Prof. Howe Responds

Last week, I criticized a review by Prof. Stephen Howe of Shlomo Sand’s book, The Invention of the Jewish People.  Given the somewhat personal nature of the criticism, I invited Prof. Howe to respond, which he does below:

Thanks for your courtesy in letting me know about your posting on Volokh, which I read with great interest (as I also did the ensuing comments from others).

Surely it’s clear that my remark about people with no discernible expertise refers to those who have launched wild and abusive attacks on Sand, not to every blogger who has commented on the book. The latter would indeed have been a wild, absurdly over-general charge – and in any case I have of course not read more than a fraction of the truly remarkable outpouring of commentary, in several languages, which continues to appear. I do not find abuse of that kind in your own criticism, so naturally did not have you among my implied targets.  However, where you say you ‘haven’t seen anyone call Sand anti-Semitic’, I’m afraid I have come across many such instances. Just try Googling the relevant words!

As to my own knowledge or lack thereof, a more careful glance through my past publication list would reveal that I have written a fair bit over the years on Israeli history and politics, in both journalistic and more academic veins. I have been working for some while on a book on Israel’s ‘history wars’, and from both that and a more longstanding ‘layperson’s interest in Jewish history’ am I think fairly well acquainted with most of the very disparate controversies into which Sand ventures. Insofar as, in my view, the real point and purpose of Sand’s polemic is not about ancient history but present-day Israeli politics, I have followed these fairly closely for many years. Apart from anything else, I am closely connected to the country through what E.P. Thompson once called ‘the accident of marriage’.

Both you, and more than one of the respondents so far, apparently see both Sand’s book and my review as serving ‘an anti-Zionist agenda’. I leave it to Sand himself to say whether ‘anti-Zionist’ is an accurate label for his views (though he clearly signals his belief in Israel’s right to exist). I’ve long doubted whether a crude, simple division of people’s worldviews between Zionist and anti-Zionist is a helpful way of mapping the complexities either of Israeli politics or of attitudes to it. And ironically I have myself more than once in the past come under attack for supposedly engaging in ‘Zionist’ apologetics. So long as I continue thus occasionally to be assailed from both ends of the spectrum, I shall feel I’m getting something right.

P.S. I should have added that I in my turn agree entirely with the subsequent comment you posted, thus: “‘Totally agree. I’ve said before that I find these historical debates rather irrelevant to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Even if few Jews are descended from ancient Judeans, or even if most Palestinians’ ancestors didn’t live in Israel Palestine until rather recently, that wouldn’t in any way change the fact that Israeli Jews believe themselves to believe a national entity, as do Palestinian Arabs, and act on that basis. Either group’s national ‘rights’ must be based on their modern national identity, not their ancient ancestry.” Hear, hear!

[Having found some common ground between myself and Prof. Howe, and appreciating his gentlemanly response, I will leave it at that–DB]

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