Yaacov Yadgar portrait


Professor Yadgar discusses Israel Studies at Oxford

Published: 26 July 2023

Author: Sarah Whitebloom


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Usually interviews result in answers. But occasionally, they result in questions. Many unanswered questions arise from an hour spent in the company Professor Yaacov Yadgar, the Director of Middle East Studies and Stanley Lewis Professor of Israel Studies at the Oxford School of Global and Area Studies.

So many thoughts, arguments and ideas were raised in an hour, it could have filled a day – which would still be very interesting, although probably not for the patient Professor Yadgar, who, it is abundantly clear, has heard it all before.

It is six years since he came to Oxford. His background is in Political Science, which he taught at Bar-Ilan university, near Tel Aviv in Israel. But, in Oxford, he teaches within the University’s School of Area Studies, as a country specialist.

He is under no illusions about the controversy around his area of study. But Professor Yadgar’s research takes on the big questions anyway. He looks at issues of Jewish identity, religion, politics, and secularism. He focuses on placing Israel in wider theoretical and epistemological frameworks and concentrates on Israeli socio-politics and on the epistemological, historical, and political dimensions of Israeli identity.

What does all this mean? It means studying the history of the state of Israel, its peoples, its customs, its politics and its position in the world.

‘I didn’t see myself as an Israel scholar,’ laughs Professor Yadgar. ‘But when I taught politics, I was always using cases connected with Israel, so when I came here, it was as an area specialist.’

Born in Israel, to Iranian Jewish parents, Professor Yadgar says, ‘In some countries people like talking about sport. In Israel, everyone talks about politics. I used to envy European countries, where they can talk about anything.

‘Later, I came to reflect upon it and it’s always something I raise with my students. It is the precariousness of existence [which makes Israelis talk about politics], it is not an obvious given.’

He adds, ‘It may be questioned whether Israel is indeed always under an existential threat. But Israeli political culture clearly feeds this sense of existential insecurity.’

In Israel, he says, ‘In such a context, talk about politics is everywhere. And it is often limited to what the media offers you.’

The young Yaacov went to university to study politics, ‘I went into it but didn’t really understand at first what political science meant. Gradually I saw the brilliance of it –politics is fascinating because it speaks to how we see ourselves in the world.’

But he says, apparently without any weariness, ‘You get a sense of a never-ending roller coaster of events. It is interesting to ask why this is the case.’

He went on to become a first generation academic, immersing himself in political theory and discussion. ‘You ask for one reply and always get many. You are never short of material [in talking about Israel]…I realised this was something very attractive and something rewarding.’

With so much to ask questions about, Professor Yadgar concentrates on the concepts around Israel, rather than Judaism: what Zionism is, what it means for Israel to be a Jewish state, and what it means to be a state defined by security issues. Such big, political questions define Israel studies and, says Professor Yadgar, ‘We talk about them all here. This is a safe space. Everything is discussed.’

Some 12 years ago, the University established this role within what was then called the School of Interdisciplinary Area Studies. Professor Yadgar says, ‘We are privileged to have this discussion in Oxford and to be able to have an area studies focus on the subject.’

He adds, ‘It says a lot about Oxford that it has set up a programme that allows an open discussion, a safe discussion, a critical discussion, that is not immediately marked as delegitimising or a source of propaganda.’

From a political science perspective, he says, Israel is both similar to and different from modern European countries.

‘Israel can seem to be unique and an outlier. No other state in the world defines itself as a Jewish state’. So, ‘From one point of view, it is possible to say, Israel is unique, Israel is different.’

But, he says, ‘From another point of view, Israel is playing out a political script of the modern sovereign nation state that first emerges in Europe.’

He explains, ‘Zionism defined itself from the beginning as a national Jewish movement. But what this means is ever open.’

The concept of Zionism, as a national Jewish movement, grew against the background of growing nationalism in European countries.

Professor Yadgar asks, ‘To what degree is the emergence of Zionism in Europe a natural development of intra-Jewish history and ideas or/and a forcing of Jewish traditions and history into a framework that emerged out of a Christian European context? Were the Jews forced to speak a language of the nation state, that did not apply in a people who were multi-national?’

As modern nation states emerged, Professor Yadgar says, ‘Jews become a problem in the modern setting of the nation state.’

It was against this background that Zionism developed and, like all other national movements, he says, it ‘narrated a story of ancient roots...and a golden age…with the ultimate aim of restoring it by becoming a nation state [for Jewish people] among other nation states’.

Professor Yadgar adds, ‘The topic I am most interested in, has been political culture, the ways in which narratives, myths, traditions, shape the view of the world, the way the past manifests itself in the present.

‘What is our story?’ he asks another question. ‘You see this question in many countries. Pre- and post-Brexit, the UK is very interested with the question of its place in the world…it’s natural.’

In the Israeli case, he explains, there is a dominant sense that the ‘whole world is against us’ which emerges. ‘That line was even the title of a popular song,’ says the professor.

Even if it is not the case, he says, there is an underlying concern.

‘People are still processing the fact that Accords have recently been signed with formerly hostile neighbouring states.’

Professor Yadgar says simply, ‘This has not diminished the idea that the whole world is against us. Israel views itself as in a constant state of war.’

‘Any nation has its heroes…but what makes one a hero?’ he asks. ‘From the beginning, military valour has been seen as that which makes heroes…this was a conscious decision…Zionist leaders in the early 20th century called specifically for Jewish youth to learn how to shoot.’

Turning to politics in Israel, Professor Yadgar raises questions around what he calls, Israel’s Jewish Identity Crisis – the title of a recent book. He explains, ‘I question the merit of distinguishing religion and politics, as if they were two distinct categories, and I highlight the degree to which the nation state’s political theology dominates. The question of secular Jewishness has been a dominant theme of my work.’

And it raises a lot of questions – of course. Is Israel a Jewish state or a state for Jewish people and, if so, who are Jewish people? Twenty per cent of Israeli citizens are Israeli Arabs or Palestinians…But Israeli political culture employs a distinction between citizenship and nationality and religion.

He says, ‘Judaism is not a religion as Christianity is…it does not fit the mould of religion shaped in a Christian context. Zionism is self-consciously secular. So, what does Judaism mean in this context? Who is Jewish in a secular context?’

Professor Yadgar says, ‘It is a feature of Israeli politics – as far as I can tell, it is the only state that will decide your religion for you, if you are Jewish.

‘To do that, it falls back on Orthodox Rabbinical gatekeepers, who refer to religious law.’

He asks, ‘So is it a Jewish state, value laden with Judaism, or is it a state for Jewish people, who form the majority of the population? But then you need to ask: who is a Jew?’

So many questions. But Professor Yadgar continues, ‘Is Israel a state for the Jews, as France is a state for the French? This is always put under scrutiny.

‘But when people made an argument that Israel should be the state of the Israeli – not the Jewish – nation, the government and the court said this would create a schism between the Israeli state and the Jewish people, and denied the very existence of an Israeli nation.’

At the time, he says, it was said that such questions were ‘obvious’, ‘redundant’, ‘radical’ and ‘dangerous’.

‘How can it be all of those things?’ asks Professor Yadgar. ‘But this question touched the very root of the Zionist identity problem.’

It is a problem not just in theory, though, but also for the possible consequences even of asking such a question. In Israel, this asking can be seen as problematic, not for the content of the questions but for the possibility that such political debate could be either disguising antisemitic ideas and beliefs or opening up the danger of being read – and used - by antisemitic people.

‘Among academics, there is agreement, you have to be able to separate antisemitism from asking questions about Israel and Zionism,’ says Professor Yadgar. ‘It is a problem – to ignore the possibility, to be naively self-righteous is dangerous, but to say we will shut down debate, is also wrong.’

He adds, ‘It is interesting to study this matter. But some people will become angry and ask why you are talking about it – it is delegitimising the state.’

Professor Yadgar maintains, ‘None of us has taken a job in Israel studies to become an advocate. It would be wrong.’

The genial questioner is ready and keen to ask difficult questions but he is conscious of both the complexity and the potentially problematic effect of doing so. ‘Can Israel claim to be a democracy when it sees itself as promoting a particular group? No democracy is perfect. I don’t see myself as a partisan in this game.’

The area studies focus enables discussion. Professor Yadgar explains, ‘The war in Ukraine has highlighted that this is not only an Israel problem. Imagine how difficult it is to navigate Chinese studies or Russian studies [today], when you have players who view any kind of public utterance as either dangerous or helpful to them….this is part of the interest of the political sciences, we deal with subjects which are really important to people.’

In Israel, such debate is part of life.

‘Take two people and have three opinions,’ he smiles. ‘To stop having these discussions would not be advisable.’

And the questions keep coming, ‘There are multiple contesting Judaisms and Arab Israelis are citizens. They enjoy civil rights; they do not enjoy collective rights.

‘If the Jewish identity is swapped for an Israeli identity, Israel would not be able to give preferential entrance to Jewish people. There would be no right to return for Jewish people – and that would raise all sorts of questions.’

The trouble is, asking questions in Israel is one thing, but if you ask in the world outside, people will say, ‘They don’t understand the nuance. The very discussion is dangerous.’

And that, says Professor Yadgar, is dangerous.

Professor Yaacov Yadgar is the Director of Middle East Studies and Stanley Lewis Professor of Israel Studies at the Oxford School of Global and Area Studies.