Noel Ignatiev's Blog

Danger! Keep Out!

By Noel Ignatiev

Recently there appeared an Encyclopedia of Western Colonialism Since 1750, three volumes, 1200 pages, which contained no entries for Israel or Zionism. The Zionist movement is mentioned in the entry “British Colonialism, Middle East” (in the section on the Balfour Declaration), where it is identified in a parenthesis as “a Jewish response to modern European anti-Semitism.” 

In 2008 at the request of the editor, John H. Moore, I submitted an article on Zionism to the Encyclopedia of Race and Racism, published by Gale under the Macmillan imprint. Moore accepted the article, and after a few changes in tone (to which I did not object) to make it conform to academic standards, it was published. It was, to my knowledge, the first article to appear in a reputable academic publication that went beyond criticizing this or that Zionist act to denouncing the entire Zionist project and the state of Israel as based on the ideology of race (although of course many books had been published making the same point—link to the article below).

Shortly afterwards the article became the center of controversy. The American Jewish Committee, the Zionist Organization of America and other groups attacked it and the Encyclopedia, asking, among other things, why an article on Zionism was even included in an Encyclopedia on Race, and demanded that the publishers retract it. The article also found defenders. (See and, and was reprinted on various pro-Palestinian sites. Newspapers in the U.S., Canada and Jerusalem covered the story. The publishers appointed a committee to investigate the article. Following its conclusions, they agreed to eliminate it from the Encyclopedia, and published a 10-part composite article, “Nationalism and Ethnicity”, with a new article on Zionism and evaluations of cultural nationalism elsewhere, which was sent free of charge to all customers.

At the time I asked myself what the concessions could mean in practice beyond sending out a “correction” and promising to eliminate my article from future editions (which would never appear). Surely they were not going to reprint a three-volume encyclopedia. Would they send an agent with a razor blade to every library in the country that owned a copy? Well, I found out: first, they fired the editor. Yesterday, stimulated by news of the Encyclopedia of Western Colonialism, I checked the on-line catalog of the library at the college where I teach, which had purchased a copy of the Encyclopedia of Race and Racism, and learned that all three volumes were listed as “charged, due back in 2021.” Since I had never previously encountered such a listing, and books are normally charged out of the library for no more than a semester, I am guessing that the three volumes have been withdrawn from the reference department, perhaps to be shredded. I have written the library director asking for an explanation.

Who cares, I asked myself, about an article in an Encyclopedia that costs $400 and that no one will ever read but a few professors? But then I remembered the Encyclopedia Britannica’s rejection of Du Bois’s article on Reconstruction, and of the story C.L.R. James tells somewhere of being asked to write an article on I-forget-what and telling the editor, you will never publish that article, and turning out to be right, and I can say that I am proud to be in their company.

Maybe the editors of the Encyclopedia of Western Colonialism had the fate of the Encyclopedia of Race and Racism in mind when they decided to publish their three volumes, 1200-plus pages, with no entries on Israel or Zionism. In the future perhaps the words Israel and Zionism will come with a warning sign, similar to that posted on electric power centers, with a death’s head symbol and the words: Danger—High voltage! Keep Out!

Addendum: I heard back from the people at the library. The books had been removed and sent to Technical Services; it could have been for something as trivial as a missing spine label. It is hard for me to imagine what could have damaged all three heavy volumes of a set that probably no one has looked at in five years, but in any case they are back on the reference shelves. When I get back in September I will look, just to make sure that my speculation about the razor blade was unfounded.

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