“You Cannot Study Israel Without Palestine”

A conversation with the editors of the new academic journal Palestine/Israel Review, which advocates a “relational approach” to studying the region’s intertwined histories.

Mari Cohen
January 31, 2024

An Israeli tank on Israel's border with Gaza on January 30th.

Ariel Schalit / AP Photo

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For decades, the question of how to study the lands between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea has been a major flashpoint of ideological conflict in the academy. While the dominant approach remains that of “Israel studies”—in which Israel is often considered independently from its relationship to Palestine—a growing cohort of scholars have adopted what’s called the “relational approach,” maintaining that Israel’s domination of Palestinian life is so central to the state’s existence that it is impossible to study Israel without studying Palestine. Such academics argue for the creation of “Israel/Palestine studies” departments and scholarly associations, often to replace those in Israel studies. Now a group of scholars—led by historian Tamir Sorek and professor of law and international relations Sonia Boulos—have launched a project that stands to advance this approach while also surfacing its challenges and contradictions: a new journal called Palestine/Israel Review, which will begin releasing articles from its first issue in the coming weeks.

Those developing the field of Israel/Palestine studies face formidable obstacles. The discipline of Israel studies has long been supported by pro-Israel donors and advocates who see it as an opportunity to advance their ideological project. Many of the field’s boosters have opposed efforts to incorporate the study of Palestine, pushing instead for more courses on Israel that avoid mentioning the occupation altogether. Indeed, when I interviewed then-president of Association for Israel Studies Arieh Saposnik in 2022, he argued that the push toward “Israel/Palestine” studies stood to compromise “the integrity of Israel Studies as a field,” eliminating the opportunity to study Israeli society in-depth and on its own terms. And if the relational approach has proven threatening to some Israel studies affiliates, it has also provoked debate among scholars in Palestine studies—a field dedicated to studying Palestine and Israeli oppression of Palestinians—some of whom have expressed concern that the Israel/Palestine lens could blunt attempts to counter a hegemonic pro-Israel position in the academy, reinscribing a status quo in which Palestinian narratives must incorporate an Israeli perspective in order to be considered valid. The editors of Palestine/Israel Review recognize this concern. In an introduction published online earlier this month, Sorek and editorial board member Honaida Ghanim, director of the Palestinian Forum for Israeli Studies in Ramallah, cite Palestine historian Rashid Khalidi’s diagnosis that, in the Western world, “permission cannot be granted for a Palestinian voice to be heard—even on matters having absolutely nothing to do with Israel—without the reassuring presence of its Israeli echo.”

Yet the new journal’s editors argue that their approach can augment, rather than undermine, the existing project of Palestine studies. The relational lens, they write, captures the reality that Israelis and Palestinians live in closely enmeshed societies dominated by a single regime, refuting the fiction of two separate societies locked in a conflict on equal terms. The approach also offers the space to interrogate internal elements of Israeli society through the lens of their relationship to Palestine—a practice they argue is crucial to understanding the lives of people in the region. “By bringing ‘Palestine’ and ‘Israel’ into the same epistemological field, we aspire to reshape meanings and open up the possibility of decolonization, rather than legitimizing the colonization of Palestine,” Sorek and Ghanim write.

I interviewed Sorek and Boulos about the journal’s relationship to both Israel studies and Palestine studies, the structural obstacles that make it harder for Palestinian scholars to participate in Israel/Palestine scholarship, and what it’s been like to release the journal amidst Israel’s genocidal campaign in Gaza. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Mari Cohen: In the introduction to the first issue of Palestine/Israel Review, Tamir and Honaida Ghanim write that this project hopes to reflect an “emerging cross-disciplinary understanding that Palestinian and Israeli societies are both intertwined and interdependent and that, in many cases, our analysis of social, political, and cultural processes suffers when we examine them separately.” How does the current academic landscape affect scholars’ abilities to do such work?

Tamir Sorek: Currently, the academic fields of Israel studies and Palestine studies are two separate spheres. They have their own associations, their own publications, and their own institutions. (This is not to suggest parity between the two; Israel studies is larger and much better-resourced, with more than 30 centers and chairs worldwide, in contrast to Palestine studies, which only has about four.) The two fields developed separately due to opposing political agendas. For instance, Israel studies has long been linked with pro-Israel advocacy, and this association has intensified in the past quarter century. As a result, even though some people in Israel studies have tried to include Palestine studies topics in their work, they have not been able to transform the field.

Yet while the fields of study are separate, Israeli and Palestinian societies have been intertwined from the very first day of the Zionist emigration to the country. This is what we are trying to say when we format our journal’s name as “Palestine/Israel,” with a slash, instead of “Palestine–Israel,” with a dash: that Israel is Palestine. We are talking about the same territory, the same regime—it is one story.

MC: How does the project of the Palestine/Israel Review relate to the field of Israel studies, and how will its approach differ from that of the field’s typical scholarship?

TS: Israel studies emerged to study Jewish Israelis. As a field, it often denies the colonial context in which the State of Israel emerged, as well as the current colonial practices of the state.

Our approach is very different. We start with the premise that you cannot study Israel without Palestine because Palestine is central to both the creation of, and current conditions in, Israel. It’s similar to how, we would argue, you cannot effectively study the United States without studying slavery, or the dispossession of Native Americans. That history is central to the emergence of the US, and to a large extent it is also central for understanding the US today. In this sense, the acceptance of the colonial paradigm for understanding Palestine/Israel is foundational to our journal.

Sonia Boulos: It’s important to add that you can study Israel and include Palestinians, but from a perspective that perpetuates their subjugation. You can publish an article about polygamy within the Palestinian Bedouin community in the Naqab desert, and not mention anything about historical processes of forced relocation of the Bedouin community, about them losing most of their lands, and about how all of these control mechanisms contributed to soaring numbers of polygamous marriages. So at Palestine/Israel Review, we don’t want to just look at Palestinians—we want to look at them in a way that really examines power relations on the ground, and tries to dismantle them.

MC: In your essay, you describe the project of the journal as an extension of Palestine studies. Can you say more about the ways you seek to build on that field of study?

SB: Palestine studies aims to expose the historical injustices and ongoing power asymmetries Palestinians face. We see our work as a continuation of this project: Even the title of our journal, which puts the word Palestine before Israel, reflects our hopes of challenging the status quo where Israel is the dominant actor.

TS: One thing we hope to do is increase Palestine studies’s attentiveness to Israeli subjectivity and elements in Israeli society that appear less immediately related to Palestinian oppression. For example, in the Israel Studies journal, there was recently an article that discussed how the Law of Return [the law that allows Jews from around the world to receive Israeli citizenship] affects Jews from different religious denominations. This is a worthwhile discussion, but within Israel studies it is often had without any reference to the constitutive role of the Law of Return in dispossessing and excluding Palestinians. In contrast, in Palestine studies, you might find an analysis of how the Law of Return affects Palestinians, but you would be unlikely to find a treatment of how internal struggles among Zionists interact with Palestinian oppression. These two elements are related. So what we’re trying to do with the Palestine/Israel Review is take the research that is interested in Israeli subjectivities and internal conflicts within Jewish Israeli society and look at it with the critical lens that we see in Palestine studies. This helps us better understand not just the end product of how Zionist policy affects Palestinians, but also how it developed, and the different motivations and interests that created it.

MC: Many projects that describe themselves as covering both “Palestine and Israel” take a “dual narratives” approach, in which the two national identities are framed as two equal sides in a bilateral conflict. How does your journal’s work differ from such approaches?

SB: Our project is not about seeing this as some sort of territorial conflict between two equal parties. We are quite aware that there’s only one regime that is in control of everyone’s life on the ground. The submissions we are receiving and the pieces we are publishing all reflect this understanding.

TS: At first, we did have some difficulty recruiting scholars—especially Palestinian scholars—due to the perception that we were trying to promote a symmetric perspective. But we have tried to make clear, we do not consider there to be any symmetry.

MC: The introduction to the first issue mentions some of the material barriers to developing Palestine/Israel scholarship. For example, not a lot of scholars speak both Hebrew and Arabic, which makes it harder for them to read sources and conduct interviews in both Israeli and Palestinian society. How do challenges like these, which reflect the divided and unequal material reality on the ground, affect your work?

SB: In Israeli Jewish society, the lack of emphasis on learning Arabic is related to the lack of equal recognition of Palestinians as a national group. As a result, bilingual education mostly happens on a private level rather than an institutional one. On the other side of the coin, Palestinian scholars who do not live within the Green Line don’t have access to many places where they can learn Hebrew. It can also be emotionally difficult for such scholars to learn Hebrew. You’re learning the language of the people that made you refugees, that made you lose your land.

The language barrier is only one of the constraints to this work. Even if Palestinian researchers living in the West Bank and Gaza study Hebrew, they don’t have freedom of movement to travel to Israel and do their research. And even when they’re able to do this work, they face biases. Israeli researchers can talk about Palestinians without ever being questioned solely on the basis of their identity. But Palestinians who write about Israel and Israelis are always suspected of not being objective. There’s also the problem of safety. Jewish professors who criticize Israel face backlash, but the price is not the same as it is for Palestinians, especially in Western academia. The lack of protection is not the same. All of these obstacles make it difficult to build an intellectual community where all members have equal opportunity to do their research and to promote the kind of knowledge that challenges subjugation.

TS: In another example of this kind of exclusion: When we invited members of our journal’s board and the authors from the first issue to our launch conference next month in Pennsylvania [where the journal has received sponsorship from the history department at Penn State], one of the Palestinian authors couldn’t get a visa to attend. This is one of the obstacles that Palestinians face much more than Israelis.

MC: You started the project before Israel’s ongoing assault on Gaza, which has already killed 26,900 Palestinians. Now is an exceptionally intense moment to be releasing the first issue. What’s it like launching Palestine/Israel Review at this juncture?

TS: Two years ago, when my colleague [historian] Lior Sternfeld and I started to work on this journal, we, like many in our political circles, knew that we were going to see a terrible wave of violence. We didn’t know when it would come or what form it would take. But this explosion could not surprise anyone who was observing the social reality in Palestine or Israel.

Still, I had hoped that when the journal took its first steps, it would not be under these catastrophic circumstances—that by the time the first issue came out, we would at least have a ceasefire. But we’re not there yet. We’re still in a time of emergency. We’re not at a point where we’re mourning the past or looking into the future; the bleeding is intense, and it is happening every day. So the journal was born in horrible times, and you cannot read the first issue without thinking about that. But as intellectuals, we still believe that our words and the knowledge that we produce can take part, in the long term, in dismantling the current structure of oppression. And this is our hope.

Mari Cohen is associate editor at Jewish Currents.