Vol. 46 No. 7 · 4 April 2024

Search by issue:

The Shoah after Gaza

Pankaj Mishra’s essay is a tour de force (LRB, 21 March). However, I find one detail in it jarring: his use of the Hebrew term ‘Shoah’ to refer to the Nazi genocide of Jews. The Nazi Judeocide was perpetrated in Europe; its victims were overwhelmingly European Jews, the vast majority of whom did not speak Hebrew and were not familiar with the word.

On the other hand, Hebrew, my native tongue, is the language spoken in one country, Israel, where the word shoah, meaning ‘catastrophe’, has long been used – with the definite article: ha-shoah – to denote the Nazi genocide. Borrowing this term in a text in any other language carries a hidden but heavy ideological load.

This borrowed usage of ‘Shoah’ has spread since Claude Lanzmann’s film of that name appeared in 1985. The film is an impressive work of Zionist propaganda. Most people won’t see its biases (not a word about the Romany people and other groups who got the same treatment as Jews; not a word about the many brave non-Jews who risked their lives helping Jews to survive). Lanzmann’s choice of this title was one element of his ideological strategy. The more commonly used term ‘Holocaust’ was felt to be too general. A new term had to be introduced to the world. Lanzmann’s ingenious idea was to make a subliminal terminological connection between the genocide of Jews and the state of Israel. It is part of the hasbarah justification of the Zionist colonisation project as compensation for Jewish victimhood.

Moshé Machover
London NW6

Pankaj Mishra seems to suggest that it is unreasonable for Jews to see the Shoah as a Jewish tragedy that could reasonably change the way they think about communal solidarity, national sovereignty or Zionism. There is a certain arrogance in requiring Jews – or any other group of history’s victims, for that matter – to feel a certain way about their communal past, to shed any sense of particularity, and to become universalised representatives for any number of enlightened abstractions, somehow always chosen by other people. The appropriate lessons of the Shoah, Mishra writes, are ‘respect for freedom, tolerance for the otherness of beliefs and ways of life; solidarity with human suffering; and a sense of moral responsibility for the weak and persecuted’. Those are fine lessons to which any group should aspire, but Jews are also real people with real fears, real concerns and real experiences. They are not avatars, and they are not metaphors in someone else’s morality play.

James McAuley
London W1

Better without Humans

Rebecca Solnit begins her piece on San Francisco with an eerie picture of driverless cars, telling the story of a Cruise autonomous vehicle which dragged and crushed a woman who had just been hit by another, human-driven, car (LRB, 8 February).

In 2021, 42,915 people died in car crashes in the United States. Of those, 13,384 people were killed as a result of drunk driving. Distracted driving – a category that includes things like texting while driving, eating, fiddling with a stereo and talking to passengers – claimed 3522 lives. Fully autonomous cars are still not deployed very widely, so it’s hard to get an accurate count of the number of deaths they have caused (between one and eleven in total, depending on the way ‘autonomous’ is defined), but the limited data we do have indicates that the number of deaths per mile driven is far, far lower than for human-driven cars.

There is something horrible about the robot car accident, but we need to disentangle our response from the actual numbers. How many humans were dragged how far by cars driven by other humans? Why shouldn’t this appal us just as much? Human drivers kill millions globally. Self-driving cars seem likely to kill fewer. Solnit expresses a justified scepticism of corporate incentives and makes the accurate observation that San Francisco is increasingly socially divided, then concludes that Silicon Valley’s techno-optimism is bankrupt and that the things it creates are fundamentally bad. Driverless cars will make us safer. They will reduce the number of premature deaths, the amount of time people spend commuting, and the need for parking lots (meaning more housing, more public spaces). Many valuable innovations can be made even in a highly imperfect social, economic and political system.

Avital Balwit
San Francisco

Which came first?

‘We need to explain why Shakespeare was so interested in Henry VI, this insubstantial late medieval monarch,’ Barbara Everett writes (Letters, 21 March). One answer would be theatrical rivalry. As Ros Knutson showed in The Repertory of Shakespeare’s Company, 1594-1613 (1991), between 1590 and 1594 there was a healthy rivalry between the London companies for plays about the Wars of the Roses. The Queen’s men, Strange’s, Pembroke’s and Sussex’s men each had their own contenders. Shakespeare wrote Henry VI Part 2 and Part 3 for Pembroke’s men. Scholars have long argued that the play Henslowe called harey the vi, acted by Strange’s men on 3 March 1592, was an attempt to cash in on that vogue, and that it represents an early version of Henry VI Part 1, revised by Shakespeare at some point after 1594.

As for the question ‘Which came first?’, Penny McCarthy is disturbed that I ‘assert’ that Part 1 was written a year later than the other two parts, as if I were making some new claim. It was first made many years ago by several major scholars (E.K. Chambers, John Dover Wilson, W.W. Greg), and has recently been endorsed by Martin Wiggins in British Drama 1533-1642: A Catalogue. The evidence is partly biographical, but nonetheless valid. We know that the second and third parts were in existence by the summer of 1592, if not earlier, because a pamphlet written by Robert Greene just before his death on 3 September included a mocking misquotation from Part 3. If Shakespeare had written Part 1 by 3 March, he could hardly have written Parts 2 and 3 in time for them to be acted and known by 3 September, not least because the theatres were closed owing to the plague between 23 June and Michaelmas. In addition to this external evidence, Part 1 reveals knowledge of characters and events from Parts 2 and 3, but they are ignorant of Part 1. To give one example, Talbot, the hero of Part 1, is never mentioned there, not even in a list of those who had shed their blood in France.

In my letter of 7 March I described Henry VI Part 1 as a stand-alone play by three authors, Nashe, Kyd and Shakespeare, whose contributions can be differentiated by verbal analysis. McCarthy disputes the value of ‘stylistics’ in authorship studies and queries ‘the reliability of the database’ that I have used. I have not been using stylistics, but a method that has long shown its value in identifying authors, their tendency to repeat distinctive phrases. All language users have their preferred phrases, linguistic ‘chunks’ that are repeated more frequently than individual words. Early modern dramatists, working for theatrical companies in a highly competitive environment, might be involved, singly or jointly, in writing several plays during the short performing season, and inevitably repeated themselves. This has been known since the 1880s, but scholars limited to reading and noting could never be sure that their figures were accurate.

Brian Vickers
London NW6

Too Difficult for Women

Ferdinand Mount can make even a list read interestingly, the list in question being the aberrant decisions and restrictions visited on women and the ‘lower orders’ by the nobs who ran and (mostly) still run national and international sports bodies (LRB, 22 February). In mentioning that no women’s Olympic event longer than 800 metres was run until 1972, Mount misses a trick. There was a women’s 800 metres in the 1928 Olympic Games, but the Olympic committee dropped the event until 1960 on the grounds that it was too difficult for women, despite the pictorial and indeed film evidence to the contrary. One of the nine finalists, all of whom finished the race, had overbalanced and fallen as she was trying to outlean a competitor. She got up almost immediately.

There is a photo of an exhausted Daley Thompson at the conclusion of the final event in the 1984 Olympic decathlon, the 1500 metres. He is clearly knackered, but has stayed on his feet to survey the human wreckage around him. Every one of his competitors is flat out on the track. No one suggested that the decathlon be discontinued.

Pat Butcher
London NW2

I adjure you, egg

Tom Johnson mentions John Dixson, arraigned in 1448 for using a psalter and key to identify thieves (LRB, 21 March). I recently came across an account of a court case in Shropshire in which a woman accused her neighbour of stealing a sheet. The woman had placed a key on the Bible and gone round the street until the key spontaneously rotated to point out the accused neighbour’s house. Speaking her name out loud caused the Bible and key to shake so violently they fell out of the accuser’s hands. The chief magistrate was astonished that such ignorance and superstition existed in the parish and dismissed the case. This was in 1879.

Joe Oldaker
Nuneaton, Warwickshire


Lorraine Daston, writing about Linnaeus, mentions his correspondence with people around the world who would send him specimens and observations (LRB, 22 February). When Linnaeus was 67 he wrote to Lady Anne Monson, who was sixty:

I have long been trying to smother a passion which proved unquenchable, and which has now burst into flame. So far as I am aware, Nature has never produced a woman who is your equal … Should I be so happy as to find my love for you reciprocated, then I ask but one favour … that I may be permitted to join with you in the production of just one little daughter to bear witness of our love, a little Monsonia, through which your fame would live for ever in the Kingdom of Flora.

He was seeking her permission to name a genus of plants after her. She said yes. It’s in the geranium family.

Arthur M. Shapiro
Davis, California

Flung into the Stars

Ange Mlinko, writing about Jo Ann Beard, concludes with a mention of Annie Dillard, a ‘distant supernova in a sub-zero vacuum’ and suggests that Dillard’s subject is the ‘sublime’, rather than ‘other people’ (LRB, 21 March). She doesn’t mention Dillard’s novel The Living (1992), a complex frontier story about the settlement of Puget Sound in the late 19th century. It’s brimming with all kinds of ‘other people’, including a monstrous villain called Burl Obenchain, who lives in a tree trunk with a puncheon floor; Hump Talem, chief of the Nooksack; and Tommy Cahoon, a scalped Pullman conductor. It’s true, though, that it does end with the words: ‘He judged the instant and let go; he flung himself loose into the stars.’

Penny Collier
Bonsall, Derbyshire


Nicholas Penny, writing about graffiti, mentions some of the applications of the technique of sgraffito in the fine arts and pottery making (LRB, 7 March). Sgraffito is also the term for the decoration of the façades of buildings in the canton of Graubünden in south-eastern Switzerland, particularly in the Lower and Upper Engadine valleys, Bergell and Val Müstair. These designs – geometric patterns, rosettes, ribbons and mythological figures – may cover part or the whole of a façade, and surround doors and windows, corners etc. They are etched into the surface plaster by a knife or stylus so that the colour of a deeper layer shows through.

John Potts

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences