Haggai Ram is a senior lecturer at Israel’s Ben Gurion University, specializing in the modern history of the Middle East, and Iran and Israel in particular. And while he’s sticking to his regional subject for his next work, he admits the subject matter is a bit far afield. “It might sound strange,” he said, “but I’m now working on a book-length manuscript on the social history of pot in Israel and Palestine since the 1920s.” Ram chatted with Zócalo about his latest, Iranophobia: The Logic of an Israeli Obsession, and why Israel’s difficult relationship with Iran has less to do with the countries’ differences and more with what they have in common.
Q. What inspired you to write this book?
A. There are two reasons. One is that I got a little frustrated with most scholarly efforts to get to the bottom of the ongoing crisis between Israel and Iran by focusing solely on political and strategic issues. I thought that in order to understand better the dynamics of this crisis, one should also take a look at the cultural realm.
The other reason is that I became increasingly disenchanted with the Israeli ways of understanding Iran. I gradually came to suspect that that the Israelis’ understandings of Iran are rooted in irrational phobias. While there are many good reasons for the Jewish state to be apprehensive of the Islamic republic, I felt there was also a great deal of irrationality involved in that apprehension, and it is the cultural roots of that irrationality I sought to investigate in my book.
These are two immediate incentives for writing this book, but there is another, more longstanding incentive. Although I did not know it at the time, I think the idea of writing this book was born in my mind in 1996. In March of that year I gave an interview to one of Israel’s leading newspapers, Ha’aretz. The interview immediately sparked a public uproar that nearly cost me my academic career. In that interview I essentially suggested that the Israeli government, academia, and media were disseminating distorted images of Iran that are informed by the state’s security and ethnocentric concerns. And I argued that in spite of dominant Israeli conceptions to the contrary, Iran and Israel were, in fact, similar. For all the many differences between them, in both Iran and Israel you have the contradiction between God’s rule and the rule of democracy.
A. The book just came out so it’s a little bit early to say, but I can tell you this. A Hebrew version of the book was published in 2006 in Israel. Although it’s not quite the same book, in Iranophobia I developed some of the arguments I made in this earlier book. The interesting point was that while the Middle Eastern studies community in Israel completely ignored the book, it was well received by Israeli historians and social scientists – and an Arabic edition which followed in 2007 won praise in the printed and electronic Arab media. Also, a piece offering an overview of the ideas I put forth in Iranophobia, was posted last year online. Literally 99 percent of the five hundred comments that followed accused me of high treason and of complicity with Holocaust denial, with some even calling for my deportation (to Iran, of course) and wishing for my death. In other words, Israelis were very resistant to my thesis.
The root to that backlash, I think, is to be found in one of the main arguments in the book. As I argued there, the 1979 Iranian revolution and its aftermath have illustrated to Israelis that their own existence, too, is ridden with contradictions and tensions which are not unlike those we find in Iran. The attempt to drive Iran into the realm of “otherness” was actually precipitated by a genuine concern of Israelis over their own identity. As I’m sure you know, Israel’s self image is as a beacon of Western rationality and enlightened democracy in a volatile Middle East. It is considered the outpost of Western civilization in the region. When the revolution broke, Israelis had actually come to see in Iran an image of themselves. The anti-Iran phobia should be examined within the context of heightened anxieties – Israel worries that Iran’s post-1979 realities could be the dark future of the Jewish state.
To fully understand this point it is necessary to situate the revolution not, as one might expect, in its immediate Iranian context but rather in the context of Israeli domestic politics. The 1979 revolution happened to unfold at a particular moment when the Israeli regime, which historically had buttressed the dominance of the Ashkenazi or European Jews, was coming under direct attack. Two years before, in 1977, the Likud party had won the national election, ending nearly 30 years of Labor party rule. Likud appealed to many Mizrahi Israelis, mostly first- and second-generation Jewish immigrants from Muslim countries, who were continuously being treated as second-class citizens. Another threat was Likud’s open embrace of “traditional” Judaism and the rise of the religious Zionist settler movement since the mid-1970s. While the former threatened to assimilate the Jewish state into the surrounding Arab and Muslim Middle East, the latter drove home the message that the Jewish state could not fully subscribe to the separation between religion and secularity.
And so, I argue that the 1979 revolution concretized and dramatized these threats. Divisive politics of ethnicity, charismatic clerical leaders and their underrepresented “Oriental mobs,” messianic politics, and the conflation of nation and religion and state and religion – all those features that had made their striking appearance in the 1979 revolution seemed to represent and to underline the domestic, ethnic, and religious threats to the dominance of Israeli ethnocracy as well.
A. Doubtlessly, Iran has proven itself to be a bitter enemy of the Jewish state, and it is also suspected – although thus far no credible evidence has been presented to that effect – of developing nuclear weapons. What is more, Iran has supported and does support Hezbollah and Hamas, and so to some extent there is a justification for Israel’s concern over what might be called the Iranian threat.
Having said that, the crucial point that needs to be made here is that when compared to the extraordinary misery and depredation which the rulers of Iran have exacted on their own people since 1979, the threat which they allegedly pose to the Jewish state pales into insignificance. When I said at the start of our talk that there is irrationality in Israel’s understanding of Iran, I meant precisely that. Although of course one should not disregard the venomous, anti-Semitic rhetoric that comes from Iran, this does not justify the Iranophobia that has taken hold of Israeli society, at least since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005.
Q. Many other states around Israel could be said to be dangerous – mixing religion and state, supporting terrorist groups. Why the unique phobia about Iran? Is it because of the revolution, or Ahmadinejad, or something else?
A. Here we need to go back to the period before the Iranian revolution, to the time of the Shah’s rule – when Israel and Iran were engaged in what was later called a “wondrous love affair.” Iran was not the only Muslim state with a sizable Jewish community that cultivated strategic and economic ties with Israel; Turkey and Morocco are other examples. Nor was Iran the only Third World country that Israel ultimately “lost,” as Israel’s short-lived adventure in Africa during the 1960s clearly demonstrates. However, as I have shown in my book, Israel’s relations with no other such country have evoked so much nostalgic reminiscing as its ties to Iran under the old monarchical regime.
To understand what singled out Iran, we need to direct our attention to the cultural values at work. I have already noted the Jewish state saw itself as the forefront of Western, Judeo-Christian civilization in the Middle East – or as a “villa in the middle of the jungle,” in Ehud Barak’s revealing image. I would like to suggest that Israel’s enchantment with Iran under the old monarchical regime derived in no small part from Iran’s similar self-image. The country endeavored to shut itself off from the Arab Orient and to define itself as Euro-American.
To achieve these ambitions, both states implemented colonial ideals of modernization, which involved the coercive secularization, or de-Orientalization, of their respective subjects. In the Zionist case, the target communities were primarily Oriental Jews – East Europeans and Middle Easterners. They were to be molded in accordance with the image of Aryan masculinity, with a view of making them European in each and every respect, except in their religion.
In the Iranian case, the Shah sought to progressively secularize religious identity by keeping with the construct of the “Aryan hypothesis,” which designated Iran as part of the Indo-European family of nations. Although Aryanism has been a potent force in Iran even before the Shah came to power, the inculcation of Aryan identity became the highlight of the Shah’s modernization programs in the 1960s and 70s, the so-called White Revolution. Israel drew hope from Iran that its fantastic undertaking of constructing a Euro-American enclave in the heart of the Orient was a feasible task.
To return to your question, then, I believe that Israel’s Iranophobia should be viewed as a disproportionate and fearful backlash against a revolution that, by shattering the foundations of the Shah’s Euro-American enterprise, also jeopardized the theoretical edifice upon which the Jewish state was constructed as “the West.” I argue that Israelis went about to set Iran apart as eccentrically Oriental, fanatically religious, and outrageously hostile precisely because they have come to see in Iran the religious “demons” threatening their own identity.
Q. What has happened since the revolution, or more recently, since 9/11 and Ahmadinejad’s rise to power? How did Israel’s perspective on Iran develop and effect state policy?
A. Since 9/11, it has already been amply demonstrated that the Israeli government has, with the full backing of the U.S., hijacked the antiterrorist agenda to impose more and more brutal policies on the occupied territories. A case in point, of course, is Israel’s brutal Gaza operation last year. The very same reasoning was also invoked in summer 2006 to justify the devastation of the Lebanese state by the Israeli military. Repeated attacks on Gaza and the West Bank, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the second Lebanon war were all presented as interlinked fronts in the “global war on terrorism.” Israel implicates Iran as the main villain in the war on terror, and in so doing, it can claim justification for its brutal policies.
*Photo of a dormant volcano in Iran courtesy Emdadi.