Israelis Telling the Middle East Like It Is

A new group of researchers think it's time for the public to be offered a calmer and more nuanced portrait of the Middle East's complex reality. Some of their colleagues in the ivory tower beg to differ.

Tomer Appelbaum

Toward the end of a lecture that Dr. Assaf David recently delivered to a group of retirees, under the subject heading “Trauma and Reconciliation: Relations between Israel and Jordan,” a woman in the audience could be overheard whispering to her friend: “In the end, the leftist in him is coming out.” David, whose primary area of research is Jordan, did not construe the comment as casting doubt on his professional integrity. On the contrary. “I thought to myself, why only ‘in the end’?”

A few weeks had passed, and David was now retelling the story at his home in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Givat Masua.

“I’d been talking about the rightward shift in Israel, as reflected in the contention that Jordan is the homeland of the Palestinians. I said that there was a time when the Likud espoused the official government line on Jordan, but that the radical right’s views were now being adopted by the party’s mainstream,” he said. “You cannot talk about Israeli-Jordanian relations without referring to Israel’s part in the relationship, and the deep currents that run through it. And what I would term professionalism is being mistakenly interpreted as leftism, because a sort of mindset has taken root here that a Middle East studies expert mustn’t talk politics.”

David, 41, is the co-founder and managing director of the Forum for Regional Thinking, a brand-new initiative intended “to disseminate knowledge about the Middle East in the aim of fomenting perceptual and practical change in Israel.” He does not deny his identification as a leftist, even though on the basis of his biography he was supposed to be in the other camp.

David was born in Kiryat Arba to a national-religious family and studied at the yeshiva high school in Efrat. In the army, he served in the Intelligence Corps’ Unit 8200, and then continued on to the standing army. But his service was truncated in 1995, when he was seriously injured in a suicide terrorist bombing on the No. 26 bus near the Rene Cassin High School in Jerusalem while on his way to his base.

“The terrorist was sitting in a very crowded bus, and was very close to me. I remember a strong jolt to my eye, and then a sensation as if I was flying in the air, a soul without a body. I lost consciousness – I don’t know for how long – until at some point I became aware of the fact that I was lying on the floor. I moved my tongue over my teeth to see if they were still there, and then came the dreadful smell and taste. I felt people walking on top of me to escape, and then I understood a terrorist attack had occurred. I got up – my rifle was still on me – and sat down on the sidewalk, in shock. I did not absorb the fact that I couldn’t see in one eye, and assumed I was simply in a deep fog.

“In the ambulance,” he continues, “the woman sitting across from me stared at me as if it were a horror film. At the hospital, they suspected that the piece of shrapnel that damaged my eye had penetrated to the brain. In the end, the bleeding in the brain was absorbed, but it wasn’t possible to save my eye. I went on to have a series of operations on my hand, because the shrapnel had cut into it down to the bone. I still don’t have much feeling in my hand. I subsequently heard that the people sitting on either side of me were killed.”

Aside from the physical scars, the trauma also triggered a fundamental shift in David’s worldview. “On the personal level, it caused me to understand what the important things in life are, and that if this whole business is going to end tomorrow, then I would be best off doing what I believe in and not what the establishment dictates I do,” he relates. “What’s more, the event changed me in the sense that I am able to imagine the suffering of the other side.”

These two principles lie at the ideological core of the Forum for Regional Thinking. At first glance, the establishment of the group is a rebellion of sorts against the Middle East studies establishment in Israel, which has made academic research its focal point and decided that engagement in current events is of secondary importance. The second and more significant factor combines empathy for human beings and their social structures with a call for redirecting the focus from the political and social elite and governmental institutions, and placing it on the residents of the Middle East.

“When I write about the military putsch in Egypt as a professional, I do not care if it is good or bad for Israel,” explains David. “We look at it from the point of view of Egyptian politics and of the civilians who suffered from the harsh brutality of [former presidents] Mubarak and then Morsi, and then [current President Abdel-Fattah] al-Sissi’s. Regrettably, this sort of thinking situates you on the left, but it shouldn’t be like that.”

The Forum, which comprises about 20 Middle East experts, will be officially launched next Sunday at a Tel Aviv bar on the edge of the Florentin neighborhood, as one might well expect from the lively, animated image it is marketing.

Nevertheless, this is not the ephemeral initiative of some runny-nosed junior researchers. The founding nucleus of the group includes Prof. Dror Ze’evi, who founded the Middle East studies department at Ben-Gurion University, Dr. Nimrod Hurvitz, a lecturer in the same department, and lecturer and researcher Dr. Shaul Yanai of Tel Aviv University, all from the heart of Israel’s Middle East studies establishment.

“Our primary aim,” says Hurvitz, “is to offer an alternate voice about the Middle East, one that is less harsh and more diverse. For instance, take a movement such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, whose image in Israel is particularly bad. You cannot disregard their compassion and caring for the people, as has been expressed in long years of infrastructure work in the establishment of hospitals, soup kitchens and educational institutions. Once you understand that, it is impossible to simply describe all their supporters as extremists.”

“The lack of knowledge makes it easier to maneuver and manipulate the public,” adds Hurvitz. “Islamic State [also known as ISIS and ISIL] is viewed as representing political Islam, but in actual fact, the Islamic political parties denounce it. The discourse tends to be yanked toward the extremes, and this makes it possible to construct towers of intimidation on top of the ignorance. The right makes abundant use of this.”

“The comparison that [PM Benjamin] Netanyahu makes between Hamas and ISIS is altogether distorted,” says Ze’evi. “This scrambled comparison can be accepted only by an audience that does not know the facts. These are organizations with completely different worldviews, which are fighting one another and killing one another. The vast majority of members of the Middle Eastern studies profession believe that Hamas, despite all its drawbacks, is a pragmatic organization, while ISIS is not.”

‘Villa in the jungle’ metaphor

At this stage, the Forum exists mainly as part of a website operated by Molad: The Center for the Renewal of Israeli Democracy. The site publishes articles on a wide variety of subjects, from anecdotal phenomena, like the passionate rivalries in Palestinian soccer, to more serious issues, like the erosion of the strategic status of Iran. Hurvitz explains that the Forum aspires to tear down the barriers between “important” and “interesting” because, he says, “even seemingly sensationalistic, yellow journalism relates to the social currents lying below the surface.”

Members of the Forum hope to step out from behind the boundaries of the hothouse of opinions and position themselves as a well-respected think tank that will provide the mainstream media with information. “We are frustrated by the gap between what we know about what is happening in the Middle East and the manner in which it is conveyed by the media to the outside,” explains Ze’evi.

At present, the most significant body that consistently gathers materials on regional matters, processes them and carries on an ongoing dialogue with journalists, is the Middle East Media Research Institute, which engages mainly in translating texts from the Arabic press, so as to serve as a middleman between the Arab world and Western ears. Memri was founded by the Middle East studies scholar Israel Defense Forces Col. (res.) Yigal Carmon, formerly the head of the Civil Administration and the adviser on counter-terrorism to prime ministers Yitzhak Shamir and Yitzhak Rabin.

David explains that “Memri sustains the view of the threat posed by the Arab world and Israel’s self-perception as a ‘villa in the jungle,’ although not everything Memri does is tainted by this conception. There are organizations on the right whose media manipulation is much more irksome, which inject erroneous ideas into the Israeli public, by building up those fragments of information that suit them and filtering out those facts that are not suited to them.”

Memri chose not to respond to David’s assertions.

According to Hurvitz, one of the Forum’s roles is to be on the watch for such instances. “We want to create an atmosphere in which an individual who appears on television and deliberately speaks rubbish will know that he will pay a price for it, because the next day he will be torn to shreds on the Internet. There needs to be a counter-force, a critical review of the hysterical statements made by Zvika Yehezkeli.”

The mention of TV Channel 10’s commentator on Arab affairs is not coincidental: Zvi Yehezkeli, it seems, is considered by some Forum members to be the most harmful persona in the mainstream media.

“Not long ago,” says Hurvitz, “Yehezkeli broadcast a piece in which a member of one of the extreme factions of the Muslim Brotherhood was being interviewed and refused to condemn ISIS. This is an annoying choice, because the Muslim world in general reviles ISIS. And if you’ve chosen to broadcast this piece, at least place it in a fair context. This is what classic propaganda looks like, and it is 10 times more vexing because Yehezkeli is knowledgeable about this subject, profoundly understands it, and nevertheless he chose to present it this way. If it were a one-time thing, then fine, but with him it is incessant. The easiest thing to do is appeal to emotions of fear. Yehezkeli is good at what he does, in the same way that Netanyahu is good at what he does.”

“Yehezkeli’s series of shows about Islam in Europe was a scandal,” adds Ze’evi. “Millions of Muslims live in Europe, the vast majority of whom behave like model citizens and aspire to be integrated. Of course, you can always find the 1.5 percent who convene in mosques for fanatical sermons and declare they will Islamicize all of Europe, and it is legitimate to voice these opinions, too, but it would be fair to present them as rotten apples in a big barrel. At least he should have interviewed people who could talk about the integration of the Muslims in Europe from a different angle. It was a highly effective series, and it caused great damage. Talk to people in the street and they will tell you that the Muslims want to enforce sharia law on Europe.”

David takes these sentiments one step further. “A person who is documented in a YouTube clip saying that a Jew is a son of the king and an Arab is a son of the maidservant, and that for Arabs all faith is no more than lip service [Yehezkeli said words to this effect at a religious gathering a year and a half ago] – he is in my opinion simply useless as a commentator on Arab affairs. There is no chance that these sorts of views will not seep into the way he analyzes the Middle East.”

When asked for comment, Yehezkeli said: “I suggest that members of the Forum take a close look at reality, that they go to Europe and shoot a series of their own. Incidentally, the editor of Charlie Hebdo was interviewed on ‘Allah Islam’ [the title of Yehezkeli’s 2012 series of reports on the subject], and he, as we know, was murdered in the magazine offices. What’s more, the teenagers we interviewed in the series ended up enlisting in ISIS; some of them were subsequently killed. That is reality. If this Forum is trying to find a good side to ISIS and insists on shooting the messenger, that is, the commentator – they should be healthy and well, and let each of us do his own work.”

Motivation and means

What about the moral stance of members of the Forum, who from the outset declared, in the words of Nimrod Hurvitz, “We come from the center and leftward of that?” Ze’evi admits that their work is “soaked in an ideological solution,” and he has no intention of apologizing for it. “We did not come together in order to found an academic institute, but for a specific goal. At the same time, political motivation does not sanctify the means, and the entirety of our writing will be balanced and supervised. We have no intention of describing the Middle East through rose-colored glasses.”

What if a similar group were to arise tomorrow that analyzed the Middle East from a right-wing perspective?

“We would be happy if such an initiative occurred,” says Ze’evi, “but I think there are already people doing that on the right side of the map, such as Guy Bechor and Motti Kedar.”

Until recently, Dr. Bechor served as head of the Middle East division at the IDC Herzliya’s school of government. Dr. Mordechai Kedar, a lecturer in the Arabic department at Bar-Ilan University, also directs the Center for the Study of Middle East and Islam there. But the two are best known to the public because of their numerous media appearances and ongoing availability to provide commentary on current affairs.

Kedar has consistently claimed that it is not possible to achieve peace with the Arabs; he objects to use of the term “occupation,” since, as he sees it, Jordan also occupied the territories until Israel took the area from the kingdom. He calls for abandoning the dialogue with the Palestinian Authority in favor of a solution of establishing seven emirates in the West Bank that would be granted autonomous status. Last year, he caused a storm when, in response to the kidnapping and murder of Gil-Ad Shaer, Eyal Yifrach and Naftali Frenkel, he told an Israel Radio interviewer, “The only thing that can deter terrorists is the knowledge that their sister or their mother would be raped.”

For his part, Guy Bechor aspires to portray peace as a sleight of hand that promotes “the secular messianism of lies.” A summary of Bechor’s views was presented in one of his recent television appearances, when he was a guest on a Channel 2 morning show, and offered an eloquent and strongly worded monologue. The gist of it: The boycott of Israel is a minor problem whose impact has been blown out of all proportion by newspapers like Haaretz and Yedioth Ahronoth, and is spreading to campuses abroad; also, that ISIS is active in the Gaza Strip, although the Israeli press conceals this fact in order not to admit the failure of the doctrine of territorial withdrawal.

“Guy Bechor is a classic symptom of the conservative Middle East studies professional,” says David. “This is a man who can give you a detailed analysis of every sheikh from every far-flung tribe in Sinai and to whom he is loyal – but to him, Israel is outside the game, except when he heaps praise on Israel for its judicious use of violent behavior, or critiquing it when it does not exercise enough power.”

Bechor’s response: “I do not cooperate with Haaretz.”

Kedar, conversely, was willing to be interviewed, and complained about his being described as a “right-wing Middle East scholar.” “I am not right wing and not not-right wing; I am a realist,” he said in a phone conversation. “Reality forces itself both on the right and on the left, and I observe it correctly. There is a group of Middle East scholars that has spun itself a skein of dreams, beholden to conceptions and refusing to recognize the fact that instead of a New [hadash, in Hebrew] Middle East, we have an ISIS [da’esh, in Hebrew] Middle East,” Kedar summed up, paraphrasing a now-famous pun that appeared in a Netanyahu campaign speech last winter.

Jewish Islamophobia

The Forum for Regional Thought came into being not only as a response to the fervent pessimism of Kedar and his like, but also as a challenge to the tendency to throw everything together into the same pot. Idan Barir, a member of the Forum and a PhD candidate in history at Tel Aviv University, explains.

“This is a group of analysts,” he explains, referring to the type of scholarship the Forum is meant to counteract, “whose power lies in their decisiveness, and they relate to the Middle East as one huge unit of analysis. Why do you have to read the local press, track the social media or speak regularly with parties on the inside track, if you can just turn to the internal oracle inside you and receive from it the code of the Middle East and offer it up as analysis?”

Dr. Raz Tzimmt, another member of the Forum, argues that the situation is even more problematic when the subject is Iran, “because aside from a few isolated incidences, there are almost no Farsi-speaking analysts or academics here who engage in Iran. What’s more, they tend to base their views on the Arabic press, and when you analyze Iran based on an Al Jazeera report, it is about as credible as if we were to analyze Israel based on Al Jazeera. The Arabic media are fundamentally extremely biased against Iran and focuses exclusively on Iranian subversion of the region, practically without any reference to domestic matters.”

Kedar agrees that relying on translated sources and failure to understand the source languages is a major problem, “which brings a great deal of mediocrity to the realm of Middle East studies.” However, he rebuffs the contention that the broad-based analysis is tainted by a lack of seriousness. “Rubbish. Can’t a family doctor treat you one time for your stomach, another time for your foot and a third time for your head? In the same way you can draw conclusions from similar phenomena taking place in Libya, Syria or Iraq.”

Considering that some of those who are harshly criticizing the local celebrities of the Middle East studies world are still wet behind the ears in terms of academic credentials, and would themselves hope to find their way into the telephone directories of assignment editors and producers – one might view the criticism of Forum members with skepticism. But there are also some veteran members of the academic establishment who are also calling for a shake-up of the discourse. One of them is Moshe Maoz, 80, a professor emeritus of Middle East studies at Hebrew University, who last month received an honorary award from the Middle East and Islamic Studies Association of Israel. Maoz devoted much of his acceptance speech to the domination of the discourse by a limited number of analysts who share a distinct worldview.

In a conversation with Haaretz, Maoz explained that, “the silent and sane majority of Middle East scholars remain passive in the face of the slander, inaccuracies and unbalanced approach of a few dominant Middle East scholars, who speak about the Arab world with a mixture of derision and hatred. One says that the only contribution of the Arabs to the Middle East is the invention of hummus, another calls for destroying the mosques on the Temple Mount, and a third compares [Turkish President Recep] Erdogan to Hitler.

“Several of them were my students, and in this sense I feel that I failed in educating them. In my opinion, a Middle East scholar should be empathetic toward the culture he is investigating, even if he does not accept it. It may be that this phenomenon is symptomatic of a broader trend of Jewish Islamophobia. In this atmosphere, there are few who dare to oppose it.”

Members of the Forum hope to make their way into this vacuum. “A situation has come into being in which right-wing and conservative Middle East experts have greater drive, ideological awareness and willingness to pay a price for their beliefs,” says Assaf David. “We need to have leftists who are also willing not to give a damn about the academic world or their next book, and who will instead make an effort to appear on television to present a more diverse picture of the Arab world.”

Isn’t the choice to engage in Tunisian politics, or Iraq or Bahrain, when under your very nose is the bloodiest conflict, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, not a case of evasiveness?

David: “There are those here who are immersed in the Palestinian realm – everything is a question of dosage. Tunisia is actually an excellent example, because the government there is highlighting a much more liberal, pluralistic and moderate version of the Muslim Brotherhood. That enables us to present a case that contrasts strongly with the basic assumptions that have taken root in relation to Islamic rule.”

It is hard to accuse members of the Forum of being blind to the conflict. Ze’evi and Hurvitz, for example, devoted themselves to this initiative after several years of continuous dialogue with Palestinian government officials and academics, which was intended to create an infrastructure for a future peace agreement. At the same time, each of them has an independent opinion of the chances of the two-state formula.

David is the most radical in his views, and has strident opinions about “the dissolution of the Palestinian option”: “Aside from organizations that still want to maintain their status among donors, I don’t think there is anyone who really thinks it is possible to establish an independent Palestinian state. The question needs to be asked: What will come in its place? Along with the erosion from the right, even parties in the center and the Zionist left are already beginning to say that Jordan should be part of the solution – either in the sense that it would take responsibility for the West Bank, or in the sense of wielding real control, as it once had, or through realization of the national rights of the Palestinians.”

In terms of the Jordanians, is there any such willingness?

“Under certain circumstances, yes. If Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians would enter a joint discourse in which it was clear to each side what it was giving and what it was getting, it could be a decent alternative for them. On the other hand, if it comes out of classic Israeli supremacy of ‘we are the strong ones and we will make the rules’ – then nothing will come of it.”

David is incensed that the peace discourse has become the sole fiefdom of “an Ashkenazi, male and neo-liberal elite, whose grasp on reality is limited.” From his perspective, “the claim that the State of Israel is an alien implant in the Middle East” – inhabited, that is, by Ashkenazi, male, neo-liberals – “does not stand the acid test of reality. In point of fact, Israel is closely linked, for better or for worse, to the region in which it is situated, much more than it is connected to the liberal-democratic West.”

His claims in this context are quite persuasive. As in the Arab world, Israel is also a country in which the government and the resources are concentrated in the hands of a group possessing distinct religious and ethnic traits, where religion and state compete over the shaping of the public domain and military-security considerations trump civilian ones when it comes to decision making. This in turn leads to his insistence that Israel be included in the research and the public discourse on the Middle East.

Last month, at the annual conference of the Middle East and Islamic Studies Association of Israel, held at the University of Haifa, David was invited as a representative of the Forum to participate on a panel entitled “Middle East research and public knowledge.” The atmosphere in the room was charged from the outset. David fired the first shot when he offered a sharp indictment of the Middle East studies establishment for having cloistered itself in the ivory tower and shirked its obligation to enrich the public with knowledge.

When the right of response was given to Prof. Israel Gershoni of Tel Aviv University, a well-respected Middle East studies veteran who early in his career also fought the fossilized establishment, he made no attempt to conceal his rage. “Arrogance, ignorance, a lack of understanding of the profession,” retorted Gershoni, who added that the attempt to send catchy messages to the public by way of short articles contained a “certain measure of charlatanism.”

Afterward, in a conversation with Haaretz, Gershoni charged that “the field of Israeli Middle East studies has worked continually and systematically to make materials accessible to a broad segment of the public.”

On the panel, when things hit a fever pitch, there was one speaker who suggested describing the array of forces on display as a paranoid genealogy of “patricide.” Assaf David, who did not disagree with this interpretation (“I would say, however, that we are still at the stage of taking out our knives”), continued to dwell on the intergenerational dimension, saying, “The present of the Middle East affairs community is humiliating its past.”

As an example, David quoted from the accord drafted by founders of the association in 1949, which called for “nurturing links of culture and friendship with peoples of the Middle East.” After reading the excerpt out loud, he added: “Recognition? Friendship? These people would be marked now as treasonous leftists, but I still believe there is a moral obligation to explain to the public just where we are living.”