Providence College professor recounts a life full of political revelations


On Nov. 7, a strongly worded editorial appeared in the Boston Globe urging a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. “We recognize Israel’s right to defend itself,” read an oft-quoted line. “But we do not believe that Benjamin Netanyahu’s government … deserves the benefit of the doubt on how best to protect Israel in this critical moment.”

One of the editorial’s three co-signers was Dr. Ruth Ben-Artzi, a political science professor at Providence College. Ben-Artzi intrigued journalists for being none other than Netanyahu’s niece, which seemed to carry symbolic weight in the fiery debate about Israel’s strategy in Gaza. Yet Ben-Artzi is a profound figure in her own right: An Israeli native, she has studied international relations for more than 30 years, taught political science in Rhode Island since 2006 and strongly identifies as a political activist.

“I am reluctant to be in the spotlight,” wrote Ben-Artzi in an initial correspondence with JRI, “but I also have a principled and expert stance on the I/P conflict, and highlighting that is important.”

Ben-Artzi’s perspective has evolved over time, often because of direct encounters with the conflict.  We corresponded with Ben-Artzi over email about her extraordinary life and career, as well as the events that have informed her current perspective on the Israel-Hamas conflict. This is the complete interview, edited only for style and clarity.

Where did you grow up in Israel? Were current affairs discussed in your home?

I was born in Haifa and grew up there and in Tivon, a town in the Galilee, near all my grandparents. My grandmothers were both 7th generation born in Israel/Palestine, and my grandfathers were both from Eastern Europe – one came as a Zionist in 1933 and the other as a refugee during World War II. When I was drafted to the IDF at 18, my parents moved to Jerusalem, where they still live.

Current affairs were often discussed in our home with us (the kids) or in our presence. This is typical in Israel, including having the radio on, with the news, at home and in public spaces everywhere. I also started picking up the newspaper from my parents or grandparents – they all read different newspapers – at a relatively young age.

In addition, my mother’s brother was killed in the ’68 war of attrition, before I was born, and my grandparents stayed very connected to his unit, commanders and the “family” of “shkol” – those who have lost a close relative in battle. Growing up, I would often accompany them to military bases, to visit my uncle’s friends or a new clubhouse for soldiers, built with the help of their donations. We’d also go to my uncle’s grave twice per year: on Memorial Day, in May, and on Yom Kippur, because he was shot on Yom Kippur and died a day later. In all of this, I was very aware of Israel’s state of perpetual conflict.

On my father’s side, one of my uncles is a religious Zionist, ultra-right wing, who moved to a settlement in the West Bank in the mid '70s. Throughout my childhood, there were lively conversations when he came with his family for holidays. We never visited his family in the Occupied Territories – my dad would say that he’d go only when it would involve crossing a border and using a passport. I always knew that my uncle lives in a place that has a different status than the rest of Israel. We spoke about Occupation, about the '67 and '73 wars, and I was old enough to follow the Lebanon War on my own. Tivon is also very close to one of Israel’s biggest air force bases, and I was used to the loud noise of fighter jets zipping above and would speculate when there was increased activity. One of my earliest memories are the jets and sirens and running to the shelter in the Yom Kippur War.

By the time I was a teenager, I knew my parents supported the very small short-lived movement of “Choug Tchelet” that was vocal in its opposition to holding the territories conquered in 1967 war. This movement warned that the Occupation will corrupt Israeli society; that it is both a moral and a security disaster. Orthodox Rabbi Yeshayahu Leibovitz articulated this position. A specific political encounter that I recall and that helped to shape my awareness when I was young is my father arguing with neighbors who were staunch Labor (Ma’arach) supporters around the 1981 elections. They were appalled that he voted for Likud, for Begin. He did so because Begin signed the peace agreement with Egypt (Camp David Accords) in his first term, and my father wanted to support that.

Of course, he later regretted this vote, as Begin brought us the Lebanon War (1982), Ariel Sharon as Security Minister, and the Sabra and Shatila massacre, in which Israel was implicated. So current affairs didn’t need to be discussed in my home. They were a lived experience.

What brought you to live in the United States for that two-year period? In what ways did that early stay here affect you?

When I was 6, my father, who is a mathematician, was awarded a Fulbright scholarship for post-doctoral studies. We lived in Evanston, Illinois, while he was at Northwestern. And my mother enrolled in a comparative religions master’s program there. We lived in Evanston for a year and spent the following year in Minneapolis (Minnesota) before going back to Israel. That early American experience left a big impression – not only language acquisition.

Initially, my parents enrolled me and my brother, who is a year younger, in the local public school. I remember loving it and making friends quickly. That was my first encounter with anyone who is black or who is not Jewish. I have a vivid memory of my classmates and teachers who were very diverse.

But within a few weeks, my parents gave in to my grandfather’s pleas and transferred us to a Jewish Day School in Skokie, Ill. After the positive experience I had with a welcoming public-school community, I remember feeling like an outsider at the Jewish Day School. There were prayers every morning and at meals – something I was not used to, as my nuclear family was not observant and the school I attended in Israel was secular. I was required to wear only skirts or dresses. Hebrew was taught as a biblical language rather than as a modern, secular revival.

What’s more, I felt detached from the idea that classmates and teachers had of Israel – it was strange for me that Israel held such a significant place in their lives and yet few had ever visited it. I also experienced religion differently than I had before and I started to realize how my generally secular life in Israel is so intertwined with religion. Even at a young age (and this Jewish Day School experience was one that I also had in Minnesota the following year), I was very much aware that the image of Israel that was presented in my religious school community was nothing like the Israel that I had experienced.

To this day I grapple with the relationship of American Jews to Israel and the relationship between Judaism and Israel. Israel is a political entity, with all the flaws, challenges, and, yes, also original sin (Nakbah) that characterize political entities. The taboo on criticizing Israel, in my opinion, is erroneous and, ultimately, counterproductive and even dangerous. 

Did you have to serve in the Israeli military or other civil service? If so, how did that experience inform your perspective about Israeli-Palestinian relations?

 Yes, I had to serve in the military. My religious female cousins who grew up in the Occupied Territories had a civil service option and my ultra-orthodox relatives were exempt. I had no choice. But when in high school, I was looking forward to enlisting in the IDF in same way many American high school kids are excited to go to college. It was something that everyone in my community did, so I never questioned it. In fact, I was swept into idealizing the IDF and making the effort to be accepted to an elite unit. We were all socialized into this. If you asked me when I was 17 what I hoped to do in the IDF, my answer would have been '`fighter pilot' – which at the time was not a possibility for women. So I went through screenings and tests and got as far as I could.

But my service coincided with the first Intifada and that experience shaped my views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and on the role of military and the use of force on this conflict, or, more accurately, on the limitations of the use of force when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I educated myself on the Nakbah and on Palestinian and Israeli histories that were deliberately left out of my public-school education. When I had to take a bus through the West Bank, in uniform, and saw the kids who threw rocks at us, I felt shame. This was a turning point for me. When I got to go home on weekends, I heard stories from friends, mostly male friends, about what they had been doing during their service in the West Bank and Gaza. Sometimes they joked about it, but I felt like my entire value-system was turning upside down.

How did you become interested in political science?

During my military service, witnessing firsthand the first Intifada, the first Gulf War (with American soldiers manning Patriot Missiles on my base), and observing Israel’s government forced by the U.S. to participate in the Madrid Talks, and, for the first time, to recognize the Palestinians as peoples with local leaders of the uprising having a seat at the table – all of this, and the end of the Cold War, was fascinating to me. I wanted to learn communication initially, but I was intent on trying to learn more about the environment around me. Not just Israel or the Middle East, but the world.

During my university studies in Haifa, following my military service, I joined a global NGO (the Society for International Development) and helped to draft Israel’s report on the status of women for the UN’s Fourth World Conference on Women. But to answer your question directly and simply, I specifically became interested in political science and international relations because of two professors who were inspiring, supportive and offered guidance.

You've mentioned a number of political causes that you helped over the years. Could you tell me a bit more about them and what they meant to you?

Before going to graduate school, I spent a semester at Tel Aviv University as a teaching assistant for a class on the Israeli Political System and a research assistant for the director of the Jaffee Center for Security Studies, helping to collect data from the military archives on the events that led to the 1967 war. I then spent a year working as a research assistant at the OECD Development Center in Paris, France, focusing on developing countries and non-governmental organizations. These were all profound experiences that helped to steer my political activism.

I came back to Israel soon after Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish extremist, following a period of incitement by Israel’s right wing against Rabin and anyone who supported the Oslo Accords. Having experienced the global opportunities and excitement over the hope that the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is on the road to a resolution (I was the first Israeli citizen to be employed by the OECD), I was distraught by Rabin’s assassination, which marked a new level of violence employed by Jewish-Israeli extremists.

I threw myself into organizing around the 1996 elections that were a few months away, following the assassination. I helped to coordinate Meretz’s campaign (civil rights party) in Jerusalem and volunteered with Peace Now. Those few months of immersion in the political landscape of Jerusalem, with Netanyahu and Likud winning those elections, was a sobering reality check. From hope to a future of peace through compromise and diplomacy, along with the solidification of democracy, the pendulum swung to the messianic extremists who won.

For me, this marked a stark dark turn for Israel. The inherent tension between Israel’s Jewish identity and its desire to be a democracy had by then been established. With the absence of separation of religion and state and no genuine religious pluralism, the primacy of religious preferences over civil rights and democratic norms was deepening its roots.

I was shocked to find out, when I moved to the U.S. for graduate school after those elections, that so many American Jews who claim such a strong connection to Israel don’t realize, for example, that reform and conservative rabbis are considered merely “cultural leaders” in Israel. When I chose to get married in the U.S. rather than in Israel, friends wondered about that decision – and were surprised that one of the reasons for marrying in the U.S. was that our Reform rabbi cannot legally perform a wedding in Israel. I digress here, but it’s important for me to note, especially in this publication, that Israel’s Jewish identity is completely dominated by Orthodox Judaism. Chief rabbis, community rabbis, Kosher observers – all religious positions – are government jobs, paid for by taxpayers. They are almost all Orthodox and male, of course.

So to me it felt that in 1996 we closed the door on democracy and chose a version of Judaism and Zionism that would leave no room for pluralism, compromise and peace. We all witnessed the manifestation of this right-wing turn following Israel’s 2022 elections that brought to power an extremist-Kahanist government (members of the coalition are openly Kahanist, including the Minister of Homeland Security, who was banned from the IDF because of Jewish terrorism charges). That was finally a wakeup call to most liberal Israelis, who flooded the streets with weekly pro-democracy protests starting in January 2023, only to be cut off by the horrific Oct. 7 Hamas attack.

I’ve heard the argument that, in a situation like this one, a cease-fire encourages violent organizations to take hostages, because it sets a precedent. (I’ve also heard the argument that the Israeli military is attempting to avoid civilian casualties and these people are necessary collateral damage in order to “get” Hamas). What would you say to these arguments? And what do you feel the outcomes of a cease-fire would be?

 I don’t agree with either of these statements. First, if the border is secure, the danger that any violent organization would take hostages based on precedent, diminishes.

On Oct. 7 the border with Gaza was not secure. The people who live in the kibbutzim and towns surrounding the border were left unprotected by a government that was busy implementing a judicial overhaul so that they can pursue their religious-messianic dreams. The military units that are typically assigned to the border were diverted to the West Bank, where Jewish settlements amid a large Palestinian population pose significant security challenges. And to be sure, Israel’s government has not abandoned these plans, evidenced by the approval of the “coalition money” transfers as part of the government budget passed a few days ago. While 200,000 Israelis from southern and northern border communities are displaced, thousands are called to reserve duty and a war economy is crippling the entire state, the government voted to go through with transfer of millions to ultra-Orthodox and settler special interests.

As for civilian casualties in Gaza: the bombing between Oct. 7 and until the cease-fire was unprecedented. With more than 12,000 Palestinians dead, over 4,000 of them children – these are not numbers that suggest an attempt to avoid civilian casualties. Gaza is one of the most densely populated territories in the world, and of its 2.3 million residents, more than half are under 18 years old. These geographical and demographic facts, coupled with the fact that Gaza is not an independent state and that it’s been under siege by land, air and sea for over 15 years, make it impossible to defeat Hamas with military means.

This flare-up of violence has been particularly vivid and traumatizing for all involved, and it’s hard for many of us to stay hopeful. As a political scientist who grew up in Israel, do you believe a satisfying solution is possible, and what could that look like?

My position has always been, and continues to be, even after the atrocious Oct. 7 Hamas attack, that until Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank are free of Israel’s occupation and siege, Israel will not be secure.

A political resolution to the conflict offers the only hopeful horizon for Israelis and Palestinians. And at this moment, despite the violent experience of the last few weeks, I still think that Israel’s government presents the greatest threat to Israel’s security. The deep identity rift in Israeli society that animated domestic politics in the past year has not disappeared. Under these circumstances, Israel cannot withstand a perpetual war on its southern and northern borders. The IDF is not large enough nor does it have the capabilities for a prolonged war. And the financial and human toll of a sustained conflict would be unbearable.

Perhaps there’s a silver lining here – and this is the hope I see at this moment – the global fallout to the Gaza war and the focused attention can generate the will to secure a political resolution. To do this, Israel’s allies, especially the U.S., need to use all their leverage to shepherd a new reality. A focus on the future, rather than red herring arguments about the details of the past is called for now. We’re seeing a glimpse of this hope in the ability of Middle Eastern and Western allies of Israel and the Palestinians to work together and secure the hostage release, cease-fire and some humanitarian relief. This same coalition could take the next step and outline the blueprint for a political resolution, backing it up with sticks and carrots.

To end Israel’s addiction to the Occupation and to offer the Palestinians a horizon of freedom and justice as an alternative to violence is the only way, in my opinion, that the roughly 7 million Jewish Israelis and 7 million Palestinians who live between the river and the sea can attain security, dignity and peace.

Israel, war, Ruth Ben-Artzi