Why Israel?

Phase one of the fieldwork is over and I’m back in Vancouver – at least for now. My immediate task is to work through the material I collected and to spend what will likely be many arduous hours transcribing my interviews and coming to terms with desk life after having been on the move for a couple of months. I’ll be airing my initial thoughts here and intend to use the blog as an outlet for what I have been learning and hearing from my research in Israel. Over the next year I’ll be conducting research in the U.S., U.K. and Palestine so the accounts will become more transnational in character, but they will also become increasingly complicated as new layers are added.

One question I was asked a lot while in Tel Aviv was ‘why Israel?’. If research participants didn’t directly ask me this, they would instead want to know why I chose to start my fieldwork in Israel (rather than in the U.S., U.K or even Canada – where I live). Legitimate questions, but ones that I felt, at least at the start, often put me in a defensive position. We all have to justify why we study what we do, and why we chose the places and people that become the  loci of our work, but as a non-Arab and non-Jew and neither a Palestinian nor an Israeli, I found that I had to be very sensitive with my response. In many ways an outsider, the last thing that I wanted to do was to be seen as meddling in – or on behalf – of somebody else’s affairs. For many Palestinians the refrain of such broadly ‘humanitarian’ interferences (“I’m here to help”) is an old colonial gesture that is as problematic as it is well-meaning, but for the Israeli’s (at least those who I talked to) it is a direct affront to their sovereignty and national interest: “this is none of your business”.

Old Jaffa. This has nothing to do with my research, but what is a post without a picture?
Old Jaffa. This has nothing to do with my research, but what is a post without a picture?

Before leaving for Tel Aviv, I had read a lot about Israeli concerns that the ‘international community’ (whoever that is) is engaged in a mass delegitimization of the Israeli state. Back in 2009, following the hugely damaging Goldstone report (investigating misconduct in Operation Cast-Lead), Prime Minister Netenyahu said that such delegitimization was tantamount to a direct threat to national security, up there with Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah – a sentiment that he repeated two weeks ago in his address to the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors meeting in Jerusalem. But what I was not prepared for was the fact that many ‘common’ Israelis feel unfairly targeted by international criticism, and that my work would be seen through this lens unless I could persuade them otherwise. I wasn’t about to capitulate on my critique of the Israeli state and its military apparatus, and so I found it useful to draw on anti-oppressionist and transnational justice frameworks to position this critique within a broader set of problems – ones directly relevant but at the same time not unique to Israel. The fact that my study is comparative (actually it is genealogical, but that’s for another post) really helped here: “my study is about the targeting practices and legal principles used not only by Israel and the Israeli Air Force, but also by the U.S. and its air forces and the U.K. and the Royal Air Force”, I would say. It is amazing what results this would yield, and more often than not, the responses and interviews went from guardedness to intrigue: “yes, the U.S. is an especially interesting case, and I’d be interested to read that part of your study”, one generous former military lawyer told me.  Thus when my friends and colleagues ask me why the lawyers were so willing to talk (they were), I really think that the comparative approach takes the pressure off, and moreover, orients the conversation toward a mutual interest in wider problems (even though we may differ in our diagnostics). This way, I was able to show my concern for targeted populations and even to be open and honest about my own politics and critique without alienating myself from my research participants.

Why Israel then? Its really quite simple: Israel is one of very few states that has what it calls a targeted killing policy (see my previous post:  the politics of a lethal name), but even more than this, Israel was instrumental in paving the way for subsequent U.S. and NATO policy. I began with Israel because they were the first to admit – in 2000 – publicly to an assassination policy, and because they pioneered a decidedly legalistic approach to this method of killing (I’m interested as much in the legal discourse as actual targeting operations). The fact that the U.S. at first criticised Israel for conducting (or at least admitting to) targeted killing was not lost on the military lawyers who were involved in creating its legal framework, not least because  after 9/11 the Americans came to Israel and wanted to know exactly how they had done it, and how America could learn from the Israeli experience. All of this is well documented, and when I demonstrated my familiarity with the story, I think that in a strange kind of way I was paying tribute to and even tacitly congratulating the military lawyers for their  – all too literally – groundbreaking work. I too wanted to see how they had done it; to see how they had transformed an act once deemed completely illegal into a plausible and legitimate legal reality. Whatever we make of its effects, it was an impressive and clever political and legal act, and it began in Israel in the minds of a couple military lawyers. My fieldwork in Israel had thus come complete circle, and by the end I was confident enough, when asked “why Israel?’ to respond ‘why would I go anywhere else?’.

With that problem solved, at least for the moment, I am having to work on a theory of ‘why Geography?’. When people ask what discipline my study belongs to, and when I tell them “Geography”, a look of bewilderment comes over most. This is familiar to many of us, I know, but it got me thinking about a different geography; a geography of research strategy that pays attention to audience and place. Is it really worth trying to explain everything that has happened since statistical geography and the cultural turn, or explicating the  G   A   P   I   N  G  differences between human and physical geography? Probably not, I decided, so when the tough got going I just told some people that I studied International Relations, at least that way my study would be welcomed: “aha, you’ve come to the right place” [laughter]. What was important for my research, I think, was that other people and especially my research participants could see that I was indeed in the right place.

2 Comments

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  1. hollis.wong@me.com March 8, 2013 — 8:39 PM

    As geographers, our rationale continues to be questioned. I find it as bewildering as they find us. Historians are allowed to study time, so why ain’t we allowed to study space?

  2. Baruch Bernard Hertzog March 10, 2013 — 2:51 PM

    As an Israeli I must tell answer almost to what you said here-
    I do felt uncomfortable when I understood what you search in Israel, I felt misjudged. I know the world is not one sided and I know that I’m a side in a conflict, but it is hard for me to be Indifferent to the feeling that you will see a snapshot of a process.
    I what to tell you some fact you must know but from personal point of view-
    I was at high school during the second ‘Intifada’ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_Intifada) and I was lucky: my town Karmiel spared terror action. I could go out. once I come home from work and I heard the bus I took was explode (line 361 4.8.2002) 9 people killed that day. one year before I went to a festival of music and two days later I read that a suicide boomer was on the way (http://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/Flash.aspx/7379#.UTz6QBxTArU).
    you must think by now- that stories are not an excuse for brutality. It is true, and I’m not a big fan of the policy of my country about the west bunk even when I was a first line soldier in Tul Karem (about Gaza- well that’s a new story). We feel that we are judged in a scale that ignore our personal suffer of living under terror for years. that you gonna tell us that our own existence is a sin (http://www.heraldscotland.com/comment/guest-commentary/essay-of-the-week-what-drives-israel-1.1032971)
    you might are an natural academic (fictional creature, but maybe?) but it is an emotional subject in Israel. Even in Tel Aviv

    and excuse me for my English…

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