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Neutrality Is Political

The true problem thus lies not with the post-Zionist syllabi, but with all sociology syllabi. I challenge anyone to find more than a handful of sociology courses that do not have serious political implications (vis-a-vis nationalism, economic policy or social stratification).

The brouhaha raised by the Institute for Zionist Strategies report, in which the sociology departments of Israel's universities are charged with being dangerously dominated by post-Zionist syllabi, offers scholars in this field the opportunity to answer an important question: Is sociology political?

University library
Nir Kedar

When Galileo espoused the Copernican heliocentric view of the universe, he was condemned by the Church for opposing the version of the world presented by Scripture. The Church rightly understood that Galileo's theory had political implications: To contest the universe of the Scriptures was to contest the authority of the Church itself. Galileo's claims were scientific, and yet, in the context of Inquisitorial control over the production of knowledge, they were also political.

The more modern controversies concerning evolution or stem-cell research attest to the fact that the so-called hard sciences have regularly conflicted with other beliefs - religious, nationalist, etc. Many of the concepts emerging from science have moral and political implications, because they contain a point of view regarding the origin of mankind, the universe or morality.

Historically, "academic freedom" has protected first and foremost the hard sciences, and if they seem apolitical and not in need of such protection, it is only because science has already won the political battles against religion. Thus, my first point is this: The IZS report relates to both the soft and hard sciences, and those involved in teaching the latter should be no less worried than those who teach the former about the organization's brutal attempt to control scientific inquiry. Post-Zionism is not more politically subversive than evolutionism was. In fact, it is probably less so.

But come on, some will say. Sociology is obviously more political than the hard sciences. Open any sociology textbook: It speaks of class and gender inequalities, dominant ideology, sexual oppression, all of which are obviously more political than atoms or the speed of light.

Yes, we are a political discipline, and yes, we are a critical discipline, in the same way that Galileo's heliocentrism was political. Our theories are scientific, but because they contest established interpretations of the world, they have political implications.

Take two examples. In Marx's analysis of capitalism, "surplus value" is the measurable difference between a worker's wages and the value of goods and services she produces. Since the latter is always higher than the former, workers produce a positive surplus value through their labor. Thus "surplus value" is an objective measure that becomes political when it measures a worker's exploitation. Or take the notion of "patriarchy" - a scientific concept that describes the fact that women are economically, legally and socially dominated by men, deprived of citizenship rights, of the capacity to inherit land, to initiate divorce, hold public offices, and the like. Both "patriarchy" and "surplus value" identify and reveal previously unseen political structures, and thus have political implications.

Sociology is political because it studies society in a neutral way. Even if such neutrality is rarely achieved, it is, as in other sciences, a regulatory ideal of our discipline. And why is neutrality political? Because all societies beautify themselves, legitimize their interpretation of the world and ridicule others', and make some symbols sacred and others disgusting. Sociologists' scientific orientation, in Israel and abroad, is to treat neutrally the beautiful, sacred and heroic stories that societies tell about themselves. For sociologists, Zionism is such a heroic story, no less and no more sacred than others.

And, indeed, what are post-Zionists guilty of, according to the report? They are guilty of giving scientific names to the sacred names that pervade the narrative of Israeli history. They are excoriated for calling the "War of Independence" only the "1948 War"; "aliyah" "immigration"; and "the redemption of the land" "land purchase." Clearly, post-Zionists are guilty of using neutral, scientific terms where the IZS historiographers prefer to use the sacred names of our collective history.

And this is my second point: To treat neutrally what members of a society believe is sacred is a political act. Sociology is political not because its practitioners are card-carrying members of political parties, but because sociologists treat neutrally what is sacred to others. When it treats sacred beliefs in an agnostic way, science almost by definition commits an act of transgression.

The true problem thus lies not with the post-Zionist syllabi, but with all sociology syllabi. I challenge anyone to find more than a handful of sociology courses that do not have serious political implications (vis-a-vis nationalism, economic policy or social stratification ). And come to think of it, many disciplines encourage us to do exactly what sociology routinely does: to question the foundation of sacred beliefs. Philosophy, political sciences, literary studies, history, communications and sociology - all are inherently critical, because their primary vocation is to ask why the values, beliefs and symbols we hold dearest are the way they are and whether they could not have been different. Science and reason have always thought against sacredness, and sociology is only the most modern representative of that iconoclasm.


Prof. Eva Illouz holds the Rose Isaacs Chair in Sociology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.