This is a guest post by Ben Cohen
Noel Ignatiev is one the last people you would expect to be authoring an entry on Zionism for an encyclopedia published under a well-known, trusted imprint. But open Volume 3 of the “Encyclopedia of Race and Racism,” which carries the names of both Macmillan Reference USA (now owned by the Michigan-based Gale, Cengage Learning company) and the Macmillan Social Science Library, and you will see that he has done just that.
Some of you will be wondering who Ignatiev is. I first came across Ignatiev’s name a few years ago, when the antisemitic writer who uses the name “Israel Shamir” referred to him as “our good friend.” Lest I be accused of damning by association, I should point out that Shamir and Ignatiev appear to have their disagreements, although these will be barely intelligible to those not familiar with the obscurantist doctrines they represent.
What strikes me is that Ignatiev, like Shamir, is a provocateur and a propagandist who relentlessly pushes themes shared by far left and far right alike. He makes statements like this one: “Osama bin Laden was no more than telling the truth when he said that the Muslim world is facing an alliance of Zionists and Crusaders.” And this one, from the same article: “Is one permitted to say above the level of a whisper that U.S. policy toward Israel has something to do with Jewish influence in the US?”
So why, then, is he writing for this encyclopedia? An encyclopedia is not, say, Counterpunch, the frequently antisemitic online magazine which Ignatiev has also contributed to, or Race Traitor, the strange online journal he started. One turns to an encyclopedia for an overview, a dispassionate account of the development of a particular subject, a summation of its key controversies. “The purpose of an encyclopedia,” wrote the French philosopher Diderot, who devoted himself to assembling the great work of the French Enlightenment called the Encyclopédie, “is to collect knowledge disseminated around the globe.”
Judged by this yardstick, Ignatiev’s effort falls woefully short. Imagine a creationist writing about evolution and you will have some sense of the crackling errors and ugly distortions which litter the text. It was not surprising, therefore, that the Zionism entry was noticed by several academics and that it was brought to the attention of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), the organization which sponsors Z Word.
AJC’s first concern was to establish the purpose of an entry on “Zionism” in an encyclopedia devoted to the subjects of race and racism. As AJC Executive Director David Harris pointed out in a memo to Frank Menchaca, the executive responsible for Macmillan Reference, USA, “Why, for example, do you include an entry on the Jewish form of nationalism when there is no entry for nationalism itself? Why, moreover, do you include the Jewish form of nationalism and not, say, Ba’athism, an Arab form of nationalism which was deeply influenced, as Elie Kedourie and other scholars of nationalism have pointed out, by Nazi ideology?”
The Nazi theme is particularly pertinent, because, as well as advancing the poisonous canard of Zionist-Nazi collaboration, Ignatiev’s entry claims that Zionists “shared the [Nazi] belief that the Jews were a racial community based on blood.” In his opening paragraph, Ignatiev states: “Because it defines ‘Jew’ not by religious observance, language, place of birth, or culture, but by descent, Zionism is an ideology of race.”
“Neither Zionism as an ideology nor Israel as a state can be reasonably categorized as racial,” wrote Harris in his memo to Menchaca. “Ignatiev asserts that Jewish identity qualifies as racial because children inherit it from their parents (as he says, ‘but by descent…’). But if this were true, then surely most other forms of human identity and community would also qualify as ‘racial.’ The term ‘racial’ would be stripped of its meaning, and your encyclopedia would be much lengthier than it currently is.”
I’ll return to the question of race momentarily, but first, a flavor of the rest of Ignatiev’s take on Zionism.
- Ignatiev portrays Zionism as an arm of the British mandatory power in Palestine. The reality was far more complex. “This would be the same British government that authored the 1939 “White Paper” on Palestine – yet another critical historical event which Ignatiev does not discuss,” wrote Harris in the AJC memo. “This White Paper stated, ‘His Majesty’s Government therefore now declare unequivocally that it is not part of their policy that Palestine should become a Jewish State.’ The White Paper also severely restricted Jewish immigration into Palestine to a total of 75,000 from 1940-44 – precisely the time when Nazi policy toward the Jews turned from persecution and deportation to extermination.”
- Ignatiev repeats the claim of Nazi-Zionist “collaboration.” After pointing to the Soviet provenance of this scandalous lie, Harris writes: “The term ‘collaboration’ implies two or more parties working together of their own free will towards a common, mutually agreed goal. This term is entirely inapplicable in a context where one party (the Nazis) regarded the other (Jews, whether Zionist in orientation or not) as untermenschen (subhuman). Is Ignatiev really arguing, in a book which bears the imprint of a reputable publisher, that the Zionists shared the Nazi goal of exterminating every Jew? Fantastical as it seems, this is exactly what he is arguing. This may explain why there is no mention, despite copious documentation in other sources, of the active collaboration between the Nazis and the Palestinian national movement led by Mohammed Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem.”
- The term “Holocaust” is conspicuous by its absence. As Harris notes, this, “regrettably, is no accident. In an article for Counterpunch, a ferociously anti-Israel online journal – which, you should be aware, bears more than a passing similarity to the entry Ignatiev penned for your Encyclopedia – he writes, ‘…as is implied by a term like ‘The Holocaust,’ which takes anti-semitism out of history and relocates it the realm of natural phenomena.’ Such views are, to put it politely, eccentric at best. They certainly have no place in a publication which purports to be an objective reference work, particularly when the author of the entry does not showcase any views other than his own.”
- Ignatiev’s discussion of Israeli society and policy regurgitates everything from the “original sin” account of Israel’s creation to the claim that Palestinians are being expelled from the West Bank “without interruption.” Most glaring of all is his constant use of the term “Zionist authorities” to describe the Israeli government. David Harris again: “[This is] the tell-tale language of someone who does not believe Israel has a right to exist. Ignatiev is completely at liberty to believe this. What is not acceptable is his imposition of this belief upon an encyclopedia entry which many readers believe to be objective.”
Menchaca duly responded to the AJC’s concerns. “After careful review of arguments from both sides,” he wrote to David Harris, “neither Mr. Moore (John Hartwell Moore, the encyclopedia’s Editor in Chief) nor I feel we can operate as arbitrators of these controversies.” In fact, it would appear that far from being a potential arbitrator, Moore endorses Ignatiev’s views. Later on his reply, Menchaca inserted a statement from Moore which justified the “racism” angle by claiming – much as Soviet propaganda used to do when completely distorting the Jewish theological notion of a covenant with God – that Zionism embodies an idea of racial superiority based on the conceptualization of the Jews as a “chosen people.”
Moore’s knowledge of Jewish history and Judaism would seem to be rather specious, to say the least. He goes on to say that Orthodox Jews prefer the term “Jewish race…as can be observed by browsing their web sites.” Go figure.
It is abundantly clear that Macmillan Reference USA has, unwittingly or otherwise, allowed itself to be hijacked by extremists pushing what academics might call an “eliminationist solution” to the questions of Zionism and Israel. Zionism, as AJC says, is not a subject for an encyclopedia on race and racism, particularly when the entire subject of nationalism is ignored. The only possible conclusion is that Macmillan Reference USA is trying to outdo the UN General Assembly, which rescinded its 1975 “Zionism is Racism” resolution back in 1991.
No doubt, this controversy will run. No doubt, Ignatiev will at some point repeat his statement that “not only does Zionism shape U.S. policy, it stifles discussion of alternatives.” But this is not about the vanity of anti-Zionists desperate to achieve dissident status with false claims of being muzzled. It is about an apparently reputable publisher promoting a concoction of myths, distortions and outright lies about Zionism as reliable scholarship, written by someone who doesn’t even think Israel should be there in the first place. And in a world where antisemitism continues to percolate (see here and here for very recent examples), there is much more than standards of scholarship at stake.