Perspectives on Israel Studies: A Personal View

Perspectives on Israel Studies: A Personal View

Professor Ilan Troen of Brandeis University and Ben Gurion University, with Professor Leonard Binder. Photo by Jonathan Friedlander.

by Professor Leonard Binder, Director of the UCLA Center for Near Eastern Studies

At almost every major university, the study of Israel is linked to programs of Jewish Studies and to the concurrent boom in Middle East and Islamic Studies. Contemporary Israel can and should be studied in the context of Jewish history and culture, as it must be studied in the context of the modern Middle East, and it might be studied in the light of Judaism's role in the intellectual and emotional entelechy of Abrahamic monotheism. It has long been possible to acquire an academic degree in Israel Studies under the label of Jewish Studies, Middle East area studies, or Near East Languages and Cultures—just as it has been possible to write a dissertation on contemporary Israel in the disciplines of Political Science, Sociology or Architecture. What is new is the perspective.

When framed by these well established academic tracks, Israel Studies are limited by the paradigms that channeled these alternative academic schemas. For Jewish Studies, the dominant paradigms feature the fascinating variegation and vigor of the micro-cultures of the Diaspora, contrasted with the remarkably influential role played by Jews in the modernization of civilization. And both of these vie for attention with the Holocaust and its relevance in the formation of a universal moral consciousness.

For Middle East area studies, the widespread use of Orientalist and postcolonialist terminology barely conceals the persistence of the classic concern with the generation and corruption of civilizations as the framework for understanding the historical significance of contemporary hierocracy, praetorianism, salafism, and Islamic liberalism. In both of these intellectual frames of reference, Israel plays a secondary role, exacerbating, mitigating, transmitting, setting an example, obstructing and even challenging. Israel is studied for the light it sheds on the larger screen.

But if it is of such ubiquitous relevance, is it not all the more important that it be well understood in its own right—on its own cultural terms—in the light of its own self-understanding—and in consideration of both its own vulnerability to change, as well as its contemporary example to the nations? Indeed, Israel reflects a peculiar cultural and political dichotomy, pitting an intense self-absorption against a prophetic cosmopolitanism. Modern Israel struggles to contain and exploit the energies of its diverse citizens within its narrow social, political and geographic confines, and that dramatic struggle merits study in its own right. This struggle with oneself—which is what the name "Israel" signifies, proceeds in a similarly dual context of possibilities, facing the prospect of annihilation or constant war and the alternative prospect of contributing to the evolution of a peaceful and affluent Middle East.

This view originally appeared in the Spring 2006 issue of Intersections, the newsletter of the Center for Near Eastern Studies.