Middle East Studies

"...we are trying to do two things – to characterize the gentile as a very particular type of 'the other;' to show when and how the gentile came into being." 

Adi Ophir, Visiting Professor of Humanities and Middle East Studies

'Genealogy of the gentile': Visiting Professor Adi Ophir shares his recent book research and his advice for undergraduates

Can you tell us what research you're working on these days?

I am currently finishing a book on the genealogy of the gentile (goy), the Jew’s “Other,” co-authored with my friend and colleague, Ishay Rosen Zvi from Tel Aviv University. Basically, we are trying to do two things – to characterize the gentile as a very particular type of “the other;” to show when and how the gentile came into being (relatively late, probably with Paul, “the Apostle to the gentiles,” and certainly with the rabbis of the late 2nd century CE).

We’ve reconstructed the radical shift in discourse with which the new category was involved, and the systematic elimination or subordination of all former types of alterities that came about when it became hegemonic. The time frame of this research is 6th century BCE to 3rd century CE, but its implications for our time are quite striking. In many ways, this ancient figure is our contemporary, a category and a discursive formation necessary for understanding the Zionist idea of a Jewish nation state as well as current religious, nationalist, and racist aspects of political discourse in Israel today. The manuscript has been recently submitted and we are waiting for the publisher’s response.

Where has your research taken you over the last few years?

I was mainly travelling in time, through books and libraries, pursuing the traces of the gentile and its predecessors in antiquity.

In what ways does your research influence your teaching methods or style?

Alongside the research on the gentile I have been busy with work in political theory, mainly around “political concepts,” a project I am directing at the Cogut Center for the Humanities (see most recently here). My theoretical work is anchored in my previous research on strategies and forms of power and domination in Israel/Palestine, especially in the “Occupied Territories.” I was particularly interested in “the economy of violence” in the Occupied Territories and its specific spatio-temporal formations.

This interest gave rise to the class I am teaching this spring on three apparatuses (dispositifs, in the Foucaultian sense of this word) of war/terrorism/security/resistance (and all these terms must be unpacked and problematized): walls, drones, and tunnels (MES 0859 S01/CRN: 26250). Each of these apparatuses is both shaped by and actively generates its own modes of spatialization and logic of temporality. The effects of these on everyone involved in the deployment of the apparatus – militants and civilians, perpetrators and victims, and the entire bio-physical environment – cannot be underestimated.

Do you have any advice for undergraduates pursuing (or considering) a Middle East Studies concentration?

Advice to undergraduate students: historicize the categories you are working with. Remember that historical institutions are the result of struggles and the triumph of some cultural, political, and economic formations at the expense of others, who were sent to oblivion by the dominant power. It is often a duty to resist this forced forgetfulness, and also a great intellectual pleasure to recover those traces.

When you focus on the Middle East as a region, think globally; when you look at global trends and forces, always ask yourself about particular local structures, traditions, and circumstances; when you are immersed in empirical questions, data and facts, ask yourself what theoretical questions do they serve; and when you struggle with theoretical reflections and analyses, use concrete situations, stories, and patterns of relations to examine, challenge, or demonstrate them.

Adi Ophir is a Visiting Professor of Humanities and Middle East Studies.