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‘Israelism’: Hassan Barari and why he gives me hope

The Jordanian-born professor's new book, 'Israelism,' provides a devastating critique of Arab academic writing on Israel

Dr. Hassan Barari, a Jordanian-born professor of political science at the University of Nebraska, has chosen a difficult, possibly dangerous academic path: he is committed to “peaceful coexistence and historical reconciliation between the Arabs and the Israelis.” In a step unusual among his Arab colleagues, he took the trouble to learn Hebrew “in order to make sense of Israel’s society and politics.”

His new book, “Israelism,” addresses “the underdevelopment of Israeli studies in the Arab world.” Part of the problem, he notes, is that Arab scholars perceived their role “as being to expose and delegitimize Israel, rather than to provide a sound knowledge of the other.”

Barari coined the term “Israelism” on the model of Edward Said’s criticism of ”Orientalism”:

Whereas Said argues that the Orient was studied in order to be dominated, this book makes the case that Israel was studied to be singled out as the main enemy that needed to be checked. The motivation is thus political.

In its survey of Arab academic writing on Israel, “Israelism” provides a devastating critique. Barari divides Arab academic work on Israel into three overarching “hegemonic discourses” — Marxist, pan-Arabist, and Islamist. He shows how scholars in each sector fail to account for Israeli resilience, not to mention success, because they set out to make a case rather than to investigate a subject. He bemoans the lack of Hebrew language skills in Arab academia. He also points to the connection between shallow formulaic analysis by scholars and bad decision-making in the Arab world.

'A man of extraordinary intellectual courage.' Dr Hassan Barari (photo courtesy University of Nebraska, Omaha)
'A man of extraordinary intellectual courage.' Dr Hassan Barari (photo courtesy University of Nebraska, Omaha)

Time and again, the three modes of “hegemonic discourse” about Israel led Arab leadership to disastrous miscalculations. Barari specifically cites the wars of 1948 and 1967, and the militarization of the Intifada in 2000. He might have added Hezbollah’s miscalculation — Hassan Nasrallah described Israeli society as being flimsy as “a spider web” — that led to the Second Lebanon War in 2006. Nasrallah rarely leaves his Beirut bunker these days, and a perusal of Barari’s book would afford him the opportunity to contemplate the dangers of triumphalist, unscientific, “hegemonic discourse.”

Barari’s insights will not seem new to those Israelis who follow and debate what the Arab world (and many of its Western academic enablers) say about Israel. However, his path to these truths is pioneering and for that reason all the more compelling. Applying the tools of social science to the history and development of Israel, he offers a preview of what a less ideological, more academically viable Arab contribution to Israel studies might be like.

Should it gain the attention it deserves in the Arab academic world, Barari’s book could spark an ambitious and welcome process of opening that world, not just to Israel but, in a broader sense, to the priority of social science over ideology.

Barari is certainly no Zionist. An internet search revealed a vitriolic critique he wrote for Al-Jazeera in 2004 slamming Israel’s assassination of Ahmed Yassin, the head of Hamas:

The criminal action by the Israeli government has shattered our faith in Israel’s genuine desire to have peace with its neighbors.

It is not ideology but hard reality that leads him to note in his book:

The fact that Israel is now an independent force capable of functioning and surviving on its own, independent of Western support, has been missed by Arab writers for an extended period of time.

Critics will note that he accepts at face value too much of the post- and anti-Zionist academic work of some Israeli writers. Israeli readers will be particularly surprised at the weight he attaches to the writings of disgraced former MK Azmi Bishara, who left Israel and never returned to face charges of selling information to Hezbollah in 2006.

Peacemaking requires the recognition of the fundamental justice of the other side, and Barari is not yet there. However, key to developing that recognition is an empathic understanding of the enemy, which is why Barari gives me hope. I have never met him, but judging from “Israelism,” he must be a man of extraordinary intellectual courage.

About the Author
Ed Rettig is the Chair of Shomrei Mispat, Rabbis for Human Rights.