The Forum for Regional Thinking was founded in early 2014 based on CanThink, a Hebrew-language website established in the summer of 2011 by Israeli scholars specializing in Islam and Middle East studies. The Forum aims to enrich Israeli public discourse by offering fresh perspectives on the Middle East that diverge from the usual security-driven approach: we analyze Israel’s role as one of many actors in the region and highlight the similarities it shares with its neighbors. Our analysis focuses on civilian aspects of life in the Middle East and assumes empathy for all residents of the region, regardless of their nationality.
An initial group of scholars who share this approach gathered in January 2014 under the auspices of Molad – the Center for the Renewal of Israeli Democracy, and the Forum was officially launched a year later. It currently comprises ten active research associates and a large group of guest writers specializing in a variety of fields.
Professionally, the Forum members do not identify themselves primarily as being Jewish or even Israeli. We are Middle East researchers who believe it is their duty to analyze the region, and Israel’s role within it, through a pluralistic lens that is critical of all actors, including our home country.
The popular depiction of Israel as “a villa in the jungle”, coined by former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, reflects a common sentiment in Israel regarding the country’s position in the Middle East. Local discourse is all but oblivious to the differences between the many societies that surround Israel and largely ignores the domestic changes these countries are undergoing. According to this view, once a jungle – always a jungle. Consequently, many Israeli politicians and pundits, and often academics too, focus on drawing the boundaries between “us” and “them”. This monolithic approach, which flattens Israeli public debate about the Middle East, is based on ignorance, miscomprehension and fear.
The Forum wishes to challenge the fortress mentality that currently guides Israeli thinking on the country’s role in the Middle East. We believe that Israel must acknowledge its might as a regional power and recognize that it not only can, but must, learn to live with its neighbors without fear or condescension. To that end, we provide our readers with reliable information, sober analysis and an empathetic approach to the many millions of people who live in the Middle East, offering an alternative to the hackneyed images that are regularly presented to the public in Israel. We look at the residents of the Middle East themselves, unlike most Israeli journalism, which tends to focus on the interests of states, elites, organizations and institutions in the region. Our “civilian approach” opens up the possibility to go beyond discussion of security risks and identify regional opportunities.
The Forum aims to offer Israelis a new avenue for getting to know “them”: for learning about Palestinians and other residents of the region, about their cultures, societies and politics, and about the Arab elements that are part of Judaism and Israeliness too. Only when we in Israel truly get to know our neighbors can we envision a sustainable future in this neighborhood.