Editors of the Israel Studies academic journal are rebuffing claims that their latest work was rooted in political advocacy, rather than academic scholarship, amid calls by some critics for retractions and reforms.
The controversy stemmed from objections to the summer 2019 special issue of the journal, titled, “Word Crimes; Reclaiming The Language of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.”
The publication, according to its editors, sought to deconstruct the prevailing orthodoxy evident in scholarship on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — particularly its reliance on terms such as “apartheid,” “pinkwashing,” and “terrorism,” and the limits they impose on academic inquiry.
Yet critics have accused it of surreptitiously working in service of a political cause, namely opposition to the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel, which frequently employs much of the vocabulary examined by the special issue when denouncing the Jewish state and its conflict with Arab powers.
One of the guest co-editors of the “Word Crimes” edition was Donna Robinson Divine, an emerita professor of government from Smith College who is also the president of the Association for Israel Studies (AIS), with which the journal is affiliated.
Due to these ties, as well as the AIS membership of other Israel Studies editors, some critics are calling for the association to either cut ties with the journal or force it to “undergo a serious overhaul.”
In two open letters to the AIS and Israel Studies, the former of which was signed by more than 140 academics as of Tuesday afternoon, critics said the special issue “fell far short of standards expected of academic journals,” calling a majority of its contributors “non-specialists” who could not “claim academic expertise in the subject they were writing on.”
“The essays made minimal and inadequate reference to relevant scholarship,” the letters added, criticizing a couple essays for failing to include “a single footnote.”
The AIS letter’s signatories included Arie Dubnov, a chair of Israel Studies at George Washington University who earlier this month declined an award from the AIS and an opportunity to join its board over the special issue.
The journal’s “‘alternative dictionary’ appears designed to provide talking points for anti-BDS and pro-‘hasbara’ efforts, and does not serve an academic purpose,” Dubnov charged in a letter explaining his decision to Ilan Troen, an emeritus professor of Israel Studies at Brandeis University who was also immediate past president of the AIS.
Yet Troen, a co-editor of Israel Studies who himself contributed to the special’s issue article on the term “indigeneity,” dismissed claims that it damaged the Israel Studies field as “preposterous,” and argued that it “addressed a real academic issue.”
“As with most journals some articles may be better than others,” he told The Algemeiner. “As promised, the issues that follow will offer an opportunity for other views to be expressed. We’ll see if there is patience for that to take place.”
Other editors who spoke to The Algemeiner also pushed back against the criticism, rejecting claims that their work was not grounded in scholarship or that it aimed to advance a particular political ideology.
Miriam Elman, a professor of political science at Syracuse University who served as co-editor of the special issue, said it was inappropriate for its critics to be “smearing people as lightweight scholars” or questioning the integrity of editors.
“It’s not a civil debate,” she told The Algemeiner of the controversy. “I think they want disruption and intimidation. My own view is that this just another example of the silencing of open inquiry in academia today.”
The “Word Crimes” issue, she pointed out, “had the same exact kind of vetting and production process as any other special issue that Israel Studies has produced,” none of which have raised similar objections. Unlike regular editions, the special issues contain shorter essays that are designed to be accessible to the wider public, rather than solely the academic community.
While “Word Crimes” is more than 20 pages shorter than the previous special issue, “Israel at 70,” which did not generate a similar controversy, it nonetheless has 150 more footnotes — 538 in total, Elman said. In the “Israel at 70” edition, “six authors don’t have a single footnote or citation,” she noted.
“What we have here are people who, if not BDS promoters, are sympathetic to it, and are trying to shut [this issue] down,” she added. “Those calling for the journal to remove the special issue are also claiming that we are trying to silence them. That’s the irony here.”
Elman — who also leads the Academic Engagement Network, which opposes BDS — added that some of the same individuals who are critiquing the special issue had also protested the decision to hold the next annual AIS conference in Israel, and mounted “a serious” though unsuccessful campaign to change the location.
“I don’t think this is about the special issue per se, there is a larger mutiny in the works,” she said.
Robinson Divine likewise stood by the special issue’s objective, saying she submitted the proposal to the journal “because I thought the idea had scholarly merit and could be sustained by logic and evidence. I still do.”
“The collection does not compile a dictionary of acceptable terms; it, instead, argues for good old-fashioned research where evidence informs narrative and not the reverse,” she told The Algemeiner.
She contested claims that the special issue aimed to promote a political narrative, saying contributors were not subjected to a political litmus test. “In fact, I have no idea what political positions are held by the various contributors since I never asked,” Robinson Divine said.
Some of the criticism was leveled at the editors’ affiliations, with Haaretz reporting that anonymous AIS members were “particularly troubled” that a “disproportionately large number” of editors and contributors were members of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME), an academic movement that accuses BDS of stifling debate and claims 40,000 members.
Asaf Romirowsky, the journal’s third guest co-editor and the executive director of SPME, argued that it was “foolish” to “take a dig at the editors” over their ties to SPME, which was not involved in the special issue “in any way, shape, or form.”
Addressing claims that some authors were “non-specialists” or “non-academics,” Romirowsky told The Algemeiner that, “with the exception of one author who is a graduate student, all the authors are PhDs who have written about the topics they’ve addressed. They were chosen because they dealt with these topics — and all came from different political persuasions. There was not one monolithic viewpoint.”
Some of the criticism extended to Romirowsky’s own submission to the special issue, which focused on “Arab-Palestinian Refugees.” In their open letter to the AIS, signatories claimed his essay “failed to refer to key works by Benny Morris, Yoav Gelber, Walid Khalidi, and other scholars.”
“I have been studying Arab Palestinian refugees for nearly two decades, I wrote a book about the topic,” Romirowsky said in response. “My footnotes in particular have UN documents, archival documents that include American foreign policy documents — and primary documents are much more important than secondary resources altogether.”
He suggested that the campaign amounted to a “personal attack” on the editors — a position Dubnov, addressing Elman’s comments, rejected. “[As] if keeping high scholarly standards is my own personal crusade or caprice,” he wrote in comments to The Algemeiner.
Yair Wallach — a senior lecturer in Israeli Studies and the head of the Centre for Jewish Studies at SOAS, University of London, who authored the open letters to the AIS and Israel Studies — told The Algemeiner that they attracted a sizable amount of signatories in a short amount of time, including from leading scholars, “because the failures of this special issue were so serious.”
He reiterated concerns ranging from the editors’ naming decision for the special issue — “Do they not understand the danger of referring to ideas and concepts as ‘crimes’?” — to the featuring of “non-specialists.”
“These failures remain unaddressed,” he said, “and the questions to the editors remain unanswered.”