The Political Economy of Israel, a Reflection
During the Spring Semester of the 2021-2022 academic year, I served as Rohr Visiting Professor at the Department of Government and the Center of Jewish Studies at Harvard University. I taught a course on “The Political Economy of Israel: Ideology, Security, Economy”.
When I designed the syllabus for the course, one principle guided my choice of topics and readings. I did not intend to build a course for “Israel experts”, that is, for those students that already had an interest in the Israeli case. I wanted the course to attract students interested in more general questions about statehood, state building, and emergent small, semi-peripheral economies. In other words, I wished to teach about Israel as a “case study”.
However, as scholars of Israel know, it is not clear what case the case of Israel makes. Some study Israel as a socialist state that turned into a capitalist one; others study it as a social democracy, as a developmental state or as a colonialist state. It can also be studied from the perspective of a small economy or a small emergent economy. Some scholars put more emphasis on Israel’s social structure, while others focus on its political and legal institutions.
The point is, however, that highlighting any of those potential perspectives in a serious way, requires teaching the associated theory. A decision to teach about Israel as a case of a small state, would have required discussion of theories of the political economy of small states and how the condition of being a small state shapes the economy, the society, and the political system. Alternatively, teaching about Israel as a case of a social democracy, would involve discussing the various types of welfare regimes and offering an explanation as to why not all states embrace the Scandinavian model.
Therefore, a significant portion of the lectures was dedicated to theories. In hindsight, I think this was a wise choice. Bringing in theories to the study of Israel enabled us to distance ourselves from the object of study. It highlighted the fact that there is more than one way to understand the case of Israel. Therefore, even if students came with the impression that they already knew what Israel was “all about,” the theoretical discussion encouraged them to reconsider and revise those views.
Teaching about Israel from a comparative perspective does not imply denying the “uniqueness” of the case study. What is this “uniqueness” of the case of Israel actually about? To me it seems that it is just another way of talking about “the conflict”. And yes: it is impossible to talk–even more so to teach–about Israel without addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The conflict has shaped Israel in many different ways. However, it does not only reveal something essential about the case of Israel, but it also conceals things. Hence, one must find the right balance between, on the one hand, acknowledging the impact of the conflict on the case of Israel, and, on the other hand, not letting the “conflict” take over and conceal other aspects of the Israeli case. This balance does not imply that we undermine this political issue, but rather it is essential in order to understand how Israel has been shaped by the conflict.
Prof. Arie Krampf
Rohr Visiting Professor at the Department of Government and the Center of Jewish Studies
Friday, May 20, 2022