One of the newest initiatives at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI) is the Israel Visiting Fellows program, which aims to deepen FSI’s academic expertise in geopolitics and democracy studies as it relates to Israel.
The program was launched in September 2021 with the generous support of Stanford alumni and donors and under the leadership of Larry Diamond, FSI’s Mosbacher Senior Fellow in Global Democracy.
In the Fall quarter, the program welcomed Professor Or Rabinowitz, a senior lecturer in International Relations at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, as a visiting scholar at the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC). Prof. Rabinowitz is a nuclear historian who has worked on issues relating to nuclear proliferation, intelligence studies, and Israel-US relations.
In Spring quarter, the program’s Inaugural Fellow, Professor Amichai Magen arrived at Stanford. Prof. Magen is a former predoctoral fellow and affiliated scholar at FSI’s Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law and current Director of the Program on Democratic Resilience and Development at the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy at Reichman University in Israel.
The inception of the Israel Visiting Fellows program comes at a particularly relevant time in Israel’s development as a nation. Over the course of its 75 years as an independent country, Israel has undergone a remarkable transformation into a state boasting a highly developed, globally integrated economy with an estimated GDP of US $488.53 billion in 2021, and a ranking as the fourth happiest country in the world in 2023 by the metrics of the World Happiness Report (WHR).
But many challenges still remain. The recent proposals by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to overhaul the judicial system to allow a simple parliamentary majority to overrule decisions by Israel’s Supreme Court, limit its jurisdiction, and give the government additional power in appointing judges has raised fears of democratic backsliding and a constitutional crisis for the country and the potential for instability in the region.
While the proposals were formally withdrawn by Netanyahu on March 27 after hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens— by some estimates up to half of million — took to the streets in protest, the attempted rewrite of the law has left many both inside and outside the country concerned about Israel’s future.
Speaking at the first official event of the Israel Visiting Fellows Program, Prof. Or Rabinowitz addressed the gravity of current events.
“We’re in a historical moment in Israel,” she said. “I think it’s as dramatic as 1948 and 1967. I do think that the coming months will dictate the direction in which Israeli democracy will go for years to come.”
The event, “Reflections on Israel at 75,” which marked Israel’s Independence Day on April 26, was a chance to reflect on the country’s successes and challenges through both academic lenses and personal stories.
Alongside Professors Magen, Rabinowitz, and moderator Larry Diamond, Yonatan Eyov, the current Jewish Agency Israel Fellow at Stanford University, offered some of his personal insights on the state of Israel’s society and current governance. As an openly gay Ethiopian Jew, Eyov acknowledged that while he deeply loves Israel and the opportunities it has given him, recent events have left him uneasy and hesitant at times to share his experiences with fellow Israelis.
“I think it’s necessary for us as people who live in Israel to understand that this is our country, and we need to do everything we can to protect it from these non-democratic influences,” he told the panel. “We have to be the ones to set the tone for those who would try to come and change things.”
Eyov’s experiences highlight the diversity of modern Israel, and the multidimensional nature of Israeli society, a topic which was also highlighted by the screening the Visiting Fellows program hosted on May 10 of Cinema Sabaya, a film by Orit Fouks Rotem.
The premise of the film was inspired by Rotem’s lived experiences in a multicultural, multi-ethnic Israel, and the growing pains — and joys — that come from the work of building community.
Speaking at the screening via videolink, Matan Zamir, Deputy Consul General of Israel to the Pacific North West, reminded the audience that, “it is often in the arts, that we see a true spirit of a nation and its people represented.”
Speaking in an interview with FSI, Amichai Magen echoed the need for thoughtful, cross-cultural, cross-disciplinary analysis of Israel and its role as a regional influence and geopolitical partner.
“Few countries in the world have captured the American imagination, or receive international attention, as much as Israel. At the same time, few countries are as poorly understood. Whether for reasons of geographical or cultural distance, Israel's rapid transformation into a high-tech superpower over the past three decades, or competing political and media agendas, this intriguing and surprisingly influential country is rarely explored for what it is - a human society, polity, constitutional system, and policy actor that is best understood in historical and comparative context.”
As part of the Freeman Spogli Institute’s interdisciplinary, highly collaborative community of scholars, the Israel Visiting Fellows program will have the chance to develop and anchor dialogue about Israel within the broader ecosystem of FSI’s data-driven, research-based policy work and teaching.
For additional information about the Israel Visiting Fellows Program and how to be involved, please contact program manager Kate Tyminska.