Kimmerling, Baruch (1939–2007)

views updated

Kimmerling, Baruch

Baruch Kimmerling was a leading Israeli political sociologist and influential public intellectual. He was best known for his sociological study of the Israel-Palestinian conflict and especially the impact of the conflict on both Israeli and Palestinian societies. Beyond academic circles he was known to the wider public since 1968 for his op-ed commentaries in Ha'aretz, Israel's leading newspaper.


Kimmerling was born in 1939 in Torda, a Transylvanian town on the Romanian side of the Romanian-Hungarian border, to a Hungarian Jewish mother and a Romanian Jewish father. The Kimmerling nuclear family survived the war in Europe and immigrated to Israel in 1952. First living in the immigration tent camp (ma"abara) in Gan Yavne, the family moved to Netanya in 1954 and later settled in Ramat Gan.

In 1963, Kimmerling began studying sociology and political science at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, earning a bachelor's degree in 1965. His master's thesis (1969), at the same institution, was part of a large-scale departmental project about modernization and development in Africa, in which his work focused upon Uganda. In 1975, he earned his Ph.D., also at the Hebrew University, with a dissertation concerning the territorial factors in the Israeli nation-building process. This dissertation was the basis for his first book, Zionism and Territory: The Socioterritorial Dimensions of Zionist Politics (1983).

In 1975 Kimmerling married Diana Aiden, then a Ph.D. student in philosophy. In 1978, he began a tenure-track teaching position in the Department of Sociology at the Hebrew University, where he remained until his retirement in 2006.


Kimmerling was a leading figure among the small number of scholars who introduced the "colonial paradigm" into the academic study of Israeli society and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Until the mid-1970s, the dominant academic perspective for understanding Israeli society was the "nation-building paradigm," based on a functionalist analysis. According to this perspective (as well as to alternative perspectives suggested by Israeli sociologists in the 1970s), Israel was compared to liberal Western democracies. In contrast, Kimmerling analyzed Zionism as a project of colonization, Israeli society as an immigrant-settler society, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a conflict between settlers and natives. Therefore, according to Kimmerling, although Israel has its own unique characteristics, it is important to analyze it alongside similar immigrant-settler colonial societies like the United States, Australia, French Algeria, and South Africa.

Kimmerling's analysis thus found that the Arab-Israeli conflict was not something external to Israeli society but rather was an inseparable component of it. This perspective was reflected in his study of militarism in Israel, in which he analyzed Israeli military institutions and culture not only as responses to the Arab-Israeli conflict but as fundamental features of Israeli society that have shaped many aspects of the state and society, including the economy, ethnic stratification, and ideology.

The insight that the conflict is central to Israeli collective identity led Kimmerling to the conclusion that a thorough understanding of Israel must include a parallel study of the "other," the Palestinians. In 1993, together with Joel Migdal, an American political scientist, he published the book Palestinians: The Making of a People. Despite the abundance of previous monographic works on Palestinian society and history, there did not exist any comprehensive sociohistorical study of their emergence as a national community, and this project was the first of its kind (a second, revised and enlarged, edition was published in 2003).

Another major contribution made by Kimmerling was the innovative conceptualization of the internal conflict between the secular-nationalist character of Zionist ideology and its initial religious foundations. In his often-cited article "Between the Primordial and Civil Definitions of the Collective Identity: The State of Israel or Eretz Israel" (1984), he distinguished between two ideal types of codes of inclusion in Israeli society, a distinction which became an influential analytical tool for students of Israeli society.


Name: Baruch Kimmerling

Birth: 1939, Torda, Romania

Death: 2007, Jerusalem, Israel

Family: Wife, Diana Aiden; two daughters, one son

Nationality: Israeli

Education: B.A., sociology and political science, Hebrew University, 1965; M.A., sociology, Hebrew University, 1969; Ph.D., sociology, Hebrew University, 1975


  • 1962: Immigrates to Israel
  • 1983: Publishes first book, Zionism and Territory: The Socioterritorial Dimensions of Zionist Politics
  • 1993: Publishes Palestinians: The Making of a People with Joel Migdal
  • 2001: Publishes The Invention and Decline of Israeliness: State, Culture and Military in Israel
  • 2003: Publishes Politicide: Ariel Sharon's Wars against the Palestinians
  • 2006: Retires

Since the late 1980s, Kimmerling had been known for his direct criticism of the discipline of Israeli sociology itself. He had raised doubts about the ability of mainstream Israeli social scientists and historians to free themselves from Zionist ideologies and Jewish ethnocentrism when dealing with their own society and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This stand cost Kimmerling a delay in obtaining a promotion to the rank of full professor.


Kimmerling was a highly prolific writer. He published thirteen books and edited volumes and more than forty academic articles. Beyond his academic work, Kimmerling had been intensely involved in the Israeli public political discourse and published dozens of semiacademic articles. His major public influence had been through the Israeli daily Ha'aretz, where he published op-ed columns and book reviews. In his writing he consistently called for the end of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and was one of the first public figures to call for the withdrawal of Israel from south Lebanon, long before the demand became an Israeli consensus.

Kimmerling's highly public profile and his pioneering and provocative ideas made him a target of threatening letters from fellow Jews accusing him of "betrayal" and "self-hatred." He also was a popular target of rightwing groups such as Campus Watch, which attempted to undermine the legitimacy of criticizing Israeli policy in American and Israeli universities by carrying out personal attacks against various scholars.

Although he sympathized with the Palestinians' collective experience of exile and expulsion and although he believed that Israel was "born in sin," he did not consider a complete implementation of the right of return of Palestinian refugees as a practical solution. In addition, unlike some other Israeli scholars, Kimmerling had strictly opposed the boycott of Israeli universities as a means to pressure the Israeli government. His critics from the left (Palestinians and non-Zionist Jews) argued that Kimmerling did not adopt the inevitable political conclusions from his academic work because he could not disconnect himself from his ethnic interest as an Israeli Jew.


It is too early to assess Kimmerling's legacy. However, his books and articles have been included in hundreds of syllabi for university courses in Israel, the United States, and Europe, and have been translated into nine languages. As a result, his contribution to the introduction of the colonial paradigm into academic discourse about Israel, as well as of his insight about the inseparability of the conflict and Israeli society, are evident today, as a significant number of young Israeli scholars have incorporated these themes into their analyses.


Kimmerling, Baruch. Zionism and Territory: The Socioterritorial Dimensions of Zionist Politics. Berkeley: University of California Institute of International Studies, 1983.

――――――. The Invention and Decline of Israeliness: State, Culture and Military in Israel. Los Angeles and Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.

――――――. Politicide: Ariel Sharon's Wars against the Palestinians. London and New York: Verso, 2003.

Kimmerling, Baruch, and Joel S. Migdal. The Palestinian People: A History. 2nd ed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003.

                                                  Tamir Sorek