Di-Capua on Eyal, 'The Disenchantment of the Orient: Expertise in Arab Affairs and the Israeli State'

Author: 
Gil Eyal
Reviewer: 
Yoav Di-Capua

Gil Eyal. The Disenchantment of the Orient: Expertise in Arab Affairs and the Israeli State. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006. xii + 320 pp. $60.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8047-5403-3.

Reviewed by Yoav Di-Capua (Department of History, University of Texas, Austin) Published on H-Levant (November, 2007)

Is Middle Eastern Studies in Israel a Misguided Endeavor?

Gil Eyal's latest book is a study of the "cultural lens through which Israelis view their neighbors, or more precisely of the complex of knowledge and practices that mediate their encounter with the reality around them" (pp. 2-3). This field of knowledge is commonly referred to in Israel as Mizrahanut (which literally translates as "Orientalism," but is not synonymous with Saidian Orientalism) and it is inhabited by academics, journalists, pundits, state propagandists, and intelligence officers who are known collectively as Mizrahanim. The book's main thesis is that Mizrahanut is not merely a form of expertise, but is also a core component of Israeli culture: a key feature "of the way Israelis perceive the world around them and of the manner in which they relate to themselves and define their own identity" (p. 3). With such a decisive role to play, the Mizrahanim have traditionally been perceived as impartial and objective observers who were uniquely qualified to judge what went on in the Middle East, to explain why Arabs behaved they way they did, and, most importantly, to predict what they were likely to do next. In other words, the author deals with one of the quintessential elements of Israeli culture and, in doing so, explores an important topic whose subjection to a rigorous and critical analysis is long overdue. Yet, since Mizrahanut is a rich multi-faceted cultural and political activity, this book is confronted with a daunting challenge, namely doing justice to all aspects of Israeli Mizrahanut, including that of politically disinterested scholarship. It should be stated at the outset that, the book's merits notwithstanding, its author fails to meet this challenge.

Eyal focuses on the emergence and transformation of Mizrahanut during three successive stages, beginning in the late 1920s and continuing up to the contemporary period. In the first, pre-state phase, Orientalist scholarship was conducted by two equally powerful groups: the German-trained philologists who taught in the Hebrew University, and the so-called "Arabists": Jewish sons of the land who spoke Palestinian dialect, asserted an intuitive understanding of Arab society, and thus served as advisors to the political leadership and as agents in proto-intelligence bodies. The tense relationship between these two camps stemmed from a debate about how to best apprehend the nature of the region and its so-called "Arab mentality." Should it be the Arabist's first-hand familiarity with the fine details of Arab life, or the allegedly scientific, objective, and detached method of the professors who analyzed both sacred texts and periodicals in accordance with a strict philological code? While the Arabists focused on the "here and now" of Arabs' lives and their "good" or "bad" attitudes toward Jews, the professors studied Arab civilization, which historically and culturally comprised Oriental Jews. In studying these groups as interacting elements of a larger civilizational complex, the academics conceptualized their work as a Zionist form of mediation between the Orient and the Occident. In a way, the famous pacifist Brit Shalom circle, which sought to build cultural and political bridges with the Arabs, was the political expression of this academic pursuit.

After the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, Eyal observes, the new situation on the ground necessitated new forms of expertise and new institutions. At this time the need to distinguish between "good" Arabs and "bad" Arabs was supplanted by the "military logic of pure deterrence" (p. 85). Especially where intelligence work was involved, the autochthonous instincts of the Arabists became less and less appreciated, and the professors' students (whose extremely long tenure track pushed them to take part-time jobs in government circles) succeeded in imposing their philological and archival modus operandi on the emerging field of intelligence work. Thus began a close relationship between intelligence services and academia, the results of which were not always beneficial to civic society. Although this is certainly true, Eyal does little to convey the complexities of this relationship or to explain precisely how it impacted civil society. The 1950s also saw the maturation of the Israeli hasbara, or state polemics, vis-à-vis the Arab world. Indeed, the author makes the valuable point that, contrary to conventional wisdom, Zionism never ignored Arab nationalism. Instead, it obsessively argued with it.

By the early 1960s, a little more than a decade after statehood, the cognitive territory of the Orient had been mapped. Academia; intelligence and other government agencies; propaganda (hasbara); and the absorption of Jewish immigrants were features of this topography. An interesting section of Eyal's book examines how these various groups and institutions dealt with what the author calls the new "hybrids" of the 1950s: the Israeli Arabs (i.e. post-Nakba Palestinians remaining inside Israel), Mizrahi Jews (i.e. Jewish immigrants from independent Arab nation states and to a lesser degree from Iran), and infiltrators (i.e. Palestinian refugees who inhabited the no man's land between Israel and its neighbors). The members of these three groups were neither perfect Jews nor perfect Arabs, neither fully modern nor entirely traditional, and were, therefore, in need of what the author calls "purification." Here Eyal argues that governmental mechanisms of control, rehabilitation, or straightforward elimination (as in the case of many infiltrators) were adopted to "purify" these hybrids and that Mizrahanut, as a modern field of knowledge, played a dominant role. Though Mizrahanut was certainly involved in this process, the so-called hybrid-purification argument is not particularly convincing for two reasons. First, most "hybrids," as result of their engagement with Zionism, tended to "purify" themselves. Second, the assimilation of Oriental Jews was more informed by modernization theory of the 1950s and 1960s than it was by Mizrahanut as such. Nonetheless, Eyal's effort to tie Mizrahanut to the recent history of Oriental Jews is important, and it is a subject worthy of future exploration.

The third and final historical phase of the story began in 1965 when a new type of Middle Eastern studies made its appearance at institutions like the Truman Institute in the Hebrew University, the Dayan Center in Tel Aviv University, and, during the 1990s, the Institute for Counter Terrorism in the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzeliya. Here the author carelessly lumps together several institutions that, contrary to the author's own argument, are not at all similar, as discussed below. Although academics had worked for the state as consultants and researchers since the 1950s, it was only after 1965 that state agencies bought prime real estate within academia itself, and academics, in turn, took positions as military governors in the Occupied Territories or as special consultants to intelligence officers. According to Eyal, a new form of expertise, one that was situated at a kind of bottleneck of power or "obligatory point of passage," was now shared by journalists, intelligence officers, state officials, politicians, and scholars. Inside and outside of both academia and the state, their collective work inevitably informed both the way in which Israelis perceived their environment and the official/non-official Israeli "message" to the Arabs. At the level of intuition alone, this analysis seems perfectly valid. Yet, since Eyal appears to assume that all collaboration with the state is, by definition, morally corrupt, he does not explore this connection convincingly. He also fails to account for the fact that many within academia kept the state at a critical distance.

Eyal's division of Mizrahanut into historical stages of development makes sense. However, his preferred method of dealing with concrete developments in the field yields a more equivocal outcome. Armed with a heavy, though not entirely original, theoretical lens, Eyal's goal is to produce a critical contribution to the sociology of knowledge and to post-colonial theory. He also wishes to engage in the perennial debate about the nature of Zionism. In my opinion, he is successful in both of these endeavors. Analytically sharp, Eyal reads through, and goes beyond, the mantras of post-colonial "truths" and blind popularization of Saidian Orientalism (which he clearly distinguishes from Mizrahanut). This is not to say that he rejects or refutes these postulates, as he himself approaches the topic from the same postmodern angle. Far more sophisticated than many of his post-colonial peers, Eyal makes important observations about Zionism as Orientalism and Zionism as colonialism. Yet, this analytical approach bears a heavy price, for Eyal uses Mizrahanut as a mere tool for the sake of engaging with a theoretical world of knowledge. This theoretical imperative leaves the reader--even the reader of the Hebrew version of his book--with the impression that Eyal has little interest in Mizrahanut as such and had never really mastered its historical realities.

Granted, The Disenchantment of the Orient is not a work of history. Its disciplinary approach is that of the sociology of knowledge. Yet, even by the standards of that field, this is a historically careless book, and one that is often more illustrative and anecdotal than it is exhaustive. Particularly disturbing is the fact that none of the individuals who appear in this book are treated as historical actors. Instead they are depicted in stasis, mere exemplars of shifts in the "field." Although they are all accurately positioned within this "field," we learn absolutely nothing about the careers of people like S. D. Goitein, Yosef Yoel Rivlin, Shmuel Toledano, Yehoshafat Harkabi, and dozens of others. As a result, their actions, which are always noted in passing, appear at best inexplicable or absurd, at worst immoral. Reducing, for example, the rich and varied career of historian and diplomat Shimon Shamir to the archetypically rebellious young professor or the "bad guy" from the Dayan Center is not only intellectually unfair, it is also historically shallow. Eyal seems truly uninterested in his fascinating subjects, for his work features no evidence that he made any attempt to interview those still living or to study the careers of those now deceased. Indeed, the book's index lists not a single Orientalist!

Inevitably, this wholesale approach to the "field" is also the reason why Eyal entirely neglects one of the most important aspects of Israeli Mizrahanut: scholarship. Eyal's study gives the reader the impression that Israeli scholars were occupied entirely by misguided espionage, intelligence analysis, and the dubious work of "purifying hybrids." Disappointingly, their considerable body of fine scholarship in the fields of classical, medieval, Ottoman, and modern history is passed over in complete silence. From reading Eyal's account, it would appear that this first-class scholarship had no impact whatsoever on the opinions of the Israeli public, whose preferred source of knowledge is assumed to be military intelligence. If this were indeed the case, however, one should make a compelling argument to that effect, something Eyal fails to do. The relationship between Mizrahanut and politically disinterested scholarship is thus left entirely unclear.

Furthermore, in its weak understanding of institutional history, Eyal's analysis lumps the Institute for Counter Terrorism in Herzliya together with the Truman and Dayan institutes as though they were equal players in the same field. Such an association is far from reality, as the Herzliya Center, with its national and international connections as well as its blunt interest in politics as such, constitutes a new matrix of power and knowledge which sets it apart from all other research institutions. Impressed by Herzliya's on-demand intelligence analysis and its altogether new, American-style think-tank approach to academic "business," several of Israel's prime ministers have chosen to make their most important regional policy statements in prime-time televized speeches during the annual gathering at the Center. A more carefully nuanced institutional analysis also should have explained how and why Herzliya's public influence came to overshadow that of serious scholars from both Tel Aviv and Hebrew Universities.

Finally, does Eyal succeed in accomplishing his goals? Does he manage to illustrate how Mizrahanut shaped the worldview of Israelis? Not really. Instead, the overarching argument of this book is that Middle Eastern studies in Israel is a misguided endeavor. No doubt, Eyal's intuition leads him to all the right places, but his methodological and theoretical choices, along with his inattention to detail, blunted the potential effect of his scholarship. Dealing with such a sensitive and fascinating topic, this book should have stirred debate in Israel. There is much in Eyal's study that is absolutely critical, both for the general public and the professional community of Middle Eastern studies. As a system of knowledge, Mizrahanut is undoubtedly a very problematic field. Indeed, there is much to criticize in terms of the iron grip that military intelligence analysts have over the minds of Israelis. A host of other sensitive issues relating to the media and academia awaits critical analysis as well. Israel needs to debate these issues in precisely the same way that the post-September 11 United States needed to debate the issues raised in Zachary Lockman's and Martin Kramer's recent publications. Although Eyal's book may prove influential within post-colonial circles, his theoretical and methodological choices may make it easier for Israelis, so inclined, to ignore the pressing issues therein, even when these issues are presented in Hebrew. Nonetheless, for the critical purpose of opening this important discussion and for the sake of inviting historians to participate in it, Eyal's study constitutes an important first step.

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Citation: Yoav Di-Capua. Review of Eyal, Gil, The Disenchantment of the Orient: Expertise in Arab Affairs and the Israeli State. H-Levant, H-Net Reviews. November, 2007. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=13882

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