Sunday, September 12, 2010

Introduction to Iranophobia by Haggai Ram

The Unthinkable: Integrating Israel Into The Middle East.

Although I did not know it at the time, the idea of writing this book was born in my mind in 1996. In March of that year I gave an interview to Ha'aretz Weekly Supplement. Titled “The Demon Is Not So Terrible,” the interview immediately sparked a public uproar that nearly cost me my academic career. In that interview I essentially suggested (a) that the Israeli government, academia, and media were disseminating distorted images of Iran that are informed by the state's security and ethnocentric concerns; (b) that Israeli scholarly research on the Middle East and Iran has remained impervious to innovative analytical tools and paradigms used in other disciplines of the humanities and the social sciences that are reminiscent of the 'epistemic self-sufficiency' of Orientalism as a mode of knowledge production; and (c) that in spite of dominant Israeli conceptions to the contrary, Iran and Israeli were, in fact, similar in that they were both founded, among other things, on the interpenetration of the secular and the religious.

As a young and admittedly self-conceited ( but untenured) faculty member at the newly established Department of Middle East Studies in Ben Gurion University, I was completely unprepared for the devastating backlash that would soon follow. A barrage of condemnations coming from various academic and political sources in the printed and electronic media questioning my “intellectual integrity and basic knowledge of facts.” Prof. Avishi Braverman, the university president ( now turned Labor Party politician), demanded my head and let it be known that he would be content with nothing short of my dismissal. Save a handful of colleagues who hailed my “daring attempt to challenge the accepted perceptions in the [Israeli] Middle East Studies establishment,” the message coming from virtually everywhere was loud and clear: “Dr. Ram doesn't represent us.”

Fortunately (for me) I survived the backlash. More to the point, however, it appears that what prompted the scathing outrage against me was not my charge that the boundaries between the Israeli state and Israeli Middle East studies were dangerously porous; many of Israel's Middle East scholars would see nothing wrong with that. Rather, it was my contention that the Israeli and Iranian politics deserve to be studied comparatively or contrapuntally. Consider, for example, how David Menashri – Israel's most prominent expert of Iran and more former teacher at Tel Aviv University – responded to this call of mine:

Dr. Ram's main original contribution is a comparison between Zionism and Khomeinism. I see no fault in such intellectual drills, but we must distinguish between what is important and what is marginal. It is, of course, possible to compare many things, even a mosquito to a helicopter, or a fish to a submarine. But are the two really essentially similar? Compared within the context of their ideational substances, the similarities between Khomeinism and Zionism are marginal. It suffices to read Herzl and Khomeini in order to appreciate how different the two are. Did Zionism aspire to establish a theocratic state ( medinat halacha)?

In this book I take issue with this kind of contemptuous dismissal of the possibility that a comparative study of “Zionism” and “Khomeinism” may be of beneficial value.

For nearly three decades Israelis have understood the enmity between Iran and Israel to be a manifestation of a perceived opposition between a backward, Islamic, religious, and Oriental dictatorship, on the one hand, and a modern, Jewish, secular, and Western democracy on the other hand. Others have come to view this enmity as a manifestation of a strategic rivalry for power and prominence in the Middle East. In this book, however, I argue that Israeli understandings of Israel's conflict with the Islamic Republic of Iran ( IRI) were not necessarily transparent reflections of the politics of difference. Nor were they necessarily expressions of strategic concerns about the Iranian regime's drive to have the Jewish state 'wiped off the map”. Rather, they were at least as much (perhaps more?) concerned with what historian David Cannadine described in the context of the British Empire's relations with its overseas possessions as the 'construction of affinities'. Put differently, these understandings were rooted in the intimidating presumption that Iran was the same as Israel, that the two states were, in fact, inexorably entwined by common trends and phenomena. This presumption, in turn, has yielded reactions by the Israeli media, the public, and agents of social control that can be collectively described as a displaced or exaggerated “moral panic”.

Israeli anxieties about Iran are indeed linked to, and cannot be (properly) examined in isolation of domestic ethnic and religious challenges to the nature and outlook of the Jewish state. Still, because these challenges might imperil neat and homogeneous conceptualizations of Israel as a “Europe in the Middle East”, many Israeli scholars insist on examining them in relation to the countries of Euro-America. By leapfrogging over the immediate Middle East, they have in effect joined, intentionally or unintentionally, the enterprise of calibrating an insurmountable gap between the Jewish state and its Arab and Muslim neighbors. Historian Benny Morris provides a striking example of this, contending that the Middle East is in reality “a world whose values are different from ours. A world in which human life doesn't have the same value as it does in the West, in which freedom, democracy, openness and creativity are alien.”...

It was against this backdrop that I set out to write this book. Disenchanted with the exaggerated or misplaced anxieties about Iran among Israelis, and, equally so, about the overall failure of much of literature to make sense of the Israel-Iranian conflict outside the realm of geopolitics, in this book I set out to inquire into the cultural logics at work behind Israel's “Iran Psychosis. While there are many good reasons for the Jewish state to be apprehensive of the Islamic Republic, I feel there is also a great deal of irrationality involved in that apprehension, and it is the cultural roots of that irrationality I seek to investigate in this book.


  1. In the end, Ram demonstrates that the conflict between Israel and Iran may not be as essential and polarized as common knowledge assumes. Israeli anti-Iran phobias are derived equally from domestic anxieties about the Jewish state's ethnic and religious identities and from the exaggerated and displaced strategic concerns in the era of the “war on terror”.

  2. Iranophobia; The Logic of An Israeli Obsession” by Haggai Ram; Stanford University Press; 2009

    "I will not be surprised if those who understand the world in ways that are diametrically opposed to my own do not like this book. In fact, I would feel as if I were doing something wrong if they were not unhappy with what I had to say."

  3. I think Charles and I came to a degree of rapprochement on the matter: that facile generalizations about what Israelis or Iranians think doesn't work very well. To give another example, professor Ram acknowledges the troublesome, anti-semitic remarks by President Ahmadinejad but also points out widespread dissatisfaction of Iranians with them. And, indeed, the circumstances of Jews in Iran through history and today is very complex and paradoxical. Different accounts contradict one another.

    Professor Ram emphasizes the point of view that viewing Jewish Iranian history solely as a long chain of persecutions and atrocities almost everywhere is a terribly narrow and selective reading of Iranian history."

    In dealing with such topics it is almost impossible to avoid some degree of 'facile generalization' and, at the same time, express any point of view at all,in which case what would be the point of writing a book in the first place?

    For the most part, however, professor Ram follows the historiographical example of Raul Hilberg in his major works; a documentary approach. This is reflected in the extend of his footnotes which comprise 50 of the 209 pages of the book ( excluding the index but not the 30 pages of selected bibliography, all of which are in smaller print than the main text).

    The statements to which Charles chiefly objects are in professor Ram's introduction to the book. It is interesting to note that this is where Raul Hilberg - his general survey of anti-semitism in Europe-also encountered difficulties, even for those who totally relied on his documents for their assessment of the Holocaust.

    Needless-to-say, all this makes it very difficult to 'blog' the book. Where to begin and where to end? Neither do I feel particularly qualified to 'dictate' a solution to current negotiations, except to remind folks that it is necessary to recognize the humanity of all parties to the conflict.

    The reason I reproduced the 'moral panic' passage was the curious way it helped explain political developments in America, even if the whole question of Israel-Palestine were 'heuristically' removed from the equation, and that it follows 'a thread' in many of my other blogs, most particularly Hans Georg-Moeller's book "The Moral Fool" but others as well.