Israeli Sociology: Current State

Issue 43: Sociology Beyond Europe Mon 15 Jul 2019 0

Gili S. Drori, President of the Israeli Sociological Society (ISS)
Yagil Levy, Vice-President of the Israeli Sociological Society (ISS)

How can science and academia maintain their professional standards and ethics in the era of post-truth and populist politics? How can sociology sustain its commitment to public social affairs in such circumstances? Additionally, how can such dilemmas be resolved in the highly fractured and intensively strained society in Israel? These issues steer debates in faculty meetings, online forums, classrooms, and workshop sessions, where Israeli sociologists convene to practice their sociology; they also colour the discussions of the Board of the Israeli Sociological Society (ISS).

As several sociological studies attest, Israeli sociology has long had a role in public affairs – in a manner that has not only influenced public policy in Israel but also defined Israeli sociology itself, both directly and indirectly [1]. Uri Ram, past president of ISS, wrote in his 1995 book on the intellectual development of Israeli sociology that “the nature of the link between [Israeli] sociology and its sociopolitical environment has transmuted from an initial compliance and complacency with the hegemonic political culture of its time – that is, an unreflective endorsement of official national goals and means as they are constructed by the state establishment – toward a more autonomous position and a growing reproach and criticism of the official ethos and myths” (1995: 14). In this way, since its constitution in the 1950s, sociology in Israel has evolved through its embeddedness in a sociopolitical context, and its 1970s paradigmatic shift toward reflective and then critical sociological viewpoints correspond to changes in Israeli polity and society. These days, we take such a reflexive stance for granted; as evident in how we teach sociology in Israel and in how we research Israeli phenomena, we understand that our sociology is practiced in relation to our sociopolitical environment. Therefore, the ISS Constitution specifically advises that such a sociopolitical environment includes several spheres – from Israeli society to the discipline of sociology – each calling for particular moral and ethical considerations in the practice of sociology in Israel.

Indeed, over the past few years, ISS leadership has steered sociology in Israel with this mind-set, thus reacting to events and processes in Israel and voicing collective concerns on public, academic, and professional matters. In particular over the past year, the ISS presidential team and ISS Board issued three public proclamations to voice ISS protestations regarding academic and scientific affairs in Israel. First, in February 2018, ISS issued a presidential proclamation to protest against the decision taken by the Government of the State of Israel to place three academic institutions located in the occupied West Bank under the jurisdiction of the Council of Higher Education, thus using academic affairs to give credence to the enforcement of Israeli law in these territories. This proclamation reiterates a decision made by the ISS General Assembly in 2010 to disassociate itself from the Israeli government’s decision to formalise Israeli academia in the occupied West Bank. Second, in March 2018, ISS issued a presidential proclamation to protest the initiative of the Council of Higher Education to enforce a uniform and state-mandated code of ethics for Israeli academic institutions. Third, in April 2018, the ISS Board issued a proclamation protesting the decision to close the School of Government and Society at the Academic College of Tel Aviv-Yaffo, seeing it as a step to restrain, if not suppress, sociology and other social science disciplines in Israel [2]. The common theme in these three proclamations is the recognition of the tight coupling among academic, political, and professional affairs: governance decisions thinly veil positions regarding civic liberties, professional autonomy, ideological hegemony, and state jurisdictions. Specific to these three occasions, we regard these as infringements on the liberties of research, science, and professional practice; as threats to the academic sphere; and as restrictions on the discipline and practice of sociology in Israel.

As noted in these ISS proclamations, “we regard such public declaration(s) to be a part of our ethical responsibility as sociologists, to voice our opinion on events and processes in our society in Israel.” But, where do we go from here? On the one hand, our resolve to engage in public, academic, and professional spheres in Israel has not weakened; on the other hand, the challenges that such proclamations bring to Israeli politics have been protested by several ISS members, who regard its mission as primarily to serve as a haven of value- and interest-free scientific endeavors in an otherwise highly splintered society. Moreover, are proclamations enough, or might ISS consider taking additional and more direct action to practice its “public sociology”? Following these three public pronouncements, the ISS Board paused to reflect on our role in public and professional debates. We gather to consider what are the issues – among the plethora of crisis-level matters that plague society in Israel – about which we should comment on behalf of the community of sociologists, and what might be the criteria for selecting and then ordering such issues (all the while recognising that making such choices is in itself a political act). Currently, the ISS Board is considering two issues: academic labour practices in Israel and securing anti-harassment protections in Israeli sociology and beyond. Both issues are not uniquely Israeli; rather, both exploitative academic employment and harassment culture are plaguing societies worldwide. Nevertheless, seeing that in Israel class and gender divides are intersected with religion, nationality, and citizenship, Israeli sociology is further compelled to bring sociological insights into public discussions and into policymaking. With Israeli sociology stepping further toward the humanist left and Israeli polity resolutely committed to the nationalist and religious right, pressures on academia and sociology in Israel will not subside anytime soon. Moreover, alongside pressure from within Israel, Israeli sociology is increasingly under pressure from academic colleagues from outside Israel, with mounting threats of BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) of Israeli academia. Israeli sociologists are currently pressured from within Israel and from outside Israel. It seems that Israeli sociology has been “cursed” to continue its practice through interesting times.

References
[1] See the most comprehensive review by Ram 2018, as well as historical accounts by Eisenstadt and Roniger 1980; Kimmerling 1992; Waxman 1997; Ram 1995.
[2] The three ISS proclamations are available in both Hebrew and Arabic, with the February 2018 proclamation also available in English.