Mr. Ralph Schoenman: The Art of the Footnote


Some fifty years ago I wrote my first scholarly article. When it was published I could hardly contain myself with pride and excitement. I promptly ordered a hundred offprints from the journal even though I knew, and later confirmed, that there would be no more than about a dozen people who could possibly be interested. I gave copies to each of my little nephews, then aged 10 and 12, and five to my proud mother. This latter gift netted me a valuable lesson.

At that particular time my widowed mother was "seeing" a gentleman only slightly her senior but, as a graduate of a European university, prized by her as cultured, that is to say European-educated. She promptly presented him with one of my reprints. In a few days this gentleman sent me a very gracious note, essentially as follows: "Your mother has been kind enough to let me have a copy of your brilliant article, entitled 'so-and-so.' I was enormously impressed. Your footnotes, twenty-seven in number, give evidence of great scholarship...." etc. etc. He made no comment at all about the substance of my article, nor did he show any sort of interest, then or at any time, in my research.

The lesson I learned, one I had to endure again and again since then, was this: a mere appearance of learning, the appurtenances, carry weight even with apparently intelligent and educated people. Moreover, both for those who present such appurtenances as if they were credentials, as well as for those who accept them as such, these -- the appurtenances -- can be convenient ways of evading the difficult intellectual tasks of scholarship. And they can also serve to obfuscate, as we shall see.

Mr. Ralph Schoenman became something of a footnote to history in the 1960s as a secretary to Bertrand Russell, who, alas, eventually repudiated him. The story, as well as some details of Mr. Schoenman's later life -- his pronounced litigiousness, for example -- are succinctly presented by Professor Kenneth A. Rahn, Sr.

 (University of Rhode Island). Nor do I wish to dwell on the substance of Mr. Schoenman's ideas about Israel (as summarized by him on page 88 of his 1988 booklet "The Hidden History of Zionism"): "Even if the apartheid Israeli state were anchored on a ship off of [sic] Haifa, it would be an outrange." (Some other aspects of this booklet are discussed by CAMERA.) My purpose here is merely to look into what Mr. Schoenman can do with footnotes.

Mr. Schoenman's work "The Hidden History of Zionism" may be consulted on the internet. I will here look at his opening section, pp. one and two, comprising thirteen short paragraphs with a total of nine footnotes.

The first two paragraphs run as follows:

"With anger, hatred, and sheer ferocity, thousands of youngsters hurled rocks at their Israeli occupiers, undaunted by the gunfire that greeted them. This was more than civil unrest. ...It was the beginning of a civil rebellion." [l]

This is how Jerusalem Post correspondent Hirsh Goodman described the uprising of Palestinian youth in the West Bank and Gaza in mid-December 1987.

The first paragraph is presented as a sort of epigraph to the whole book and provides a footnote, numer 1, to authenticate the information. The second paragraph goes on to tell us that the information comes from Hirsh Goodman, who, Mr. Schoenman says, is a correspondent for the (Israeli) Jerusalem Post. Mr. Schoenman suggests that he has gone to the source, to Jerusalem or at least to a Jerusalem newspaper, and that he gives us the testimony of an eye witness in Israel. Moreover, Mr. Schoenman suggests that by quoting an Israeli, such testimony is "against interest" as the lawyers say, testimony that is therefore particularly creditable.

So there is first a testimony with footnote reference, and then a description of the witness who has furnished this testimony. Only the footnote does not check out. Readers who take the trouble to go to the end of the book and there consult footnote number 1 will find that it credits "Dan Fisher, Los Angeles Times, Dec. 20, 1987." So it seems that instead of going to something like an original source, Mr. Schoenman has done no more than read a Californian telling us about an Israeli telling us about Palestinians.

Nevertheless, there is the footnote itself, which, by its very existence is proof, or is supposed to give proof, that Mr. Schoenman's work is "documented." How many readers will go to the trouble to check it out ?

Of the remaining eight footnotes in this section, seven refer the reader to American newpapers: four more to the Los Angeles Times, two to the New York Times, and one to the San Francisco Examiner. The remaining footnote, number 5, reads as follows: "First hand account to the author from the Dheisheh camp." There is no indication of who furnished this account, or the circumstances under which it was given, or how we could weigh the reliability, or lack thereof, of the information. Nor is there any indication of whether the American journalists he quotes were the only witnesses, nor whether what Mr. Schoenman says they say were the only things they did say about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But still, there are these footnotes, each with a number, each waiting to be counted by readers looking for evidence of scholarship.

What is the function of such footnoting ? How does prose with such footnotes differ from prose without it ?

In most general terms, footnotes should enable the reader to judge for himself how an author knows what he says he knows. They should point to original sources. And they should point to information that is relevant to the author's propositions, but should also include information that would enable a reader to judge the relative merits of arguments on more than one side of a controversial issue.

When Mr. Schoenman credits articles he has read in the daily press of California and New York in 1987, at the time of the first intifada, this press contained much material that could support a variety of viewpoints on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. But Mr. Schoenman's citations are only to those hostile to Israel.

My mother's friend, long gone by now, would have had reason to admire Mr. Schoenman's book. His footnotes, one hundred and eighty-eight in number, might well have led him to judge this book to be "meticulously documented." I am sure that is exactly what Mr. Schoenman's friends tell him.

January 2006

For further reading:

Noam Chomsky's "Documentary" Basis for Anti-Zionism



Chomsky's Links to the neo-Nazis: Some documents

Chomsky Update: 2001

Israel Shahak's writings on the Jews

What Edward Said Knows


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