Bernard Lewis, 1916-2018

Bernard Lewis: London yearsBernard Lewis has passed away, less than two weeks shy of his 102d birthday. The headline of today’s Washington Post obituary describes him as “eminent historian of the Middle East.” “Preeminent” would be more accurate. The vast range of his humanist erudition, his mastery of difficult languages, and his command of every nuance of English, inspired veneration and envy.

Bernard tended kindly to generations of students, rewarded friendship with loyalty, imparted his wisdom to statesmen, and fought many good fights. He loved his adopted country, America, and his ancestral land, Israel. And he had an abiding respect and empathy for the civilization of Islam. Bernard combined genius and (what the Jews call) menschlichkeit—a fusion of integrity, decency, and compassion.

Condolences to his family, and to his faithful companion Buntzie, with whom he wrote his last, great chapters.

(For a short interview on Bernard Lewis that I gave to the BBC Newshour today, go here. For my considered assessment on his centenary in 2016, see my two-part essay “The Return of Bernard Lewis” and “The Master Historian of the Middle East,” at Mosaic Magazine. For my earlier, succinct account of his pre-9/11 career, see my entry on him in the Encyclopedia of Historians and Historical Writing, here.)

Below is a short personal excerpt from one of the essays linked above.

If Bernard is so beloved today by so many, it is because he readily assumed the role of a mentor to the young. I was a case in point, having first enrolled in Bernard’s class at Princeton as a twenty-two-year-old graduate student. He was then sixty, almost two full generations older, but within a month he had set me up with an assistantship, giving me a key to his office at the Institute for Advanced Study and tasking me with cataloguing incoming scholarly offprints. There, working after hours and on weekends, I would sit at his desk, marveling at the sheer volume and variety of the incoming mail and catching glimpses of the correspondence of a scholar with a global reputation.

Every few weeks, Bernard would invite me to lunch at the Institute, followed by a vigorous walk in its surrounding woods. Then would come the high point. Choosing a shelf in his massive library, he would go through it one book at a time, estimating each tome’s significance to scholarship, sharing some lore (or was it gossip?) about its author, and parsing the dedication. I recall his taking up a book by Maxime Rodinson, the French former Communist and scholar of Islam whose political opinions were polar opposites to his. Rodinson had inscribed a warm and affectionate dedication. “He’s a scoundrel,” Bernard said with a twinkle in his eye. “But I like him.”

Such gifts of precious time were hardly mine alone. Over the years, I heard many similar stories from other students, dispelling any illusion that I was especially privileged. (Still, less than two years after we met, he traveled from Princeton to Washington to attend my wedding, and in a fluent Hebrew hand signed the wedding contract as a witness.) His generosity to students and younger scholars assured him a devoted personal following over the course of several generations….

An entire syllabus on the history of the Middle East since the advent of Islam could be compiled exclusively from the writings of Bernard Lewis. (And, so numerous are the translations of his works, it could be done in several languages.) In this respect, he towers above all of his contemporaries and successors and arguably also over his famed Orientalist predecessors, none of whom was trained as a historian. It will be a long time, perhaps generations, before the study of Islam and the Middle East will invite and admit another genius of his caliber.

In the meantime, we have his classic works to guide us through this dark age of obfuscation. There can be no better way to mark Bernard’s centenary than to reread his essays, fill the gaps on one’s shelf of his many books, and revisit his most timeless insights in the light of current events. On his centenary, let us pay homage and offer thanks for the good fortune that has given him to us in such abundance.

MESA, Bernard Lewis, MLK, and antisemitism (social media round-up)

Here’s a small selection of my latest short pointers from Facebook and other social media. I’ll send these to Sandbox subscribers every other month or so. (If you prefer to receive them by email as they appear, subscribe here.)

• The Middle East Studies Association (MESA) protests the New York Times’s removal of ISIS documents from Iraq. They belong to Iraq’s cultural heritage, and should be returned. Times correspondent Rukmini Callimachi says Iraqi forces who accompanied her “gave permission to take the documents,” but MESA asserts they were “unlikely” to have had the authority to do so. Well, that’s just a guess, isn’t it? After all, has the Iraqi government protested? No. Perhaps it wanted the Times to publish. Perhaps it doesn’t regard ISIS as part of Iraq’s “cultural heritage.” So the MESA letter is based on an unsubstantiated premise. (Just like MESA itself: the false premise that it’s a scholarly association.)

• The Embassy of Israel in Washington has named Bernard Lewis one of the “70 greatest American contributors to the US-Israel relationship” on Israel’s 70th anniversary. “Lewis never combined his natural scholarly sympathy for the Arab and Muslim peoples of the region with an antipathy towards Zionism and the Jewish people. Indeed, he has been a life-long Zionist and a friend to Israel.” (I’m mentioned in passing.)

• Katherine Franke is a Columbia law prof and self-important campus radical. She landed in Tel Aviv on a smear-Israel junket, and was promptly deported. Roger Cohen at the New York Times thinks that’s terrible, that she’s just a “tough critic” who “thinks differently” about Israel. But Franke isn’t just wasting her time promoting BDS. See this 2015 tweet, re: knifings of Israeli civilians. Sorry, you can’t excuse terrorism against everyday Israelis, and expect to stroll into Israel whenever you damn please. To me, Franke is just a variation on Sheikh Qaradawi, who’s banned from the US and the UK for preaching what she tweeted. That’s not “thinking differently,” it’s incitement. Keep out.

Katherine Franke and her tweet

• Brendan O’Neill: “If you only criticise Israel, or you criticise Israel disproportionately to every other state, and if your criticism of Israel is loaded with Holocaust imagery and talk of bloodletting, and if you boycott Israel and no other nation, and if you flatter the dark imaginings of the far right and Islamists and conspiracy theorists by fretting over a super powerful Israel Lobby, and if the sight of an Israeli violinist is too much for you to stomach, then, I’m sorry, that has the hallmarks of anti-Semitism.” Read it all.

• It is fifty years to the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Some years ago, I did a series of posts about his attitude to Israel from the Six-Day War until his death. Later, for my book The War on Error, I tied them all together in an article. Now, courtesy of my publisher, that article appears here. The next time someone quotes MLK on Israel or the Palestinians, save yourself the trouble and refer them to the link.

• From my Instagram feed: Jerusalem in the 1920s, photograph by pioneer photographer and cinematographer Yaacov Ben-Dov.

Jerusalem in the 1920s

 

, , , ,

Ben-Gurion and land for (true) peace

In the film Ben-Gurion: Epilogue, Israel’s founder is made to seem eager to exchange territory for peace. That was in 1968, when he was 82 and long out of power. We see him say this to an interviewer: “If I could choose between peace and all the territories that we conquered last year [in the Six-Day War], I would prefer peace.” (Excluded: Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.)

In my April essay at Mosaic Magazine, I showed that Ben-Gurion had a very different take on territory back in May 1948, when he declared Israel’s independence from the pinnacle of his political and analytical power. But what about the later Ben-Gurion?

In my “last word” in the month-long discussion of my essay, I track his thinking on Israel’s borders, from the later months of 1948 through 1972, the year before his death. It turns out that the quote in the film, torn from its context, is utterly misleading. I restore the context, and you may be surprised to discover where the “Old Man” ended up.

In the course of telling that story, I touch on a few of the most interesting points raised by my distinguished respondents: Efraim Karsh, Benny Morris, and Avi Shilon. I’m grateful for their insights.

“Israel’s Situation Today Looks Much as Ben-Gurion Envisioned It,” my “last word”—read it right here.

Ben-Gurion in his study

, , ,

Ben-Gurion and borders

David Ben-Gurion at the Western Wall, June 11, 1967As I showed in this month’s essay at Mosaic Magazine, David Ben-Gurion made sure that in 1948, Israel declared statehood without specifying its borders. So just what future borders did Ben-Gurion have in mind? This has been the source of a running debate in Israel, as proponents of this or that set of borders invoke certain statements by Ben-Gurion, and downplay or ignore others.

Avi Shilon is one of Israel’s most interesting younger historians, and is the author, inter alia, of the book Ben-Gurion: His Later Years in the Political Wilderness. Makers of the film Ben-Gurion: Epilogue credited that book with providing inspiration and background. In Shilon’s response to my Mosaic essay, he looks at Ben-Gurion’s pragmatic approach to Israel’s borders, and his preferences after 1967. I’ll have more to say on this issue in my “last word” next Monday. Read Shilon here.

And just a footnote: last week, Israel’s Channel 10 began to broadcast journalist Raviv Drucker’s six-part series The Captains, on crucial decisions by Israeli prime ministers. Ben-Gurion is the subject of the first episode. Drucker builds up the May 12, 1948 session of the People’s Administration very dramatically. But even he has to accept the record. “Ben-Gurion wins,” goes Drucker’s narration. “There isn’t even a vote. It’s clear that he has a majority, and no one wants to go down in history as someone who voted against establishment of the state.” Indeed. Unfortunately, Drucker doesn’t mention the fateful vote that banished mention of the UN partition borders from the declaration. Too bad: as I showed, it was one of Ben-Gurion’s greatest coups.

Photo: Ben Gurion at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, June 11, 1967. From the collection of Dan Hadani, National Library of Israel.

, , ,

Efraim Karsh weighs in

Efraim Karsh offers the second response to my Mosaic Magazine essay on the prelude to Israel’s declaration of statehood. He succinctly retells the famous saga of the clash between President Truman and his formidable secretary of state, George Marshall, on whether to recognize the Jewish state. Truman emerges as the hero. But there’s an interesting sequel: Truman was also the first president to issue a stiff threat to Israel. Perhaps I’ll tell that story on another occasion. Read Karsh here.

David Ben-Gurion proclaims Israel's independenceSince Israel is primed to mark its 70th anniversary later this week, I’ll quickly tell one of the lesser-known stories about the declaration. The only moving picture camera at the May 14, 1948 ceremony at the Tel Aviv Museum (now Independence Hall) belonged to cinematographer Nathan Axelrod, who had a company that produced weekly newsreels. The Jewish Agency commissioned him at the last minute to film the great occasion.

But he only had four minutes of film on hand, to cover a ceremony which was expected to last half an hour. So Ben-Gurion arranged to give Axelrod hand signals and nods at the most important points in the proceedings, so Axelrod would know when to roll the camera. After the ceremony, the Jewish Agency press handlers cut up the original negative into four parts, and sent them out to various news agencies, so that less than a minute of the original survives. Later, the sound (recorded separately) was overlaid with this fragment, but if you watch it, you’ll see that there’s no synchronization between Ben-Gurion’s lips and his words.

(Avi Weissblei tells the story in his documentary film, A State Behind the Scenes, 2010.)

, , ,