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.
In this rejoinder to Gershon Shafir, Cary Neslon and Paula A. Treichler argue that it was only by ‘falsely reformulating objections to misuse and abuse of language as secret efforts at judicial repression’ that Shafir is able to tar the special issue with a nonexistent fascist mission shared with the Israeli right. And they discern a purpose behind the hyperbole: ‘Shafir and his allies have been trying to use a manufactured campaign against the journal as a wedge issue to harden divisions within the AIS membership and gain anti-Zionist control of the Association’. ‘It would be more useful for Shafir and others to conduct the battle on the real terrain at stake – the explanatory power of the anti-Zionist discourse that Word Crimes deconstructs – instead of unwarranted attacks on the volume’s scholarly standards and false accusations that it was a project of the Israeli Right.’
DATELINE: Louis Armstrong International Airport, New Orleans, Louisiana USA. June 2020. Two anti-Zionist Wordcrimes terrorists on their way to the 36th annual convention of the Association for Israel Studies were detained by Interpol agents who had pursued them from an unnamed European country. They were being held without bail as of the time of this story.
This is the absurd scenario that Professor Gershon Shafir apparently expects us to take seriously as the outcome that the editors of the now notorious Summer 2019 special issue of Israel Studies hope for and propose. Their provocative title for the issue, Word Crimes, drew attention to the misuses and abuses of language found increasingly at the heart of both the popular and the academic anti-Zionist movements. It sought to explore and explicate the sparring vocabularies of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through a series of essays on selected words that have evolved over the decades into a familiar litany central to efforts to demonise the Jewish state. The introduction to the issue, written by Donna Robinson Divine, articulated a sophisticated understanding of how language has transformed the academy’s perception of Israel: ‘Once thought distinctive, Israel’s singularity is now presented as an example of horrific bigotry, if not savagery’ and examined the way that this ‘new vocabulary has acquired canonical status for describing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’ and the charge that Israel is a ‘major source of evil for the world’. The essays themselves explord how and why this lexical transformation acquired ‘its totemic standing in the academy’, warning that ‘although still largely confined to the campus, the discourse has already infiltrated the media and begun its migration to the political system …’
Word Crimes provoked a storm of negative reactions including attacks on the legitimacy of its scholarship, its contributors, and its arguments. The critiques have often come from those who want to maintain the power and influence of the anti-Zionist discourse the volume deconstructs. It is regrettable that Shafir and others have chosen not to conduct the battle honestly on the real terrain at stake, but instead have attacked the volume’s scholarly standards, and then falsely treated it as a project of the Israeli right. It is because Shafir has done so, and not from choice, that this rejoinder focuses on those false charges.
Shafir’s baseless outrage
In Fathom Shafir trumpets his manufactured outrage that the issue editors aim to impose arrest and actual imprisonment on their academic opponents. And he reserves special umbrage for Cary Nelson’s claim that the title was a playful provocation. What is playful, he would argue, about putting Ian Lustig and other long-term anti-Zionists behind bars? ‘Calling fellow scholars criminals,’ he writes, ‘is not an acceptable response; it is a threat.’ In a particularly bizarre moment, Shafir suggests his fantasised word crimes conspiracy would lead to ‘a culture of informants’ in which students would report faculty violations to government prosecutors. There are moments on today’s campuses when the politically correct left wants politically incorrect ‘micro-aggressions’ policed for campus sanctions, but that is notably not a Zionist project. It is often undertaken by Zionism’s opponents.
Of course no one contributing to the Israel Studies issue recommended anything of the sort. Every AIS member we’ve spoken with assumes Shafir was being disingenuous. But he gives no such indication. And indeed there is an entirely serious purpose behind his hyperbole: Shafir and his allies have been trying to use a manufactured campaign against the journal as a wedge issue to harden divisions within the AIS membership and gain anti-Zionist control of the Association. AIS has been a forum for a wide range of politically inflected projects since it was founded, offering historical research that both supports and opposes the competing narratives promoted by the Jewish state and its critics. The annual AIS meeting is a forum that consequently complicates and enriches these narratives. One calls that process scholarly debate. But some want to weaponise matters and make the anti-Zionist political viewpoint triumphant. The Word Crimes special issue was a critique of the same impulse within Israel studies research and advocacy.
The June 2019 annual AIS meeting, held at Kinneret Academic College on the Sea of Galilee in Israel, offered at least a temporary setback to the anti-Zionist political agenda. A motion to sever AIS’s relationship with the journal was defeated. Instead, a committee will study the matter and report in 2020. Potentially much more serious is another effort to politicise the Association. Some of those who organised a protest against the Israel Studies special issue are among those behind a year-long effort to establish an academic freedom committee within the AIS empowered to investigate individual grievances and complaints. The business meeting ended before there was time to discuss the academic freedom committee’s mandate, but the letter urging its creation seeks to give it investigative responsibility. That too will now be studied and possibly implemented.
When one of us (Cary Nelson) was asked his advice on the proposal to establish an AIS academic freedom complaint review committee in 2018, he advised against it. As a former national president of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), he was familiar with the time and expertise required to investigate violations of academic freedom competently and objectively. The AAUP has full-time staff members experienced at conducting investigations; they do so before Association faculty consultants become involved. The AAUP has been doing this since 1915 and yet these investigations are nonetheless often difficult, expensive, and time consuming. Complaints must be treated sympathetically but skeptically. In reality, faculty members are commonly not their own best advocates. Moreover, the AAUP investigates administrative violations of academic freedom and shared governance, not interpersonal conflicts. The Association for Israel Studies has neither the staff, the resources, nor the requisite experience to take on this task. There is every reason to suppose some of those pressing the idea want to use AIS academic freedom investigations to pursue their political agenda, to prove that their allies are being mistreated. There has been an increasing effort by some anti-Zionist faculty to invent a pattern in which Palestinians or their defenders are seeing their speech suppressed. It is part of a deplorable trend to weaponise academic freedom for partisan political ends, a development whose long-term effect will be to devalue academic freedom itself.
Having falsely ascribed judicial intent and aims to the special issue editors, Shafir then feels empowered to link this imaginary version of the journal’s political agenda with very real and utterly deplorable projects of the previous Netanyahu government. It is important to emphasise that there is no fundamental difference between the Word Crimes academic critique of anti-Zionism and those offered elsewhere by other faculty, including myself. Shafir’s larger aim — of which the attempted takeover AIS is a part — is to discredit all academic resistance to anti-Zionism and its defense of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. The ludicrous assertion that the Word Crimes editors want to see Shafir and his allies imprisoned is the means by which Shafir links all Zionist research with a right-wing government’s assaults on the academy and culture generally. For the record: none of the essays in Word Crimes recommends the arrest, indictment, conviction, or imprisonment of their academic opponents. The fabricated connection is basically a hoax, but it serves Shafir’s larger political purpose.
Shafir establishes no relationship between Word Crimes and the failed Code of Ethics for Israeli Faculty Political Speech
Shafir begins his account of the political implications of the Word Crimes issue with Naftali Bennett’s 2016-17 effort as Education Minister to establish a government-initiated code of political ethics for Israeli faculty. Drafted by an Israeli philosophy professor, Asa Kasher, it would have discouraged (and potentially sanctioned) the kind of expression of political opinion in teaching and research that academic freedom protects. One of the authors, Cary Nelson, denounced the initiative in print as part of his role as chair of the executive committee of the Alliance for Academic Freedom. Nelson also met at length in Jerusalem with Yaffa Zilbershats, the Bennett-appointed chair of the Council for Higher Education in Israel, at her and Kasher’s request.
He was supplied in advance with Kasher’s essay-length unpublished defense of the code and his role in drafting it. Both from that essay and from the meeting with Zilbershats, it was clear they both hoped to enlist Nelson’s aid in defending Kasher and the code. Presumably, they had not seen his strong condemnation of it. Nelson proceeded to explain why the code would be so damaging.
Like many other faculty and administrators, Kasher and Zilbershats relied on the AAUP’s brief 1940 statement on academic freedom and tenure for their understanding of the Association’s position on classroom political speech. They failed to credit the implications of the AAUP’s far more elaborate 1915 Declaration and its assertion that the fundamental search for the truth requires that faculty must be permitted to express the views that search leads them to hold. Then in 1970 the Association clarified the 1940 statement by stating that its objection was to the persistent intrusion of unrelated political issues into the classroom. Equally important are the AAUP’s 2007 report ‘Freedom in the Classroom’ and its 2011 report ‘Ensuring Academic Freedom in Politically Controversial Academic Personnel Decisions,’ both adopted during Nelson’s 2006-2015 tenure on AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure.
The most surprising part of the meeting with Zilbershats was a dispute about the nature of academic freedom in the US. Nelson informed Zilbershats that a faculty member in the US, including one at a state university, would be free to say that his or her own country lacked legal and moral legitimacy and a proper right to exist. Despite knowing his status as a recent AAUP president, she insisted that he must be wrong; US faculty at public institutions could not possibly possess such a right, Of course that false conviction made it easier for her to assert that Israeli faculty could be sanctioned for publicising similar views. Nelson stood with VERA, the organisation composed of heads of Israeli universities, in opposing the Code of Ethics. So far at least, it has died a welcome death. But continued vigilance will be necessary despite the failure so far of this and other efforts to constrain academic freedom by politicians in Israel and the US, especially in an international environment where academic freedom is frequently not merely constrained but nonexistent.
At least in the US, the evidence presented in Nelson’s Israel Denial: Anti-Zionism, Anti-Semitism, & The Faculty Campaign Against the Jewish State suggests that the effort to indoctrinate students is coming from Shafir’s anti-Zionist allies, not from Israel’s defenders.
It is frankly not acceptable Shafir’s part to link the Word Crimes project with political initiatives its editors oppose. No matter what their stand on political advocacy in the classroom, few faculty have any patience for government-initiated restraints on faculty speech. As Miriam Elman, one of Word Crimes’ editors, told The Algemeiner in 2017, ‘government regulation of academic matters would be entirely different than policy set by AAUP, a professional organisation.’ Shafir adds to the Code of Ethics the ‘Culture Loyalty Law’ proposed by Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev in 2018, an initiative widely reviled by Israeli studies faculty everywhere. Only by falsely reformulating objections to misuse and abuse of language as secret efforts at judicial repression is Shafir able to tar the special issue with a nonexistent shared fascist mission by the Israeli right. He cites no evidence for that connection except his groundless accusation. ‘The attempt to describe dissenters as word criminals within the AIS is a microcosm of the larger assault on liberal voices and institutions in Israel,’ he concludes, it 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.’
The discourse should be contested
It is Shafir, with such accusations, not the Word Crimes editors and authors, who is trying to stifle academic debate. The latter are responding to existing claims and publications, and are not suppressing anything. My suggestion that the title is somewhat playful and provocative reflects the fact that the weight of the terms discussed obviously varies. The title challenges us to think about how serious the damage is that each contested term has done and may do in the future. Contrary to Shafir’s claim, the volume does not argue that ‘there is only one legitimate way of using’ the words covered; rather, it makes the case that some uses have been misleading, incorrect, and have the potential to provoke increased antagonism in Israel Studies and in the Middle East. For example, the slanderous accusation that Israel is conducting a genocidal campaign against the Palestinians violates any standard for truth in language, crosses a line into anti-Semitism, and amounts to a kind of symbolic crime. Those who invoke the Holocaust to deny it happened or diminish it by way of Holocaust inversion have surely violated not just the truth but our common humanity As Alan Johnson pointed out to me, when Frank Barat, in his 2014 introduction to the Noam Chomsky/Ilan Pappe volume On Palestine reported that ‘Israel was indiscriminately carpet bombing a population of 1.8 million Palestinians’ in Operation Protective Edge (p. 6), he too was making a false accusation that amounted not only to an historical affront but also to an assault on meaning and thus a crime against our shared language. Those of us who lived through the Vietnam War are all too familiar with what carpet bombing means and entails. On the other hand, one might conclude that some of the terms critiqued remained mired in debate that cannot be decisively resolved and that research and discussion must continue. The proper response to the corruption of language is the sort of debate carried out by many of the Word Crimes authors. Their effort to document abuses of language has a long history in counter-dictionaries of many kinds.
The late Stuart Hall used to argue that terms widely championed by the political right, like nationalism, should not simply be ceded to them. They should be the subject of intellectual and political debate, redefinition, and struggle; there should be forms of nationalism that progressives could endorse. Similarly, ‘human rights,’ ‘indigeneity,’ and ‘intersectionality,’ among the concepts covered in Word Crimes, should not simply be abandoned to the definitions promoted by anti-Zionists. That means contesting how they have been used, as the contributing authors do. And that requires recovery of the historical meaning of terms more recently criminalised by Israel’s opponents, ‘Zionism’ being the most obvious example. ‘Apartheid’ is another key case here; its immensely important historical meaning in South Africa is seriously diminished by its inaccurate application to Israeli society west of the green line. Similarly, one does not want to cede the definition of ‘human rights’ to the many UN members who see it only as a club to bash Israel with, while ignoring infinitely more serious violations elsewhere.
Like the other critics of Word Crimes, however, Shafir has no interest in contesting the interpretations the authors actually offer. Shafir and the others just dismiss all the essays out of hand, a remarkably anti-intellectual position that devalues the field of Israel studies as a whole. Indeed if Shafir’s essay was not representative of this wing of anti-Zionism and the wider attack on the special issue, it would not merit so detailed a refutation. But the entire movement built around hostility to the special issue steadfastly refuses an academic response to any of the published essays.
The Word Crimes project as part of a scholarly tradition
From the outset, the political attacks on Word Crimes treated it as a rogue enterprise, an exceptional project in violation of fundamental academic norms and traditions. Yet it arrives as one of a long series of comparable books in a wide variety of fields. We refer to the large number of specialised dictionaries that define key terms in particular fields and historical contexts. Often enough they are revisionary, defining emerging views or contesting received meanings.
As it happens, one of us coauthored such a book: A Feminist Dictionary by Cheris Kramerae and Paula A. Treichler, published by Routledge in 1985, which argues that traditional dictionary definitions are not necessarily true, democratic, or universal. Rather, definitions are the outcome of struggle, and we sought in some 500 pages to challenge and destabilise those outcomes by identifying women’s creative and alternative meanings and their ongoing struggles to make their voices heard. Like Word Crimes, that book also had some panicked responses. A Feminist Dictionary was reviewed by Anthony Burgess on the front page of the Times Literary Supplement; though he was clearly intrigued by many entries (he was after all the inventor of the terrifying futuristic vocabulary for A Clockwork Orange), he could not help but conclude that the book was an attack on men: ‘On every page, you can hear the snapping of the vagina dentata.’
Word Crimes contributes to a long line of dictionaries, encyclopedias, and wordbooks that identify, explore, and seek to explain the language that surrounds us. Examples include the monumental Oxford English Dictionary, Dr. Samuel Johnson’s brilliant eccentricities, the French philosopher Denis Diderot’s Encyclopédie, scorned because its entries relied on reason and observation rather than religious dogma. Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary (1911) is satiric, as is its namesake, Cary Nelson and Stephen Watts’s Academic Keywords: A Devil’s Dictionary for Higher Education (1999). Some dictionaries are designed to communicate a specialised vocabulary: The Dictionary of Rubber Products or Vocabulary of the Criminal Underworld.
For our purposes here, perhaps the most relevant ‘record of an inquiry into a vocabulary’ is Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (1976) by the British scholar Raymond Williams. This pioneering work takes on a range of topics including culture, welfare, and Marxism, never simplifying what is complex (famously born to a working class family in Wales, Williams’ cogent analyses are attentive to class and the language of ‘the people.’) Williams’ influential book was updated as New Keywords (2005), edited by Tony Bennett, Lawrence Grossberg, and Meaghan Morris. Noting that Williams’ ‘project was always more concerned with exploring the complex meaning of problem-laden words,’ the editors added such problem-laden words as ‘mestizo/a’, ‘deconstruction’, and ‘political correctness’. In 2007, Keywords for American Cultural Studies was published. There are many other examples we could cite. The point is that Word Crimes should be understood within that tradition, not linked to an irrelevant pattern in Israeli politics.
We typically think of meanings and definitions as referents to phenomena in the real world. But meanings are not stable, natural or inevitable, and nor do they map tidily onto the world or onto the definitions they may become. Contests for meaning do not take place in a vacuum, nor are they predictable at the outset. In fact, for a given meaning to become a formal definition — whether in a dictionary, law, statute, treaty, policy — that meaning must be fought for, compromised over, championed, and finally settled upon. Whose meaning is taken up and formalised in this way depends on the sponsor’s authority and power, resources for promotion, elegance and clarity of formulation, strength and size of allied constituencies, source of the meaning, and other factors. But once formalised, it becomes difficult to revise or dislodge. Word Crimes offered a critique of some aspects of the currently dominant meanings routinely given to key words and concepts in Israel Studies. It was right to do so. Rebuttals should focus on that strengths and weaknesses of that critique not on the fantastical idea that the editors of Israel Studies are involved in some academic conspiracy in cahoots with the Israeli Right.