New Y&S Nazarian Center director takes on the tough issues
Dov Waxman, director of the Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies. (Photo provided by Prof. Waxman.)

New Y&S Nazarian Center director takes on the tough issues

“Not only should the Nazarian Center for Israel Studies be a world-class center of excellence for scholarship on Israel, but also one known for its ability to bring different sides together,” remarks Dov Waxman.

By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications

UCLA International Institute, February 3, 2020Dov Waxman, the new director of the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for Israel Studies, didn’t start out to study Israel. As an undergraduate at Oxford University, he studied philosophy, politics and economics.

His interest in studying Israel was first sparked when Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995 by an Israeli Jewish extremist who opposed the Oslo Accords, which Rabin had signed with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

“Other than feeling absolute shock at the fact that Rabin's assassin was an Israeli Jew,” relates Waxman, “I was struck by the realization that what I had naively assumed was an inevitable journey towards a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians was not inevitable, and that there were real opponents of peace within the Israeli Jewish population.

“In retrospect,” he adds, “it was the beginning of the end of the Oslo peace process and the closing of a particular historical window of opportunity for peace.”

Five years later, as a graduate student at the School of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University, Waxman was conducting fieldwork in Israel for his doctoral dissertation when the peace process collapsed and the second Intifada erupted. Being in Israel and the West Bank during that tumultuous time convinced the young scholar to make the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the focus of his scholarship.

Hitting the ground running at UCLA

Over the past 18 years, Waxman has taught on the faculties of Bowdoin College, the City University of New York (CUNY) and Northeastern University, while writing four books that cover diverse issues of Israeli and Jewish American politics. In addition to research and teaching, he is an active public commentator on these and other issues of Middle East politics via public events, op-eds and media appearances.

Since joining UCLA in early January as professor and Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation Chair in Israel Studies, Waxman has given two public talks — “American Jews, Israel and Anti-Semitism in the Trump Era” at the Hillel at UCLA and “The Religionization of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” at the Y&S Nazarian Center — and participated in a Burkle Center panel discussion on U.S.-Iranian relations.

At all of those venues, he has spoken of his vision for the center he directs. “Not only should the Nazarian Center for Israel Studies be a world-class center of excellence for scholarship on Israel, but also one known for its ability to bring different sides together,” remarks Waxman. “A center that fosters discussions that people are often wary of having.”

“We need to not shy away from addressing difficult, contentious issues, but we need to address them in a scholarly, not polemical, manner, and in conversations that are civil,” he insists. He also seeks to widen his center’s public outreach, with plans to convene events not only at UCLA, but at locations throughout the Los Angeles metropolitan area.

A research path that explores the realities of Israel, its policies and supporters

Waxman’s first book — “The Pursuit of Peace and The Crisis of Israeli Identity: Defending / Defining the Nation” (Palgrave, 2006) — examined the role that Israeli national identity plays in shaping Israeli foreign policy.

“Israel is often thought of as having a foreign policy dictated by external threats,” remarks Waxman. “In fact, what I argued in ‘The Pursuit of Peace’ is that there is a close linkage between domestic identity politics and debates and the conduct of Israeli foreign policy. What is perceived as a threat and the construction of threats,” he continues, “is intimately tied to perceptions of identity, collective memories and collective traumas.”

The idea for his second book, “Israel’s Palestinians: The Conflict Within” (Cambridge, 2011), written with Ilan Peleg, came during a sabbatical year that Waxman spent living in Jaffa, the predominantly Arab city linked with Tel Aviv. The work examines the divide between Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel, the relationship between the two and, in Waxman’s words, “To what extent Israel can be both a Jewish state and an inclusive democracy for its Jewish and non-Jewish citizens.”

Waxman’s next book, “Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict over Israel” (Princeton, 2016), addresses the emotionally rancorous debate over Israel that is roiling the American Jewish community.

Drawing upon interviews with a wide range of Jewish leaders and activists, the book argues that the pro-Israel consensus that once united American Jewry is eroding as growing numbers of Jewish Americans have become less willing to unquestioningly support Israel and more willing to publicly criticize its governments.

The book explains why Israel has become a divisive issue among American Jews, and examines the impact that the conflict over Israel is having upon local Jewish communities, national Jewish organizations and the pro-Israel lobby.

“It doesn't mean that American Jews no longer support Israel, they do,” he explains. “But nowadays most American Jews no longer believe that supporting Israel means endorsing everything its governments do.” Indeed, he says, a younger generation of Jewish activists are invoking their Jewish values and identities to criticize Israel, particularly regarding its treatment of Palestinians.

The tenor of the debate over Israel in the Jewish community is striking. “It's been a bitter argument with ad hominem attacks and angry accusations,” he comments.

Waxman observes that the vitriolic nature of the debate has frequently shut down discussions about Israel and its conflict with the Palestinians. “People don't want to voice their opinions because of the incivility and the fear of being attacked,” observes the UCLA professor, “So people are either silent or shouting.”

The recent rise of violent anti-Semitism in the United States has further complicated American Jews’ views of Israel. For example, Waxman notes, “I think many American Jews were surprised by the Israeli government's reaction to the deadly attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh in October 2018. People were upset about how Israeli officials seemed to come out and praise Trump afterwards.

“I wasn’t personally surprised by the Israeli reaction because Israel is a state and states look out for their own interests,” he remarks. “There are both ideological and realpolitik reasons for why Israel prioritizes its own interests over those of diaspora Jews.

“Ideologically, Israel believes that the ultimate best interest for the survival of the Jewish people is the survival of Israel as a Jewish state — that’s the core Zionist belief,” he continues. “Strategically, maintaining a close relationship with the U.S. is a top-priority national interest.”

In fact, Waxman thinks that the Trump era could prove to be a watershed for the U.S. Jewish community, leading it to re-orient its focus toward domestic issues and away from a focus on Israel.

The UCLA scholar’s most recent publication — “The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: What Everyone Needs to Know” (Oxford, 2019) — is a concise presentation of the history, alternative narratives and hard facts of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Like his previous book, it consciously seeks to reach a broader audience beyond academic experts.

Waxman’s national book tour for “Trouble in the Tribe,” during which he repeatedly encountered uninformed questions about the conflict, convinced him to write about the issue when Oxford University Press approached him. “I felt there was a real public need for an accessible, non-polemical analysis of the conflict that gave balanced attention to the multiple narratives about the conflict, and one that also distinguished narratives from truth,” he says.

A commitment to engaging the tough issues

A balanced, nuanced empirical approach has always been Waxman’s lodestar as a scholar, whose preferred methodology is that of the participant-observer used in ethnographic research. “I like having an insider-outsider position as a researcher,” he explains. “You have access as an insider, but you are not so much of an insider that you lose a critical distance.”

Waxman’s intellectual penchant for exploring and synthesizing multiple points of view has proven well-suited to exploring contentious issues of Israeli, Middle Eastern and American Jewish politics.

His goal at the Y&S Nazarian Center is “not to forge consensus or harmony, but to engage in discussions from which people come away feeling they have been heard and that their understanding is enriched,” he says.

“I tell students, you can be passionate, but you should learn to harness your passion and be empathetic to multiple sides — and not demonize those that you disagree with — and learn how to present explanations that are nuanced and complex.”

The scholar’s current research addresses two more contentious issues, particularly on U.S. college campuses: the Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement targeting Israel, and the question of whether anti-Zionism is anti-Semitic. With the privilege of being a tenured professor, Waxman feels he has an obligation to tackle such controversial and highly divisive issues in a serious, thoughtful manner in order to help inform public discussions.

“I hope contribute to a more informed, less polarized discourse about Israel at UCLA and beyond,” he says.
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