What if a publication ran an article on the 9/11 atrocities by a reputable historian alongside another claiming it was a CIA-Mossad inside job? Or published an article on the Holocaust by, say, Yehuda Bauer next to another by denier David Irving? Or juxtaposed an article explaining that the Earth orbits the sun with another decrying Galileo as a dangerous heretic?
Demonstrators hold up signs in front of the Valley Club in Huntingdon Valley, Pa., in response to allegations that the swim club blocked a group of minority children from joining weekly swims at the pool.
"Crazy," "nuts" and "outrageous" are some of the impolitic words that come to mind. A more academic term might be "epistemologically challenged" - that is, unable to distinguish truth from falsehood or the credible from the outlandish. It is this grave condition which currently afflicts one of the leading academic publishers in the US.
In 2008, Macmillan Reference USA, a division of Gale, Cengage Learning, published its Encyclopedia of Race and Racism, a three-volume affair covering everything from inner-city riots in the US to pseudo-scientific theories about race. Among the dozens of articles was an entry on "Zionism" penned by Noel Ignatiev, a far-left American academic. Ignatiev does not have a pedigree in Middle Eastern politics or Jewish history. What he does have is an intense hatred for Israel.
His article faithfully recycled the kinds of canards about Zionism which used to appear in those grubby pamphlets issued by official Soviet publishers in the 1960s and 1970s, with titles like "Beware! Zionism." In keeping with his Soviet precursors, Ignatiev depicted Zionism as an ideology of racial superiority akin to Nazism, accused Zionist leaders of collaborating with the Nazis, and portrayed Israel's 1947-48 War of Independence as one long episode of ethnic cleansing.
NOT SURPRISINGLY, a major public controversy followed the appearance of his entry on Zionism, with articles in the Jewish press and on countless blogs. The American Jewish Committee sent a detailed memo to Gale Publishing explaining the myriad flaws in Ignatiev's piece, and joined with other Jewish groups and prominent academics in urging that the entry be pulled. Last December, at the height of the row, Gale executives responsible for the encyclopedia visited AJC to discuss how the matter might be resolved.
It was a courteous, if inconclusive encounter. The executives acknowledged that the entry was an embarrassment. They implied that its publication had been a regrettable oversight. They proposed issuing additional material to counter both Ignatiev's distortions and to correct the impression that the editors regarded Zionism as the only form of nationalism worth examining in a publication about racism.
On the key matter of pulling the article, they were reluctant to commit either way, but their body language suggested to us that Ignatiev's piece would remain undisturbed.
Nearly a year later, Gale has instituted an absurd compromise whereby Ignatiev's unedited entry sits alongside a far superior contribution by an Israeli academic, Uriel Abulof. Those familiar with Zionist history will doubtless find areas of disagreement with Abulof, but the point is that his article is thoughtful and well-researched. His bibliography includes Ze'ev Sternhell and Arthur Hertzberg, whereas Ignatiev relies on the likes of fringe writers such as Lenni Brenner and Moshe Menuhin, author of The Decadence of Judaism in Our Time. By juxtaposing Abulof with Ignatiev, Gale has devalued Abulof's contribution and wiped out the very clear line which separates scholarship from propaganda.
It's important to recall that we are talking about
an encyclopedia, not a collection of opinionated essays. "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."
An encyclopedia is not, therefore, Counterpunch, the frequently anti-Semitic on-line magazine to which Ignatiev has also contributed, or Race Traitor, the strange on-line 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.
If an encyclopedia can be opened up to someone like Ignatiev, then why not also include a Holocaust denial outfit like the Institute for Historical Review, which views itself as heroically confronting the shibboleths of World War II?
This is a question which Gale's executives are now obliged to answer. They might also ponder why they could not bring themselves to bravely and publicly admit that they made a mistake, instead of allowing the Encylopedia of Race and Racism to promote exactly the sort of crude bigotry which its other entries disdain.
The writer is the American Jewish Committee's associate director of communications.