Academic Flash Mobs: Professor Proxies for the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
Mobs are always unseemly, but academic mobs especially so. We expect a certain detachment from the people who wear those medieval robes and funny hats, which seems inconsistent with mobbing. As importantly, we recognize (or should) that the truth with respect to complex scholarly matters is not a democratic phenomenon. As scholars we should each make up our own individual minds, in light of the evidence and (hopefully) by the light of careful reasoning. The fact that others (even very smart others) may hold a certain opinion shouldn’t bear on whether you, by your own lights, should reach that same opinion. So what exactly is supposed to be proven by (for example) academic petitions, signature-gathering on letters, and social media and public blitzing?
Yet that is precisely what we find in the attack on the recent “special issue” of the scholarly journal, Israel Studies, the one with the ominous title of “Word Crimes” and guest edited by scholars Donna Robinson Divine, Miriam Elman, and Asaf Romirowsky. Some details are here, but in short the issue aimed, as its subtitle noted, to “reclaim the language of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” and did so in a way supportive of Israel. A mob of 170-plus professors promptly published an open letter raising myriad concerns, alleging that the issue fell “far short of standards expected of academic journals,” as it was a “partisan and polemical exercise in advocacy rather than serious scholarship.” At the same time a “Letter of Dissent” signed by nine members of the journal’s own Editorial Board claimed the issue “deviates sharply from academic standards and acceptable scholarly norms,” with its signatories issuing a set of demands amounting to a public disavowal of the offending issue, some phased resignations, and editorial overhaul to prevent a similar sin from recurring.
The general editors of Israel Studies, Profs. Ilan Troen and Natan Aridan, have issued their own detailed response, but here I’ll just note that the open letter begins by observing that the issue “featured essays on key terms in current critical scholarship of Israel/Palestine.” It then alleges that the issue aims “not to contribute to vigorous debate, but rather to police and shut down this debate,” and goes on to attack the scholarly credentials of many of the issue’s contributors.
So, in the name of “academic standards” and “anti-partisanship”:
(1) The critics casually refer to “Israel/Palestine,” as if Palestine were an existing state, which it is not, at least not yet; and which can only be assumed to be one by deeply partisan intellectual acrobatics.
(2) They attack the credentials of the contributors, thus providing a textbook case of the ad hominem fallacy — which even first year undergrads learn to avoid in a basic critical reasoning course.
(3) And they complain of others’ “policing and shutting down debate” when they are a mob of 170-plus acting alongside demands for a public disavowal, phased removal of those responsible for the issue, and an overhaul of an editorial process that, prior to this issue, no one had any concerns about.
Rather than restrict themselves to truly scholarly concerns — concerns the editors’ response took seriously, and aimed to address, only to be dismissed by the attackers — this behavior only underscores precisely why this special issue of Israel Studies was necessary in the first place — as a corrective to the partisanship that has taken over much of this area of academia. Rather than being condemned, Divine, Elman, and Romirowsky are to be commended for standing up against the mob of (academic) public opinion and demonstrating not merely how academic language has become weaponized, but that such weaponization has significant consequences.
The point above about “Palestine” is a quick but important example. That word has a legitimate distant historical application (for a particular geographic region post-Second-Temple) and a legitimate recent historical application (for the British mandate period), but is instantly weaponized when used contemporaneously as if it referred to an existing national state. If there is no such state, if there never has been such a state, then it is far less clear that Israel is “occupying” it — a point made clearly and defended cogently by Prof. Efraim Karsh in the issue’s chapter on the word “occupation.” And if Israel is not after all “occupying” the West Bank (or should we say “Judea and Samaria”?), then the way one thinks of the conflict and its possible justifiable solutions may change dramatically…
Similar remarks apply to many of the essays in the issue.
To mention just two, those by Elman on “Islamophobia” and by Prof. Gabriel Brahm on “intersectionality,” both follow the same model: they begin by detailing the origin of the relevant word and its various legitimate, and important, uses, and then show how the word becomes weaponized in its application to Israel and Zionism. Elman shows how “Islamophobia” went from designating “unfair demonization of Muslims” to becoming a “vehicle for silencing legitimate criticisms of Palestinian politics, leaders, and societal actors.” Brahm shows how “intersectionality’s roots in Black Feminism are deep and venerable,” then traces its tortuous path to becoming a mechanism of solidarity between oppressed victims that explicitly excludes the oppressor, ultimately the “privileged Jew” — which then translates into an anti-Zionism in which Israel is the great Oppressor of the World (my phrase). What is illuminated and defended in both essays is precisely how the endpoint amounts to a corrupt perversion of the term’s “venerable” starting point.
A scholar is welcome to disagree with these arguments and conclusions, of course. For example, by doing the scholarly thing: engage with the essays and write critiques and rebuttals. Troen and Aridan offered the critics precisely that opportunity in the pages of the journal itself, but that was apparently not sufficient for them. Instead the mob went full throttle ad hominem, slinging the ludicrous charges that the essays violate “scholarly standards and norms,” and clamoring for disavowal, resignations, and overhaul.
That the charges are ludicrous is apparent from simply reading the essays themselves, many of which are very good and several of which are quite spectacular (in my opinion). With the mob’s hysterical response, trammeling of the normal deliberative process, and attack on basic academic freedom, with its demands that the issue be condemned and people removed, it’s clear that they really don’t want you to read these essays — and hard not to conclude that what they are really upset about is not the “academic standards” but that the issue committed the sin of — providing material supportive of Israel.
But have Robinson et al truly committed some sin in “being partisan” here, in collecting essays which overall “reclaim the language” on behalf of the pro-Israel point of view?
It is hard to see how. Scholars are supposed to have opinions. We study the facts and the evidence and we reason our way to interpretations and conclusions, with the best reasoning of which we are capable. Some scholars look at the history of the region and overwhelmingly see Jewish/Israeli aggression and Arab/Palestinian victimhood. Others look at the same history and see something very different. Ideally they can come together and debate and argue and try to persuade others to share their conclusions. It is a difficult and complicated process, with many perils and pitfalls, but that is precisely how knowledge advances. We would be committing a worse sin by demanding scholars not reach any opinions.
And when a group of scholars perceives what they take to be a strong bias in their field as a whole, a growing consensus of academic public opinion achieved by a weaponization of the language by those on the other side, what else should they do but what these scholars have done: assemble a collection of scholarly essays pushing back against that weaponization? Aiming to correct what they perceive to be a partisan corruption of the language? It’s true that the opposing scholars will not like this issue, and will (and should) themselves push back — by criticism and dissent, in the pages of Israel Studies itself as they have been invited to do, perhaps even via producing a future “special issue” attempting to reclaim those terms from the “reclaimers.” Of course. That is what people who wear those medieval robes and funny hats are supposed to do — not shout at, attempt to silence, and try to publicly humiliate those with whom they disagree.