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.
Donna Robinson Divine is Morningstar Family Professor of Jewish Studies and Professor of Government, Emerita, Smith College. She explains that she conceived the special issue and its title Word Crimes — ‘intended to be read as a metaphor, not as an accusation of criminal behavior — because ‘a vocabulary of historical explanation has dissolved into crude value judgments,’ distorting the academic study of Israel, of Palestinians, of the conflict, and ensuring ‘the politics propagated by this discourse is binary when the wielding of power is multi-dimensional and not easily pigeonholed into moral absolutes’.
Gershon Shafir writes an impassioned critique of Cary Nelson’s review of Word Crimes: Reclaiming the Language of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, and I thank him for explaining the reasons for his deeply felt objections to what was published as a special issue of Israel Studies. Let me begin by saying that I take full responsibility for the special issue of Israel Studies. I conceived the title and the project though never imagined it would trigger the kind of uproar it has unleashed. Nor did I list myself as Association of Israel (AIS) President in the description of contributors. I wrote the introduction as a Smith College Professor, Emerita.
Word Crimes interrogates what is increasingly becoming the conventional language for discussing Israel and its conflict with the Palestinians, but the serious argument it advances has been buried beneath a coating of denunciations spreading caricature rather than scholarly analysis over it. [Cary Nelson’s review in Fathom was one of the few notable exceptions.] The title, itself, tries to capture the politicisation of the discourse and the disposition to cast Israel into a rhetorical zone once reserved for brutal regimes committing ghastly crimes. It focuses on terms because they function as presumed oracles coaxing judgments in the absence of evidence.
The title is intended to be read as a metaphor, not as an accusation of criminal behavior. No less an authority than Merriam-Webster offers ‘error’ as one of the synonyms for crimes. Word Crimes emphasises the linkage between language and thought partly because it is long a staple focus for political theory and philosophy. That a vocabulary of historical explanation has dissolved into crude value judgments distorts the academic study of Israel, of Palestinians, of the conflict and not incidentally, of politics. The politics propagated by this discourse is binary when the wielding of power is multi-dimensional and not easily pigeonholed into moral absolutes.
Nor do these essays comprise a dictionary of acceptable terms as Gershon Shafir charges. There is a distinction between arguing certain words channel thoughts in one direction, on the one hand, and calling for a ban on their use, on the other. Rather than stipulate a set of acceptable terms, the essays weave a cautionary tale of how certain words now deployed routinely in discussing the Israel-Palestine conflict are more polemical than accurately reflective of the past or the present.
Gershon Shafir insists that the publication of Word Crimes somehow intensifies the increasingly illiberal context affecting academicians and artists in Israel. I share his concern about these trends but can find no evidence of any links between the arguments advanced in the special issue and the threats to artistic and academic freedoms.
Finally, Gershon Shafir states that the subtitle, calling for reclaiming the language of the Israeli-Palestine conflict, suggests that the ‘concepts have been usurped and will now be taken back by their rightful owners’. He, then, goes on to write that the essays ‘assert that there is only one legitimate way of using them’. The special issue actually makes the opposite point. It argues for reclaiming the concepts for academicians, not for Israelis or for Israeli interests, and as the volume itself shows, the words, themselves, have many meanings. In fact, Word Crimes shows the ways in which a kind of linguistic alchemy has erased the many meanings of these concepts in order for Israel to be held to account for whatever evil can be imagined.
Because Israel has become as much a freighted and dissonant symbol as a topic of study, narratives about the country and about its conflict with the Palestinians that do not find agreement feed angrily off one another. Imagine, if you can, a response to the publication offering an analysis of the conceptual or empirical flaws of the overall argument or of one or another of the specific essays instead of the assault charging those responsible with trying to hijack the journal and the association presumably because of some powerful advocacy force lurking behind this project. Needless to say, a more cordial exchange could have produced a more reasoned testing of arguments. In a genuine academic community, intellectuals do not try to silence or ‘troll’ one another but rather to talk despite their differences, even with no other aim than to display the grounds of their diversity.
Almost 25 years ago, I delivered a paper at an AIS Conference on Israel’s transition from voluntary society to state. The paper triggered criticism. One person approached me after my presentation to suggest ways to improve the analysis. I took his advice and later published the essay. That person was Gershon Shafir, and I always thought of him as someone who would respond to arguments — even those he may have found problematic — in constructive ways and in accordance with academic norms. That is the dialogue I wish to reclaim.
Substantiating Prof Divine’s point, Prof. Shafir challenges the underlying articles solely by rattling off a list of obnoxious initiatives, whether successful or not, taken by Israeli officials. He fails however to address the underlying thesis of “Word Crimes,” which is the hijacking of language in servicing the campaign to delegitimize Israel. Thus, he can’t even address the most blatant linguistic distortions such as the tendency to brand Israel with the g-word (genocide). Even if Prof. Shafir’s litany if horribles were the beginning and end of the story, which they’re certainly not, it’s hard to see how his response to Prof. Levine has addressed the underlying issue in the slightest—unless, of course, he’s really saying Israel is so uniquely despicable that existing words must be reinvented to describe it.