Anonymous reviews (of the paper entitled The Non-Semitic Origins of Contemporary Jews) solicited by the Annals and Antipode geography journals

 

Dear professional reader,

 

You find below the four anonymous reviews I received from the Annals of the Association of American Geographers and Antipode during the course of a 9-month review process of the paper entitled “The Non-Semitic Origins of Contemporary Jews.” I am sharing them with professional readers as part of bringing the debate on Zionism to the academic table, after a long highjacking by the media and politics. At least one of the reviewers has acknowledged that he/she is an Israeli who reviewed the paper for both the Annals and Antipode. The first reviewer dismissed the paper by saying that he/she was “surprised that it was sent out for review in the first place.” The second claimed that “it is more of a polemic than an academic article.” The third claimed that “the paper doesn’t present its arguments in a valuable and academic way.” The fourth warned that “if the journal were unwise enough to publish it, it may well find that its most enduring quality would be in its potential to attract litigation.” In my view the reviewers were simply blackmailing the journals’ editors by ranting about anti-Semitism and/or the political implications of the research instead of engaging my central argument and taking issue with it in light of my documented analysis of the facts related to the Semitic claim made by Zionism on behalf of contemporary Jews. Sometimes they don’t even read the whole paper. For example, reviewer number 3 is asking for a definition of “the Zionists” without apparently reading the only “note” of the paper. He/she also wants to dictate the type and format of sources consulted. I did state in each section of the paper the central claim made by the Zionists (often in their own words) then I proceeded to demonstrate its fallacy based on the findings of top scholars (many of them are Israeli or American Jews) in the various fields of history, archaeology, linguistics, and genetics. After several years of research on this topic, I can say that Zionist historiography and worldview have literally enslaved and brainwashed the minds of many American intellectuals and lay persons, to the extent that they can’t think rationally outside the Zionist box. But I also believe in the power of ideas and persuasion and I hope you will read both the paper and the reviews and draw your own conclusion, if you are interested in the debate on Zionism and its Semitic claim. Thank you.

 

Reviewer 1: Review on paper as undertaken for Annals – comments remain the same

It took me a long time to decide whether I should review this manuscript or simply return it to the editors. My own positioning as an Israeli academic has to be taken into account. I do not have knee jerk reactions to anything which may appear to be anti-semitic or value loaded against my own particular "ethnic" group - of whom I myself am sometimes highly critical. But this paper is a completely different story. It simply does not fall >into the category of an academic paper and I am even a bit surprised that it was sent out for review in the first place. To begin a proper critique of the paper would necessitate commenting on almost every single paragraph - which is beyond my time limitations.  The selective use of sources, many of which are questionable, the absence of numerous other source material, the attempt to turn history on its head seems to be part of a political agenda which has no place on the pages of this, or any other, serious academic journal. I want to be careful in the choice of words but I have never previously experienced such a paper. It is not worthy of consideration and the author should be reproached for attempting to sell his / her false and revisionist history to a worthy academic journal. That does NOT mean that critical analyses of Israel, the Jewish people, or any other society for that matter, should not be considered even when they run against the grain of "establishment" and accepted thinking. I am always happy to review and comment constructively on papers of this sort.  But to put it simply, this particular submission is a disgrace to the intellect. I hope that in the future I will be able to review the type of paper for which Annals is rightly known - solid scholarship of the highest quality.

 

Reviewer 2: This paper takes issue with the Jewish ancestry claim (or the ‘Semitic claim’), which lies at the heart of Zionism and the contemporary Israeli nation-state. The paper begins with an examination of the Israeli Law of Return, which rests on the idea that contemporary Jews are the direct inheritors of the Biblical Israelites, and which has been used to appropriate the ‘homeland and heritage’ of the Palestinians. It reviews and synthesizes research that, for the past few decades, has called into question the validity of the Semitic claim. In doing so, it touches on important developments in Biblical archaeology, linguistics, and genetic research. Based on this existing research, the author suggests, briefly, that the history of the ancient Jews is rooted in the history of Arabia; that there is little evidence that the events recorded in the Hebrew Bible actually took place in Palestine; that the Hebrew Bible is better understood in light of Arabic grammar and Arabian history; and that contemporary Hebrew and contemporary Jews are better understood as rooted in Europe and European history rather than in Palestine. The conclusion is that Jews cannot substantiate their claims to Palestinian land or to an identity rooted in Palestine.


The paper addresses some interesting literature and debates, but it is more of a polemic than an academic article. The author’s objective, clearly, is to expose the great injustice that has befallen the Palestinian people. While I don’t think the Annals should shy away from political arguments, I do think that the journal must serve as a forum for original research that has relevance beyond particular case studies. This article summarizes and synthesizes a lot of research, but it does not present anything original, and the author does not attempt to link his/her arguments to wider geographical themes, such as citizenship, nation-building, ideological constructions of places and peoples, etc. As such, it does not contribute anything to current debates in the discipline and is not appropriate for the Annals.


I should also add that the author deals with many complex events and ideas in a very cursory manner. The paper is quite short given the scope of the arguments and the material addressed. The author seems to assume that the reader is knowledgeable of debates over biblical history, linguistics, and so on, but this assumption should not be made. The author, for instance, never fully explains terms like ‘Canaanite’ or even ‘Semite’, and he/she makes sweeping remarks that would be lost on those not familiar with ancient Middle Eastern history, such as ‘The 80-year exception of the Hasmonean family (or Macabees, considered Jewish) was largely a reflection of the balance of power between the Ptolemies in Egypt and the Seleucids in Syria. Moreover, there is no evidence of the Sanhadrin [sic] in Jerusalem prior to the Greek rule’.

I also was a bit troubled by the tone of the article, which is, as I’ve stated above, very polemical. I’ve read some fascinating critiques of biblical archaeology that reveal the many historical and literary conceits upon which Zionism is based. But I fear that in making his/her arguments, the author veers toward another form of cultural chauvinism. For instance, the author suggests that the term ‘Semite’ is misleading because the various people who came from the Arabian peninsula never described themselves as Semites. ‘A more accurate label for them,’ the author states, ‘would be “Arabian” or “Arabians” since they all apparently came from Arabia…’ He goes on to describe how the Arabian origins of Semitic peoples and languages have been overlooked by Western scholars, who have treated Jews as a completely separate group and one with every specific links to Palestine. I agree that we need to look at all of ‘the Bible peoples’ (as Kamal Salibi calls them) in the larger context of the Arabian Peninsula, where there was a tremendous exchange of ideas, populations, and cultural forms. However, if these people never called themselves Semites, then I highly doubt that they referred to themselves uniformly or primarily as Arabians or Arabs either, and, indeed, it seems like quite a stretch to suggest that calling all of these groups Arabians, while geographically relevant, is somehow more accurate or valid than calling them Semites (a term that means descended from Noah’s son, Shem, and that originally denoted the language group encompassing not just Hebrew, but Arabic, Aramaic, Assyrian, etc.). The author comes close to saying that the history of the Bible and biblical peoples is essentially Arabian and Arab and that the Jews who today inhabit Israel have usurped not only Arab lands but also Arab history. There has indeed been a great deal of cultural and historical appropriation taking place in modern |srael. But can we say that any piece of land or any history belongs essentially to any group of people, be they Arab or Jewish? Viewing the history of this region as ‘Arab’ is as problematic as viewing it as ‘Jewish’ or ‘Hebrew,’ because in both cases we are projecting modern notions of nationhood and peoplehood on contexts where such ideas have come into existence relatively recently. I think the author needs to be more circumspect and dispassionate in formulating his/her ideas about the region’s history and identity.

 

Reviewer 3: I recommend rejecting this paper. This is because the paper doesn’t present its arguments in a valuable and academic way but rather marks a target and recruits too many fields to convince the reader. In neither of  these fields the author establishes a deep and innovative discourse but rather presents one-sided way of thinking. This results in a superficial, dogmatic and a populist paper not suitable for publishing in Antipode. In addition, and following from that, the author, either intentionally or unintentionally, excludes in every field of analysis a large body of academic research just because it doesn’t support the author’s arguments. At the same time, the ‘academic’ support of his/her claim rely in many cases on some doubtful sources such as newspapers articles and internet sites which in fact consists of one third of the bibliography. For example: 

The section on The Law of Return misses academic researches done in Israel about the discriminatory and perhaps abusive impact of these and other laws both by geographers (Yiftacheal, Yacobi, Fenster, Kedar) and by other scholars (Rabinowitz, Shenhav, Peled, Yona etc). This doesn’t prevent the author from arguing that: ‘It should be noted that critical studies of Zionism have often been tabooed….’ (p. 30). Related to that, the author also choose not to mention two significant historical facts which are connected and can be seen as a background for the announcement of the Law of Return, one is the Jewish Holocaust and the other is the rejection of the Palestinians and Arab states of the ‘Partition Plan’ that the UN announced in 1947 which declared the establishment of two states; Israel and Palestine.  

The sections on the historical documentation, biblical archeology, the linguistic track and the genetic turn seem to suffer from the same problem. There is for example, an ongoing and legitimate discourse of biblical archeology including many researches published on this matter starting from the end of the 19th century. Some of these works do validate some of the biblical events (the Kingdoms of David and Solomon for example) but again they are not included in the paper. Even those researchers that the author choose to mention (Herzog and Finkelstein-quoted from newspapers articles and not from their academic work) argue that there is no one general conclusion about the existence of archeological evidence to biblical events but that for some biblical events there are more evidences then for others. Again the partial selection of quotes (sometimes from newspapers articles and not from academic works) show of a strong bias, which doesn’t let a legitimate academic discourse to develop.  The linguistic part also misses the work of Noam Chomski. Here too, there is a large body of both linguistic and biblical literature, which presents different perspectives of these issue, but they are not mentioned because they represents a different approach than the one the author wants to lead to. The same with the section on the genetic turn, which is mostly based on intent, sites information to substantiate some very ambitious and doubtful statements. 

There are many examples in the paper to the doubtful reference of the argumentation; I mention only a few of them; 

p. 2: ‘the Semitic claim becomes taken for granted when US cultural and media echo the following cheerful but serious proclamation of the President of the US’…. - This seems a bit fishy to rely on one sentence of a Presidential speech to support the above claim.

P.3- ‘The Zionists wear the Semitic claim on their sleeves all the time’…. Who are ‘the Zionists’ – residents of Israel? American Jews? And ‘all the time’? What about those who oppose or fight for a change within Israeli society?

P.6-‘This appropriation of the Palestinians homeland and heritage is officially referred to as the ‘reestablishment’ of the Jewish people’…- no reference

P.13 – the fact that the large scale Jewish migration from Palestine to Europe during the Roman occupation of Judea in the 1st century has no historical documentation- who says so? And what does it mean?

p. 17- the citation that supposedly is a ‘reference’ for the ‘deepening crisis of identity in Israel’ is not substantiated 

One of the points of the conclusion is rather surprising as well. After this long and quiet tiring detailed reading of all the ‘facts’ that the author uses to ‘prove’ that the Jews are not Semites, the reader is warned that if s/he were not convinced by these arguments, that is: ‘even if contemporary Jews were actually ‘Semitic’, this will not justify their dispossession of the Palestinians’…. This is a totally different argument, which may in itself be a valid point for a completely different paper, which can develop this idea using a large body of a serious academic research written by Israeli, Palestinian and other academic scholars.

 

Reviewer 4: I have now read through this paper a number of times.   

I’m afraid that there isn’t a shred of original research in it.  It is just a pretty unsophisticated regurgitation of several old canards about the origins of European Jews that have been around for a long time and which have little if any truth to them but which many people, for motives of their own, would like to believe to be true.  In fact, the whole piece is put together in such a fashion that were this to see the light of day, many people would find it highly offensive. 

 

The title suggests that the paper might be a discussion of this longstanding debate about the origins of Ashkenazi Jews, presenting all points of view before arriving at a conclusion.  No such thing occurs here.  Instead, the author opens the paper with a 9-page diatribe against Zionism and Israel.  If the paper was really an academic discussion, there might have been room for presenting this idea somewhere towards its conclusion and in 100-150 words but by opening with this, the author shows all her/his cards at the outset, with the intentions for writing this piece made patently clear.

 

I have read articles before that have presented similar arguments but in which the authors have tried to be subtle and make a point of presenting perspectives that obviously differ from their own before exposing their hands and coming down on one side.  Here, the author presents only literature that supports his/her own view—and what a literature!  For example, the author quotes several sources that state that there is no material evidence for the presence of the ancient Israelites in Palestine yet there is not a single hint of the many sources that exist stating the opposite.  Although Dever’s work is well-known, many scholars are of the opinion that his conclusions are open to challenge and that the archaeological evidence can be interpreted in different ways.  There is no sense of debate in this paper; one side is taken as truth; the other doesn’t even merit a mention.   

 

The only attempt at any “subtlety” in the presentation of this author is by seeing to it that some of the references quoted come from Jewish authors (e.g. Brenner, Koestler, Wexler), as if their Jewishness somehow lends their views greater credence.  But his/her unfamiliarity with the material at any depth is illustrated by the attempt to show a knowledge of Hebrew (on pages 14 and 15), in which the two Hebrew words are not just incorrectly spelled but in which the author cannot distinguish the character beth from kaph nor does he know that resh cannot take a dagesh

 

However, what stands out more than anything else is the author’s apparent lack of ability to discriminate between bona fide academic sources and bogus ones.   A high proportion—a third—of the references come off the Internet and this is worrying because the author seems not to be able to understand the shortcomings if the Internet as a source of information. Useful though it may be very useful in some circumstances, the Internet can be wholly unreliable as a source of serious references because there is no peer-review and any person or organization can post whatever they wish.  Some people think that this is what makes the Internet exciting (i.e. that there are no gatekeepers) but one needs to be savvy enough to realize that this is also a serious drawback. It’s also worth pointing out that a quarter of the references are pre-1980, a high proportion for a paper that is not explicitly an historical paper. 

 

There is a reference in the paper to Brenner (a reference, which, incidentally, no longer appears on the website).  This particular website, which is described as a “bilingual German-English site for Marxists and all those interested in socialist ideas”, contains summaries and reprints of articles and reviews that have appeared in the press.  Amongst other things, the fact that the reader is directed to a website and not simply to the original source, strongly suggests that the author has not read Brenner’s book at all but some summary of or reference to it.   

 

But there’s another reference that is even more worrying than the one to Brenner.  I remember reading a review of Bradley’s book some years ago and remembered that the book had some pretty cock-eyed ideas, like Jews being descended from Neanderthals, so I decided to check out and see if Mr. Bradley had a website.  Sure enough, I found it at: http://www.michaelbradley.info/, where under the subheading articles, Bradley’s letter to President Bush is really worthy of a read.  If the author of the article you sent me thinks that Bradley is a reliable source of information and ideas, then I would suggest that there is something extremely abnormal about his judgement.   

 

As if I needed more evidence to support my feeling that the author was treating the rantings of a deranged person (Bradley) with some seriousness, I chanced across a letter written by the distinguished psychologist, Steven Pinker, formerly at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and now at Harvard, to the President of MIT, on hearing a radio interview with the same Michael Bradley on an MIT radio station some years ago.  I quote Pinker in full: 

 

I tuned in to WMBR this evening and learned some extraordinary facts: 

-The Jews are descended from Neanderthals.

-The Jews are an aggressive, ruthless people who once fought with axes and clubs but today try to dominate the world and annihilate people of color via their control of corporate America, Wall Street, and the media.

-The Jews ran the African slave trade.

-The Spanish conquistadors who decimated Native Americans following the arrival of Columbus were mostly Jewish.

-In the American colonies, Jews started to import African slaves after they killed all the Indians and no longer had them available as slaves.

-In the American south, a higher percentage of Jewish families were slaveholders than non-Jewish families.

-European Jews have no historic connection to Israel, because they descended from pagans from the Caucasus who converted to Judaism in the Middle Ages and then enslaved the neighboring Slavic populations.

-The catering and security companies at Logan Airport may be Jewish-owned. That may be part of a conspiracy in which the September 11 attacks were staged as a pretext to wage war on people of color. 

I also learned some intriguing facts about biological research: 

    -The AIDS virus may have been created to target blacks as an "ethnic-specific population control measure," disseminated through vaccines.

    -AIDS has been deliberately spread in the Third World via HIV-imprinted toilet paper given out free to poor people.

    -The Whitehead Institute and other biological labs at MIT have been developing viruses targeted at specific ethnic groups.

    -The research facilities have also been developing special cures for diseases that only affect Ashkenazic Jews. 

I eventually learned that I was listening to an interview with a (white) man named Michael Bradley, author of "Chosen People from the Caucasus: Jewish Origins, Delusions, Deceptions and Historical Role in the Slave Trade, Genocide and Cultural Colonization." The interviewer is "Brother R.A.," and he was the source of the information about biological research at MIT and Whitehead. The rest came from Bradley, and Brother R.A. accepted it without objection. The program is called "RealBlacktalk.com" and is produced here at MIT. 

 

Needless to say, Bradley is a crackpot. Aside from his obvious anti-Semitism and paranoia, his science and history are half-truths or flat wrong. The Khazar theory was disproved long ago. The Neanderthals left no descendants. Ashkenazic Jews have genetic ties to Middle East. Bradley cited no genetics, and relied on a theory of the evolution of the races that has not been taken seriously since the 1950s.

 

Why am I writing of this? Don't get me wrong. I am a strong advocate of free speech on campus. The program should not be censored or canceled, and the producers and interviewer should not be censured or hauled in front of any disciplinary body. It is central to the ideals of a university that no opinion be suppressed because of its content. 

 

It should also go without saying that despite the name of the program, I know that the opinions expressed on the show are not in the least bit representative of those among African American students or faculty at MIT. 

 

Still, I found the broadcast disturbing, for a number of reasons: 

 

1.  If WMBR had aired an interview with an unknown writer who expressed similar views about African Americans, or Asians, or Italians, would our community show the same commitment to free speech? Will this stand as a precedent for future episodes in which the targets might be different? 

2.  Under President Vest's leadership, MIT has made a concerted and welcome effort to improve racial tolerance. Students are made aware of tolerance and diversity issues form the moment they step on campus. If a single student shouts an ethnic slur, it is big news, and the entire Institute responds. Yet here we have a show produced on our own campus, intended for one of the ethnic groups on campus, spreading vicious and inflammatory nonsense about another ethnic group (and, for that matter, about research activities by MIT faculty, and important scientific issues of our time). How does this episode compare to the others that have been a subject for reflection and debate on campus? Do we feel comfortable sending students into the world who have learned their Jewish history from this broadcast? 

3.  MIT is the world's premiere scientific institution. I have been listening to WMBR for decades and have never heard a program that even mentions science, or for that matter scholarship of any kind. This is the first discussion of history I have ever heard on the station. But instead of hearing about it from a serious historian, or a geneticist, or an evolutionary biologist, we hear from an unknown crackpot and conspiracy theorist. What does this say about the programming decisions at WMBR? 

 

Thanks for listening to this concerns. I am not recommending any specific action. I just wanted to get you all thinking, and to make you aware of this episode in the larger context of free speech and race relations at MIT. 

Sincerely,

Steve Pinker

Peter de Florez Professor of Psychology

MacVicar Faculty Fellow

Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences

NE20-413

steve@psyche.mit.edu 

 

However, as if this wasn’t sufficient to recommend rejecting this article, there was another reference that intrigued me; this was to the work of Paul Wexler, a Professor of Linguistics at Tel-Aviv University. Though I am neither a linguist nor an expert on the Hebrew language, I enjoy reading about language and linguistics.  I can’t recall ever seeing Hebrew being referred to as a Slavic language, though there’s a fair amount about Slavic influences on Yiddish.  So I consulted with a colleague who is a Professor of Hebrew whose specialities are General and Hebrew linguistics, general and Hebrew syntax, semantics, pragmatics, discourse analysis.  I quote from his response:  

 

“As for biblical Hebrew as an unknown language, "deciphered afresh", I am really surprised. Maybe the author does not differentiate between a tongue that ceased to be a spoken vernacular and a dead language, such as Old Egyptian. I don't have to tell you how alive biblical Hebrew was, at least as written language, without a single day of interruption, from the Song of Deborah until now. The Biblical texts are the very foundation of the Hebrew/Jewish people.        

 

Post- and anti-Zionists usually feel uncomfortable with the idea that Israeli Hebrew is a unique phenomenon of a written language that became a living spoken tongue in Palestine, a national language. Therefore, they try to diminish as far as they can the historical continuity of Hebrew, claming that it's a new vernacular, with only loose ties with ancient Hebrew. Wexler's book is the culminating absurdity of this trend. There is not a single Hebraist or Semitist that takes his book seriously. This Slavicist doesn't make any distinction between the external history of a language and its inner and genetic history. He could as well say that Israeli Hebrew today is an English/American jargon because of the great English/American influence on Hebrew. Yiddish is not Slavic but a descendent of Hochmittel-deutsch, and Hebrew is not another Yiddish, no matter how much it was semantically and culturally influenced by it (though far less than he thought).”

 

Having written all this, I have no regrets whatsoever in recommending to Antipode that it reject the paper out of hand.  Moreover, I fear that if the journal were unwise enough to publish it, it may well find that its most enduring quality would be in its potential to attract litigation.