the most important of all these sessions was the one which took place yesterday, looking at the Israel-Palestine conflict within a comparative context of other ethnic conflicts in the world. To what extent can our own situation be compared with such conflict arenas such as Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Serbia – to name but the more obvious - or should we continue to view our own conflict through the limited explanation of “uniqueness”, not comparable with any other conflict. Comparative analysis lies at the heart of rigid social science and the failure by many scholars of Israel to go beyond the explanation of the “unique” case study has led to a limited understanding of some of the deeper causes of the conflict.
There has been a major growth in Israel Studies during the past decade. The AIS was originally set up as an American organization. But during the past decade, the number of Israeli participants has grown significantly, while more recently a European framework, the EAIS – the European Association of Israel Studies, has been founded, consisting of scholars from throughout Europe, including many Eastern European post-Soviet states..
Probably the single most important live laboratory for Israel Studies is the Ben Gurion Institute in Sdeh Boker affiliated with Ben-Gurion University. The Institute boasts a large group of independent scholars and also houses many important archives relating to the history of the State, especially during the immediate pre-State and post-State formative years.
There has also been a growth – both in North America and Europe – of independently funded Chairs of Israel Studies in recent years. To some extent these have emerged as a response to what is perceived as a growing sense of anti-Israel sentiment on many campuses. At the same time, it is important that these Centers only appoint first rate scholars and do not only become identified as places of pro-Israel advocacy. It is important that critical scholarship is allowed to take place, as long as it is based on hard scientific evidence, and that scholarship about Israel is shown to be well balanced across the political and social spectrum. Scholarship is not about proving that we are right or wrong, victims or perpetrators. It is about thoroughly researching the facts and allowing the diverse readership and students audiences to draw their own diverse conclusions. It is about being informative and educating, not about selling one’s own political views to those whose knowledge is limited.
Israel Studies is not, as such, an academic discipline in its own right. It is no more an academic discipline than are Japanese, European or American studies. Rather it enables scholars from many different disciplines to meet and to share their research on Israel as they bring the many parts together in an attempt to reach a better understanding of the whole. With the exception of the Ben Gurion Institute itself, the Social Sciences in Israel do not recruit scholars who state that their sole area of interest is Israel. Rather, we look for the top candidates in any particular academic discipline, and for whom the Israel case study is an arena for their research and teaching. They are expected to apply the methodological frameworks and analyses of their respective disciplines to the analysis of Israel as they would to any other society or country elsewhere.
We recruit young scholars who publish their research in the best international academic journals within their field, bringing their analyses of Israeli society to a much wider audience than the more limited attention of those who read journals and periodicals which are devoted entirely to Israel or Jewish Studies. As good as some of these journals are, they do not tend to be read by the wider international academic community and it is important that our social scientists and humanities scholars understand that it is important to disseminate their high quality research in much the same way as the thousands of Israeli scholars working in the hard sciences do – bringing their findings on physics, chemistry, medicine , nano and neuro-sciences to a wider international audience.
It is not a question of “either or”, but one of finding the right balance between the needs of the local community who have an intense interest in all things Israel and Jewish, and that of the wider international academic community who are looking for comparative insights from Israel – and from many other countries in the world - which will help them understand the complexities of social and political processes. Israeli scholarship has emerged from the period where everything was only ever examined through the prism of the “uniq.ue”. As Israel has grown and developed, it has become abundantly clear that many social, economic and geographic processes have much in comparison with other advanced western industrialized societies, even if the uniqueness of Israeli history cannot be dismissed in explaining those events which remain beyond the comprehension of comparative analysis.
For Israel Studies to maintain its present momentum, it must appeal to as wide an audience as possible, seeking to bring insights from Israel to bear on other societies and equally learning from other societies to reach a deeper understanding of Israel. It should not adopt either a pro or an anti Israel position but should seek to educate and to inform and to enable people to reach their own political positions based on knowledge rather than ignorance.
The writer is Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.