The old joke about academia is that the arguments in the faculty lounges are so nasty because the stakes involved are so small. That’s often true about most things that go on in the narrow world of intellectual specialists, who guard their university department fiefdoms with jealous ferocity. They conduct their scholarly wars with publications that are written in academic jargon that is virtually indecipherable to the general reader. Their feuds are epic in their bitterness, but happily of little concern to the rest of society, which can easily ignore the doings of this tribe of underpaid and generally disgruntled people who have earned the right to have the letters Ph.D. after their names.
But there are some academic arguments to which the rest of us would do well to pay attention. One such is the brawl that has started among members of the Association for Israel Studies, in which a number of members are outraged that some AIS scholars have published a journal devoted to the use of language in delegitimizing Zionism and the State of Israel. The special issue of the Summer 2019 edition of Israel Studies was titled “Word Crimes: Reclaiming the Language of the Israel-Palestinian Conflict.”
But rather than earn the plaudits of their colleagues, the editors and authors involved have been subjected to scathing attacks for their supposed lack of scholarship, their bias and for being lightweights unworthy of publication in a peer-reviewed journal. One such critic, Arie Dubnov of George Washington University, protested by writing that the “Word Crimes” issue was “Orwellian Newspeak” that seeks to shut down debate and silence critics of Israel whose only point was to provide “talking points for “anti-BDS and pro-hasbara efforts” that serve no academic purpose.
Far from seeking to close debate on the issue, “Word Crimes” was a long-overdue attempt to begin a discussion about the way the academy has become hostile to anyone other than those who believe Israel’s creation was a crime. It is those professors who have turned the study of the Middle East and Israel into a playground for leftists, who have used academic credentials to give an intellectual veneer to anti-Zionist propaganda, and called it scholarship.
If anyone is playing Orwellian word games, it is the critics of Israel Studies. While their protests are supposedly about whether the peer-review process was appropriate, those complaints lack merit. Their anger about the journal, which threatens to tear the AIS apart, is not about procedure. It’s rooted in a belief that any scholarship that contradicts assumptions about the illegitimacy of Zionism and seeks to put the movement to destroy it in proper context is, by definition, unscholarly. Their problem with “Word Crimes” is that it reveals that there is something rotten about an academic environment in which disingenuous lies about Israel are considered truth, and anti-Semitic libels are treated as normal discourse.
The context for this dispute is the way that the field evolved at institutions of higher learning in the last few decades. There has been an exponential growth of tenured positions and well-funded Middle East Studies departments. But this trend has fostered a new orthodoxy of opinion about the subject.
Far from a bastion of impartial study, these departments became a preserve of those devoted to whitewashing radical Islam, bashing Israeli policies, critiquing and undermining support for Zionism, and supporting the Palestinian Arab war to destroy the Jewish state. In Middle East Studies, only one point of view about Israel is welcome. Scholars sympathetic to Israel and critical of radical Islam are often treated as pariahs and driven from the field.
Some of this stemmed from the way such departments were partly funded by overseas Muslim donors, such as the ruling families of Saudi Arabia and Qatar. But this was also a function of an academic culture dominated by the left, whereby the ideas of the late Palestinian academic Edward Said about banishing “Orientalism” from the field and others who promoted the concept of intersectionalism predominated.
Sadly, as Israel studies became its own discipline, as opposed to that of Middle East Studies, the same biases have also become apparent in many departments.
That is why the pushback against “Word Crimes” has been so vicious.
In a series of articles, the journal explores how words like “apartheid” and “genocide” are routinely misused to falsely describe Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians. The topics it addresses: the question of who are the indigenous people of Israel/Palestine; colonialism; occupation; terrorism; Palestinian refugees; Holocaust inversion; human rights; BDS; non-governmental organizations; “pinkwashing”; the “Israel Lobby”; and Zionism. These subjects are integral to understanding how the redefinition of words has become the foundation for the intellectual assault on Israel. It is a deep dive into the way biased scholarship has distorted our understanding of the issues and produced a climate in which slander of the Jews and their rights isn’t merely treated as acceptable, but normative in higher education.
So it’s little wonder that the members of the academic mafia that has foisted these distortions on students would be infuriated at being called out for their scholarly malpractice by the group of distinguished thinkers assembled by the editors of “Word Crimes.” The irony is that while the critics of “Word Crimes” accuse it of bias, it is a breath of fresh air when compared to the unhinged polemics against Israel that passes for scholarship in most of academia.
We can only hope that the Association of Israel Studies refuses to bow to the intimidation tactics employed by those who wish to silence the authors of “Word Crimes” and remains a place where those who are committed to an honest look at the war against the Jewish state can find a home. This is one academic feud in which all decent people — scholars and laypeople alike — have a stake.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS.