Dr. Michael Feige spent his career writing and lecturing about the effects of war and terrorism on the Israeli psyche, casting his analytic and critical academic eye on groups as diverse as the settler movement and Peace Now activists.
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He surely never dreamed that he would be remembered not as an expert observer of Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but as its victim.
Feige, 58, a sociologist and anthropologist, was shot to death in Wednesday night’s terror attack on Tel Aviv’s Sarona Market, an upscale dining and shopping complex in the heart of the city. When he lost his life Feige was a respected academic at the peak of his career, serving as head of the Israel Studies Track in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and a member of the Ben-Gurion Research Institute for the Study of Israel and Zionism at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. His university biography describes him as specializing in “Israeli society, collective memory and political myth.”
Feige’s friend and colleague Professor Arieh Saposnik described him as a “gentle and peaceful man, both on the interpersonal level and his understanding of Israeli society.” The fact that his quiet friend with a dry sense of humor could be gunned down sitting in an upscale Tel Aviv cafe, he said “is a stark reminder of how random and meaningless this kind of terror is.”
Professionally, Saposnik said, Feige’s internationally recognized scholarship “had a unique perspective, penetrating and analytical, profound, and vital to our understanding of Israeli society.” Feige’s book, he said, “is probably the most important book on the settler movement and Gush Emunim written so far.”
His book Settling in the Hearts: Jewish Fundamentalism in the Occupied Territories won the Shapiro Prize for Best Book from the Association of Israel Studies in 2010. Published in both English and Hebrew, Feige’s book recounts how the settler movement strove to redefine Zionism, Israel and Judaism through a reinterpretation of Jewish history, secular Zionist ideology, religious faith, and the Bible.
Feige also researched, taught and wrote extensively on questions of collective memory regarding key events in Israeli history, ranging from the Yom Kippur War to the evacuation of the Sinai settlement of Yamit — about which he was interviewed by Haaretz in 2005, comparing it to the evacuation of Gush Katif.
Some of his recent work focused on the Rabin assassination. In an article published last year titled ”Rabin's Assassination and the Ethnic Margins of Gush Emunim,” Feige analyzed Rabin assassin Yigal Amir through the lens of religion, ideology and ethnicity, pointing out that “a large percentage of political murderers in Israel have come from the ethnic margins of Gush Emunim and of the ideological settler community.”
He also took on more quirky and unusual topics, as when he analyzed the theme park of Mini Israel. Feige saw the site not just as a place of entertainment but “as an inner journey into Israel and Israeliness, to a sense of pristine existence for which many Israelis long and feel they have lost” and which demonstrates a “fantasy of containment” in which minority groups stay within their designated spheres.
Feige earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Sociology before joining the BGU faculty and moving south. He and his wife Nurit raised their three daughters in the Negev desert in Midreshet Ben Gurion near the center housing the archive and dedicated to researching David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister. Feige was an active member of the small community while living there, and after his daughters were grown, he followed them to the Tel Aviv area.
Saposnik, who had been living and working in the United States until three years ago, said that Feige had been instrumental in helping him return to Israel and bringing him to Ben-Gurion University. Feige, he said, was respected and well-regarded in the international community of scholars on Israel as well as at BGU. In faculty forums and debates, he said, Feige “was sharp but always kind and gentle. He knew how to be critical without showing disrespect.”
Feige’s students from more than a decade ago began calling the university when they heard news of his passing. Tributes to his friends, colleagues and students covered Feige’s Facebook page after his name was released as one of the victims of the Sarona attack, in an online outpouring of shock and sorrow.
“How could bullets have taken down this man who was so full of life? His sense of humor? How could my passing conversation with him in the hallway yesterday become our last?” wrote one colleague, Adi Sherzer.
A statement released by Ben-Gurion University of the Negev said that the institution “bows its head in mourning and sends its deepest condolences” to Feige’s family.
Dr. Sara Hirschhorn, a lecturer in Israel Studies at Oxford University, said "as a scholar, Michael revolutionized our understanding of the settlements with his remarkable clarity and sensitivity to the Israeli, Palestinian, and human condition, its myths and realities. As a person, he was a generous mentor, a kind and gentle soul, a cheerleader for young scholars, and a true mensch. It is such a cruel fate for a man who devoted his life and career to peace and taught that scholarship has a social purpose, to be felled by indiscriminate hate and terror."