'Anti-BDS, pro-Israel Hasbara': Internal War Breaks Out in Israel Studies Field

Controversial special issue of Israel Studies is slammed by some U.S. academics alleging pro-Israel bias, but co-editor rejects criticism as ‘ugly smear campaign’

The Israeli Apartheid Week stand at Columbia University, April 2019.
Danielle Ziri

An organization of Israel studies scholars is facing an internal rebellion over charges that it allowed itself to serve Israel advocacy efforts and compromised its professional integrity.

At the center of the controversy is a special issue of Israel Studies — a journal affiliated with the Association for Israel Studies — which is dedicated to pushing back against anti-Zionist rhetoric.

Critics say the issue ignores basic standards of academic scholarship, is heavily slanted in favor of Israel and relies on contributions from lightweights in the field.

Edited by the association’s president, Donna Robinson Divine, the special summer issue is titled “Word Crimes: Reclaiming the Language of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.” She is also a professor of Jewish studies at Smith College in Massachusetts.

The controversy reached crisis point this week when, in an act of protest, a respected Israeli-American historian declined to receive a prestigious award from the association and an invitation to sit on its board.

In a letter announcing his decision, Arie M. Dubnov wrote: “Instead of an invitation to dialogue about the conceptual language and theoretical frameworks used by leading scholars in the field, the [journal’s] ‘alternative dictionary’ appears designed to provide talking points for anti-BDS and pro-‘hasbara’ efforts, and does not serve an academic purpose,” the Max Ticktin Chair of Israel Studies at George Washington University wrote, referring to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement and the public diplomacy performed by the Israeli government.

“I have deep concerns about the [association’s] affiliation with a peer-reviewed journal that publishes Orwellian ‘Newspeak’; instead of facilitating an open and good-faith scholarly exchange on some of the most fraught questions of our time,” Dubnov added.

Describing the articles in the journal as “tendentious,” Dubnov charged that “none of the authors present a clear research question, provide empirical evidence for their claims, or engage seriously with the existing scholarship on Israel-Palestine.”

The letter was addressed to Ilan Troen, an Israel studies professor at Brandeis University who also serves as the editor of Israel Studies. He is a past president of the association.

Between advocacy and scholarship

Israel Studies is not the association’s official journal, but because some of its leading members were involved in producing the special summer issue, Dubnov said he held it accountable. He demanded that the association’s leaders either admit their error, retract the special issue or cut their ties with the journal.

In a phone conversation with Haaretz, Dubnov said that by associating itself with this special issue, the association was “blurring the lines between advocacy and scholarship,” and “playing into the hands of those who have long said that Israel studies is an invented field that is nothing more than a cover for the Israeli Strategic Affairs Ministry.”

The cover of "Word Crimes; Reclaiming The Language of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict."
Screengrab from Indiana University Press

He charged that the articles published in the journal “make a mockery of academic rules” and would never have passed muster in a serious academic publication.

In an email sent to colleagues in the association, Gershon Shafir, director of the human rights program at UC San Diego, also expressed indignation at the journal’s contents. “This attempt to suppress critical voices and dissenting views within the [association] is a microcosm of the larger assault on liberal voices and institutions in Israel,” he wrote. “The term ‘word crimes’ echoes accusations hurled at ‘the criminals of Oslo,’ while the claim of reclaiming parallels the attempted delegitimation of political opposition.”

“Ironically,” he added, “the [association] itself was created with the aim of procuring a forum where Israel may be analyzed with the tools common to the social sciences and humanities, to free the study of Israel from the bonds of political loyalty and subservience in which it was enmeshed. That accomplishment, academic autonomy, is threatened now by the repoliticization of the study of Israel through the criminalization of scholarship and assault on academic freedom.”

Asked about these allegations, Troen responded in an email to Haaretz: “The concept of ‘Word Crimes’ is valid and usefully applied to many sides of the debates and polemics surrounding Israel. It refers to how language in the Arab-Israeli dispute has been manipulated to advance partisan agendas. Terms like apartheid, colonialism, indigenous, Holocaust and more have evolved and have been applied and misapplied. No one issue of any journal could cover it all. Some critics of this issue of Israel Studies have taken a view contrary to Dubnov. They maintain some essays could have been more effective if grounded in deeper scholarship, not that the inquiry or the conclusions lack merit.”

Describing the association as a “big tent,” Troen added: “The alarm Dubnov is attempting to raise out of alleged concern for the field and the [association] is in his imagination. The field, the [association] and the journal are not in jeopardy. All are growing steadily and are secure.”

Association members who shared Dubnov’s concerns, but asked not to have their names published, said they were particularly troubled by the fact that a disproportionately large number of those who had edited the journal and written for it were affiliated with Scholars for Peace in the Middle East — a pro-Israel campus movement.

On its website, the movement describes its mission as “to inform, motivate, and encourage faculty to use their academic skills and disciplines on campus, in classrooms, and in academic publications to develop effective responses to the ideological distortions, including anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist slanders, that poison debate and work against peace.”

‘Academic thuggery’

Israel studies is a relatively new discipline, and most members of the Association for Israel Studies come from other fields such as history, political science and sociology. The association was founded in 1985 and has about 500 members. Its membership spans the gamut of traditional Zionists to supporters of the international boycott movement against Israel. The association’s official journal is the Israel Studies Review.

Ian S. Lustick, a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania and a founding member of the association, said he believes the crisis sparked by the publication of the special journal casts a cloud over the association’s future.

“Through the journal’s affiliation with the Association for Israel Studies and the fact that its editor is the association’s immediate past president, and because the editor of the special issue is the current president, the image and reputation of the association as a professional, scholarly, and not an advocacy, organization are compromised,” he wrote in an email.

“The fact that almost all the contributors to the ‘Word Crimes’ issue are members of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East — a straight-out advocacy organization — only adds to the problem and helps account for the firestorm of protest that erupted within the association when it suddenly appeared. Its content was, apparently, a complete surprise to the editorial board of Israel Studies, which includes numerous association members.”

Lustick said that at the association’s upcoming annual conference, scheduled to be held in Israel in June, the board would “reconsider” its relationship with the journal.

Asked for her response, Robinson Divine wrote that the association “will consider the matters that have arisen concerning the publication of the Israel Studies special issue at its annual board meeting in June. This is not the first time the association has confronted a controversial issue nor I suspect will it be the last. It is strong, and as its current president I am committed to protecting its academic integrity. As one of the editors of the special issue, I will ask someone else to replace me as chair to conduct the meeting during the discussion of ‘Word Crimes.’”

Miriam F. Elman, a co-editor of the special issue, was more defensive in her response and charged that critics of the journal were engaged in “an ugly smear campaign.”

“Wild accusations that, as editors, we corrupted the review process, by adopting a political litmus test for the selection of contributing authors, are simply false,” Elman, an associate professor of political science at Syracuse University, told Haaretz. “We approached contributors based on their knowledge, and with an eye toward including scholars from the United States as well as Israel and the United Kingdom, women scholars, and those with diverse disciplinary perspectives.”

She rejected demands that action be taken to rectify the situation. “Hysterical calls for the journal editors to apologize for publishing the special issue, or to have it retracted, and threats to boycott the journal and the Association for Israel Studies until the editors comply with these demands, amounts to academic thuggery,” she said. “There are well-established ways for readers of this journal to raise criticisms, and I for one would welcome the dialogue and debate on future pages of the journal. I am relieved that cooler heads are prevailing here and that there will be no caving in to this bullying. I believe we are talking about a very small minority, as very few scholars would run roughshod over academic freedom in this way.”

Joel S. Migdal, a professor of international studies at the University of Washington, said he did not share concerns about the future of the association. “I don’t think the organization is in jeopardy,” he told Haaretz. “It’s gone through these issues before, where people from the left thought people from the right were controlling the organization, and vice versa, and I think it will weather this storm just fine, too.”

Harvard historian Derek J. Penslar said he had reviewed articles for Israel Studies in the past and published his own articles in the journal, which he described as “solid and respectable.”

“But I did not see any of the articles for this special journal,” he told Haaretz. “None of them crossed my desk.”

Asked for his opinion about the special issue, he said he was “unhappy with it and surprised.”