Steven Cook is Right about Israel

Steven Cook argued yesterday that popular writing on Israel is boring, because nothing new is ever said. He is entirely correct. Here’s more on why:

Public commentary on Israel is faddish, and therefore under-developed. The current issue is, of course, Iran and the potential for an Israeli attack on its nuclear facilities. Other recent issues include the J14 social protests, and the spate of efforts to impose illiberal and ethnocentric legislation. This proclivity to craze either pushes serious scholars of Israel to discuss them, contributing to such a focus; or draws out commentary from pundits who don’t work on Israel and therefore don’t know its nuances.

At the same time, everything about Israel is explored as though it is a snapshot of the country, rather than a moving picture. There is little historical context, which is a problem since most developments in Israel today stem from processes that began either in the early years of the state or even during the Yishuv.

As Cook also noted, domestic issues tend to be ignored in discussions of Israel, or at best are noted in broad brush strokes. (For an almost lone counter-example, see Daniel Levy.) References to “the religious parties,” for instance, rarely note the important ethnic, political, policy, and theological differences among them.

And, of course, there is the politics of thinking about Israel. For a variety of reasons, the country is tangled up with observers’ own emotional, political, and ideological agendas. I don’t feel the need to repeat here my feelings about the Netanyahu government, establish my position as either leftwing or rightwing, pro- or anti-settlements, a one- or two-stater—readers can peruse my blog posts to find out more, if they wish. Indeed, another problem with analysis of Israel is writers’ perceived need to include such caveats or credentials. As though their studies can only be understood or accepted in light of their political or personal outlooks—which, to be fair, is often reinforced by audience reactions.

All of this leads to an incomplete understanding of Israel; or again in Cook’s words, a “caricature” of the country. This is not a serious basis on which to construct analysis of any country, and certainly not on which to think of ways to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—one of the healthier obsessions of the commentariat.


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