What is Israel’s place in the middle East? How does the state – and how do its citizens – understand their place in the region? How is Israel, and how are its citizens – perceived by its Arab, Palestinian, and Muslim neighbors? Is Israel a Western Satellite, foreign in the region, whose presence here is merely geographical, or is Israel “Middle Eastern” in other senses?
Over recent decades, group and individual identities in the Middle East have become more complex and flexible. There are multiple layers of reality on the ground, and Israel’s relationship to its neighborhood is rapidly changing, with understandings of the “self” and the “other” taking on new forms. Yet despite changes on the ground, academic discourse in Israel – like public discourse, professional discourse, and legal discourse – still reflects a fundamental distinction between ”us” and “them”; even reflecting the image of the state of Israel as a “villa in the jungle”. “Experts in the conflict” and “experts in Arab affairs” refers to the same group of scholars, whereas work which studies Jewish-Arab relations as distinct from the relationship between Israel and its neighbors is all too rare.
In this research cluster we reevaluate Israel’s place in the Middle East with this critique in mind. Our work is comparative and interdisciplinary, moving back and forth between Israel and its neighbors, with the goal of presenting Israel in a regional context while examining the political, cultural, social, and economic factors tying Israel and its population to states and populations in the Middle East. We use Arabic in our work to promote regional thought, which marks a fundamentally different approach to Arabic from that employed in military or security thinking. Through Arabic, we – Jews and Palestinian-Arabs working together in the cluster – seek to better understand the region and its peoples and to strengthen ties between Jews and Arabs based on recognition, understanding, and empathy. We are able to do this work thanks to the platforms the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute provides for establishing and grounding new ways of thinking about complex issues.
Our aim is to bring about deep change in both academic and public discourse. The change in academic discourse is to be achieved through a conceptual and methodological shift in how Middle Eastern Studies, Islam, and Arabic are taught in Israel. The shift in public discourse will be affected by our enriching the public sphere with information and analysis of the region that breaks down current barriers. Our intellectual- academic work supports our work in the public sphere, in which we make complex scholarly knowledge accessible, while bringing Arabic news, literature, and culture translated into Hebrew to the Israeli public.
Work in the cluster follows three streams: research, education, and language. The research stream includes research groups developing new and innovative perspectives on Israel in the Middle East. The educational stream includes projects advancing and cultivating cultural literacy and pluralist thought from kindergarten through higher education. The language and enrichment stream involves our housing large-scale translation and dissemination projects for the rendition into Hebrew of cultural and intellectual works and reports of current affairs from throughout the Middle East, and the dissemination of these works to the Israeli public.