Unintentionally Ironic Book Review of the Week

Professor Stephen Howe of Bristol University reviewed Shlomo Sand’s The Invention of the Jewish People in the Independent.  The review itself says nothing of particular interest, and any discussion of the origins of the demographic origins of modern Jews people that doesn’t reference the genetic evidence is doomed to be worthless.

But here’s the unintentionally ironic part:

The blogosphere has been buzzing with wild charges and vulgar abuse against Sand’s book – most repeatedly, predictably and depressingly, calling it anti-Semitic. Almost none of those assailants, naturally, has any discernible expertise in any of the fields Sand touches on.

In fact, much of the criticism I’ve seen (plus my own), is either by people who do have some demonstrated expertise in the area, or who link to/cite those who do.  (For that matter, I haven’t seen anyone call Sand anti-Semitic, but many have correctly pointed out that his theory that most Ashkenazic Jews descended from Khazars finds virtually no support among geneticists or linguists, but is quite popular with anti-Semites around the world, who have been basically the only ones keeping the “controversy” alive.)

But what of Prof. Howe?  From his website:

My main focus has been on British imperial history, including the role of imperial questions in domestic British politics; but my writing also involves a strong comparative element, which embraces a growing interest in ideas about American ’empire’ today. Much of my recent and current work engages with the very concept of colonialism and associated terms, including reflection on and probing of the limits, the uses and indeed the abuses of the concept itself. Much, too, addresses broad theoretical and comparative questions about anti- and post-colonialism. I’m currently completing three interrelated books: on the intellectual consequences of decolonisation, on anticolonial intellectuals, and on representations and legacies of late-colonial violence.

Not only does this statement of his scholarly interests not betray any “discernable expertise” on Jewish history, but Howe’s list of over two hundred publications contains not a single one with the words “Jew” or “Jewish” in the title.

Sure, he and Sand may have a common interest in colonialism and “post-colonialism.”  But the controversy over Sand’s book is not over post-colonial theory, writ large, or Sand’s theory of nationalism, but over Sand’s specific historical claims about the purported “invention” of the concept of Jewish nationhood by 19th-century European Zionist intellectuals who purportedly had little genetic or other connection with either the ancient Judeans or other Jewish communities around the world.

In other words, Howe is likely  more ignorant about the actual subject matter at hand than many of the bloggers he excoriates (many of whom have at least a layperson’s interest in Jewish history), and there is certainly nothing in his review that suggests otherwise.

UPDATE: One reasonable interpretation of Howe’s review is that Sand’s book is useless academically, because it either consists of rehashed, well-known information, or of rampant speculation (“in intellectual and historical terms, Sand is rehashing some old arguments and even setting up straw men for too-easy demolition”). But the book is nevertheless valuable because it serves an anti-Zionist agenda (Howe’s lack of expertise on the matter doesn’t stop him from concluding, dubiously, that “Zionism and the Israeli state’s most basic founding assumptions depend heavily (though, as [Sand’s] concedes, never exclusively) on the ethno-nationalist pseudo-history he attacks.”)  Yet another triump for “truthiness” in academic discourse?  Put another way, replacing whatever combination of myth and fact that is accepted among the lay public in Israel with Sand’s equally (at least) dubious version of myth and fact wouldn’t advance the quest for truth, and is a shameful ambition for an academic, but it might serve someone’s political interests if he prefers Sand’s politics to mainstream Israeli politics.


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