Dissent Grows Against the ‘Word Crimes’ Issue of ‘Israel Studies’

On 3 May 2019, a group of over 170 concerned scholars released a letter to the editors of the journal ‘Israel Studies’ and to the Association of Israel Studies. Their argument was respectful but clear: by describing terms as ‘linguistic transgressions’ and [contrary but reasoned] scholarship as lacking in “sanity,” the issue made clear that its aim was not to contribute to vigorous debate, but rather to police and shut down this debate.

It seems these reasoned expressions of concern have coincided with evaluations reached by members of the Israel Studies editorial board, who released the following statement:

To Members of the Association of Israel Studies:
When the “Word Crimes” issue of Israel Studies first appeared, the debate it provoked took place mainly among the AIS Board of Directors. After a couple of weeks the controversy died down, but a serious discussion then began among the Editorial Board of the journal. Of the 25 Board members, thirteen have expressed concerns (in writing) about the issue, and nine current or recently resigned Board members have signed a letter expressing strong dissent. The letter has been conveyed to the Journal’s editors, the AIS secretariat, the journal’s Board, and the AIS Board of Directors. Over the course of the discussions among the members of the two boards, the Editors have replied on several occasions, most recently yesterday. The two editors purport to be open to critiques of their administrative practices (e.g., not informing the Editorial Board of this issue while it was being planned), but they maintain that the concept behind the issue, its framing, the choice of authors, the peer review process, and the content of the articles were all rigorous and appropriate. On all of these issues there is deep disagreement between the editors and a substantial number of those currently serving on, or recently resigned from, the Board. Since it will be close to two months until the AIS Meeting, where the question of the AIS’ relationship with the Journal will be discussed amongst the AIS Board of Directors, and the Journal’s policies and future will be discussed by the Editorial Board, we believe that it is important that the AIS membership be made aware of the Letter of Dissent signed by nine members of Israel Studies’ Editorial Board. The letter is attached.
Pnina Lahav
Derek Penslar
Yael Zerubavel
Ronald Zweig

The Letter of Dissent:

“We, the undersigned current and former members of the Editorial Board of Israel Studies, express our unequivocal dissent from the latest, special issue of the journal, titled “Word Crimes.” This issue — published without our knowledge or consent — is highly polemical and deviates sharply from academic standards and acceptable scholarly norms. Its publication clearly crossed the lines between academic scholarship and political advocacy. As scholars and former practitioners who have served on the Editorial Board of the journal for many years, we consider the publication of the issue as tarnishing the journal’s historical scholarly record and damaging to its future role as a trusted academic forum that maintains rigorous academic standards for scholarship on Israel. Criticism of this issue has been made public in multiple academic and public venues with public calls for protest. The highly critical response to the issue has already led to the resignation of several key members of the editorial board, and other senior scholars are seriously considering resignation. Such a massive departure will have obvious negative implications for the scholarly standing of the journal. We do not wish to see the journal compromised and therefore publicly call the editors to promptly take the following steps to remedy the situation to rehabilitate the current and future academic reputation of the journal: That the editors go beyond their acknowledgment, in an email to the editorial board on April 7, 2019 that the issue “may have been flawed” and “requires correction,” and that it “points to flaws in the decision-making process on what we produce.” We firmly believe that a clear, public statement of error and apology must be made by the editors of the journal to ensure its academic future. That the journal commit at this point to have another special issue (rather than small sections in future issues) to demonstrate the full weight it gives to a wide representation of approaches to the study of modern Israel. Another scholar, or group of scholars, widely accepted for their rigorous scholarship, should be appointed to edit the issue with the board’s approval. Such a step will restore the credibility of the journal, and the plan for the issue can be reviewed by the editorial board in its June meeting. How the journal will henceforth deal with contemporary controversies — whether by regular or occasional small sections in future issues, or not at all — will be a matter for discussion at the June meeting. That at the June meeting the editors propose to the board clear and transparent procedures for reviewing articles and for deciding on topics for special issues. That the editors propose to the board at the June meeting a transparent procedure for filling vacancies on the editorial board. That the editors share with the board their commitment to turnover, within two years, of editorial roles, and that they commit to the creation within one year of a nomination committee to ensure the continued strong leadership of the journal. We believe that these steps are critical for restoring the credibility of the journal and its editorial board, and necessary for our continued involvement in (or, in the case of those who have resigned, return to) the board. We, the undersigned members of the editorial board, expect this letter of dissent to appear in the print version of the journal and online.
Gannit Ankori, Brandeis University
Michael Brenner, American University
Ayelet Harel-Shalev, Ben-Gurion University
Daniel Kurtzer, Princeton University
Pnina Lahav, Boston University
Derek Penslar, Harvard University
Mohammed Wattad, Zefat Academic College
Yael Zerubavel, Rutgers University
Ron Zweig, New York University