Response to Lemche's "Writing Israel out of the History of Palestine."

Enough of this “scholarship” that needs to include aspersions against the objectivity of other scholars, even when agreeing that their central point in an article was right.

See Also: Writing Israel out of the History of Palestine

By Richard Elliott Friedman
Davis Professor of Jewish Studies, University of Georgia
Katzin Professor of Jewish Civilization Emeritus
University of California, San Diego
October 2012

Wow. That’s quite a curious reaction to an article that this person agreed was right. He wondered why I spent time listing so much of the evidence. I thought I was just making the evidence available to readers: here’s how we know that ancient Israel and Judah were there. And his main point was that, well, people erase Palestinian history just like Ahmadinejad and others deny the Jews’ history.

He says, “Every history is invented history.” He puts the words “history” and “facts” (and “Israel”) in quotation marks. He’s using what is known as a post-modern approach to undermine the possibility that we really know some history. It is ironic and sad that this had to come up during this week when we are mourning the loss of our greatest scholar of ancient Israel, its religion, and its culture, Frank Moore Cross, my teacher. I remember that a few years ago Professor Cross encouraged us not to despair over the sorry state of scholarship from Lemche’s circle. He said: “An anti-historical wind is blowing that supposes good scholarship and false ideologies cannot be distinguished.” (He also said, “After all post-modern is a ridiculous word. Pre-modern is possible, but not post-modern. I am reminded of the term 'pre-boarding' used of my getting aboard an airplane early with my cane. I do not mind pre-boarding as long as I was not asked to pre-disembark.”)

I wrote a piece about how we know this history without having to get it just from the Bible. But Lemche then says that I definitely subscribe to a cultural memory founded on the Bible. I referred to thousands of inscriptions, and he referred to it as “some stray inscriptions.” I referred to the evidence of the proportion of pig bones on Israelite/Jewish sites — one percent compared to 40 percent on Philistine sites (cultural evidence, not biblical!), and he says it is not about pig bones, it is about what people have been told to believe. I referred to the linguistic evidence of the long and early development of the Hebrew language in biblical times — which is now a tremendous body of evidence. It completely undermines his position (that the biblical record comes from “the Jewish elite of the fourth through first centuries (BCE).” He doesn’t mention it. He claims that he uses the name Palestine for that land in ancient times because Herodotos used it. If he’d look carefully at all the references in Herodotos he’d see that they refer only to the region where the Philistines lived. That’s why Herodotos called it Philistia/Palestine. Not every history is invented history, but this one by Lemche sure is.

And then he asks why I spent all that space on the evidence. He’s asking for whom that bell tolls, when it apparently needed to toll for people like him.

And then he thinks he’s qualified to say that Palestinian history is being erased as well. Personally, I spent years in Jewish-Palestinian dialogue. None of us erased each other’s history. We looked each other in the face and listened, argued, agreed, and ate some really good hummus together. Professionally, I joined with Jewish and Arab archaeologists who met and worked together in collegiality. My late wife specialized in the Arab-Israel situation from the cultural perspective of an anthropologist. In her research she found Israeli historians all across the spectrum of analyses of Israeli and Palestinian history, reopening old questions, challenging each other with facts. I’m not sure that it was right for Lemche to use my discussion of ancient Israel and Ahmadinejad’s remark to jump into these questions, but I can say that he misrepresents the present picture — as badly as he misrepresents the picture of biblical times.

I’m sorry to have to say it, but this is simply weak scholarship, poorly prepared with the skills to judge the linguistic evidence, unable to judge the archaeological evidence, and mis-dating and mis-reading the textual evidence. He has no idea when texts were written, by whom, or why. He has no idea of how widespread Israel’s communities were or how extensive their government was over centuries. It’s enough already. Enough of this “scholarship” that needs to include aspersions against the objectivity of other scholars, even when agreeing that their central point in an article was right.

Comments (10)


#1 - Aren Maeir - 10/24/2012 - 19:17

Bravo!!! well said sir, well said.

#2 - Daniel Ortiz - 10/25/2012 - 00:37

Another good way of approaching this issue is suggested in the book of Proverbs
27:22 " )im tikhtosh et ha)evil bamakhtesh.." etc.

Uri Hurwitz

#3 - Uri Hurwitz - 10/25/2012 - 02:32

It is clear that I will have to answer in more details, but do not have the time before the weekend (we have Reinhard Kratz as guest lecturer these days).

However, may I recommend that Ron Hendel provides his friends here with a short introduction to memory studies, Halbwachs (best in French--the usual selection in English is a lousy representation of Halbwachs' original study, and there is still no satisfying edition in English of his posthumous and unfinished work on memory), Nora, Assmann (best in German, although the translation of his main opus Das kulturelle Gedächtniss into English [early this year] makes the situation somewhat better)etc. But also some of the readers that have appears during thelast few years, especially Orlick's. It is difficult to discuss a subject if the other part has little understanding of what it is all about.


Until Sunday.


#4 - Niels Peter lemche - 10/25/2012 - 09:11

Well, yes. Quite right of you to stand up for your teacher, the one scholar in the world who had no ideology at all and only dealt with objective facts. Or would you add your own name?

#5 - philip davies - 10/25/2012 - 10:46

Dear Prof. Davies,

Your comment was unworthy of you.

David Vanderhooft
Boston College

#6 - David Vanderhooft - 10/25/2012 - 14:55

Dear David Vanderhooft,

You must understand that Cross did not have the same position in Europe as in the US. Over here he was reckoned one among many. My personal favorite is still Martin Noth. Further, we are not very much in favor of this idea about "the greatest"...

Otherwise ... De mortuis nihil nisi bonum.


#7 - Niels Peter lemche - 10/25/2012 - 16:12

The inspirational or counter-inspirational effect of a teacher is an example of influence on belief which is not directly based on evidence for the belief in question. To teach is to promote attitudes and approaches to the world that seem good to the teacher. At least in complex and difficult matters these approaches amount to an ideology. There's nothing wrong with this, only with uncritical reaction to it. To mock the idea that a certain teacher is non-ideological is not to mock that teacher, dead or alive as (s)he may be.
The idea that it is constructive to organise a dialogue on historical matters specifically between Jewish and Palestinian scholars presupposes, I think, that the initial beliefs of members of these groups about history are influenced by conflicting ideologies, not just by evidence - and furthermore that everyone benefits not merely by looking at the same evidence but by comparing ideological approaches.
Did any consensus or blend of approaches emerge? If it did, I think that the world would be interested. I also think that this consensus would in some sense be an invention, though I also think that that word has rather a lot of misleading associations.

#8 - Martin - 10/25/2012 - 21:59

Dear NPL,

If '[e]very history is an invented history' then perhaps you might leave off drawing the trivial implications that follow; instead, try redirecting your arguments away from politics towards what used to be known as history, or invent an alternative politics so that you can rejoin the substantive debate. After all, what's good for history is good for politics, isn't it? It's all invented, isn't it?


#9 - Christopher Russell - 10/29/2012 - 03:01

What a lucid, well-written, essay, Prof. Friedman. All I can say is that I am thankful somebody finally said something.


#10 - Michael Helfield - 12/11/2012 - 16:41


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