Monday, November 3, 2008

Anti-Semitic article published in academic encyclopedia

I've rarely used this space to express an opinion or to take on a controversial issue. Therefore I hope readers will allow me an occasional license to highlight the following issue.

Members of the Association of Jewish Libraries (AJL) were alerted a couple of months ago about an article entitled "Zionism" in The Encyclopedia of Race and Racism (Macmillan, 2007).

The notion of including an article on Zionism within such an encyclopedia in itself is a problem for those who understand Zionism to be, simply put, the movement for national self-determination of the Jewish people. And the presence of this article and its implications are especially a problem for those who support Israel. To suggest that Zionism is inherently racist is to deny at its heart the legitimacy of a Jewish homeland.

If a movement to establish a homeland for the Jewish people is racist, would not that apply to other national movements? Nowhere in this encyclopedia, however, is there a corresponding article about the founding ideology of any other ethnic self-determination movement (e.g., no articles on "Chechnyanism" or "Basqueism" or "Tibetanism"). In those cases where ethnic liberation movements are featured -- even those that have devolved into genocidal bloodbaths -- the authors of those articles do not address their "racial" nature or label the movements or their leaders as "racist."

I also believe that this article is a problem for anyone concerned about human rights and social justice. To characterize Zionism as racist -- by egregiously misrepresenting what it means to be a Jew according to Jewish law and tradition -- denies Jews the same basic human rights readily accorded every other national, ethnic and racial group.

To my way of thinking, this singular focus on Jews and Jewish identity and, as a result, the exclusive denial of Jewish self-determination render the article anti-Semitic. I also hold that the decision to publish the article and to uphold it once its faults have been identified is also anti-Semitic.

The publishers have responded to some of the criticism with statements such as "we cannot and do not shy away from controversial views" and characterizing the criticism as an issue of not being "fair and balanced." (See statement from Gale.) This allows them to leave the article in place while pointing to other material under their imprint ("one out of seventeen isn't bad," as a publisher told me) and offering to add material addressing the other point of view in the controversy.

However, Gale has not responded to the criticism of "readers who have challenged the accuracy of the article" and its broad scholarly failings. The article was allowed into print with outright errors and misrepresentations throughout, raising questions about the quality of editorial oversight applied to this project.

Even those who might be willing to overlook or make excuses for the article's overt bias may acknowledge its general lack of scholarly substance. Despite the title, no one reading this article would come away any wiser about Zionism, its philosophy, tenets, religious and cultural background, and history. In fact the entire discussion of Zionism in this article can be found in a few throwaway lines -- unsupported and inaccurate assertions -- in the first two paragraphs. It is hard to imagine a less scholarly treatment than this one.

One can readily understand Gale's unwillingness to to acknowledge the failure of this article to meet minimum scholarly standards or discuss how it came to be published. At each stage, from the decision to publish an article on Zionism as racist, to the selection of its author, to the review by the editors and referees, it passed every editorial hurdle in spite of glaring errors. This suggests a major breakdown in its editorial processes. What publisher wants to admit that the mechanisms meant to assure scholarly standards are met are not in place?

If I had been responsible for such a controversial and sensitive project I would have tried to bring my "A game." I would have sought an author with solid credentials in the field and would have stipulated that the article submitted be well-documented and that it credibly address its subject. Instead, Gale selected an author who could only be called "marginal" if we're being generous and their editors allowed a factually flawed and scholarly substandard article to be published under their imprint.

This article should be repudiated and withdrawn by its publisher. Publishers do make mistakes despite tried-and-true mechanisms meant to prevent this sort of thing. While the remedies are limited, Gale can and should admit its mistake and remove the article from the online edition, at the very least. Its publication was clearly an error, a failure of the editorial process, and its continued presence in an academic encyclopedia is an affront to scholarship and detracts from Gale's reputation as a publisher.

-- Lee David Jaffe

Further reading:

"Foxman Slams Zionim entry in 'Encyclopedia of Racism'" Jerusalem Post