At the beginning of January, Israel’s new National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir ordered police to enforce a ban on the flying of Palestinian flags in public spaces. For many who have followed Ben Gvir’s rise and Israel’s steady turn toward openly fascist politics, this move has come as no surprise. The demonization of the Palestinian flag, however, is by no means an exclusively Israeli phenomenon.
Almost exactly a year earlier, a paper titled “The Palestinian Flag as a Tool of Oppression” was published in the Journal of Contemporary Antisemitism (JCA). This article, and others like it, warrant attention not for their intellectual heft, but as an illustration of the kind of highly politicized work masquerading as rigorous academic research on antisemitism that is becoming increasingly prevalent today, from the U.K. to the United States, Germany, and beyond.
The JCA describes itself as “the leading scholarly publication in the field”; indeed, it appears to be the only active English-language journal devoted entirely to the study of antisemitism. It is currently published biannually by the U.S.-based Academic Studies Press, and has released 10 issues since launching in the fall of 2017. In addition to publishing double-blind peer-reviewed articles, it offers book reviews, review essays, and what it refers to as “target articles” by “distinguished senior researchers,” which are not subject to peer review. For the reader, however, these articles are visually indistinguishable from peer-reviewed articles, and are not identified as such in the issue’s table of contents.
Euan Philipps, who wrote the article on the Palestinian flag, is the head of media for the British antisemitism watchdog Labour Against Antisemitism; quite how this amounts to the label of “distinguished senior researcher” is not explained. The aim of his paper, published as one of the journal’s “target articles,” was to examine Palestine solidarity protests held across the U.K. in response to Israel’s bombing of the Gaza Strip in May 2021, and to “[assess] the way the signifiers of the pro-Palestinian movement convey aggressive antisemitic meanings.”
Early on it becomes clear that this paper is in fact not an academic argument or assessment at all. For one, it is lacking any consideration of the semiotics of flags — how they relate to memory, culture, and identity — that one would expect from a scholarly article on the topic. Second, of the 50 different references cited, only three are from academic sources; the rest refer to Twitter posts, newspaper articles, and political organizations such as Labour Friends of Israel (a pro-Israel group within the U.K.’s parliamentary Labour Party), the pro-Israel organization Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis, and prominent British Zionist campaigner and blogger David Collier, who believes that Palestine is not a real place but a colonial invention, among others.
Moreover, the narratives around which the article is structured are the holy trinity of hasbara: the occupation of Palestine is “complex”; support for the Palestinian struggle equates to support for Hamas; and the Palestinian solidarity movement is demonizing Israel out of hatred of Jews.
Ignoring the real-world repercussions of Zionism
If it is unclear how Philipps fits the definition of “distinguished senior researcher,” the same can be said of a paralegal working for the British Financial Conduct Authority, who penned an article in the JCA in 2020 titled “Did a Corbyn-Led Government Pose an ‘Existential Threat to Jewish Life’ in the UK? Revolutionary States and the Destruction of Jewish Communities.” The article, whose title refers to a declaration published jointly on the front pages of Britain’s three biggest Jewish newspapers in July 2018, argues that a hypothetical Corbyn administration should not be measured by its election manifesto but by Corbyn’s perceived affinity to the Venezuelan, Cuban, and, above all, Iranian regimes.
The article makes no attempt to establish a comparative framework or methodology. Rather, it simply describes the histories of Jewish communities in those countries and transplants their fate into a fictional Great Britain led by Jeremy Corbyn. Again, similarly to Philipps’ article, only five of the 65 references are academic in nature.
It is not only the non-peer-reviewed “target articles” that don’t stand up to scrutiny, but also several of the regular articles, which are subject to peer review. One such article is by David Hirsh — a senior lecturer at Goldsmiths University of London, academic director and CEO of the newly-launched London Centre for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism, and an editorial consultant for the JCA. In his piece, Hirsh tries to make the case that anti-Zionism is antisemitism by completely ignoring the real-world repercussions of Zionism as a political movement and instead reducing it to a subjective expression of Jewish identity.
The article evades any discussion of Zionism as the ideological engine behind the establishment of the State of Israel as a Jewish state at the expense of the indigenous Palestinian population, and as the force that continues to determine its policies toward Palestinians and their land today. Again, Hirsh’s article does not provide much scholarship among the works it references, nor does he offer any methodological framework. It remains a mystery how this article passed independent peer review.
What all these articles have in common is a reliance on the assumption that the authors know people’s real motivations, regardless of what they say. It is a pseudoscientific epistemology that claims the ability to look into one’s opponent’s mind and know what they really mean.
A pro-Israel, anti-Palestinian journal
This pseudoscientific direction and the neglect of Palestinian perspectives when Israel and Zionism are discussed in the journal might be a reflection of its leadership. JCA’s editor-in-chief, Lesley Klaff, who teaches law at Sheffield Hallam University, argued in a 2010 paper that “[t]he removal of Israel as a Jewish state would necessarily entail the annihilation of the several million Israeli Jews who live there,” and further described advocating against an exclusively Jewish state as “tantamount to Holocaust promotion.”
The JCA’s editorial board features some prominent names in antisemitism education and pro-Israel advocacy from around the world. Samuel Salzborn, for example, the antisemitism czar for the state of Berlin, once tweeted: “When people on the train … start talking about ‘Palestine’ without any reason, it’s either time to get off, put on headphones or yell at them. #anti-Semitism.” Jonathan Turner, chief executive of UK Lawyers for Israel, is known for waging lawfare campaigns against pro-Palestine student groups and individuals in academia. Professor Efraim Karsh argues in his 2010 book, “Palestine Betrayal,” that the Nakba was “exclusively of [the Palestinians’] own making.”
The most prominent member of the editorial board, however, is Deborah Lipstadt. Having risen to prominence during her libel trial against Holocaust denier David Irving in 1996, she was appointed last year by the Biden administration to the position of Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism. Over the years, Lipstadt has accused Senator Bernie Sanders of being blind toward antisemitism on the left, and claimed that the BDS movement and the Palestinian right of return represent a “[call] for the destruction of the State of Israel.”
It is this ideological, pro-Israel, anti-Palestinian framework that runs through the journal’s output and devalues academic publishing as part of the scientific pursuit of knowledge. When a journal uses its reputation as a “leading scholarly publication” that “[follows] best academic practice” to launder pseudoscientific articles attacking or devaluing Palestinian existence, it does a disservice not only to academia as a field, but more importantly to serious academics who dedicate their work and careers to fighting real antisemitism and racism.