Oxford has not found time to put up Professor Yaacov Yadgar’s name by the entrance to his office. But the lack of a nameplate does not indicate indifference to the university’s new Stanley Lewis Professor of Israel Studies.
On the contrary, he says, the university has been “very welcoming” to him and his family since they arrived a month ago.
The first thing you might think of with the words “Israel” and “university” are the fractious boycott debates that take place in the cauldron of student politics.
But Professor Yadgar’s chair signifies a different aspect to Israel on campus: its acceptance into the academic community as a legitimate field of inquiry — and at one of the world’s most prestigious universities.
He is only the second holder of the post, which was instigated largely through the efforts of the late Lord Weidenfeld.
His predecessor, Derek Penslar, who returned to North America after four years, was widely respected in Oxford, Prof Yadgar says, for having established an “open and safe intellectual space” to talk about Israel.
The creation of the chair had prompted fears that “either it is going to become a hasbarah [public relations] position or anti-Israel bastion. Prof Penslar managed to quiet all these anxieties and worries that came with the formation of the position.”
In his light grey suit and thin tie, Prof Yadgar is a picture of respectability but the hair tied in a small bun at the back suggests a dash of independence.
Born in Israel in 1971, he grew up in a lower-middle-class, traditional Jewish family of Middle Eastern heritage. “My parents are both from Iran. My father arrived in the early 1950s, my mother in the late ’60s, at different stages in life, and also from different places in Iran — which among Iranians is a big deal.
“As a young boy, I have a very strong recollection of being the son of immigrants, silencing my parents not to speak their mother tongue at home because in Israel you should speak Hebrew — that’s part of the national unity ethos. Like so many people, only later did I understand what this loss amounts to.”
Prof Yadgar is now learning Farsi and is interested in exploring relations between Israel and his parents’ native land.
When he came to Bar-Ilan University for his undergraduate degree, he was “the first of my family to go to university — I didn’t know what university means”.
And while he has spent most of his academic career at Bar-Ilan, he has studied and taught at leading American universities — Columbia, Rutgers and most recently, Berkeley. His latest book, Sovereign Jews, was published this year and an English version is due out in paperback this autumn.
Controversies over Israel have reached a point where it has “stifled our ability to engage and discuss” the country on some American campuses, he feels. Some people warned him about what he might face in accepting such a post abroad. But “I was extremely happy to hear and to learn personally that here in Oxford there is an ability to have a discussion,” he says.
As a political scientist, his role is not to become “a soldier in some fight… To lose our ability to engage in intellectual discourse would be shameful. That is one of my promises to myself — that I am going to be able to carve this space for an honest, safe, respectful discourse that allows for debate and not necessarily convinces one side or the other that we’re right or they’re right. Academia is about dialogue and I hope to have this dialogue.”
His chair is attached both to Oxford’s Department of Politics and International Relations and Sias, which sounds like some unit in a Mission Impossible film but stands for School of Interdisciplinary Area Studies; it brings together specialists on different regions or countries such as Latin America or China or Japan.
While the Israeli-Arab conflict may have dominated public and academic attention, he is keen to extend his subject’s boundaries. Israel is a complex society composed of different strands and to understand it requires “being attentive to a multiplicity, a diversity of Israeli experiences”.
Topics such as religion and politics in Israel, he believes, are too often viewed through the wrong lens — a lens shaped by modern European and particularly Protestant ways of thinking.
The word “religion” is used today “as equivalent to faith, as a personal matter of one’s relationship with God, or divinity, which is apolitical by definition,” he explains. “And by this narrative, the introduction of religion which is irrational, emotional into politics is dangerous.
“This is a rather novel European construction of these matters and it does not play right with the history of Jewish, or Muslim traditions for that matter.”
What he refers to as “Judaisms” — the different expressions of Jewish identity — has “never been a matter of faith alone. It is a way of life, a law, a tradition”.
Israel, furthermore, can’t be understood without “deciphering what it means for it to define itself as a Jewish state” — which is “not obvious at all” since there exists no agreed definition.
Just how contentious the issue is can be gleaned from the current Knesset debates over the Jewish Nation-State Bill, whose critics fear it will privilege Israel’s Jewish character over its democratic one.
Whatever the public arguments, on a personal level Jewish identity remains important to his family and he, his wife and five children have joined the local Jewish community.
While Israel’s internal dynamics may provide plenty of scope for analysis, Prof Yadgar wants to put Israel studies in a broader framework. Iran, for example, features large in Israeli political conversation not only as a security threat but also as a warning against religious fundamentalism and theocracy.
But little attention is given in Israel, he says, to how it is viewed from inside Iran. “There is not a single Iranian perspective. The position vis-à-vis Israel was far from being monolithic, as rhetoric by hot-blooded politicians like [former President] Ahmadinejad would make it seem,” he says.
“Some of the founding fathers of the revolutionary thought that culminated in 1979 found Israel, at least prior to 1967, to be promising an alternative to the First World-Third World dichotomy, or East-West dichotomy, of the time. They saw Israel as a potential ally in a post-colonial reconstruction of the Middle East.”
In moving to Oxford, he has come, he says, “from the periphery into the centre of production of knowledge. But also Oxford is an extremely attractive lifestyle for me because of the interdisciplinary manner in which intellectual discourse is happening here. In less than two weeks of being in work here, I already met people from diverse disciplines with diverse interests and we held fascinating conversations.”
He has met Avi Shlaim, the Iraqi-born Israeli emeritus professor of international relations at Oxford, who is a noted critic of Israeli policy towards the Palestinians.
“He was an extremely welcoming host,” Prof Yadgar says. “We had an engaging discussion.”
Oxford’s new professor remains a rare academic species — you can count the number of Israel studies professors appointed at a British university on one hand.
But he might be rarer still in being an Israeli who does not possess a mobile phone. While “no Luddite” he says, pointing to the iPad beside him, a mobile represents “a sense of invasion of privacy”. Though he believes, especially as his children grow up, “eventually, I’m going to succumb”.