January 21, 2021

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"Israel Studies" and fighting words (Divest This!)


If you want to see an example of what “fighting back” looks like in the rarified environment of academia, check out the latest edition Israel Studies, a journal published by Indiana University Press.

Actually, you’ll only be able to look at the whole thing if you have access to JSTOR, the online source for major academic journals and articles, or can find a print copy at a university library (although you can look at the first and last essay in the volume with a couple of extra mouse clicks).  But even this glimpse sets the stage for long-overdue analysis of the corrupt language that has infested Middle East studies and now threatens to take down other disciplines.

As regular readers know, Israel’s enemies have not just twisted the language of history, scholarship and human rights towards their own political ends, but have so monopolized discourse that any attempt to take back the language (by claiming that words like “genocide” and “occupation” have actual meaning, beyond their selective use to slur a single state) is met by hysterical resistance.
I’ve seen this on a small scale whenever I have used the word “settlement” to apply to both Jewish and Arab communities in Israel or the disputed territories (or simply used the word “disputed” – rather than “occupied” to describe Judea & Samaria/The West Bank).  Invariably the response is either aggression (usually involving shouts of “racism” for not handing an opponent control of the vocabulary immediately and unconditionally) or avoidance (i.e., my “debating partner” fleeing to find someone uninformed to propagandize).

Given this auto-response by those who live by BDSthink, one can only imagine the response to the latest issue of Israel Studies where credentialed scholars subject each and every one of the boycotter’s favorite terms (“colonialism,” “apartheid,” “the Israel Lobby”) to honest analysis fueled by sound scholarship.

Actually, you don’t have to imagine since the response to publication of that journal was as immediate as it was predictable.

Within days of the Word Crimes issue of Israel Studies hitting the streets, dozens of professors petitioned the organization sponsoring the journal to denounce and withdraw it, calling it a political propaganda exercise not worthy to be treated as genuine scholarship.  This from “scholars” who have spent decades publishing the most outlandish fabrications and gobbdygook about the Middle East, awarding honors and prizes to whoever can make the most absurd accusations against the Jewish state, usually based not on fact but on post-modern claptrap.

Some of the most hilarious accusations came from academics “concerned” over the areas of expertise of by some contributors to the Word Crimes journal.  Again, this is coming from groups ready to welcome academic birthday clowns like Stephen Salaita into the fold of Middle East studies solely based on his embrace of the anti-Israel narrative.

Fortunately, those behind Word Crimes are standing their ground, labeling their opponents as academic thugs who want to shut down discourse they don’t like, and can’t respond to (a nice use of language on its own). 

Giving credit where it is due, the co-editors of the volume, Professors Miriam Elman and Asaf Romirowsky have found the right pressure point and a tactic to press it that does not involve sacrificing an ounce of academic integrity.  Yes, the essays that make up the volume are all trying to counter misuse of specific terms coopted and corrupted by the forces of BDS.  But the only reason the exercise is necessary is because proponents of the “Israel Must Go” narrative have made such a correction imperative.

Those who spend lots of time anguishing over lack of punch-back by Israel’s defenders might see the publications of a relatively obscure journal insufficient to turn back the tide of anti-Israel invective engulfing the academy.  But battles on campuses are primarily being waged with words (at least for now), which makes seizing back the language one of the most powerful and effective ways to bring the fight to the enemy in a war where ideas count.

We have lots of ideas, but we need more resources to be even more effective. Please donate today to help get the message out and to help defend Israel.

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