Open Letter | Brandeis University Press is silencing debate
Read a response to this letter from Brandeis University Press here.
We are a group of scholars whose research is connected to American Jewish history and experience. All of us have read the preface that Professor Marc Dollinger submitted to Brandeis University Press this fall. We hold a variety of perspectives about its claims and approaches, but we are in agreement that it addresses compelling and timely issues.
Having reviewed available documentation, it seems to us that Dollinger was invited and then denied the opportunity to present a new preface to the forthcoming printing of his book. We recognize that editors have every right to ask for changes from their authors and to engage in the process of peer review. By the same token, we believe authors should be given fair opportunity to respond to and make changes suggested by editors or reviewers.
In his correspondence with the Press, Dollinger expressed willingness to revise in light of the editor’s feedback. However, after receiving a review, one that was never supplied to Dollinger, the Press almost immediately reversed itself by informing him of its decision to omit the preface from the new printing.
We are dismayed by this decision.
A university press has a responsibility to foster scholarly research, dialogue, and debate. The mission statement of Brandeis University Press reflects this vision, highlighting its dedication “to the advancement of the humanities, arts and social, natural and physical sciences, and to the values of social justice, cultural diversity and intellectual integrity.” Whatever procedures the editors of Brandeis University Press and its series in American Jewish History, Culture and Life followed in regard to Dollinger’s preface have resulted in the opposite of these goals: Instead of opening up critical conversations about racism and American Jewish history, related to conversations that are happening widely in the United States today and inherently related to the subject of Dollinger’s book, the Press foreclosed engagement by refusing to publish the preface and explaining that “the subject generates controversy and engenders different opinions.”
The editors of the Press and the series have highlighted the preface’s use of the terms “white supremacy” and “erasure” (in reference to the history of Jews of Color) as the grounds for its refusal to include it in the reprint of Dollinger’s book. Scholars expend a great deal of time thinking about terminology, and it is fair and common for reviewers of scholarly works to ask for clarification about why certain terms were or were not used. However, the Press’s rejection of Dollinger’s preface because he has chosen to use certain words would require far more precise discussion and justification than was offered.
The new preface, as solicited by the Press, was meant to be a very brief reflection on an already approved and published book. It was not a scholarly addition, but a personal one. For the Press to determine that Dollinger’s use of these terms in this context make the preface too objectionable to publish, and then to refuse the author the opportunity to respond and edit the text, appears to be an abrogation of academic freedom. Indeed, the fact that Dollinger was not even provided with copies of the anonymous peer reviews to allow him to address recommended revisions suggests a breach of normative practice in academic publishing.
We are concerned that the Press’s treatment of Dollinger’s book will have a chilling effect on scholarship in the field. Already, some of us have heard from scholars with books under contract or in negotiation with the Press who are now feeling unsure of the Press’s commitment to academic freedom. The statements that the editors of the Press and series offered to the Forward that characterize Dollinger as “under a great deal of pressure” and as embracing “passionate advocacy” at the expense of good scholarship further create the perception that the Press is less interested in engaging with the process of producing scholarship than it is in casting aspersions about Dollinger’s state of mind in the service of its own political advocacy. This is a deeply damaging position for a university press, which should have availed itself of the tools of dialogue, transparent review, and revision.
We are certain that in the coming years, practitioners in our field will ask new questions about how structures of racism in American society have framed Jewish experiences in the United States, and to what extent Jews of European background, in becoming members of the dominant white society, may have been implicated in helping to erect or reinforce these structures. Some of the work that emerges will probe uncomfortable aspects of Jewish life. We neither expect nor desire scholars to be like-minded in how we ask these questions or interpret the evidence related to them, though we expect the conversations to take place with professionalism and respect.
The role of scholarship is to use critical tools of research and interpretation to open conversations, not shut them down. We know that this is no easy task, and we depend on university presses to help us hone our interpretations, improve our scholarship, and disseminate our ideas. We are reliant on responsible editors who value academic freedom, even when our scholarship puts forward challenging or new ideas.
Brandeis University Press has foreclosed a significant scholarly conversation without providing Dollinger an opportunity to see or respond to feedback or reviews. The Press has vacated its responsibility to its author, our field, and the public. Our trust in the Brandeis University Press has been eroded.
Lila Corwin Berman, Professor of History and Murray Friedman Chair of American Jewish History, Temple University
Eric L. Goldstein, Judith London Evans Director, Tam Institute for Jewish Studies; and Associate Professor of History and Jewish Studies, Emory University
Cheryl Greenberg, Paul E. Raether Distinguished Professor of History, Trinity College
Ari Y. Kelman, Jim Joseph Professor of Education and Jewish Studies, Stanford University
Shaul Magid, Professor of Jewish Studies, Dartmouth University
Tony Michels, George L. Mosse Professor of American Jewish History, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Deborah Dash Moore, Frederick G. L. Huetwell Professor of History and Professor of Judaic Studies, University of Michigan
Riv-Ellen Prell, Professor Emerita of American Studies, University of Minnesota
Beth S. Wenger, Moritz and Josephine Berg Professor of History, Associate Dean for Graduate Studies, University of Pennsylvania.