Class Will Out

MY BOOK, The Imperial Middle, attempts to explain why Americans can't think straight about class. One explanation I offer is that American professors of sociology seem in terror of the concept of class and adopt a variety of strategems to avoid mentioning it. Others beside myself have made the same point, and I cite their attacks on academic sociology enthusiastically in the course of waging my own. When Book World assigned the book to a professor of sociology -- the establishmentarian Alan Wolfe -- for review (Book World, Dec. 16), it effectively killed any chance the work might have had for impartial, disinterested assessment. BENJAMIN DEMOTT Worthington, Mass. Yasser Arafat WE ARE glad that Walter Reich, who reviewed our book, Arafat: In the Eyes of the Beholder (Book World, Dec. 9), believes it contains "important insights" and represents a "prodigious effort" of reporting that provides the reader "with a range of material that is varied and rich enough to enable {him} to come to {his} own conclusions about Arafat and the PLO."

Unfortunately, Reich's review contains factual errors that have serious consequences for our credibility as journalists. We did not make two of the three "errors of history and fact" that Reich alleges and upon which he builds his case that "the authors should have invested more energy than they did in studying the history of the region and its peoples."

A careful reading of the book clearly indicates that when we wrote, on page 5, that 90 percent of the population was Arab when the British occupied Palestine during World War I, we were talking about Palestine and not Jerusalem. After spuriously suggesting that we were discussing Jerusalem, Reich makes the point that "by the best available estimates, more than 50 percent {of Jerusalem's population} was Jewish." That is precisely what we wrote; in fact we noted that "some scholars" assert Jerusalem had a Jewish majority" as early as the mid-19th century.

Our second error, he says, is that we wrote Masada, the ancient fortress where a band of Jewish zealots took their own lives rather than submit to their Roman conquerers, "is not, as they write, in the West Bank." We never wrote that it was. The only place Masada is mentioned is on page 132 where we wrote that Israelis, eager to celebrate the June 1967 victory, visited several places in Judea, including Bethlehem, and then "traveled to Masada."

We cannot assert that we made no errors in our book. But Reich's use of these alleged mistakes as an excuse to justify his argument that we should have spent more time studying the region is unfair. It is unfair because two of the three errors he says we made are unsubstantiated in the text and because we spent 2 1/2 years studying the history of the region. JOHN WALLACH JANET WALLACH Washington Walter Reich responds:

Only if we read the two sentences in question in precisely the ways the Wallachs insist we do can we conclude that they don't contain errors. In the case of the first sentence, however, the Wallachs' way requires an interpretation that hardly all would share. And, in the case of the second, it requires an interpretation so forced and unnatural that even a reader eager to give the Wallachs the benefit of every possible doubt would be hard pressed to comply.

Here, in full, is the first sentence: "By the time of the Ottoman Empire in the sixteenth century, the Jews had become a scant minority among the Moslems; and although some scholars assert Jerusalem had a Jewish majority in the mid-nineteenth century, the Arabs made up more than 90 percent of the population when Britain occupied Palestine in World War I." The Wallachs say they were referring to 90 percent of the population of Palestine. As a result of the sentence's construction, I assumed -- and I suspect many other readers would assume -- that they were referring, instead, to 90 percent of the population of Jerusalem. It's possible that they did indeed have Palestine in mind; but the reference is at best an ambiguous one, and hardly the model of clarity they claim it to be. I should add that the reader will find textual ambiguity and grammatical breakdown of a much more confounding and serious sort elsewhere in the book.

The second error is much harder to forgive on the grounds of unclear writing. That error, regarding the location of Masada, is embedded in a paragraph in which the Wallachs describe how, in the months that followed the 1967 War, thousands of Israelis "flocked to the West Bank, to the ancient areas of Judea in the south and Samaria in the north, to see and smell and touch the very birthplace of the Jewish nation." Beginning with Judea, they describe, first of all, what these Israelis saw in Hebron. Their next sentence then states: "Elsewhere in Judea, they stopped in Bethlehem, birthplace of David and the cradle of Christianity; traveled to Masada, the sweeping fortress where a small bank of Jewish zealots took their own lives rather than submit to their Roman conquerors; and drove to Jericho, the world's oldest city, where Joshua fought the Canaanites and blasted his trumpet until the walls tumbled down." It seems to me that anyone reading this sentence would conclude the Wallachs were saying that Masada, like Bethlehem and Jericho, were all "elsewhere in Judea." To read it in the way the Wallachs insist we read it -- that the Israelis left Judea, went to Masada and then returned to Judea -- would be, though perhaps possible, quite unnatural. Yet, in their urgency to convince us that they didn't make an error, they insist that it is, in fact, in this unnatural and gymnastic way that they expected the sentence to be read when they wrote it, and seem indignant that this reviewer didn't read it that way.

The indignation isn't called for. Either the Wallachs are naive about the way in which the English language is used and read or are simply trying to have it read in a way that makes it possible for them to evade the criticism that they made an error. Besides, even if I were willing to read this sentence in the way the Wallachs insist I do, I would still feel compelled, by other errors in the book, to wish that the authors had invested more energy than they did in studying the history of the region and its peoples.

In my review, I tried to be as generous as I possibly could. It was, in fact, the Wallachs, not I, who suggested that the errors I cited raised questions about their credibility as journalists. Sadly, their responses to those citations may well serve to raise questions about their credibility even in the minds of some persons who didn't have them before. WALTER REICH Washington Chapter and Verse THE BIBLICAL illiteracy displayed by your headline -- "From Genesis to Revelations" -- over Alfred Corn's review of Words With Power: Being a Second Study of 'The Bible and Literature' (Book World, Dec. 23) would certainly dismay the book's author, Northrop Frye. To speak of "Revelations" is akin to speaking of the Saint James Version of the Bible. It is a common mistake, but someone should have caught the slip. The final book of the Bible is "The Apocalypse" or "The Revelation to St. John the Divine." MARIANNE H. MICKS Alexandria