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Response to Review no. 306

John Klier is an accomplished scholar, a man whose works I have read with admiration. His interpretations of anti-Semitism have influenced my own, as I assume he understands, since I cite his Russia Gathers in Her Jews. The Origins of the ‘Jewish Question’ in Russia, 1772-1825 (Northern Illinois University Press; De Kalb, Ill., 1986) in my book The Jew Accused. I am thus predisposed to listen respectfully to any criticism he has of my work. As for the errors, ‘great and small’, including spelling, that he alludes to in the chapters dealing with Russia in my earlier book, The Jew Accused, I can only say that I had a number of also accomplished scholars of Russian history check over those chapters with care. Without seeing examples of the alleged errors, it is difficult to judge what is at issue, but in one instance where a specific error is mentioned in the review of my Anti-Semitism before the Holocaust, that is, Poland not being part of the Pale of Settlement, I must note that I made a special point of that very distinction in The Jew Accused [cf. p. 41]; that it did not come across clearly in a book dealing with over 3000 years of history, in which Russian history is covered in a few pages, is regrettable but I do wonder if Klier has an adequately realistic sense of the radical condensations necessary, the distinctions necessarily neglected, and dilemmas therefore posed, in covering 3000 years in a hundred pages. He of course does recognize the ‘impossible task’ I have undertaken, and notes that various omissions and sweeping generalizations are inevitable, but he nonetheless then complains about the ‘surprising number of gaps’ and finds fault about the inadequate or unequal space devoted to such matters as the Reformation, Counter-Reformation, and expulsion of the Jews from Spain. Not an easy man to please, but I am not unhappy to be held to exacting standards – if I may then excused for holding Klier’s review to similar standards.

Most scholars understand that any work of broad synthesis will make errors of detail. Most of us recognize how embarrassing errors can creep into even the shortest article. A case in point: Klier’s review of my book is, if I may turn his own words in his direction, ‘replete with factual errors, great and small’, including spelling. I have directed the attention of the editor of Reviews in History to the small errors in initial draft of the review, having to do with spelling in French and German, but in terms of large errors, the biblical story, or at least Klier’s version of it, in his critique of the opening pages of Anti-Semitism before the Holocaust, is more ‘strange and problematical’ than he realizes, in that he mangles it badly, making Isaac the brother of Esau rather than Esau’s father; he further has Isaac, not his son Jacob, assume the name ‘Israel’. Among conceivable errors, great and small, these must certainly qualify as great – a bit like a someone writing about Russian history who confuses Trotsky with Plekhanov.

I am pleased to read that that, whatever factual errors I allegedly have made, Klier does not consider me malevolent or dishonest – pace Robert Wistrich. As my opening sentence suggests, I have no difficulty in returning the favour: Although Klier’s review is replete with factual errors, great and small, including spelling, as well as some dubious over-generalizations, I would be the first to recognize his integrity and, further, to insist that the analytical points made in the review can and should be considered separately. I found them mostly knowledgeable and perceptive, both in regard to my book and the other two reviewed. A key issue is of course our different perceptions of the role of Jewish ‘reality’ in the genesis of anti-Semitism throughout history. I have expressed reservations about the prevailing tendency, both on a popular and scholarly level, to emphasize religious ‘fantasy’ in the genesis of anti-Semitism, but I believe my views, in each of my books, are more nuanced and qualified than Klier suggests, although, again, those views are exceedingly difficult to present, with persuasive illustrations, in the 100-page limit of Anti-Semitism before the Holocaust.

Klier is certainly correct that my interests lie more in the modern than pre-modern periods, but so are the interests of my prospective readers. Even in the relatively ample treatment of the modern period, I simply could not fit in a treatment of Goldhagen, much as I might have liked. My low opinion of his work is amply presented in Esau’s Tears. I did not include Hitler’s Willing Executioners in my recommended readings because, quite simply, I do not recommend it, any more than I recommend other books with crude theses, betraying gross ignorance of German history or that utterly ignore evidence that does not fit into those theses. In regard to the small selection of documents, I freely grant that there is no overall ‘logic’ to them. I tried, instead, to give a necessarily limited sampling of the writings of some of the most famous anti-Semites throughout history, striving also to include a few unfamiliar or otherwise engaging texts, ones that might lead students to think critically about the many facile generalizations that one encounters in this field.

I am finally pleased to read that Klier finds that I have presented a ‘comprehensible and vigorously argued thesis’. My main goal, in what he recognizes as an ‘impossible task’, was to present a readable, brief introduction to the history of anti-Semitism, one that avoided both the dullness typical of introductory texts and any misconceived hopes to cover all the ground, or to avoid saying anything that might be misconstrued or criticized as simplistic. I was of course aware that experts would find fault, but I have also much evidence over the past year that students, the general public, and indeed some scholarly experts have found the volume unusually readable, thought-provoking, and worthwhile – and, I hope, not only because ‘genocide sells’.