The Decline of the Israeli Sociology
Alek D. Epstein
To be published in Azure. Ideas for the Jewish Nation
(Shalem Center, Jerusalem), no. 16 (Winter 2003/2004), pp. 78-108.
Ten years have passed since the publication of Israeli Society: Critical Perspectives, a collection of essays by prominent Israeli sociologists which was a turning point in the academic study of Israeli life. Addressing the Jewish state’s most intractable problems, including its ethnic and social divisions, its military policies, the treatment of women, and the Palestinian issue, Israeli Society presented not only a wide range of subjects and a prestigious group of contributors, but also a sweeping new critique—one consistently wary of, if not downright hostile to, the State of Israel and its national ethos. Uri Ram, the book’s editor and a sociologist at Ben Gurion University, explained its unifying principle:
For a long time Israeli social science seemed to be little more than a monotonous echo of official Israeli ideology. In this it did not much differ from other instruments of cultural transmission, such as the press, the schools, or literature. But this began to change in the 1970s, and since then, critical Israeli sociology, which views official Israeli ideology as a subject of inquiry and not a starting assumption, has been gaining strength. There is no question that critical sociology has had a decisive effect on today’s sociological agenda. This book is proof of that fact, and also part of the trend.
While such claims might once have seemed exaggerated, in the past few years they have proven surprisingly accurate: In the space of a decade, “critical” sociologists have moved from the fringes of the academic establishment to the center, and their views have come to dominate the social sciences, which are now a powerful engine of radical ideology on Israeli campuses.
The significance of this trend should not be underestimated. Over the past two decades, the number of Israelis earning degrees in the social sciences has doubled, with sociology one of the most popular disciplines. More than five thousand students earn their B.A. in the social sciences each year, and more than two thousand go on to receive an advanced degree. Many of these graduates end up working in the government and non-profit sectors, and having a significant impact on public policy. During their most formative years, then, many of Israel’s future leaders are exposed almost exclusively to the radical outlook that has come to dominate the field.
In this essay I intend to explore how critical sociology became the leading school of thought in the study of Israeli society. As will become clear, these scholars are so dedicated to advancing their ideology that they have come to focus far more on rewriting Israel’s history than on examining the issues of greatest concern to Israeli society today. Their proclivity for myth-smashing, coupled with their commitment to imported theoretical models, preclude any serious discussion of the unique aspects of Israeli life, and cause them to downplay, or even distort, historical facts.
These problems are so acute that they call into question the credibility of sociological research in Israel. Although criticism is no doubt an essential research tool—a fact of which the traditional sociologists were well aware—its employment in the service of ideology serves not only to delegitimize what was once a prestigious academic discipline, but also to alienate sociology from the society it purports to study. Given the field’s role in shaping a society’s self-perception, and the impact its students later have on Israeli public life, “critical sociology” is something Israelis cannot afford to ignore.
Long before the rise of critical sociology, critical analysis was an integral part of social research in Israel. The founders of Israeli sociology, far from feeling beholden to the political establishment, did not hesitate to voice their objections to government policy. Yet unlike the critical scholars who reject the very idea of a Jewish nation state, Israeli sociologists in the 1950s and 1960s maintained a commitment to the core beliefs of Zionism, while keeping a critical independence of thought and research.
Scholarly interest in Jewish society in the land of Israel began before the founding of the state, in the period of the British Mandate. While most scholars who wrote on the topic were based in Europe several scholars in Mandatory Palestine offered a valuable insider’s perspective, including the sociologist and demographer Arthur Ruppin, who arrived in 1908; the anthropologist Shlomo Dov Goitein, who came in 1923; and the political scientist Siegfried Landshuth, who came in 1936. The creation in 1947 of the Hebrew University’s Department of Sociology produced the first generation of scholars who observed Israeli society from within, devoting their energies to analyzing the unique aspects of Israeli society. These were depicted, for example, in Samuel Noah Eisenstadt’s Israeli Society (1967), and in Social Stratification in Israel (1968), a collection of articles which he edited; Joseph Ben-David’s Agricultural Planning and Village Community in Israel (1964); Moshe Lissak's The Elites of the Jewish Community in Palestine (1981); and two books jointly authored by Lissak and Dan Horowitz, Origins of the Israeli Polity (1977) and Trouble in Utopia: the Overburdened Polity of Israel (1990).
Radical perspectives, too, found expression in those early years, although they were far from being dominant. During the pre-state period, two scholars with a “cosmopolitan” outlook were appointed professors of sociology at the Hebrew University: One, Arthur Ruppin, was head of the Brit Shalom society; the other, Martin Buber, was a founder of the Ihud society; both groups opposed the idea of exclusive Jewish sovereignty, calling instead for the establishment of a bi-national state. Their influence, however, was limited: Ruppin died in 1943, before the department was officially established, and Buber, the first head of the department, retired in 1950 and was succeeded by Eisenstadt.
The first generation of Israeli sociologists, especially Eisenstadt, echoed David Ben-Gurion’s belief in the authority of the state and its institutions, and advocated a centralized government. In this they were no different from scholars in other disciplines, though their studies adopted a more objective tone. "While it is true that no sociologist praised Ben-Gurion the way several Israeli writers had done,” writes Michael Keren of the Institute for Study of the Jewish Press and Communications at Tel Aviv University, “the field of sociology was undoubtedly permeated by his views on the authority of the state." Yet despite what critical sociologists claim today, the early sociologists hardly served the establishment blindly. Eisenstadt and Judith Shuval, for example, argued that Israel’s “melting pot” policy had failed to achieve its goals, as evidenced by the socio-economic divide that persisted between Ashkenazim and Sephardim well into the second generation. Aryeh Simon, Leah Adar, and Sarah Smilansky took issue with the policy of “uniformity” in Israeli education, arguing in a series of articles in 1956 and 1957 in Megamot, the leading Hebrew-language journal of sociology and psychology, that standard teaching and testing methods were inappropriate for Sephardi students because of their cultural background. Moshe Lissak and Judah Matras also demonstrated that Israeli society was highly stratified, in spite of claims to the contrary by the country’s leaders. They described how social and demographic factors such as ethnicity, length of time in Israel, and level of religious observance affected social status. Clearly, the sociologists’ with the Zionist ethos did not prevent them from examining government policy critically and proposing alternatives.
Those years, moreover, were a period of rich academic pluralism, with journals such as Medina, Mimshal Vihasim Benleumiyim (“State, Government, and International Relations”) and Megamot (“Trends”) offering a variety of outlets for scholarly work. It was common, for example, for these journals to publish opposing viewpoints side by side, a practice which is surprisingly rare today. Universities throughout the country established sociology departments, research methods became increasingly sophisticated, and Israeli sociology achieved international recognition.
Yet all this changed in the 1970s. The work of two scholars in particular, Yonathan Shapiro of Tel Aviv University and Sammy Smooha of Haifa University, redrew the boundaries of sociological discourse, giving it a sharply anti-establishment tone that only grew more strident with time.
Yonathan Shapiro is, in large measure, the father of the “critical” revolution in Israeli sociology. In books such as The Formative Years of the Israeli Labor Party (1975) and Democracy in Israel (1977), he explored the oligarchical role of the Israeli political elite and the harm it caused to the development of Israeli democracy. In later works he assailed the political establishment, particularly Ben-Gurion’s Mapai party, for failing to encourage a sense of civic duty among Israelis. Yet Shapiro was not nearly as hostile as the critical sociologists writing today. In a special memorial issue of Israeli Sociology in 1999, editors Hanna Herzog, Adriana Kemp, and Lev Luis Grinberg attested that Shapiro actually viewed his work as an expression of fidelity to Zionism. “Although he himself was one of the major critics of the dominant narrative, and encouraged many younger scholars who helped bring about the collapse of the Zionist narrative,” they explain, “he did not consider this a destructive or unpatriotic act.... Shapiro believed that criticism was vital to Israeli democracy and its ability to craft new policies that could save us from the errors of the founding generation.”
The works of Sammy Smooha, especially his pioneering essays on the status of Arabs in Israel, reveal the beginnings of a more radical approach. Smooha directed his criticism not only at the political establishment, but at the very idea of a Jewish state. According to Smooha, the desire to build a nation led “of necessity” to "institutional segmentation and the absence of bi-culturalism." Israel might have boasted of its aspirations to democracy, but it systematically oppressed its Arab minority. Smooha wrote in 1980 that for Israeli Arabs, “not only is there no assurance of minority rights or any limits to the government’s authority, there is also the problem of the ‘tyranny of the majority’… and the extensive use of governmental power to keep the minority in its place.” Discrimination against Arabs, he argued, is inherent to Israeli society, and the integration of Arabs into Israeli society is primarily a result of “negative and involuntary forces such as economic dependence, political coercion, and ecological-social isolation.” At the root of this continued oppression, he argues, lie economic interests:
The establishment takes additional steps … intended to ensure the continuation of the present, oppressive situation … for only if Israeli Arabs remain an unorganized and vulnerable minority can the state be assured of a constant supply of cheap, low-quality labor … and can it get away with investing much less than average in services to and development of the Arab sector.
In the last two decades, claims of this type have become very popular with Israeli academics, and have increasingly come to define the agenda of the social sciences as a whole. Yet it would be a mistake to say that Shapiro and Smooha are solely responsible for this trend. Their views, in fact, must be understood in the context of the larger theoretical developments in sociology over the past half-century, in Israel and abroad.
Starting in the 1960s, Israelis studying abroad came under the influence of the new intellectual trends on American and European campuses. The spirit of the New Left, which attacked the “repressive” order of the capitalist West, soon made itself felt in Israeli universities, as well: In Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Beersheba, young lecturers and students emerged who saw themselves as the intellectual vanguard of the revolution.
The surprise defeat of the Labor Party in the 1977 Knesset elections, and, even more so, the outbreak of the war in Lebanon in 1982, also sent shock waves through Israeli campuses.  These events–which for many students and faculty signaled the demise of the reigning views on politics and the military in Israel–increased the radicalization of Israeli intellectuals, who expressed their discontent in works of a clearly ideological nature. The diplomatic process that began with the Oslo accords in 1993 also had a significant impact. At the time, many scholars accepted Sammy Smooha’s view that “the Israeli-Arab conflict is coming to an end. It has been fading for two decades. The end of the conflict is a non-reversible process, which advances in stages, backed by international support and grounded in both Jewish and Palestinian public opinion.” The belief that peace was at hand, that Israel’s existence was no longer threatened, transformed the sociological discourse. Scholars began to devote their research to the advancement of the peace process, and were increasingly vocal in their condemnation of Israeli policy towards Arabs in general, and Palestinians in particular.
Finally, as improved communication strengthened ties between Israeli scholars and international academic associations, Israeli sociologists looking to enhance their international standing adopted, to some extent, the anti-Israel attitude common in foreign academic circles since the 1980s, and still prevalent today: In 2002, for instance, when an international academic boycott was organized to isolate Israel for its “war crimes” against Palestinians, Baruch Kimmerling of the Hebrew University distributed a public letter to his colleagues overseas, insisting that severing ties with Israeli academics would only interfere with their own vigorous opposition to the “fascist rule” of the Israeli government.
The critical trend has become so dominant in Israel that it has effectively ended genuine pluralism in Israeli sociological research. The radicalization that began in Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Beersheba later spread to nearly every center of sociological research in Israel. Two milestones occurred in 1993: The publication of Uri Ram’s Israeli Society: Critical Perspectives, which we discussed earlier; and the founding of the journal Teoria Uvikoret (“Theory and Criticism”), which has become the flagship of post-Zionist writing. In 1999, Teoria Uvikoret published a special issue, entitled Fifty to Forty-Eight: Critical Moments in the History of the State of Israel, which attempted to present an alternative, critical history of the State of Israel. One of the articles in that issue, by Ronen Shamir and Dan Avnon, once again commemorated Martin Buber as the spiritual father of Israeli critical sociology, and as the one who had set forth a vision that demanded "a critical and uncompromising examination of the concepts, categories, and axioms that define the shared collective consciousness, the state."
As part of their critique of the country’s founding ideology, most critical sociologists prefer to assail Zionism as a repressive and racist enterprise, rather than to undertake a dispassionate study of Israeli society. "Despite the diversity of its practioners’ approaches and beliefs,” writes Michael Shalev, until recently chairman of the Department of Sociology at the Hebrew University, “critical scholarship has consistently called into question taken-for-granted assertions and assumptions that have been central to the legitimacy of Zionism and the authority of the Israeli elites." In this spirit, Ben-Gurion University’s Oren Yiftachel, who since the late 1990s has edited the quarterly Israel Social Science Review, lists the injustices the Jewish state has committed since 1948:
Immediately after the founding of the state, Israel began a radical stage of territorial restructuring … the heart of this strategy was the “Judaization of the region.” This strategy was motivated by the consistent goal of Jewish colonization and expansion, which was also adopted by the nascent Jewish state … This Judaization, which involved dispossessing the Arab population, destroying their villages, and precluding the Arab refugees’ return, relied not only on the coercive power of the state, but also on the state’s ability to portray Arab citizens as potential enemies, and to explain its actions to the international community as “legitimate” methods utilized by sovereign states to handle their internal problems.
According to Yiftachel, the dispossession of the Palestinians and their characterization as enemies of the state are direct results of Zionist ideology. "The Judaization program," he writes, "was premised on a hegemonic myth cultivated since the rise of Zionism at the beginning of the century, which claimed that ‘the land’ belongs to the Jewish people, and only to the Jewish people. In time, this myth created powerful patterns of ethnic settlement nationalism in Israel." This myth, Yiftachel asserts, is to blame for the oppression of ethnic minorities in Israel. Moreover, it stands in the way of the country’s political and moral development: “Continuing to define the state as ‘Jewish’ does not permit non-Jewish citizens full entry into the political collective, and thus, from the outset, precludes the founding of a modern democracy.”
A similar claim against the Jewish character of the state was made by Uri Ram, one of Israel’s most prominent sociologists. Recalling his participation in a 1988 protest against religious coercion in Tel Aviv, Ram offered the following critique:
The common slogan in struggles by the secular is the “separation of religion and state”…. Yet the problem of democracy in Israel is not “religion,” nor even “the religious.” The problem is inherent in the ethnic definition of the state … It is therefore not sufficient to separate religion from state; identity and citizenship must be separated.
The strict separation of ethnic identity from citizenship proposed by Ram would effectively bring an end to Israel as the Jewish state, and replace it with a “state of all its citizens.” Critical sociologists are fully aware of this; indeed, Ram’s statement may be said to encapsulate the movement’s entire ideological agenda, and in particular its effort to negate the central concept of classical Zionism. What was once considered a fringe position in Israeli sociology has, over the last generation, become the dominant paradigm in the Israeli social sciences, and threatens to grow even stronger in the years ahead.
To understand the rise of critical sociology, it is important to recognize that it did not develop in a vacuum, but reflected the most popular post-modern trends in Western academia. The critical sociologists, following these trend, seek to unmask what they see as the political and social patterns of oppression that dominate Israeli society. In the 1980s and 1990s, two theoretical models, which we may call the Marxist and the colonization approaches, became especially popular. These theories, long favored by academic elites in the West, provided Israeli sociologists with a conceptual foundation that was well attuned to their political predispositions. Yet in their fervor to prove the relevance of these theories, critical sociologists all but abandoned attempts to offer new analyses of Israeli society’s unique features. At times, they even went so far as to distort historical facts in order to fit them into their guiding paradigms.
The Marxist approach took hold in Israeli sociology beginning in the late 1970s. In 1978, Haifa University's Department of Sociology began publishing a journal called Machberot Lemechkar Ulevikoret (“The Bulletin of Research and Criticism”), which attempted, in the words of founding editors Henry Rosenfeld, Deborah Bernstein, Shlomo Swirski, and Deborah Kalkin,
to foster analysis of the relationships of oppression, discrimination, alienation, and backwardness which are pivotal expressions of a class-based society… [and] to create in Machberot a forum for a critical orientation that opposes the positivist methods and “neutral” conceptions common in the social sciences. These approaches constitute … an obstacle to understanding social reality, and also to changing it.
From the outset, the Haifa scholars repudiated the very notion of academic objectivity, claiming it would be detrimental to “understanding social reality.” No less important, they saw the Marxist approach as a means of changing that reality according to their own ideological program. For the first time, critical sociologists dropped all pretense of genuine scientific endeavor.
According to the Haifa scholars, Israeli society is made up of two groups: The “underprivileged classes,” including Palestinians and the Sephardi proletariat, and the predominantly Ashkenazi middle class, which benefited from the patronage of the dominant Mapai party. The true aim of Israel’s foreign and domestic policy, they maintain, was not to build and preserve a state for the Jewish people as a whole, but to enable the Ashkenazi establishment to maintain control over society’s resources. This theory explains, for instance, the nationalistic, militaristic line the state adopted when dealing with its Arab neighbors, and its patronizing attitude towards both the Palestinians and Sephardi Jews. Shulamit Carmi and Henry Rosenfeld, two of Haifa University’s most prominent sociologists, illustrated this approach in a joint study published in 1989. In their version of Israeli history, the nascent state was faced with two choices: To become a bi-national, socialist society, or to follow the model of militaristic nationalism. The labor movement, they argued, chose the second option, in the process ignoring the problem of Palestinian nationhood altogether, and preventing the 1948 refugees from returning to Israel. Carmi and Rosenfeld lament this historic decision:
Socialism would have had to resolve the results of the 1948 war differently, by neutralizing and demilitarizing the area, by sharing responsibility for the refugee problem and the Palestinian Arab national problem, and by foregoing the immediate advantages and benefits that militaristic nationalism claimed as privileges of victory, and which it consolidated and institutionalized in the wars that followed….
According to Carmi and Rosenfeld, the Zionist movement’s choice transformed the conflict between Jews and Palestinians from a struggle between communities to a confrontation between nations, and “relieved Israeli society of the need to make any serious effort at coexistence.” Israeli statism succeeded in preventing any possibility of agrarian reform, of creating equality of economic conditions for all ethnic groups, of establishing a civil constitution, or of securing the national rights of Arabs. Carmi and Rosenfeld trace the social pattern that developed in Israel’s early years to three distinct factors: The central role of the state in the country’s economy; the large amount of foreign aid, which enabled the state to develop and arm itself while maintaining a reasonable standard of living; and an aggressive defense policy. This pattern was established to further the interests of the ruling class, which took advantage of the weaker citizens as a means of preserving and tightening its control over the country.
If Marxist socialism condemned Zionism as a regime of economic oppression, colonization perspective condemned it as a rationale for the expropriation of lands belonging to the indigenous Arab population, and the subsequent imposition of rule over Arabs and Sephardi Jews alike. This argument was advanced in a series of books, the most prominent of which were Zionism and Territory: The Socio-Economic Dimensions of Zionist Politics, by Baruch Kimmerling (1983); Land, Labor, and the Origins of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, by Gershon Shafir (1989); and The Making of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1947-1951, by historian Ilan Pappe (1992). According to these scholars, there is no essential difference between Zionism and the European policy of colonization in Africa and Asia. Shafir, who teaches at the University of California, San Diego, and has served in recent years as president of the Association for Israel Studies (AIS), asserts that “there is a fundamental similarity … between the Zionist settlement activity and the European colonization process overseas…. The changes that occurred in Israeli society after 1967 are to be understood not as a transition from a Zionist-socialist society to a right-wing, colonial one, but as the continuation of the colonial project by means of a transition from one method of colonization to another.”
Like advocates of the Marxist approach, scholars of the “colonization” camp also inveigh against the Zionist settlement movement, dismissing its socialist aspirations as a fraud. Shafir, for example, argues that Zionism never really intended to create an egalitarian society in Palestine:
The socialist component of their thought [i.e., that of the workers of the Second Aliya] assumed an ironic bent. They opposed the exploitation of Arab workers, but solved the problem by means of a struggle to prevent the employment of Arab laborers altogether … the workers found their “Rothschilds” in the form of the World Zionist Organization … which attempted to recreate in the land of Israel a Prussian settlement from eastern Germany.
Critical sociologists portray the Zionist “conquest of labor” as a transparent effort to create a Jewish monopoly over the labor market, thereby forcing out skilled Arab workers willing to work for low wages. Even the kibbutz, which for most people symbolized the idealistic yearning for a model society, is to the critical sociologists “the most blatant expression of the strategy of conquest of land and labor that was undertaken by the Jewish settler-workers." Uri Ram summarizes this viewpoint when he writes that “the crowning achievement of socialist Zionism, the kibbutz, was not the Israeli path to an alternative society, but the Israeli path to settlement [hitnahalut]."
These claims fit nicely into the post-colonial outlook, but they are difficult to reconcile with the historical reality. Jewish settlement, at least in its early stages, did not, in fact, aim to create a sectoral labor market in Palestine, nor did the patrons of the nascent Jewish settlement, foremost Baron de Rothschild, follow the pattern of colonial employers in the European tradition. Instead, as the historian Ran Aharonson has showed, during the twenty-two years of the First Aliya, Jewish laborers worked alongside Arabs under similar conditions. The division occurred only later, when violent Arab opposition to Jewish immigration made continued integration of the labor force impossible.
Determination to make the facts fit a historical narrative of oppression and exploitation also explains the arguments made by Yehouda Shenhav, editor of Teoria Uvikoret and former head of Tel Aviv University’s Sociology Department, in a 1998 article in the daily Ha’aretz entitled, “The Perfect Robbery.” According to the essay, which attempted revisit the history of the immigration of Iraqi Jewry to Israel in 1951, described the State of Israel as seeking to exploit both the Palestinians and Iraqi Jews:
The immigrants from Iraq lost all the property that they left behind in their homeland as the result of a cynical political exercise by the Israeli government, intended to avoid paying compensation to the Palestinian refugees … In those years, 1948-1951, the Israeli government found itself faced with two intersecting claims. One was the demand by the United Nations and the governments of the United States and Britain to compensate the Palestinian refugees of 1948 for their property, which had been nationalized by the Custodian-General of the State of Israel. The second was that of Iraqi Jewry and their representatives in the Israeli government, such as Minister [of Police] Bechor-Shalem Sheetrit, to compensate them for the nationalization of their property by the Iraqi government. Trapped between these two claims, the Israeli government took advantage of the opportunity that had come its way, created a linkage between the property of the Arabs of 1948 and that of Iraqi Jewry, and thereby freed itself of both claims.
Shenhav’s claim is remarkable: He appears to believe not only that Israel did not have Iraqi Jewry’s best interests in mind, but that it should, in effect, have compensated both the Jews whose property was nationalized by Iraq and the Arabs whose property was nationalized by Israel; and that the linkage was, in essence, a scheme to avoid having to do either one. According to Shenhav, most Iraqi Jews “were well-established bourgeoisie” until the Zionist activists intervened, triggering what he calls a “psychosis of aliya.” Shenhav accuses both Zionism and the Israeli government of destabilizing the world of Iraqi Jewry and of driving a wedge between Iraqi Jews and the local Arab population. He concludes that only “towards 1947-1948 did the situation of Iraqi Jewry begin to be become intolerable” as a result of “the aggressive activity of the Zionist movement … At the same time, nationalist chauvinism intensified in Iraq and adopted an anti-Jewish stance.”
The distortions and half-truths in Shenhav's essay were pointed out in a rejoinder by Shlomo Hillel, former Speaker of the Knesset and aliya activist in Iraq. Hillel demonstrated that Iraqi hostility towards the Jewish population did not emerge as a result of Zionist activity in 1947-1948, but in fact appeared as early as 1933, after the Iraqi declaration of independence and the death of King Faisal I, when the country was swept by a wave of xenophobia. Tension again turned to violence on the eve of Britain’s 1941 invasion of Iraq—an attempt to thwart the Iraqi government’s alliance with Nazi Germany—which triggered anti-Jewish riots in Baghdad on the Jewish holiday of Shavuot. No fewer than 179 Jews were murdered, many others were injured, and scores of businesses and homes were looted—all of which Shenhav conveniently neglects to mention.
Lapses of this sort, it would appear, attest to the critical sociologists’ reluctance to let facts stand in the way of a good theory. However, their theoretical orientation has an additional consequence, one no less problematic than the damage it does to their credibility: In their attempt to fit Israeli life into imported theoretical models, critical sociologists end up ignoring those unique features of Israeli society which ought to be of greatest interest to their field. Thus one finds scholars such as Deborah Bernstein of Haifa University arguing that, “Israeli society in the past and the present can be understood by a comparative analysis, since its singularity does not fundamentally differ from the essential singularity of any historical case.” For the critical sociologists, denying the uniqueness of the Zionist enterprise serves an important purpose, for it allows them to apply off-the-shelf theoretical models to Jewish and Israeli history, and simultaneously frees them of the need to formulate new research methods for dealing with Israeli society. The result, in many instances, is the outright distortion of their research.
The clearest example is the way in which the remarkable differences between historical Zionism and European colonialism are either downplayed or ignored. Baruch Kimmerling, for example, has this to say about Jewish attitudes to the land of Israel during the centuries of exile:
The two thousand years of longings by the Jews for Zion are a cultural and historical fact, and are indeed part of the “narrative” as it should be studied. Nevertheless, this does not in any way change the “colonial situation,” that is, the situation whereby groups of people from different locations immigrated to a certain place and built a society and state on the ruins of another society. They did not succeed in eliminating this society, nor did this society succeed in expelling them, as happened in other, very well-known instances.
Nowhere does Kimmerling mention, moreover, that the founders of the Zionist settlements rejected classical hierarchical structures in favor of a community founded on the principle of equality, an aspiration completely alien to European colonizers. Furthermore, unlike the European settlers, the Jews living under the British Mandate did not enjoy preferential treatment, and in many cases suffered from clear discrimination at the hands of the British authorities—a fact that is nearly impossible to square with the claim that Zionism was a British colonial project. Finally, the Zionists’ attempt to effect a Jewish cultural renaissance in the land of Israel, including a revival of the Hebrew language, without imposing their culture or language on the indigenous population, has no parallel in the history of colonialism.
The critical sociologists’ failure to recognize the unique aspects of the Zionist enterprise is merely one symptom of a much larger trend. A study of the articles presented from 1998 to 2002 at the annual conferences of the Israeli Sociological Society, at which the most important subjects in Israeli sociology are addressed, shows that out of approximately five hundred papers delivered, only one in seven was devoted to anything uniquely Israeli or Zionist. Of these, for example, 5 essays addressed anti-Semitism and the memory of the Holocaust; 6 mentioned Israel–Diaspora relations; and 5 with the social and psychological characteristics of life in settlements over the green line. In contrast, 320 articles—about two out of every three—mentioned Israel only in connection with phenomena not particular to Israeli society, while 73 others made no mention of Israel at all. Nor is this trend limited to academic publications in Hebrew: Of the 18 sociological studies about Israel that have appeared in the world’s five leading sociological journals since 1988, not one has addressed uniquely Israeli or Zionist issues.  In other words, it has been at least fifteen years since international sociological discourse has included any discussion of issues particular to Israeli society.
There is one area, however, in which critical sociologists do address something that is uniquely Israeli: When they abandon the study of present-day Israeli society altogether, and turn their efforts to rewriting the Zionist past. One of critical sociology’s principal targets is Israel’s own collective memory which, like any historical consciousness, is shaped by symbols, milestones, and narratives. Laurence Silberstein, in his 1999 study, The Post-Zionism Debates, which is generally sympathetic to the critical school, explains the true impact of sociology’s challenge to the Zionist narrative:
For Israelis, as for all national groups, the narratives of their nation's past provide a framework through which to interpret the events of the present. In calling into question prevailing Israeli historical narratives, the new historians, together with a group known as critical sociologists, render problematic the very foundations on which Israeli group identity has been based.
The majority of critical sociologists, like the “new historians” who have pursued parallel objectives in history departments across Israel, regard the disproving of the Zionist narrative as a means of effecting far-reaching political and social change. Only if Israel is freed from the ideological grip of nationalist chauvinism, they claim, can it become a progressive and enlightened country, a “state of all its citizens.” Uri Ram presents the debate as follows:
A struggle is being waged in Israel for our collective memory…. This is a battle among three main historical approaches: The national approach to history, with its inherent and insoluble contradiction between democracy and Jewishness; the nationalist approach to history, which resolves the contradiction by forgoing democracy; and the approach to history based on citizenship, which resolves the contradiction by relinquishing the ethnic past. This is a conflict between a past that seeks to bury the future, and a future that looks to shake off the past. This is the choice: A troubled past, or a reasonable future.
In Ram’s view, Israeli society has no choice but to adopt the third, “citizenship” approach, the implication of which is that only by overcoming the Zionist obsession with Jewish history will Israel see any real progress. “The historiographical change signals the beginning of the end of a historical consciousness suited to a time of conquest, settlement, and nation building…” he writes, “and the beginning of the creation of a new historical consciousness characteristic of a civilian, consumer, and perhaps even multi-cultural society.”
In 1999, at the thirtieth annual conference of the Israeli Sociological Society, Uri Davidson spoke in a similar vein. Israeli education, he argued, is held captive by Zionist indoctrination, which in turn leads to intellectual stagnation. In his view, the centralization of Israeli education under government authority
lent the Zionist narrative a monopoly in education .... Exclusive legitimacy was given to the Hebrew language, and the historical consciousness linked to the pre-diaspora period. This intellectual fixation has existed since the founding of the state, and has brought about stagnation in the national educational system ... which remains locked into the old ideals, and is at an evolutionary dead end. It is capable of imparting knowledge, but incapable of fashioning a personality suited to a global, post-modern society.
Such statements, made frequently by prominent Israeli sociologists, have helped place historical questions at the top of Israel’s sociological agenda. As Baruch Kimmerling correctly observes, “Every statement connected to the past immediately makes waves, and is naturally linked to the present, and possibly also to the future.” The boundaries between the recent and distant past are therefore blurred in the work of many critical sociologists, since both can serve as a “usable past,” a selective narrative employed for political and cultural purposes. Two books published in the mid-1990s serve as powerful examples of this approach: The first, Recovered Roots: Collective Memory and the Making of Israeli National Tradition (1995), by Yael Zerubavel of Rutgers University, shows how the dominant Israeli “meta-narrative of memory” transformed debacles such as the fall of Masada, the Bar Kokhba rebellion, and the defense of Tel Hai into heroic tales. The second, The Masada Myth: Collective Memory and Mythmaking in Israel (1995), by Nachman Ben-Yehuda of Hebrew University, seeks to expose the ways in which the “heroic” story of Masada was fabricated, promoted, and maintained by pre-state Jewish underground organizations, the Israeli army, archaeology teams, the mass media, and the tourism industry. In his recent book on the same topic, Sacrificing Truth: Archaeology and the Myth of Masada (2002), Ben-Yehuda accuses Yigael Yadin, the archaeologist who excavated Masada in the 1960s, of going down “a dubious road which was to include suppressing information, concealing evidence, and structuring a historical tale of Masada which was falsified and deceptive,” a narrative that concocted a “twentieth-century myth of Jewish heroism.”
But of all the historical “myths” being addressed, by far the most popular concern the Israeli-Arab conflict and Zionist history, both of which have attracted so much attention from critical sociologists that it is often difficult to distinguish their writings on these topics from those of their “new historian” colleagues. Indeed, Benny Morris, Avi Shlaim, and other revisionist historians frequently quote sociological works in their own analyses of the encounter between the Jewish national movement, the Palestinians, and the Arab states. Likewise, sociologists Baruch Kimmerling and Joel Migdal, in their book Palestinians: The Making of a People (1993), engage in a sociological-political analysis of the War of Independence that relies in large part on arguments and data provided by Benny Morris in his landmark work, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949.
The sociological literature on the root causes of the Israeli-Arab conflict leaves little doubt, of course, as to who is at fault. In the critical sociologists’ view, the Jews bear direct, if not exclusive, responsibility for the creation and perpetuation of the conflict. Gershon Shafir, for instance, blames the Zionist immigrants, whose "goal … was to successfully colonize Palestine while at the same time justifying the creation of a homogeneous Jewish settlement through an intensifying denial of Palestinian national aspirations." Shafir argues that this Zionist-colonialist policy was "the main reason for the intractable nature of the conflict…." Other scholars claim that it was in the interest of the leadership of the yishuv and later the state to perpetuate the violent conflict between Jews and Arabs. In The Making of Israeli Militarism (1998), Uri Ben-Eliezer of Haifa University maintains that Arab violence provided the perfect opportunity for the younger generation of Zionist leaders to assure their place in the leadership of the yishuv. Yagil Levy, a student of Yonathan Shapiro’s at Tel Aviv University who also examines the roots of Israeli “militarism,” takes an even more radical approach. In a 1998 essay in Teoria Uvikoret, Levy offers the following analysis of Israel’s early years:
As the hostilities intensified, the main Jewish groups benefited ... direct achievements such as material resources, social prestige, electoral gains, and the like, combined with indirect achievements resulting exclusively from acts of reprisal, such as gaining Palestinian lands and property and removing Arab workers from the labor market, in order to perpetuate the conflict. Moreover, the more the escalation of the conflict established the state's superiority internally ... the greater was the state’s ability to legitimize the construction of a non-egalitarian society in which Ashkenazi groups were dominant.
Thus the various theories that drive critical sociology are woven into a comprehensive indictment of Israel in general, and Zionism in particular. Yet unlike the Zionist Left, which blames the country’s ills on the “occupation,” the critical socialists locate the roots of evil in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, or even earlier. Yoav Peled and Yagil Levy stress this point in a 1993 article published in Teoria Uvikoret: “To our mind, the Six Day War was not a turning point, but rather an integral part of the Israeli-Arab conflict that has been going on for a hundred years. This conflict in itself ... constitutes a cornerstone of the Israeli socio-political order.”
The inevitable price for this preoccupation with history is, of course, the neglect of subjects far more relevant to what is traditionally associated with sociological inquiry. The ongoing violence between Jews and Arabs, for example, continues to play a decisive role in shaping Israeli society, yet such issues are surprisingly ignored in most of today’s sociological research. The impact of continued terror attacks on the Israeli public, the societal repercussions of the collapse of the Oslo accords, and the increasing extremism among Israeli Arabs have gradually been removed from sociological discourse. Indeed, of some five hundred articles presented at the annual conferences of the Israeli Sociological Society between 1998 and 2002, only four focused on the societal implications of the current Israeli-Arab conflict. Moreover, of eighteen studies on Israel appearing in the top five international sociology journals since 1989, only two have addressed the current conflict, and both are basically sympathetic to the Palestinian, presenting them as victims of Israeli oppression and occupation. Finally, of the thirty doctoral theses in sociology approved by Israeli universities from 1999 to 2002, only one discusses current aspects of the conflict.
These statistics are grim indeed: A generation of sociologists has emerged that is dedicated not to the objective study of Israeli society today, but to furthering their ideological agenda and undermining their country’s collective memory. It is no surprise, then, that critical sociology has become little more than an offshoot of post-Zionist historiography.
While it is still too early to gauge the impact of critical sociology on Israeli public opinion, the movement has undoubtedly jeopardized the credibility of Israeli sociological research, and perhaps more importantly, has had significant influence on thousands of students in Israeli sociology departments, who for several crucial years are taught that studying the past means looking for incriminating evidence. None of this is meant to deny the importance of critical thinking; on the contrary, it is only through the critical eye that intellectual endeavor maintains its credibility. In the case of Israeli sociology, however, criticism has taken the place of a sustained analysis of what makes Israeli society different from other societies—that is, of what makes Israelis who they are. Critical sociologists may fear that a scholarly commitment to Israel’s uniqueness will make them less respected by their colleagues abroad, yet it should be remembered that the founding generation of Israeli sociologists attained worldwide recognition through their pioneering studies on precisely the subjects which today’s scholars ignore. The early sociologists understood that Israel is an unparalleled social laboratory precisely because it does not fit into preconceived theoretical models.
There remains a wealth of topics neglected by Israeli sociologists, and much that both Israelis and outside observers could gain from examining them in depth. These include the renaissance of Hebrew language and culture; the establishment of democratic institutions and their functioning in an ongoing state of emergency; the impact of terrorist attacks on Israeli society; the apparent disunity in Israeli culture and identity in the past decade; the failure of the kibbutzim and moshavim to create an egalitarian society; the social and psychological aspects of life in the West Bank settlements; the memory of the Holocaust and its ongoing impact on Israeli culture; Israel–Diaspora relations; and the military service of women and new immigrants. Some of these subjects were studied in the past, and are in need of renewed attention, while others have never been properly examined.
A revival of the pluralistic spirit in Israeli sociology would be good news not only for scholars, but for Israeli society as a whole. For in the final analysis, the importance of sociology goes far beyond the realm of pure intellectual inquiry. Sociology holds up a mirror to society, contributing to its understanding of itself and its ability to address its own shortcomings. To fulfill this role, however, Israeli sociologists must also learn to cast a critical look at themselves.
For footnotes, look at original article