The Decline of Israeli Sociology

By Alek D. Epstein

Most scholars are too busy smashing myths of the past to pay attention to Israeli society.

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Ten years have passed since the publication of Israeli Society: Critical Perspectives, a collection of essays by prominent Israeli sociologists which has proven to be a turning point in the academic study of Israeli life. Addressing the Jewish state’s most intractable problems, including its ethnic and social divisions, its military policies, the treatment of women, and the Palestinian question, Israeli Society presented not only a wide range of subjects and a prestigious group of contributors, but also a sweeping new critique—one consistently wary of, if not downright hostile to, the State of Israel and its national ethos. Uri Ram, the book’s editor and a sociologist at Ben-Gurion University, explained its unifying principle:
For a long time Israeli social science seemed to be little more than a monotonous echo of official Israeli ideology. In this it did not much differ from other instruments of cultural transmission, such as the press, the schools, or literature. But this began to change in the 1970s, and since then, critical Israeli sociology, which views official Israeli ideology as a subject of inquiry and not a starting assumption, has been gaining strength. There is no question that critical sociology has had a decisive effect on today’s sociological agenda. This book is proof of that fact, and also part of the trend.1
While such claims might once have seemed exaggerated, in the past few years they have proven surprisingly accurate: In the space of a decade, “critical” sociologists have moved from the fringes of the academic establishment to the center, and their views have come to dominate the social sciences, which are now a powerful engine of radical ideology on Israeli campuses.
The significance of this trend should not be underestimated. Over the past two decades, the number of Israelis earning degrees in the social sciences has doubled, with sociology one of the most popular disciplines.2 More than five thousand students receive their B.A. in the social sciences each year, and more than two thousand go on to receive advanced degrees. Many of these graduates end up working in the government and non-profit sectors, and having a significant impact on public policy. Yet during their most formative years, many of Israel’s future leaders are exposed almost exclusively to the radical outlook that dominates the field.
In this essay I intend to explore how critical sociology became the leading school of thought in the study of Israeli society. As I will make clear, the scholars of this school are so dedicated to advancing their ideology that they have come to focus far more on rewriting Israel’s history than on examining the issues of greatest concern to Israeli society today. Their proclivity for myth-smashing, coupled with their commitment to imported theoretical models, precludes any serious discussion of the unique aspects of Israeli life, and causes them to downplay, or even distort, historical facts.
These problems are so acute that they call into question the credibility of sociological research in Israel. Although criticism is no doubt an essential research tool—a fact of which the traditional sociologists were well aware—its employment in the service of ideology not only delegitimizes what was once a prestigious academic discipline, but also alienates sociology from the society it purports to study. Given the field’s role in shaping a society’s self-perception, and the impact its students have on Israeli public life, “critical sociology” is something supporters of the Jewish state cannot afford to ignore.

Alek D. Epstein is an Associate Fellow at the Shalem Center, and a lecturer in sociology and political science at the Open University of Israel.

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