Dov Waxman, Northeastern’s new professor of Israel Studies, often finds himself in difficult places at difficult times. He was in Russia right after the fall of the Soviet Union; in Turkey during the great earthquake that left thousands dead; in Israel at the start of the second Intifada; and in lower Manhattan as the twin towers fell.
And this fall Waxman found himself in front of 25 Northeastern students teaching a course on the Arab-Israeli Conflict just as the war in Gaza ended. Many students came to the course with strong opinions about the conflict. Emotions were still raw from a summer of violence. It was unquestionably a difficult time.
Yet, it turns out this time Waxman was in just the right place. He was able to use his skills as a teacher and his knowledge as a researcher to help students open their minds and examine the conflict in a more balanced and nuanced way.
Waxman uses a similar approach outside the classroom. “I’m trying to take the tools and thinking of an academic and apply them” to highly charged Middle East politics, says Waxman, who has appointments in Political Science, International Affairs, and Jewish Studies and co-directs Northeastern’s Middle East Center. Along with the course on the Conflict, Waxman will teach courses on Modern Israel and International Relations.
By approaching the Middle East as a scholar and presenting his conclusions as the product of research, Waxman hopes to defuse the intense emotions that inevitably arise. “I don’t think I get sucked into it quite so much or become quite as much of a target,” says Waxman.
Waxman sees his role as that of a public intellectual. In addition to publishing two books on Israel, he writes regularly for the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz and other popular publications, maintains a lively blog, gives interviews to the media, and speaks nationally and internationally. One of the first things Waxman did upon arriving on campus as a full-time professor this fall was to give a talk for the entire Northeastern community, “Judging the Gaza War (from afar).”
In his latest research, Waxman may be taking on his most controversial topic yet: the American Jewish community and its relationship to Israel. “The book is not about Israel, but about what American Jews think about Israel,” Waxman says.
Waxman considers tackling “sensitive and difficult issues” one of the responsibilities that comes with the privilege of being a tenured professor.
Waxman did not set out to be an academic; he first thought he would be a journalist. The route he took to the academy shaped the engaged academic he has become.
Born in London in 1974, Waxman attended a Modern Orthodox boarding school for high school even though his parents were not religious. “I had a sense that my father didn’t want me to become too assimilated,” he says in explaining his parents’ choice. His first school trip was to meet the Lubavitcher rebbe in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn.
Waxman’s next destination was an ultra-Orthodox yeshiva in Jerusalem. “I felt I needed to live according to Torah, according to Jewish law,” Waxman says. “I wanted to resolve the questions: Is there a God and should I live according to an Orthodox Jewish life?” Waxman found the yeshiva to be “an intellectually challenging place” where he had “an intense religious experience.” He considered passing on Oxford and continuing to study in the yeshiva. “My parents freaked out,” he says. “They literally came and got me out of the yeshiva.”
Having had a real-life lesson in the power of the press, Waxman threw himself into working for Cherwell. He became its editor, a pipeline to top journalism posts in Great Britain.
Waxman graduated Oxford in 1996 with a B.A. degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics and was set to start a masters’ program at the Columbia University School of Journalism. The States seemed the place to go. “It was the height of the American empire,” Waxman recalls. “I wanted to go where I thought I would be close to the action.”
But the more he thought about his career path as a journalist, the more he concluded that a straight journalism trajectory was not for him. He could have joined The Sunday Times of London, where he had been a trainee. But he wanted to be a foreign correspondent and it would take 10 years to work his way up to that position.
“I thought if I got a graduate degree I could parachute in at a higher level,” Waxman says. “I didn’t want to wait.” So he decided against journalism school and entered a masters program in international relations at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). He still planned on becoming a journalist, but once at SAIS he grew more interested in a research career. He decided to finish his Ph.D. there. “I thought it would help me advance in the think tank world,” he says.
His research focused on the relationship between Turkey and Israel, at its peak in the late 1990s. Waxman, who had long had an affinity for Israel, also was drawn to Turkey. “It was not just an intellectual attraction, it was personal too,” Waxman says. “I loved the food, the architecture and I found the people so warm and welcoming.”
In August 1999 he was on a research trip in Turkey when “the light bulb started shaking,” Waxman recalls. “The lights went out, the earth turned upside down. There was crashing all around and buildings collapsing.” Waxman ran outside. He then realized he had left his laptop with all his field notes for his dissertation inside the swaying building. He ran back in. “I had to save my dissertation,” he says.
After a week in which he was out of contact with his parents, “who were beside themselves,” Waxman left Turkey. The quake killed 17,000 people and left half a million homeless.
The following year Waxman was back in Turkey, teaching a course on Israel at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara. “It was such a great experience teaching that class that it led me to become an academic,” Waxman says. “I just discovered I really loved to teach.” He notes that one of his students from that class is now doing a Ph.D. in Israel Studies at Brandeis University.
Waxman moved to New York in February 2001 to write his dissertation, renting an apartment in the East Village. He was there on the morning of September 11th. “I watched the second tower come down from the roof of my building,” Waxman recalls. “It made me a New Yorker. I bonded with the city. It brought out the best of the people and the city in a strange way.”
In fall 2002, a tenure-track position as an assistant professor of government took him to Bowdoin College in Maine. After two years there, he yearned to return to New York. So he joined the political science department at the City University of New York, where he remained for a decade.
Waxman had originally anticipated turning his dissertation into a book about Turkey and Israel but he found himself increasingly drawn into public debates on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Israel became the exclusive focus of his first book, The Pursuit of Peace and the Crisis of Israeli Identity: Defending / Defining the Nation, published by Palgrave-Macmillan in 2006. He then shifted to explore identity issues among Arabs who live in Israel, resulting in Israel’s Palestinians: The Conflict Within, which Cambridge University Press published in 2011.
Another set of identity issues has preoccupied him lately: the shifting affiliations of American Jews that have resulted in changing attitudes toward Israel. As a relatively new member of the American Jewish community, Waxman considers himself both an “insider and an outsider,” a perfect perch for examining this charged topic.
He also has a good seat at Northeastern University, with his appointments in multiple departments and his role in directing the Middle East Center. Plus Waxman has found an institution whose aspirations match his own.
Northeastern is “an exciting place to be,” Waxman says. “The university has a lot of ambition.”