Some fifty years ago I wrotemy first scholarly article. When it was published I could hardlycontain myself with pride and excitement. I promptly ordered ahundred offprints from the journal even though I knew, and laterconfirmed, that there would be no more than about a dozen peoplewho could possibly be interested. I gave copies to each of mylittle nephews, then aged 10 and 12, and five to my proud mother.This latter gift netted me a valuable lesson.
At that particular time mywidowed mother was "seeing" a gentleman only slightlyher senior but, as a graduate of a European university, prizedby her as cultured, that is to say European-educated. She promptlypresented him with one of my reprints. In a few days this gentlemansent me a very gracious note, essentially as follows: "Yourmother has been kind enough to let me have a copy of your brilliantarticle, entitled 'so-and-so.' I was enormously impressed. Yourfootnotes, twenty-seven in number, give evidence of great scholarship...."etc. etc. He made no comment at all about the substance of myarticle, nor did he show any sort of interest, then or at anytime, in my research.
The lesson I learned, one Ihad to endure again and again since then, was this: a mere appearanceof learning, the appurtenances, carry weight even with apparentlyintelligent and educated people. Moreover, both for those whopresent such appurtenances as if they were credentials, as wellas for those who accept them as such, these -- the appurtenances-- can be convenient ways of evading the difficult intellectualtasks of scholarship. And they can also serve to obfuscate, aswe shall see.
Mr. Ralph Schoenman becamesomething of a footnote to history in the 1960s as a secretaryto Bertrand Russell, who, alas, eventually repudiated him. Thestory, as well as some details of Mr. Schoenman's later life --his pronounced litigiousness, for example -- are succinctly presentedby ProfessorKenneth A. Rahn, Sr.(University of Rhode Island). Nor do I wish to dwell on the substanceof Mr. Schoenman's ideas about Israel (as summarized by him onpage 88 of his 1988 booklet "The Hidden History of Zionism"):"Even if the apartheid Israeli state were anchored on a shipoff of [sic] Haifa, it would be an outrange." (Some otheraspects of this booklet are discussed by
Mr. Schoenman's work "TheHidden 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 totalof nine footnotes.
The first two paragraphs runas 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 sortof epigraph to the whole book and provides a footnote, numer 1,to authenticate the information. The second paragraph goes onto tell us that the information comes from Hirsh Goodman, who,Mr. Schoenman says, is a correspondent for the (Israeli) JerusalemPost. Mr. Schoenman suggests that he has gone to the source, toJerusalem or at least to a Jerusalem newspaper, and that he givesus the testimony of an eye witness in Israel. Moreover, Mr. Schoenmansuggests that by quoting an Israeli, such testimony is "againstinterest" as the lawyers say, testimony that is thereforeparticularly creditable.
So there is first a testimony with footnotereference, and then a description of the witness who has furnishedthis testimony. Only the footnote does not check out. Readerswho take the trouble to go to the end of the book and there consultfootnote number 1 will find that it credits "Dan Fisher,Los Angeles Times, Dec. 20, 1987." So it seems that insteadof going to something like an original source, Mr. Schoenman hasdone no more than read a Californian telling us about an Israelitelling us about Palestinians.
Nevertheless, there is the footnote itself,which, by its very existence is proof, or is supposed to giveproof, that Mr. Schoenman's work is "documented." Howmany 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 theLos Angeles Times, two to the New York Times, and one to the SanFrancisco Examiner. The remaining footnote, number 5, reads asfollows: "First hand account to the author from the Dheishehcamp." There is no indication of who furnished this account,or the circumstances under which it was given, or how we couldweigh the reliability, or lack thereof, of the information. Noris there any indication of whether the American journalists hequotes were the only witnesses, nor whether what Mr. Schoenmansays they say were the only things they did say about the Israeli-Palestinianconflict. But still, there are these footnotes, each with a number,each waiting to be counted by readers looking for evidence ofscholarship.
What is the function of such footnoting ? Howdoes prose with such footnotes differ from prose without it ?
In most general terms, footnotes should enablethe reader to judge for himself how an author knows what he sayshe knows. They should point to original sources. And they shouldpoint to information that is relevant to the author's propositions,but should also include information that would enable a readerto judge the relative merits of arguments on more than one sideof a controversial issue.
When Mr. Schoenman credits articles he hasread in the daily press of California and New York in 1987, atthe time of the first intifada, this press contained much materialthat could support a variety of viewpoints on the Israeli-Palestinianissue. But Mr. Schoenman's citations are only to those hostileto Israel.
My mother's friend, long gone by now, wouldhave had reason to admire Mr. Schoenman's book. His footnotes,one hundred and eighty-eight in number, might well have led himto judge this book to be "meticulously documented."I am sure that is exactly what Mr. Schoenman's friends tell him.
For further reading:
NoamChomsky'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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