An Open Letter to Steve Berry regarding The Alexandria Link (part 1)
As I've mentioned in previous posts and in my LibraryThing review, I had quite a strong (negative) reaction to the book The Alexandria Link by Steve Berry. And, as I've also previously mentioned, I've been working on an open letter to the author concerning the anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli narrative of the story. Unfortunately, my letter has gotten longer and longer, because there are so many points that I want to make, because I want to sure that potential readers are alerted to the problems in the text, and because I want to be thorough and accurate in my comments and criticism.
Thus, with the foregoing in mind, I have elected to post the first half of my letter now while I continue to work on and revise the second half. I'm posting the first half now because I'm hopeful that by cutting the length in half, more people will be willing to read what I've written and because I am interested in any suggestions that people may have to make my letter even stronger. When I have finished the second part of the letter, I will post it here as well and then, after people have had an opportunity to read and react to that part of the letter, I will synthesize those comments, make any additions or corrections that may be necessary, and forward the letter to Steve Berry and his publisher.
Therefore, what follows should be thought of as a "work in process" subject to further revision. And, though it should go without saying, the following statements and analysis are my opinion. Finally, the use of quotations from The Alexandria Link is without the permission of the publisher; however, those quotations are used for the purpose of criticism, comment, and scholarship, pursuant to the Fair Use provision of the Copyright Act (17 U.S.C. § 107).
With that said, what follows is part 1 of my open letter to Steve Berry:
Dear Mr. Berry:
I have just recently finished reading your novel The Alexandria Link, the second of your novels to feature the character Cotton Malone. Unfortunately, the novel proved to have numerous issues with which I became gravely concerned and which I have elected to address with you by way of this letter. However, prior to doing so, I would like to make a few preliminary points.
First, I have read each of your previous novels. Some, like The Amber Room, I liked very much. Others, like The Third Secret, I found less enjoyable. Nevertheless, I’ve enjoyed each of the books enough to add each new novel to my reading list.
Second, please understand from the outset, that my concerns with The Alexandria Link have nothing to do with the central premise of your novel, that certain information hidden in the lost library of Alexandria might reveal that the land G-d promised to Abraham and the Jews might not have been the same land upon which the modern State of Israel exists. This is just the sort of fanciful plot device that I frequently enjoy, even if not particularly plausible.
Just for the record, I did a bit of quick Internet research on Kamal Salibi, the author of the basic premise upon which your plot rests. It is worth noting that his ideas have apparently met with scorn within the academic community including the following comments from Philip C. Hammond, of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Utah (as apparently printed in the August 1990 issue of the International Journal of Middle East Studies [although I acknowledge that I have not had an opportunity to review the original article]):
A proper review of this book would unfortunately subject the reader to a volume far larger than the one being reviewed. The sheer enormity, page by page, of “identifications,” transmutations [sic!], blatant historical error, misconceptions, and similar problems with the scholarship, preclude considerations within the scope of any “review.” It is difficult to understand how such a volume could have been foisted upon an unsuspecting public. Perhaps the scholarly reader will find a certain degree of amusement in appreciated the skill of the author in his attempted linguistic exercises, but the lay reader might, regrettably, be misled by the appearance of the “scholarship” presented. To assume that similar, or even identical, place names are proof of “identity” between two places is palpably absurd. To declare that archaeology, with its modern chronometric techniques, cannot place occupations correctly is contrary to fact. To ignore the linguistic analyses of biblical Hebrew from the Massoretes to modern scholarship is presumptuous. To dismiss casually all modern scholarship in the field is unscholarly in the extreme. To display ignorance of published archaeological and other data in favor of selected, “favorable” quotations is likewise not the way knowledge is advanced. [¶] In short, this reviewer can see no reason why this volume was published, either in its original German edition, or in English translation.
Nevertheless, the plot device, while fanciful, is not the reason for this letter. Instead, my concerns are related to your treatment of several, related issues: The 1948 Israeli War of Independence, the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, anti-Semitism, and other matters of import to Jews and supporters of Israel. Before diving into these areas in more detail, let me make one more thing clear: I did not object to making Israel a “villain” in the story. While I am both unaccustomed to and uncomfortable with the idea of Israel as villain, I decided that, so long as it made sense within the framework of the story, then I could put that element aside and allow you to tell me the story that you wanted to tell. The problem with The Alexandria Link is not that you have made Israel a villain, but rather your treatment of the aforementioned issues. I can only conclude that the book was written as it was because you were not particularly thorough in your research or because you actually intended to espouse an anti-Semitic viewpoint.
When I finished The Alexandria Link, I was curious to know if other readers had reactions similar to mine. Imagine my surprise to find the essay “Evil Fiction” by well-known author Orson Scott Card (winner of two Nebula Awards and two Hugo Awards). Before finally addressing my specific concerns with The Alexandria Link, allow me first to quote several points that Card makes in “Evil Fiction” about The Alexandria Link. I offer these quotations as background and so that I will not have to rehash the points that Card makes in my own critique and commentary.
[T]his book, to the degree that it is read by people ignorant of history (i.e., practically everybody), will move us closer to a future in which our society permits or even approves of the murder of Jews and the destruction of the state of Israel.
[W]hat Berry is providing is pure propaganda – the propaganda created by terrorists and murderers to “prove” that Jews “deserve” to be blown up suicide bombers.
So when a novel like Berry’s The Alexandria Link treats such events as background, as if everybody knew that this is how Israelis act, what it is really doing is furthering the propaganda of one side in a desperate war.
One can argue for or against many decisions of the Israeli government, but it takes a flagrant disregard for historical accuracy or standards of fairness to pin any significant part of the blame for the killings in Palestine on Israel.
Berry’s novel is not just a book that happens to mistake some Palestinian propaganda for truth. It is a book that systematically and continually makes false and damaging charges against Jews, Zionists, and Israel, while denying or ignoring the massive number of betrayals, lies, atrocities, and crimes against humanity committed by Israel’s enemies.
Anybody who reads Steve Berry’s The Alexandria Link is opening his mind to pro-terrorist hatred and lies. This is not a situation where you read both sides and assume the truth is somewhere in the middle. This is a situation where Berry’s work is based on lies designed to goad people into supporting or tolerating the murder of innocent people.
So, with those comments in mind, allow me to address certain aspects of The Alexandria Link in more detail, including a number of elements that were outside the scope and focus of “Evil Fiction”.
Throughout The Alexandria Link, you interchange the words “Israeli” and “Jew”. For example, in Chapter 17, a character refers to “Jewish spies within the Palestinian Authority”. The novel’s narrative provides no evidence that the spy was Jewish rather than a person (Jewish, Muslim, or Christian, working on behalf of Israel). Thus, an Israeli spy, certainly, but a Jewish spy? Similarly, in Chapter 21, a character (Hermann), referring to actions taken by Israel (on the basis of information from “Israeli spies” – most likely the same people as the “Jewish spies” referred to above), says that “The Jews had overreacted, as always...”. Not, “the Israelis had overreacted”, but “the Jews”.
Once again, in Chapter 27, a character (Sabre) thinks of Israel as “the Jews”; what is odd about this moment is that in a previous chapter when Sabre heard Hermann refer to the “Jewish problem”, Sabre noted that he “wasn’t aware there was a problem” and that was after deciding not to comment on Hermann’s statement that “Jews are a problem... They’ve always been difficult. Being different and obstinate breeds unmitigated pride.” So, in essence, we have a character that, at first seems surprised or at least indifferent to one character’s anti-Semitic remarks, but who then adopts a similar referential viewpoint later.
In Chapter 53, yet another character (Daley) substitutes “Jew” for “Israeli”. While I can certainly see one anti-Semitic character (Hermann) doing so, it makes little sense for Daley to do so. And, even if it makes sense for Hermann, Sabre, and Daley to frequently substitute “Jew” for “Israeli”, it makes absolutely no sense for Thorvaldsen, himself a Jew, to do so as he does in Chapter 87, noting that “the Jews seemed satisfied”. For my part, I have never heard a Jew refer to Israelis as “the Jews” rather than as “Israelis”.
While Israel may be a Jewish state, any actions that it takes are Israeli, not Jewish. Don’t forget that a large percentage of the population of Israel is Muslim or Christian (somewhere in the neighborhood of 25%). Moreover, it is worth comparing that to much of the Islamic world where it is often illegal to be a non-Muslim or where non-Muslims are often denied full citizenship; in fact, Muslims are represented in the Israeli Knesset, at present making up approximately 10% of the governing body. Thus, one must question your motive for continually interchanging the terms “Jew” and “Israeli”; was it a means of denigrating Jews? Was it a means of somehow calling into question the patriotism of American Jews (more on this subject later)? Or were you just sloppy? I don’t imagine that you would refer to the Indian government as “the Hindus” or the South African government as “the blacks”. So why refer to the Israeli government as “the Jews”?
Odd word choices are not just for Jew and Israeli. In Chapter 13, Brent Green, the Attorney General of the United States, refers to “Palestinian militants” rather than “Palestinian terrorists”. While the media may be loathe to use the term “terrorist,” few in the US government, especially in law enforcement, use the term “militant”. But the term “terrorist” might be inflammatory if applied to Palestinians, so you have substituted the more mundane, less threatening term. Militants appear to have a legitimate right to their actions; terrorists do not.
In Chapter 74, Thorvaldsen says that “Jews will learn that the Old Testament is a record of their ancestors from a place other than Palestine.” Forgetting the portion of this statement that deals with the actual plot of the book, a Jew is highly unlikely to refer to the “Old Testament”; doing so implies the existence of a New Testament. Instead, Jews refer simply to the Bible or the Torah. Another odd reference can be found in Chapter 42, where you note that Thorvaldsen “was a Jew. Not devout or overt, but still Hebrew.” I’m not sure what exactly that is supposed to mean, but somehow, the use of the word “Hebrew” reads as nothing less than a racial or ethnic slur, no different from “nigger”, “wop”, “spic”, or any of the other words commonly used to denigrate those of a different racial or ethnic background (for the record, I find the use of such terms to be reprehensible, and I use them here merely as examples).
Also troubling is your substitution of the word “Palestine” for “Israel”. While I understand this in the case of dialogue by a Palestinian or an Arab or even a critic of Israel, in Chapter 22, an Israeli official says that Haddad telephoned “Palestine”. I can see an Israeli official saying that Haddad called the Palestinian Authority or Ramallah or the West Bank or Gaza, but that Israeli official would never have used the phrase “Palestine” in a conversation of that type. After all, at present Palestine does not exist as an entity. (More discussion on “Palestine” will follow.)
Thus, it appears that, throughout The Alexandria Link, you have been either repeatedly careless with word choices or, more troubling, made intentional word choices that serve no purpose other than to subtly promote and advance an anti-Semitic viewpoint. Given that you are, by profession, both an attorney and an author, it seems hard to believe that you were so careless with word choice so many times; yet if you were not careless, then that means that your word choices were intentional, in which event the meaning of those words reveals something about your feelings about Jews and Israel.
Actions of Jewish Characters
Beyond the word choices of Hermann and the Israeli official mentioned above, The Alexandria Link also contains numerous instances in which Jewish and/or Israeli characters act or say things that, at best, make no sense or, at worst, run completely contrary to Jewish culture and belief.
One of the most offensive passages in the book can be found in Chapter 49 when Malone’s 15-year old American son asks Thorvaldsen (who, you will recall is Jewish), “Why do people hate Jews?” The colloquy that follows demonstrates what I believe is either the depth of your anti-Semitism and/or your lack of understanding of some of the simple fundamental differences between Judaism and Christianity:
“Why do people hate Jews?”
He’d [Thorvaldsen] many times pondered that question — along with the philosophers, theologians, and politicians who’d debated it for centuries. “It started for us with Abraham. Ninety-nine years old when God visited him and made a covenant, creating a Chosen People, the ones to inherit the land of Canaan. But unfortunately, that honor came with responsibility.”
He could see the boy was interested.
“Have you ever read the Bible?”
Gary shook his head.
“You should. A great book. On the one hand, God granted to the Israelites a blessing. To become the Chosen People. But it was their response to that blessing that ultimately determined their fate.”
“The Old Testament says they rebelled, burned incense, credited idols for their good fortune, walked according to the dictates of their own hearts. So God scattered them among the Gentiles as punishment.”
“That why people hate them?”
He finished fastening his mantle. “Hard to say. But Jews have faced persecution ever since that time.”
“God sounds like He has a temper.”
“The God of the Old Testament is far different from the one in the New.”
“I’m not sure I like that one.”
“You’re not alone.” He paused. “Jews were the first to insist that man is responsible for his own acts. Not the gods’ fault life went bad. Your fault. And that made us different. Christians took it farther. Man brought his exile from Eden on himself, but because God loved man He redeemed us with the blood of His son. The Jewish God is angry. Justice is His aim. The Christian God is one of mercy. Huge difference.”
“God should be kind, shouldn’t He?”
Several things should be noted about the preceding passage. First, the Jewish character responding to the question of why people hate Jews never mentions the charge of deicide, that Christians blame Jews for killing Christ. Talk about the proverbial elephant in the room. Nor does Thorvaldsen mention any of the litany of charges leveled against Jews over the centuries, from the blood libel (using the blood of Christian babies in the Passover Seder) to causing the Black Plague to controlling the world’s money or media to simply being “different”. And nor does Thorvaldsen respond that people are simply wrong or bigoted or uninformed or xenophobic. And finally, he doesn’t say, “I don’t know.” Instead, and I can’t imagine any Jew responding to such a question the way you have Thorvaldsen respond, he focuses on ancient biblical understanding without referring to the birth of Christianity, the death of Christ, or any of the other reasons that have been used over the centuries.
Second, I find it absurd that a Jewish character would describe the “Jewish God” and the “Christian God” as different, with the focus on that difference being anger and mercy. While I don’t want to get into a theologic debate, such a ridiculous simplification can serve no purpose other than to denigrate Jews, Jewish theology, and the “Jewish God”. That a Jewish character would say this is beyond nonsense; it is patently offensive. Add to this the statement, again by the Jewish character, that “because God loved man He redeemed us with the blood of His son.” (Italics added.) Who precisely is the “us” to whom Tharvaldsen refers? Jews certainly don’t believe that Jesus was the source of redemption. That may be a Christian way of looking at things, but it certainly is not the Jewish perspective. A Jew might say that Christians believe that is what happened, but would certainly not articulate the statement in the way that you ascribe to Thorvaldsen. So why would a Jew, when asked why people hate Jews, respond in such a way? Is this your way of telling the reader that it is, in fact, acceptable to hate Jews? After all, if the “Jewish God” is not the same as the merciful “Christian God” then perhaps it is acceptable to hate (and kill?) Jews. Add to this the statements by the American character that he does not “like that one” (referring to the “Jewish God”) and that “God should be kind” and it appears that you are telling your reader that, from the American perspective, it is acceptable to dislike the “Jewish God” and that the “Jewish God” is not “kind”. Offering this sort of subtle anti-Semitic perspective, disguised as a thriller, is dangerous.
Then in Chapter 60, Thorvaldsen is given the chance to utter another bizarre and totally misleading statement:
These books,” he said to Gary, “supposedly tell us how history unfolded for the people of Israel thousands of years before Christ. They were a people whose destiny was tied directly to God and the promises He made.”
“But that was a long time ago?”
He nodded. “Four thousand years in the past. Yet Arabs and Jews have warred with one another ever since trying to prove them true.”
Once again, history does not support this statement and it is ridiculous to think that it would be made by a Jew. In point of fact, Jews and Muslims enjoyed a very healthy relationship until the early part of the 20th century. Muslims often refer to Jews as “people of the Book” and for centuries afforded Jews special status within Muslim culture (that of dhimmi). Jews thrived in the Ottoman Empire and in Moorish Spain while European Christians put Jews in ghettos, forced conversions at the point of a sword, and blamed the evils of the world on Jews. Show me examples of Jews and Muslims fighting over the promises made by G-d prior to the rise of the Zionist movement in Europe. Basically, there aren’t any. Arabs and Jews lived together in relative peace for centuries. Only when Jews tried to reestablish a homeland in the latter part of the 19th century did Jews and Arabs find themselves at odds. Any Jew with a rudimentary history of his religion or the world knows this, so Thorvaldsen’s crazy assertion must be seen for what it is: yet another attempt by you to subtly influence the reader with your anti-Semitic viewpoint.
Another troubling aspect of The Alexandria Link is the impression given to the reader by two Jewish characters, one Israeli and the other American. Heather Dixon appears for much of the book to be a villain (although she is somewhat rehabilitated late in the story). You tell us that she is an Israeli citizen, a Mossad agent, and that she is attached to the embassy in Washington. Yet how many Israeli citizens do you reasonably think are named “Heather”? I looked online at a number of databases of Israeli names. I found lots of Hannah and Esther and Ofra and Shoshana and Yael and many other names from the Bible, but not a single instance of “Heather”. Moreover, you’ve given her the married name “Dixon” leaving the reader with a name that is about as American girl-next-door as would be possible to create. Why is this meaningful? Keep reading. You have also created an “off camera” character, that of a “successful lawyer with an Atlanta firm, a senior partner, but also a Jewish patriot. Huge supporter of Israel. Homeland Security believes that he’s helped finance one of the more militant factions in the Israeli government.” (Chapter 39.) Putting aside what precisely you mean by a “militant faction” of the Israeli government (as if some factions of the Israeli government want violence and bloodshed, I suppose), let’s look at what you have, in fact done. With the characters of Heather and this unnamed “Jewish patriot” you have, in essence, shown American readers that Jewish spies could be anywhere in their midst. A Mossad agent could be the girl next door, Heather Dixon, or the successful lawyer could, in fact, be an Israeli spy. In other words, a casual reader of The Alexandria Link could be left with the impression that any Jew that they meet could be a spy for Israel or, said another way, a “Jewish patriot” as opposed, I suppose, to an American patriot, who also happens to be a supporter of Israel. Was it your goal to make your readers wary of their Jewish neighbors?
In a single novel, you have managed to add messages telling your readers that it is acceptable to dislike the “Jewish God” and that those same readers should distrust their Jewish neighbors.
You also put Israel in the position of engaging in actions that are completely out of character and don’t accurately reflect reality. The prime example of this is the plot device that has Israel detonating a bomb in a Jerusalem café in order to kill Haddad. Do you honestly think that Israel, a country besieged by terrorists and suicide bombers, would resort to a terrorist bombing of its own in Israel? Assuming, for the point of your plot, that Israel in fact wished to kill Haddad, don’t you think that it would have been more likely for them to kill him with a gun or an exploding cell phone (as was used to kill a Hamas bomb maker) or a targeted missile attack on an quiet desert road or even a knife in a dark alley? If you were to conduct an honest analysis of Israeli military and anti-terrorist actions (and not just rely upon Palestinian propaganda) you would find that Israel frequently aborts attacks against terrorists in order to minimize civilian casualties. Israel could easily flatten Jenin or Ramallah or Khan Yunis, but does not. So does it really make sense that Israel would try to kill Haddad with a bomb that would certainly kill Israeli citizens? Of course not, unless you honestly believe that Israel goes about indiscriminately killing civilians as some Palestinians falsely claim. But the use of this plot element furthers your point in making Israel out to be, not just the villain, but a nation of terrorists. The use of an Israeli bombing of a café takes attention away from real life Palestinian terrorism on buses, in discotheques, in pizzerias, in shopping malls, and at Passover Seders.
Similarly, the “Jewish patriot” lawyer from Atlanta is apparently killed by Israel, simply to tie up a loose end. Even assuming for a moment that Israel would use an American citizen to engage in the sort of espionage work that you’ve described, does it really make sense that Israel would then kill that man (especially if he was useful to Israel)? Several Americans have spied for Israel; they’ve gone to jail. Israel has petitioned for their release, but, so far as I’m aware, Israel never tried to kill them to keep them quiet. In other words, the Israel in your world will kill its own citizens and its own supporters, apparently without conscience. That may be what the Palestinians tell you about Israel, but it is not the Israel reflected by facts. But that is precisely what Palestinians do. A quick look at news reports will show numerous examples of intra-Palestinian violence (remember when Fatah and Hamas each threw a supporter of the other group from the roof of a high rise building or when the Palestinian Authority allowed a mob to dismember an Israeli police officer?).
And, just to be sure that readers don’t miss your messages, you even have the Palestinian character Haddad convert to Christianity. Perhaps you were worried that your readers would not be able to sympathize with Haddad and his cause because he is a Muslim; if the reader can’t sympathize with Haddad, then it is less likely that the reader will be swayed by the anti-Semitic and pro-Palestinian messages throughout The Alexandria Link. But, by having Haddad convert to Christianity, you make him more similar and sympathetic to your readers, thus making it easier to espouse and have readers accept your viewpoint. And given that there is no real reason in the story itself for Haddad to have converted, then your reasoning for doing so must be something outside the story. And, it is worth noting what you actually say about Haddad’s conversion to Christianity: “He became an academician, abandoned violence, and converted to Christianity” (Chapter 12). The subtle (or perhaps not-so-subtle) message in this passage, is that Muslims are, by definition violent while Christians are peaceful. Again, without going into a detailed analysis of history or theology, I think that it is safe to say that plenty of violence has been conducted by Christians in the name of G-d. All one needs to do is read your previous book, The Templar Legacy, to be reminded of the violence that has been committed within Christianity.
Thus, ends part 1 of my letter to Steve Berry. Part 2 focuses on the Palestinian narrative of history (in particular related to the 1948 Israeli War of Independence, but also more recent matters) that Berry adopts without challenge in The Alexandria Link. Just to whet your appetite for some of what is to follow, allow me to quote two very brief passage from the book: First, Thorvaldsen (who you will recall is Jewish and a supporter of Israel) says that the term nakba (Arabic for disaster or catastrophe, and the term that is used by the Arab world to describe Israeli) independence is a "fitting term" for "both sides". Second: "Stephanie [a senior American intelligence officer and one of the clear "good guys" in the story] knew that, of late, the Arab world had been far more accommodating than Israel".
For discussion of those points (and many others), you'll have to wait for part 2.