Q&A: Sasley Keeps an Eye on Middle East, Israel

Most days, Dr. Brent Sasley’s thoughts are half a world away. As Assistant Professor of Political Science, many of his classes are related to the Middle East like “Introduction to Middle East Politics” and “The Politics of International Conflict.” One of his goals in these classes is to shed light on one of the most tense places in the world, and help his students understand the thought process that precedes many of the decisions made in the Middle East, particularly Israel. Sasley is able to do the same with a worldwide audience as a blogger for The Huffington Post, and with his own blog — created in collaboration with other like-minded essayists titled The Mideast Matrix. Sasley recently sat down with College of Liberal Arts intern Ben Muir and offered some insight into his work as well as a bit of background on his journey to the University of Texas at Arlington.

Q: You are from Canada, correct?

A: Yes I am. Born, raised, did my degree there at Mcgill University in Montreal.

Q: So how did you come to be at UTA?

A: [Smiles] Well, they hired me. I can’t really answer that in any poetic way. There are lots of PhD’s in international relations; we apply to a whole bunch of places. UTA had a position in Middle East studies, so I applied and got the job.

Q: Canada and Texas are two very different parts of the world. Was the move a big adjustment for you?

A: It’s a big change coming to Texas from Canada. Ideas are different. There are broader political ideas and social ideas, so it’s a little bit of an adjustment. It’s also very hot.

Q: You have blogged for some time with the Huffington Post. When did that start?

A: Sometime in 2010. A colleague and I wrote a piece for an academic policy journal on how Israel can get settlers to move out of the West Bank back into Israel in the event of a peace treaty. We thought it was interesting enough that we wanted to put it out into the public arena, so we pitched it to the Huffington Post and they accepted it.

I also started my own blog called Mideast Matrix. It’s actually a multi-blogger site. There are a lot of people commenting on the Middle East, but a lot of them do their own thing and have their individual blogs. We thought it would be useful to have a place with multiple bloggers, giving different perspectives on different issues, and have one place where you could go to get this kind of analysis.

Q: You have done academic research on the Middle East. Can you shed light on some specific areas that you have focused on?

A: There are three main areas that I write on: the role of emotions in policy-making, how identity shapes policy-making, as well as pedagogy and international relations in Middle East studies. In all my classes I talk about identity, because it is the underlying theme in almost each course. I talk about why groups view themselves a certain way and what effect that has on their policies and their decisions. My argument is we need to look at who they think they are and how they react to a given issue or another actor.

Q: You’re a native Canadian living in Texas. What in the world first piqued your interest in the Middle East?

A: In my undergrad, I was actually interested in British medieval history. What brought me to the Middle East was that I had to write a paper that showed the British policy toward the mandate of Palestine in the first half of the 20th century. I am Jewish, so there was something there that said I was interested in this issue and exploring it further. Then I started to write papers more directly on Israel and the Israeli conflict. Originally I wanted to do a degree in history, but the stuff in the Middle East and the Arab-Israeli conflict got me more interested in political science. I didn’t want to just explain what had already happened to over-simplify history but I also wanted to explain what is happening now and try to establish some way of thinking about what might happen in the future. And I was also very interested in policy work, understanding what’s happening now and trying to offer ideas of how to change things or fix things or move things in different ways. That really drew me more into political science.

Q: Israel has been a special topic of study for you, but for people here in the states it often has an air of mystery surrounding it. What are some things that you would want people here at UTA to know about Israel?

A: Israeli norms are different than American norms. Here’s an example of an American norm: you go to wait at a bus stop and everybody waits patiently in line to get on the bus. In Israel, that is not the norm. The norm is to hang around in any place and then as soon as the bus comes they’re all conglomerating into this giant ball and everybody not in a rude, elbows kind of way pushes their way onto the bus. Waiting in line is not a norm in Israeli society. Many people take this as rudeness, and many people are offended by it. It’s definitely a culture shock when you first go there. But that’s part of Israeli society. In Israeli society, they put themselves out there. They wear their ideas, their feelings, on their sleeve. So pushing forward is just natural for them. But they would just as easily do that as see you with a map in your hand and put you in their car and drive you around to where you need to go. It’s a hospitable place, but that mindset might seem inhospitable to those who aren’t used to it. It was unpleasant my first time, but now I go back all the time.

Another thing is that when most people think about Israel they think of Jerusalem. But Jerusalem is not representative of Israel. Jerusalem is a very different city from most other cities in Israel. Different in terms of demographics and in terms of the way it does things. Tel Aviv, which is the other major city in Israel, is much more representative of Israel. This is a place where there are high-rises, the Tel Aviv stock exchange, and lots of cultural developments.

The nightlife is amazing. This is the kind of place where you could literally go spend all night at different clubs or walking around on the beach. There’s always something going on and it’s very fast-paced. Jerusalem tends to evoke more holiness, the buildings have to be built with a certain stone; it’s a very different way of life in Jerusalem. So if you think of Israel, don’t think Jerusalem is it. Think Tel Aviv.

Q: What does the future hold for Israel?

A: That’s a tough one [chuckles]. The biggest issue with Israel right now is that there is no widespread agreement on what Israel is. Is it a Jewish state, is it a democratic state, is it a Jewish and Democratic state, is it an ethnic state, and what is the role of the Arab minority?

Israel will be struggling with this question for a number of years to come, regardless of what happens in the conflict with the Palestinians. There is no easy answer to it, and there are very intense disagreements over how to define Israel.

Q: What can a student expect who takes one of your classes?

A: I hesitate to say this, but my classes are hard. I place a premium on student responsibility and I have high expectations. So if one is just going to take the class because it sounded interesting and just sit back and ride it out, it would not be the class for them.

If they are interested, I do have the “Introduction to Middle East Politics,” in which I go through the main historical processes and contemporary issues that animate Middle East politics. Then I have a course on Israel. And then I have “International Relations of the Middle East,” which focuses on interactions across borders. Not just conflict, but economic interactions. I also focus on why countries treat each other the way they do.

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