Profs' attempt to shut down anti-BDS journal issue, make editors resign, FLOPS

But the editorial board wasn't just going to sit there and take it....

More than 100 professors and students protested a recent journal issue focusing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Editors of the “Israel Studies” journal are rejecting demands by a confederacy of leftist professors for an apology and for the removal of a special summer issue.

The controversy surrounds a special journal issue, “Word Crimes: Reclaiming the Language of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” which prompted two petitions, each signed by more than a hundred professors and students condemning the issue. The petitions also call on the Association for Israel Studies (AIS), some of whose members have contributed to the issue, to disassociate itself from the journal if the journal does not “undergo a serious overhaul.”

Nine current or recent members of the 25 members of the journal’s own editorial board have sided with the protesters and issued their own letter, demanding that the journal go past its April 7 admission that the issue “may have been flawed” and “requires correction” by issuing a “clear, public statement of error and apology.” 

The NYU Taub Center for Israel Studies sent this letter in a missive to the entire AIS email list. These editorial board members claim that the special issue was published without their “consent” and also suggest the journal editors resign.

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 In a rebuttal statement issued in early May, the journal editors noted they had offered the objectors an opportunity to write their responses and objections to the issue in a separate issue of the journal – all before the objectors launched what Syracuse University Professor Miriam Elman, who is a contributor to and co-editor of the issue under scrutiny called a “smear campaign,” emailing associations and individuals with no connection to the journal or AIS. 

“The inauguration of this campaign is telling,” stated the editors in their rebuttal.

“The journal editors bent over backwards to accommodate the detractors, even agreeing to publish a Letter of Dissent in the next issue-an unprecedented move and in my view unwarranted,” Elman told Campus Reform. “But this doesn’t satisfy this minority group who wants to dictate the way we study and discuss Israel and its conflict with the Palestinians and are so willing to disrespect the deliberative process and dismiss civil academic debate.”

“Word Crimes: Reclaiming the Language of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” aims to examine how the colloquialisms used to define the conflict have become “unmoored from their initial understandings, misapplied today, and how they have now been weaponized for a virulently anti-Israel political campaign,” Elman said in a Facebook post

“We used the term Word Crimes to point to the way terminology is being used to lead and mislead in what is increasingly the conventional language for discussing Israel and its conflict with the Palestinians,” AIS president and Smith College Professor Donna Robinson Divine, who is co-editor and an author of the special issue, stated in the rebuttal. 

The objectors claim the title shuts down discourse, however, and are therefore attempting to shut down the special issue.

“The rhetoric that has been put out there as far as shutting down and retractions is against civil discourse altogether,” says Professor Asaf Romirowsky, who is also a co-editor of the special issue. “There’s nothing civil about anything that’s been out since the journal has been out.”

One professor associated with the effort to censor the special issue, George Washington University professor Arie Dubnov, refused to accept an award from AIS and rejected an invitation to sit on its board in order to protest the issue. 

In a letter addressed to AIS former president and Israel Studies Journal Editor Ilan Troen and obtained by Campus Reform, Dubnov said that the special issue’s “alternative dictionary appears designed to provide talking points for anti-BDS and pro-‘Hasbara’ efforts.”

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He deemed the issue “Orwellian ‘new-speak.’” Dubnov suggested threeways the AIS editors could rectify the situation: retraction of the special issue, publication of a statement that they made a “grave error in judgement,” or disassociation from the Israel Studies journal. 

The two petitions and the letter signed by nine editorial board members share these demands. Deeming the special issue “a partisan and polemical exercise in advocacy rather than serious scholarship,” they suggest it has tarnished the journal’s reputation and that unless the journal undergoes “a serious overhaul,” AIS should end its sponsorship. 

But according to the journal editors’ aforementioned rebuttal, AIS does not sponsor Israel Studies, but merely has an “affiliation, [which, as distinct from sponsorship], involve[s] no financial or any other substantial obligation.”

Harvard University professor Derek Penslar, one of the nine editorial board members, told Campus Reform that the articles in the special issue would have been appropriate if they had appeared in a newspaper or journal of opinion. 

“But they did not belong in a scholarly journal that requires of its articles rigorous research, deep analysis, conceptual nuance, and knowledge and accurate representation of existing research in the field,” Penslar said.

Divine claimed that the journal editors “do not know the politics of the authors and would never ask” and that “neither ideology nor politics informed the selection of contributors.” 

“I sought scholars willing to interrogate what has become the conventional wisdom on how to study the Conflict and who could put their ideas into a short readable essay,” Divine said.

The two petitions also take a swipe at the issue’s contributors by discrediting them as true academics. 

They state that “barely a third of the 17 contributors to the issue could claim academic expertise in the subject they were writing on. Disciplinary boundaries are not sacred, but the selection of so many non-specialists (including non-academics) requires justification, which was not provided.” 

Both Elman and Romirowsky call this canard “a blatant example of academic thuggery.” “They (the objectors) don’t want to engage with the arguments or substance of the special issue so instead they declare it unscholarly,” Says Elman. “In this way, it can be dismissed and it’s distinguished scholars and seasoned practitioners demoralized.” 

SOAS University of London Professor Yair Wallach, who drafted the two petitions, apparently shared a Dropbox link on Facebook to the special issue, allowing anybody to obtain it free of charge, when readers were supposed to pay to buy the issue.

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Elman said that the post was deleted after Indiana University Press sent Wallach a cease and desist notice. According to Elman and Troen, Wallach is not an AIS member; Elman claims that Wallach is also not a member of the Israel Studies editorial board. 

“This takes self-appointed academic vigilante to a whole new level,” she told Campus Reform. The professor also asserted that some of the objectors who are leading the protest of the special issue also led an effort to prevent last year’s AIS annual meeting from being held in Israel.

The editors of “Israel Studies” say they acknowledge that the special issue is “imperfect and should have been improved.” But they assert that they are editors “dedicated to balance.” 

Campus Reform reached out to both Wallach and Dubnov multiple times for comment, but did not receive a response in time for press.

Elman also told Campus Reform that protesters of the journal tried unsuccessfully to stop the AIS from hosting its 2019 meeting in Israel.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @Justine_Brooke