Recently the scholars Donna Robinson Divine, Miriam F. Elman, and Asaf Romirowsky became curious about the ways in which anti-Zionist academics have turned previously neutral terms and ideas relating to the Israel-Palestinian conflict into weapons for pillorying the Jewish state. So they solicited essays on the subject and published them, under the title “Word Crimes,” in a special issue of the journal Israel Studies. Almost immediately the special issue, the contributors to it, and the three editors were assaulted in the most vociferous terms. As they report:
[C]ontributors were denounced as having produced subpar work; the editors smeared as having practiced deception in the review process and selecting contributors based on a political litmus test. There were even allegations that we may have paid to ensure publication! That these accusations are damaging to a group of scholars—including people in the junior ranks—is as obvious as it is shameful. There are established ways to launch critiques in peer-reviewed journals. Sadly, the kind of rhetoric on display over this special issue was not even close to following established norms of collegial exchange and open intellectual inquiry.
“Word Crimes” emphasizes how a delegitimizing lexicon of terms and concepts is often used in highly politicized anti-Zionist scholarship. We focused on this linkage between language and thought partly because it is long a staple focus for political theory and philosophy (consider how significant this topic is in the works of Plato, Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, for starters). That a vocabulary of historical explanation has dissolved into today’s crude value judgments and “unhinged polemics” distorts the academic study of Israel, of Palestinians, of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and not incidentally of politics.
The special issue struck a chord—sales have been brisk and it’s now in a second printing—not only because it raised questions about the conventional discourse but also because it challenged the right of an increasingly politicized academy to serve as gatekeepers, determining what can and cannot be said about the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
That a group of prominent academics preferred a knee-jerk denouncement of our work over the normal scholarly process of debate and rebuttal is all too common a rhetorical strategy in today’s academia, where intellectual freedom and open scholarly inquiry are increasingly under threat.