Text size

Some time ago Dr. Alek Epstein turned to an academic colleague, and asked him why fellow professionals aren't studying trends related to settlements and settlers. "The only thing I expect from the settlers is that they get up and leave," said the colleague. "I don't have any urge to study them."

This exchange might be perceived as simply another moment in Israel's continuing political debate. Yet the person who answered Epstein is one of Israel's leading sociologists, and his prominent status casts an altogether different light on the conversation.

This story is not to be found in an article published last week by Epstein, in the Shalem Center's journal Azure. Even without the anecdote, the article, entitled in Hebrew "the Decline of Israeli Sociology," is a stinging indictment of the discipline the author has chosen. Epstein is a researcher affiliated with the Shalem Center and a lecturer at the Open University.

It might not be an accident that Epstein, 28, has assumed the pose of sociologist of Israeli sociologists. His critical perspective derives partly from the fact that he is still considered a new immigrant though he immigrated to Israel from the Commonwealth of Independent States 13 years ago. But it's also a matter of personality; Epstein does not fit into any single, neat category.

In the past, he refused to serve in the Israel Defense Forces, for reasons of conscience as a pacifist. Thus he might be considered a leftist. He lives in Ma'aleh Adumim outside of Jerusalem, and emphatically calls his home town a "settlement," a designation used mostly by the radical left in Israel. Yet Epstein rejects this classification, "leftist," with disdain; instead, he presents himself as a "liberal," in the tradition of Bertrand Russell. He has respect for Dr. Azmi Bishara, the controversial Israeli Arab politician; yet in the last election Epstein cast his ballot for Natan Sharansky.

As Epstein sees it, a solution to the Israeli-Arab problem depends upon the Arabs alone. In short, Epstein deliberately refuses to adopt any accepted socio-political designation, not even the term "oleh" (meaning new immigrant).

"I am a sociologist of Israeli society, and I'm the only native of the CIS who has taken up this role," says Epstein. "The word "Russia" does not appear in my master's thesis, which dealt with the development of pacifism in Israel; nor does the word appear in my doctoral dissertation, which was devoted to relations between the political elite and the academic elite in the [pre-1977] era of Mapai rule."

"Israeli academia has a glut of sociologists of Israeli society who were not educated in Israel; but since they are from English-speaking countries, that's considered natural," says Epstein. "In this respect, it isn't considered natural that I am `Russian,' even though I've tried deliberately to avoid dealing with `Russian' subjects."

Inspiration from Bishara

Choosing his professional identity, Epstein drew inspiration from an unlikely source, MK Dr. Azmi Bishara. There are many Arab researchers who study their own sector, and whose work receives little attention, but Bishara, says Epstein, challenges Israeli academia because he researches Zionist ideology and its place in Israel as a nation state.

"Bishara forces us to speak with him about ourselves, and not about `them,'" says Epstein. "I do the same thing. It's only because of my focus on pan-Israeli subjects that I'm able to engage a meaningful dialogue with veterans [Israelis]. I have something to tell you about yourselves."

In his hard-hitting recent article, Epstein examined 501 research studies that were presented at sociology conferences between 1998-2002; he probed the identities of the researchers, and the subjects which they chose to analyze. Epstein characterizes his findings as the "betrayal of the sociologists."

"The most urgent issues in Israeli society are of no concern to the sociology community," Epstein complains.

Epstein's comparison between issues of pertinence to Israel's society and topics of interest to local academic researchers, paints a surprising picture. Were a run-of-the-mill Israeli to be asked to name the main problems faced by the country in recent years, he or she would be likely to cite terror, the security situation, settlements, the peace negotiations and so on. But such topics are given short shrift in works prepared by sociologists.

Out of 501 research studies presented in conferences during the past five years, just four dealt with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Just one work dealt with the influence of terror on Israeli society; just 1 percent, or 5 out of 501, dealt with aspects relevant to the settlers' lives; just a handful of articles addressed military service and its impact on women and new immigrants; and not a single article probed the peace process and its influence on Israeli society. Examining prestigious sociology journals around the world, Epstein found that since 1998 not a single article has been published on a distinctively Israeli topic.

If not Israeli society, what then are the country's sociologists studying? About 10 percent (51 research studies) dealt with industrial-organizational-economic issues; a similar number (49) addressed educational and youth topics, and roughly the same number (48) took up issues related to culture and collective memory ("all of these from a post-Zionist, if not anti-Zionist, perspective," Epstein emphasizes). None of these articles addressed topics of genuine pertinence to Israeli society.

"The sociologists ignore the most important items on the social agenda," Epstein says, summarizing his findings. "The sociology departments betray their mission when they neglect topics which are distinctive to Israeli society... For example, no other state in the world sends its citizens to live in a particular territory while telling them - `hey guys, any day we might call you back from there.' This is true only in the case of the settlers. Their situation poses a tremendous challenge to sociologists. But instead of tackling it, sociologists tend to write about whatever's fashionable at Harvard or Oxford. That's legitimate, but damaging."

Epstein's charges go beyond this trend of academic neglect of issues of urgent importance to Israeli society. Worse, he alleges, is the fact that "sociologists have turned into lobbyists for the groups that they represent." He continues: "Most sociologists today affiliate themselves with some sector that faces discrimination...Mizrahi researchers write about the persecuted Mizrahim [Jews from Asian and African countries], Arabs write about how they've been mistreated, so, too, do the Russians write about how they've been abused. There are virtually no women who will write about how Russians have been ill-treated; nor are the Russians going to write about how the Arabs have been abused."

"Worse, whenever somebody tries to write from a different standpoint, he's immediately accused of being `partisan.' I've seen that. The Ashkenazi establishment in Israel's sociology profession defends the interests of the Palestinian people from the vantage point of the trendy new left. There is no dearth of sociologists who have made a career out of writing about how the Palestinians have been mistreated; yet it doesn't bother them that their academic departments don't include a single Arab researcher."

Epstein's main charge relates to the partisan fragmentation of research - the country's academics, he suggests, fail to look at the whole, multi-faceted picture. Epstein rejects an interpretation which holds that the state of the sociology profession merely reflects the fragmented status of Israel, a country which lacks a social center. "That assumption is wrong," says Epstein. "The stratum which controls the country is the same one which was dominant in the past. How many Mizrahi [Jews], Russians or Arabs are to be found in the judicial, economic or media elites? Today's elite is the same old elite; the only difference is that it loses in elections."

Epstein's interpretations of trends he perceives in Israeli society put a premium on the influence of the new left (whose orientation was absorbed by Israeli researchers during stints on campuses in Europe and the U.S.), the electoral turnabout of the 1977 Likud victory, the Lebanon War, which convulsed and politicized Israeli academia, and also trends of globalization which have left Israeli researchers more dependent upon international institutions and have frequently encouraged them to adopt anti-Israeli sentiments.

He has harsh words for the critical stream of Israeli sociologists (whose works are frequently published in the Hebrew journal "Theory and Criticism"). "The enlistment of these critical sociologists in the struggle to influence Israel's collective memory," Epstein charges, "has refashioned the profession's research agenda. In their attempt to undermine the dominant Zionist narrative, the researchers cast their glance to the past, while systematically neglecting [current] social issues, which deserve extended treatment."

How does this iconoclastic researcher view his own identity in Israel - can his own research be interpreted, paradoxically, as an effort to perpetuate Ashkenazi hegemony by upholding the old collective ethos? Epstein's response is characteristically thoughtful and non-conventional: "Israel's Russian community has a very strange status. We are sort of Ashkenazi. Yet in cultural terms we are not thought of as Ashkenazi, and we're certainly not considered as part of the establishment. Let them say that I'm political; that's okay. I don't believe in non-political sociology. But when sociological discourse in Israel swings between Meretz and Hadash, it is detached from the social reality which it is supposed to research."