Baruch Kimmerling – Israeli sociologist who strongly criticised the state’s policies

As the first academic to use scholarship to reexamine the founding tenets of Zionism and the Israeli State, Professor Baruch Kimmerling effected an irreversible change on the country’s intellectual life.

Most of his ten books and numerous research papers were written through painfully slow one-finger typing from his wheelchair, as multiple sclerosis led to restricted movement and speech difficulties all his life. Nevertheless, he went beyond his call of duty at the Hebrew University sociology department to become a public intellectual, writing regular comment articles for the daily newspaper Haaretz.

In these, as in his research, he strongly criticised Israel’s policies, from its foundation to the Ariel Sharon era and beyond. While the articles earned him renown, they also opened him to widespread accusations of being over harsh and disloyal to his country. The novelist Aharon Megged echoed common attacks, calling him a “rewriter” of history, adding that he published heavily in English because he was playing to Israel’s foreign critics.

However, Kimmerling also frustrated those critics, by opposing the proposed world-wide boycott of Israeli academia, which the University and College Union, the British lecturers’ body, is currently considering joining. He argued that the world’s scholars must build closer relationships with their Israeli counterparts to help them to act as proponents of freedom. While his works were so accepted by Palestinians that they were used as school textbooks, he criticised Palestinian material on Israel for its antiSemitic stereotypes.

Baruch Kimmerling was born in Transylvania, Romania, in 1939. His family were Zionists and went to Israel in 1952. From 1963 he studied sociology at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, graduating in 1965 and completing an MA in 1969 and a PhD in 1975.

At this time, scholars in Israel tended to feel that their research was an important part of nation-building. While they were critical, often strongly so, of certain government or army policies, they were favourably disposed towards the overall aims of the state and the broad ideas of Zionism. Kimmerling’s PhD thesis, The Territorial Factors in Israeli Nation-Building Process, changed that. He argued that Israel must be analysed as a colonising immigrant society. He was therefore regarded among the “new historians” along with the likes of the scholars Benny Morris and Ilan Pappé, who made this their battle cry as proponents of “postZionism”. In fact, he preceded them by many years, and assiduously avoided all labels, especially “postZionist”.

His thesis was expanded into a book, Zionism and Territory (1983), which became, as he pointed out, “generally accepted, even by its critics, as the beginning of new approach toward the analysis of Israeli society and its social history”.

Scholars began to accept his assertion that the Palestinians needed to be the key focus in analyses of Israeli society and what it meant to be an Israeli. They competed to provide answers for the difficult questions Kimmerling asked, and mounted similar challenges.

In the 1990s Kimmerling concentrated his energy on the role of the army. Until then, it was widely accepted by Israelis, social scientists included, that military service was the great melting pot for immigrants of different backgrounds, as well as a social leveller. But in Kimmerling’s writings Israel was a “culturally militaristic society”, plagued by an obsession with the army that turned the conflict – the root of the “embattled mindset” – into a self-fulfilling prophecy.. Just as he made the Israeli-Palestinian tensions indispensable to analysing Israeli society, he established the same assumption with regard to the army.

In recent years, he became increasingly vocal in his critique of the “occupation” and Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian population. In March 2001 he went so far as to write in Haaretz: “The continuing circumstances of occupation and repression give them [the Palestinians], by any measure, the right to resist that occupation with any means at their disposal and to rise up in violence against that occupation. This is a moral right inherent to natural law and international law.”

His book Politicide: Sharon’s War against the Palestinians (2001), mounted a polemical, yet research-based attack on the Prime Minister’s policies. He said that measures Sharon ordered after a suicide attack in March 2002 laid to waste the Oslo agreement and effectively led to the destruction of the Palestinian Authority. He condemned the army’s actions in Jenin, the expansion of the system of checkpoints, and the loss of innocent Palestinian lives. He viewed these events as integrally linked to changes in Israeli society; that the Right was eclipsing the Left and the peace camp, as the established Ashkenazi (Western) hegemony in politics came to an end, making way for the more right-wing approaches of Sephardi (Eastern) Jews and Russian immigrants.

Kimmerling did not have hobbies except holding intellectual discussions on e-mail; he was a workaholic who raced to finish as much writing as possible as his cancer advanced.

He is survived by his wife, Diana, two daughters and a son.

Baruch Kimmerling, Israeli sociologist, was born on October 16, 1939.
He died on May 20, 2007, aged 67

Ref: Times

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