The beating heart of my research is Political Existentialism. It centers on humans as mortal and moral agents seeking meaning in a meaningless universe—and within the political domain. It constructs a bridge between the philosophical “ought” and the sociological “is” in the study of political legitimacy, tapping into the social actors’ own reasoning about right and wrong in the public sphere.

Political existentialism does not dismiss prevalent views of humans as driven by material calculation (homo economicus), evolutionary imperatives (homo biologicus), emotional dispositions (homo psychologicus), and collective identities (homo sociologicus). It does, however, suggest that to fully understand homo sapiens, not least in politics, the social sciences should also address what brings as together, and set us apart, as humans—our distinctively human sense of mortality, morality, liberty and language.

Within the vast realm of political existentialism, I began my exploration with Israeli Jewish society. It was not an obvious choice. Though born and raised in Jerusalem, it was only in the spring of 2002, at the peak of the Second Intifada, that I redirected my academic gaze inward to my own society. Until then, I had been far more curious about other countries, employing insights gained from the study of IR and the Middle East to investigate such cases as the 1948 Berlin blockade, the 1968 Prague Spring, the rise of China or anti-colonialism and Islamism in Algeria. But the fear and anxiety that I saw all around me, that I experienced myself as I roamed through Jerusalem’s half-empty streets in 2002, got me thinking about the creeping sense of uncertainty that many of us share about our collective future. In the following years, I turned that wonder into a PhD dissertation, which sought to uncover Zionist discourses on existential threats, whether the “demographic demon,” the perils of a “fraternal war” or the danger of a nuclear Iran.

I reached some interesting answers in my dissertation (2007), yet even more intriguing questions. Since I relish comparative analysis, the next puzzle was obvious enough: Is Israel the sole domain of existential uncertainty? I began to look for analogous cases, some far away, like the Afrikaners and French Canadians, others closer to home, like Israel’s Arabs citizens. In the process, I learned that existential uncertainty need not be about the future of a polity; it could be about social identity. Probing this insight, I published articles on the Israeli Arab “future vision” documents (2008, Israel Studies Review), on the broader theory of such “small peoples” (2009, International Studies Quarterly), and on related books (International Studies Review and elsewhere).

Yet a greater enigma awaited. It is no surprise that force and expedience are often a resort for coping with mortal threat, but I was intrigued by the social actors’ resort to moral argumentation. I immersed myself in the literature, synthesizing insights from political science, social psychology, sociobiology, anthropology and philosophy. If, on the individual level, our sense of mortality prompts us to seek symbolic immortality and moral meaning via abiding collectives, what happens when we see our collective itself as mortal? I searched for answers in the Israeli case, and sought to share my ideas with both academics and the wider public. Since the early 2000s, I have written numerous op-eds and treatises. In addition, I thought a book in Hebrew was now in order (Living on the Edge: The Existential Uncertainty of Zionism, 2015, Haifa University Press; the sole winner of the Bahat Prize for the best academic book). I hope its publication will advance the understanding of Zionism in and beyond the ivory tower.

This research encouraged me to revisit familiar theories in the fields of religion, ethnic conflict, and security studies, and publish relevant papers. I offered a fresh typology of the moral interplay of religion and nationalism (2014, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion), analyzed how intractable conflicts shape, and are shaped by, “national ethics” (2014, Ethnic and Racial Studies), and demonstrated the importance of the “existential threshold” in securitization theory (2014, International Political Sociology). Ultimately, however, I found the single case study and the refinement of existent theories inadequate for a comprehensive in-depth account. I thus decided to write a book in English offering both a novel theory and comparative analysis on The Mortality and Morality of Nations (Cambridge University Press).

Throughout this period, my interest in Mideast politics did not wane. I wrote about it, taught related courses, and gradually formed a coherent project. I wanted to learn how “electoralization” (freer and fairer elections), nuclear proliferation, and “petroliferation” (the role of oil) have shaped the region in the past generation, especially as each trajectory evokes a well-established theory suggesting a pacifying effect: democratic peace, rentier state stability, and “nuclear peace.” Can “ballots, barrels and bombs” pave paths to peace in the Middle East? I sought answers in various articles. Two papers engaged with the Iranian nuclear project by “revisiting Iran’s nuclear rationale” (2014, International Politics) and outlining “nuclear diversion theory” (2013, Politics & Policy). One addresses the “elusive and illusive stability of Mideast rentier regimes" (forthcoming, Journal of International Relations and Development). Finally, three papers examine, statistically and conceptually, theories about the effects of regime type on intrastate and interstate violence in the region, one recently published in the International Journal of Conflict and Violence (winner of the Israel Political Science Association's Yaacov Bar-Siman-Tov Prize for best article). A key insight and common thread of these investigations is that political legitimation is of paramount importance. This realization drives my current research on the Arab Spring’s “language of legitimation,” the recipient of a generous grant (from the Fritz Thyssen Foundation), and has already yielded a paper on “nationalism and legitimacy in the Arab World” (forthcoming, Nations and Nationalism).

Political existentialism, however, including the key question of political legitimation, goes beyond the confines of “small nations” and Mideast politics. It permeates global politics. But how are we to study the principles peoples devise and subscribe to, worldwide and over the longue durée? New technologies have opened up new possibilities and at both TAU and Princeton, I am currently leading the Diachronic Global Corpus (DiGCor) initiative, which seeks to uncover the global flow of political ideas though sophisticated analysis of text, speech, and natural language on a large scale [Read an interview about the project on H-Nationalism]. In a recent paper, I showed how such “normative concepts analysis” can facilitate a greater understanding of politics (2014, International Journal of Social Research Methodology). One of my first case studies examines the concept of “rationality” and its “malpractice” in International Relations and policy-making (Rationality and Society). Another case study is the “taming of self-determination,” a cornerstone of our modern language of legitimation (forthcoming, European Journal of International Relations). I have also presented the ideas underpinning this philosophical-sociological fusion into “public political thought” (forthcoming, British Journal of Sociology). These recent efforts inform my next book project, which I hope to complete in a year or so. My goal is to show why and how “morality matters” in politics. I am especially interested in those “momentous moments” when social actors stop taking certain political realities for granted and start seeing them as involving moral dilemmas, thus fostering social agency and a transformative agenda.

Finally, in my home away from home, at the LISD/WWS, I am also involved in the projects on State, Sovereignty, and Self-Determination and Religion, Diplomacy, and International Relations (PORDIR), aid the work on the Princeton Encyclopedia of Self-Determination, and have organized several international workshops, including Public Justification in World Politics (March 2014), The Perils and Promises of Self-Determination in the Twenty-First Century (April 2014), and Whither Self-Determination? (April 2015).

“This sign I give to you: every people speaks its own language of good and evil, which its neighbor does not understand.”
Friedrich Nietzsche,Thus Spoke Zarathustra