How Anti-Zionism Reveals the Weakness of the Humanities

April 12, 2018 | Cary Nelson and Russell Berman
About the author:

In December the prestigious academic journal Critical Inquiry published an article by Saree Makdisi—a professor of English literature at the University of California, Los Angeles—with the ungainly title “Apartheid / Apartheid / [       ].” Therein Makdisi argues that the situation of Arabs in Israel is very similar to that of blacks in apartheid-era South Africa but worse, explains away the shortage of explicitly racist laws in Israel as evidence of a policy of “radical erasure” and “necropolitics,” and makes clear that no outcome other than Israel’s absolute destruction can be morally or politically justified. Cary Nelson and Russell Berman respond with a point-by-point refutation of the article’s claims, which rest on few facts, outright distortions, a failure to investigate the subjects about which the author writes, and convoluted logic, not to mention a dismissive attitude toward the depredations of actual apartheid. These problems, they contend, are symptomatic of something larger:

Whatever Critical Inquiry’s practices may be, there is also a fundamental breakdown in the peer-review process in the humanities and interpretive social sciences. A publisher—the University of California Press and the University of Minnesota Press are telling examples—with a strong anti-Zionist bias submits a manuscript to a highly sympathetic reviewer who lauds the manuscript’s “courage” and recommends publication. This is symptomatic of a widespread institutional corruption that extends far beyond the debates over the Middle East.

The other major pattern in humanities debates about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that they divide starkly into attacks on or defenses of Israel. Disinterested reviews of evidence are difficult to find in some disciplines. Makdisi’s essay unfortunately falls without reservation into the attack category. That leads to yet another fundamental question: what purpose do either polemical essays or polemical essays dressed up with footnotes actually serve? Makdisi seeks unreservedly to demonize Israel. . . . [Furthermore, his] language invokes the classic anti-Semitic trope that Jews are duplicitous, deceptive, calculating, conspiratorial, slippery, and untrustworthy. . . .

When the terminology of a body of theory [in this case, the ideas of Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Edward Said, and their disciples] is marshalled in the service of preexisting political convictions, it can take on the character of sacred incantation. The deployment of its vocabulary for some readers itself sufficiently proves the case being made. That is a problem not just for Makdisi and apparently for Critical Inquiry but for the humanities and interpretive social sciences more broadly.

Read more on Fathom:

Welcome to Mosaic

Create a free account to continue reading and you'll get two months of unlimited access to the best in Jewish thought, culture, and politics

Register Already a subscriber? Sign in now