Editorial Introduction: The controversy sparked by the publication of Word Crimes: Reclaiming The Language of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, the Summer 2019 issue of the academic journal Israel Studies, is now the subject of an extended exchange in Fathom. Cary Nelson’s review of Word Crimes has produced a sharp reply from Gershon Shafir. In turn, not only have Cary Nelson and Paula A. Treichler written a lengthy rejojnder to Shafir, but Ilan Troen, the co-editor of Israel Studies, and Donna Robinson Divine, a guest editor of the Word Crimes special, have each responded to Shafir’s critique. We hope Shafir will reply in turn and we invite other readers to continue this important discussion. The editors encourage future contributors to move the discussion on by directing their attention — critical or otherwise — to the substantive claims made in the essays that made up Word Crimes.
Gershon Shafir is Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of California, San Diego, and former President of the Association for Israel Studies. In responding to Cary Nelson’s review of Word Crimes in Fathom, Shafir says the term ‘word crimes’ echoes accusations hurled at ‘the criminals of Oslo,’ while the claim of reclaiming parallels the attempted delegitimation of political opposition.
The recent Israel Studies issue entitled ‘Word Crimes: Reclaiming the Language of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict’ generated a flurry of responses. The title is not just ‘playful’ or ‘provocative’, as Cary Nelson has described it. If the use of the 15 words from ‘colonialism’ through ‘apartheid’ to ‘human rights’, in ways that differ from the issue’s editors and contributors’ preferences is a crime, then those using them are criminals: word criminals. Calling fellow scholars criminals is not an acceptable response; it is a threat. Criminals are locked up. Criminalising scholarship, as this issue does, crosses the line between legitimate criticism and incitement.
The subtitle, ‘Reclaiming the Language of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,’ poses an equally grievous threat. Making a claim of ‘reclaiming’ implies that the 15 chosen concepts have been usurped and will now be taken back by their rightful owners. It asserts that there is only one legitimate way of using them. By excluding other interpretations and analyses of these words, the editors and contributors threaten the freedom of scholars to engage in unrestricted and uncensored debate; they pose a threat to the academic enterprise and academic freedom itself.
Suggesting that we understand ‘word crimes’ and ‘reclaiming language’ as playful or provocative terms ignores the current Israeli context in which academic and artistic freedom are besieged. Israel today is on an accelerating course of undermining the protections of its democracy within the Green Line and is one of the many countries turning into illiberal democracies.
In December 2016, Minister of Education Naftali Bennett appointed the philosopher Asa Kasher to prepare a code of ethics for ‘appropriate behavior’ of Israeli academics. Kasher’s code would require faculty members to refrain from voicing their political opinions during lectures, as if the research could be made value-free. It would also require faculty not to diverge from their syllabus or trespass disciplinary boundaries, as if higher education came in prepackaged units.
The enforcement of such a code would require the establishment of a regulatory agency and mechanisms to police academic speech by penalising dissenting professors. It would also be an open invitation to students to turn in professors who criticise government policies, and would foster a culture of informants and mistrust by setting students and faculty against one another. The code would not only disproportionately affect the social sciences, humanities, and the arts but invite self-censorship and shut down critical discussions that are the foundations of democratic citizenship, if not preclude them altogether.
Hundreds of Israeli faculty members signed a pledge to boycott this so-called code of ethics. The Presidents of Israel universities were equally opposed to the code that would arrogate the right of academic institutions to set their rules and undermine their independence and academic freedom.
An even more intrusive and damaging attempt to censor culture and the arts was Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev’s ‘Culture Loyalty Law’ proposal in November 2018. The law would directly tie the provision of state funding to cultural events to their content and allow cutbacks or cancellations of such subsidies for cultural activities that allegedly ‘subvert the state and its symbols.’
In this case, the law already specifies the regulatory mechanism, the Minister for Culture would have the authority to deny public subsidies for cultural activities whose contents fall foul of her preferences. Ironically, one of the criteria for pulling the funding would be that the play or event denies Israel’s democratic character. In fact, Miri Regev tried to freeze the subsidies to the Al-Midan Theater in 2015 and again in 2018 as well as to the Haifa Film festival and other cultural events.
The ‘Code of Ethics’ for instructional personnel at academic institutions and the ‘Culture Loyalty Law’ did not originate with marginal groups but were initiated by ministers of the Israeli government. It was only the vocal public opposition that prevented the code and the law from being adopted but they continue having a chilling effect.
These twin initiatives to censor Israeli academic and cultural activities and events are part of a long list of anti-democratic legislative actions that have been adopted by the Knesset. A typical one is the 2016 ‘Transparency Law.’ It requires Israeli NGOs that receive more than half of their funding from ‘foreign government entities’, to make a public disclosure in their publications and in contacts with elected officials. The law is based on the premise that these NGOs operate as foreign agents. An earlier requirement that staffers of the affected NGOs wear a special tag that would signal this fact was scrapped. The law was carefully crafted to target only left-wing NGOs since those that support settlements and other right-wing institutions receive their foreign donations from like-minded individuals abroad or are funded by the government. It is even more telling that many of the foreign governments that provide funding for the human rights NGOs – the US, Germany, France, as well as the EU – are liberal democracies.
The Transparency Law is one example of a broader stratagem to curtail the workings of Israeli academia, cultural institutions and mass media. There is no shortage of ex-officio acts to ensure loyalty to the state and root out dissent, including official requests to foreign artists, including Elton John, to sign a loyalty oath to Israel as a precondition for receiving a labour permit, the preventive arrest of individuals ahead of demonstrations, refusal by the Ministry of the Interior to license or renew the licenses of at least 62 new newspapers in the past decade, requests by the Military Censor to bloggers who cover security related subjects to submit Facebook postings prior to their posting, adoption of a law to increase the punishment for the desecration of the flag to three years, to another law that permits the police to search individuals even if they carry no weapons or were engaged in suspicious behavior as long as the police view it as posing a risk of terror attacks.
‘Death and Life are in the power of the tongue’
This is the context in which the ‘word crimes’ issue has been published. Academics who study Israel are familiar with threats to academic freedom, human rights, and democracy itself. It could not have their escaped attention that Netanyahu and the Likud cozy up to illiberal and authoritarian regimes and adopt their anti-democratic policies. The term ‘word crimes’ doesn’t stand alone but is of a piece with the proposed code of ethics and law for loyalty in culture. The attempt to describe dissenters as word criminals and suppress their voices within the AIS is a microcosm of the larger assault on liberal voices and institutions in Israel. The term ‘word crimes’ echoes accusations hurled at ‘the criminals of Oslo,’ while the claim of reclaiming parallels the attempted delegitimation of political opposition.
The authoritarian playbook is well-known: a challenge to, then a criminalisation of, and finally the prohibition of alternative knowledge production. Language remains one of the remaining barriers against creeping Israeli authoritarianism and a tool in the defense of free democratic and academic exchange. Proverbs 18: 21 ‘death and life are in the power of the tongue’ recognises the high stakes we face.
Playful is hardly the term to describe this issue, unless it is playing with fire that Cary Nelson means. No, reading the issue that lays claim to the only legitimate uses of the fundamental concepts in the analysis of Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not playful but painful, not thought provoking but thought crushing. The aim of research, analysis, study, and of AIS itself is not to make ideas safe for scholars of Israel but make scholars of Israel safe for ideas.