Learning From 'His Own Words'

He was shunned by his colleagues for his political opinions. But Baruch Kimmerling did not relinquish his convictions, which included a demand to hold his own society up to the general rules of scientific sociology.

In the conclusion to his book "The Invention and Decline of Israeliness: State, Society and the Military" (University of California Press, 2001), Baruch Kimmerling writes: "To understand what is happening in the Middle East today, it is necessary to note the existence of a number of social and political limits to Israeli democracy, which paradoxically also serve, by reason of their multiplicity, to present a sort of pluralist facade and thus provide the Israeli state with a veneer of democratic legitimacy." Kimmerling notes the five limits of Israeli democracy: Jewish law (which the state has embraced); the limitation of Jewish female citizenship (which includes discrimination even against Ashkenazi Jewish women); the limitation of Israeli citizenship (that is, discrimination against Israel's Arabs); the ethnic limitation (that is, Israel's Ashkenazi hegemony); and the limitation of the Israeli control system (namely, the occupation).

I heard someone on television say in an awed voice that Kimmerling, who died on May 20, at the age of 67, took care to use "his own words" rather than repeat "what others had said." Grieving for one man's death should not be an opportunity to settle scores with another, and therefore it should be noted only that Kimmerling's use of "his own words" was not anything out of the ordinary: It was a beginning, a way of clearing the table, of preparing to redefine the present - that is, sociology.

Kimmerling gave political accounts of what his surroundings - the media, politicians, the university - preferred not to describe, but rather only to recycle, or to hide behind cliches. The occupation is an excellent example of this. He devoted much of his scholarly work and journalistic opinion pieces to the occupation. At times, when reading "critical texts," it seems as though the very use of the word "occupation" - which for years was considered oh-so-subversive - is in itself enough; as though when the radical professor stands in the classroom and says "the occupation," and when his students write down "the occupation" in their notebooks - the need to say something has already been met, and everyone is absolved of the need for political or sociological description. But what does the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory even mean, after 40 years of wild, unbounded rule, whose defenders like to say that it is "more enlightened than any other occupation," forgetting that this "enlightened" quality has yet to be examined from the Palestinian side of the boot and failing to note that no other occupation in modern history lasted this long? What is it precisely, this 40-year occupation, what is it in historical or sociological terms?

Well, we have many scholars who love to pontificate - not from their university podiums, of course - and wail "What is this doing to us?" How bad we have it. How corrupt we are. And the occupation, the occupation, the occupation, and when will it end, and why is it happening to us? We so wanted our beautiful, innocent Zionism. Well, beyond all the claptrap about "when will it end," what, exactly is the scientific nature of the occupation? What is its political meaning? What will the occupation of 2007 look like from a historical standpoint?

For example, how was the political and social entity of the Palestinians eliminated? How was the last remaining terrain in which they could have built their state crushed? It's too easy to say, "Two states for two peoples." Even President George Bush says that. But where exactly does the Palestinian state begin? How exactly did the Palestinian people disappear as a national entity? That, after all, is the historical question. The barbaric wall cutting through Palestinian land is only the symptom of something broader, and that something isn't security.

More than 'okay'

This is why Kimmerling was much more than an "okay" sociologist; that's what we can learn from his use of "his own words." When he described the occupation in terms of control, he was looking for the place where the Israeli state had expanded to monstrous proportions what before it had allowed itself to do to its own citizens in only a very limited way. There was a Shin Bet security service before 1967, and there was a military and there were prisons; the occupation, however, meant that all of these branches became monstrous.

Kimmerling moved from the present to the past not only when dealing with the occupation - that is, when he described it as it was, with its heroes and their interests. He followed the same path when he considered the dispute with the Palestinians and defined it as a dispute over land, and soon he came to realize what the difference was between the so-called Zionist left (which eventually became absorbed into the political center) and the other kind of left (which eventually all but vanished from the political map): 1967 was not the wound, but the pus of a wound that had been left untreated. They were not naive, those who thought to themselves, both before 1967 and after, "time will pass, and the world will forget"; they were not naive, but stupid. The sixth day of that war, ceremoniously called the Six-Day War, has stretched out like a 40-year coma.

Kimmerling trained many younger scholars; in the last decade, an era when critical scholars have been hounded, some of them paid dearly for being his students. As he said several times, especially in his chilling interview with Dalia Karpel in the Haaretz Magazine in October 2006, he himself was left untouched; but his students, or those for whom he wrote letters of recommendation, paid a price in that horrible environment where freedom primarily means vacation.

To understand the effort he made - whether in his first study, which dealt with the land struggle, or later, using other tools, especially in books he published abroad and in essays he published in Israel about the demolition of Palestinian political society and the disintegration of Israeliness - to understand that effort, one must take into account that the most representative work to be produced by Kimmerling's colleagues in the Hebrew University sociology department in recent decades was "Trouble in Utopia: The Overburdened Polity of Israel," by Dan Horowitz and Moshe Lissak. Even those who have not read the book can see from its title how the Israeli crisis is perceived by mainstream sociology, with all its power and ability to produce more and more scholars, scholarships and "heirs." In the mainstream discourse, our problems are a kind of pain in the groin of our Zionist vision.

Here, for example, we can learn something about Kimmerling's effort and courage; not because he defined himself as being one thing or another, and not because his model of democracy was a state for all of its citizens, in the American style, but especially because he insisted on toppling the ideological house of cards that his fellow Israeli sociologists, those residing in the offices along the same hallway, had built and even took pride in.

What about Weber?

The pattern was provided by the enterprise of Shmuel Eisenstadt, because of the way he undertook to be part of the state's projects, without factoring in that a state, any state, is primarily a control mechanism of the elites. Is it possible to write sociology as though Max Weber never wrote what he wrote, as though Emile Durkheim never studied what he studied? We can't, unless we are the exception. That was the scientific effort Kimmerling made in his sociology: to hold us up to the general rule.

I knew, from dozens of e-mails, how much he needed, how much he yearned for camaraderie, for friends, especially on the Mount Scopus campus. At the same time, he never wavered in his convictions, not even when it jeopardized his immense need for company, for friends. This was the most important thing for him: intense friendship, and a refusal to relinquish his position. This is a difficult thing for an immigrant born of immigrants; it is even more difficult for someone who is born disabled [Kimmerling suffered from cerebral palsy]. That courage, and not only the clarity of his analyses, was what we so admired.