For the first time in the history of Israel's academy, an Arab lecturer, Dr. Mahmoud Yazbak, was elected president of the Middle East & Islamic Studies Association of Israel (MEISAI), the main association of researchers of the Middle East and Islam in Israel. The election brings to an end a long period during which Arabs did not hold key university positions in Israel in the field of Middle East studies.
Yazbak, a lecturer at Haifa University, specializes in Palestinian social history. He will replace the outgoing president, Dr. Dror Ze'evi, of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. In most universities in the west, Arabs and Muslims occupy senior positions in departments of Middle East studies. But since the state's establishment, Arabs and Muslims were never well placed in departments researching Arabs and Islam in Israeli universities.
In most cases, departments of Middle East studies in Israel were dominated by former Israel Defense Forces and Shin Bet security service officers, and their work was closely linked to the activities of the defense establishment.
"It is an important development for the members of the Association to have selected an Arab president," Dr. Yazbak said Monday. "In the past, orientalism was very much linked to the defense establishment and the research served the military. But the past 20 years have witnessed a significant change and many researchers in the field work out of love for the profession. Of course there are those who research Arabs as military targets, but there are also those who take an honest look at the Middle East and consider themselves part of it."
"This is certainly a refreshing change," said Professor Gil Eyal, a sociologist at Columbia University who has researched the history of Middle East Studies in Israel. "Never before has an Arab headed the MEISAI, and it's fantastic."