As I followed the fierce debate over President Trump’s executive order, denounced by its opponents as a “Muslim ban,” my thoughts turned the Jewish ban that changed the career of my mentor, Bernard Lewis.
Lewis, the great historian of the Middle East who last May turned 100, travelled extensively in Arab countries in the late 1930s and 1940s. Born in Britain to British-born parents, he traversed French-ruled Syria for his doctoral work, and then served in the British army in Arab lands during the Second World War. In 1949, at the age of 33, he was already a highly-regarded academic authority on medieval Islam and a full professor at the University of London. The university gave him a year of study leave to travel in the Middle East. But the Arab reaction to the creation of Israel derailed his research plans. Lewis explained what happened in an article published in 2006:
Virtually all the Arab governments announced that they would not give visas to Jews of any nationality. This was not furtive—it was public, proclaimed on the visa forms and in the tourist literature. They made it quite clear that people of the Jewish religion, no matter what their citizenship, would not be given visas or be permitted to enter any independent Arab country. Again, not a word of protest from anywhere. One can imagine the outrage if Israel had announced that it would not give visas to Muslims, still more if the United States were to do so. As directed against Jews, this ban was seen as perfectly natural and normal. In some countries it continues to this day, although in practice most Arab countries have given it up.
Neither the United Nations nor the public protested any of this in any way, so it is hardly surprising that Arab governments concluded that they had license for this sort of action and worse.
According to Lewis (in his memoirs), some Jews fudged their religious identification on visa applications. (“One ingenious lady from New York City even described herself as a ‘Seventh Avenue Adventist.'”) Others simply lied.
But most of us, even the nonreligious, found it morally impossible to make such compromises for no better reason than the pursuit of an academic career. This considerably reduced the number of places to which one could go and in which one could work…. At that time, for Jewish scholars interested in the Middle East, only three countries were open—Turkey, Iran and Israel…. It was in these three countries therefore that I arranged to spend the academic year 1949-50.
In retrospect, it is fortunate that Lewis had to make the adjustment: he became the first Western historian admitted to the Ottoman archives in Istanbul, and his pioneering work in this area opened up a vast field of study. Yet his exclusion as a Jew clearly rankled. It was something he hadn’t experienced in Britain, yet Western governments now failed to stand up for their Jewish citizens by insisting that they be accorded equal treatment. And in the 1950s, it got worse: not only did Arab states not admit Jews, they drove their own Jews into exile. This may have been the animating force behind Lewis’s 1986 book Semites and Anti-Semites, one of the first to analyze the continuing mutations of antisemitism in the Arab world.
Today, Arab states don’t ban Jews as such. They do ban Israelis. In fact, six of the seven states featured in Trump’s executive order ban entry of Israeli passport-holders: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. (So, too, do another ten Muslim-majority states.) Those same six states also won’t admit anyone whose non-Israeli passport includes an Israeli visa. I’m not aware that the international community regards this as a particularly egregious affront to international norms. The governments of these countries regard every Israeli, whether Jewish or Arab, or any past visitor to Israel of any nationality, as a potential security threat. That’s not irrational, since some of these governments have a record of threatening Israel through incitement, sponsorship of terrorism, and dubious weapons projects.
Trump’s limited executive order doesn’t resemble the sweeping Jewish ban that changed the career of Bernard Lewis. It’s more in line with the Israel bans implemented in the very same countries he’s named. Trump regards holders of certain nationalities as potential security threats, and has excluded them on that basis. There’s plenty of room to debate the wisdom, efficacy, and even morality of the executive order. While the United States may not be as great an exception to the rule as it sometimes claims to be, it still isn’t Sudan or Yemen. And one would hope that the United States, which has invested untold billions (or is it trillions?) in intelligence collection and vetting since 9/11, would be capable of telling friend from foe, and victim from victimizer, within nations.
But the governments of states like Iran have no cause to profess outrage. No one has practiced blanket exclusion on the basis of nationality as unremittingly, decade after decade, as they have, and they aren’t likely to give it up any time soon. It would be unfortunate if this became the norm in the world. But it wouldn’t mark much of a change in the Middle East.
As veteran readers of this blog are aware, over the years, I’ve researched Martin Luther King, Jr. and Israel, and twice reported my findings. I traced King’s famous quote on anti-Zionism, and revealed why King canceled a planned visit to Israel. A chapter in my new book The War on Error now completes the trilogy, examining what King said in confidence about Israel’s Six-Day War victory.
Now, courtesy of my publisher Transaction, you can read this chapter online, just in time for Martin Luther King Day. Go here. “I think the Israelis will have to have access to the Gulf of Aqaba,” said King after Israel’s victory. “I mean the very survival of Israel may well depend on access to not only the Suez Canal, but the Gulf and the Strait of Tiran. These things are very important. But…” The rest of the quote at the link.
As 2016 winds down, I thought I’d share some end-of-year updates:
- I’ve given an interview to the podcast program The Tel Aviv Review on my recent book The War on Error: Israel, Islam and the Middle East. I speak, inter alia, about Ari Shavit and Lydda, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Six-Day War, and why surgeons don’t perform operations in sewers. Listen at this link, and order the book from Amazon here.
- My article “Repairing Sykes-Picot” caps the just-published proceedings of a conference on the enduring legacies of the post-World War One settlement in the Middle East. The book is entitled The Lines That Bind: 100 Years of Sykes-Picot, and it’s published by The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The volume also includes fine articles by Andrew Tabler, Fabrice Balanche, Michael Knights, David Pollock, David Schenker, Sam Menassa, Soner Cagaptay, Ghaith Omari, David Makovsky, and Brigitte Curmi. It’s free to download at this link.
- In October, I concluded seven years of service as head of Shalem College. (I was appointed president-designate in 2009, when the College was still in formation, and I became its first president in 2013.) My successor is Isaiah Gafni, distinguished professor emeritus of Jewish history at the Hebrew University. Read about him here. I’ve joined the faculty ranks, where I teach the modern history of the Middle East, as well as a course on the Middle East in the work of Bernard Lewis. I’ll bet it’s offered nowhere else.
2017 will be a year of many anniversaries: the Balfour Declaration (1917), UN Resolution 181 for the partition of Palestine (1947), and the Six-Day War (1967). The errors in “expert” commentary about each will abound. I’m looking forward to a busy and interesting New Year—and wish the same to you.
This weekend, the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) is meeting in its annual conference in Boston, on the organization’s fiftieth anniversary. It was also exactly thirty years ago, at a Boston MESA conference, that Edward Said debated Bernard Lewis. This was the last substantive debate about the state of the field at a MESA conference—that is, a debate with two clearly opposing sides. The bearers of the tradition of scholarship represented by Lewis (and Fouad Ajami) subsequently seceded from MESA. Some of them eventually found a home in an alternative association of Middle Eastern studies, known as ASMEA—the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa. On October 28, I delivered the keynote address at its annual conference in Washington, on the state of Middle Eastern studies. (Watch it here, or read a transcript here.)
One of the points I made in my keynote was that the study of the Palestinians in American academe seemed to me to be in decline, at least quantitatively. I’ve since gone back to collect some data. Specifically, I’ve looked at the last program of a MESA conference convened in Boston (it was in 2009), and compared it to this year’s (2016) program. Why Boston? It’s a popular venue for MESA conferences, and it usually draws a larger number of participants than, say, Denver or New Orleans. The sample is correspondingly large. My interest is in the geographic skew of American scholarly interest across the Middle East. So I’ve looked for the names of countries in the titles of papers, a data field that provides a rough measure of what’s up and what’s down in Middle Eastern studies. (The MESA website also categorizes papers by geographic area, but I’m not certain about the criteria used, so I don’t rely on it. Still, I ran those numbers too, and the results were very similar.)
Below are the totals. After the name of each country, you’ll find the number of papers delivered at the 2009 conference, followed (after the slash) by the number of papers to be delivered at the 2016 conference. In the first set of parentheses is the absolute increase or decrease in numbers of papers between 2009 and 2016. In the second set of parentheses is the increase or decrease in percentages from 2009 to 2016. I’ve ordered the countries according to the percentage of increase/decrease. In 2009, there were 850 papers presented at MESA, and this year, 1,012, so you’d expect an average increase for each country of 19%. Anything below that points to underperformance of a country in inspiring new research. (I’m excluding the countries where the number of papers this year falls below twenty.)
Tunisia: 9/45 (+36) (400%)
Syria: 23/55 (+32) (140%)
Egypt: 48/83 (+35) (73%)
Lebanon: 31/38 (+7) (23%)
Iran: 43/50 (+9) (16%)
Turkey: 79/89 (+10) (13%)
Kurds: 27/26 (-1) (-4%)
Palestine/Gaza/West Bank: 56/48 (-8) (-14%)
Iraq: 31/22 (-9) (-29%)
Israel: 32/22 (-31%)
This is a very rough measure, and paper titles don’t capture everything. But the trend is obvious. The dramatic growth since 2009, which was before the “Arab Spring,” resides in researching the “Arab Spring” and its effects. (It would be even more obvious if I’d included the smaller clusters. Papers on Bahrain went from zero to eight; on Libya, from one to thirteen.)
So the upheavals since 2011 are stirring this generation of younger scholars. Palestine? Passé. (So is Iraq.) Papers on Israel have also dropped sharply, but the consequences, overall, are greater for Palestine than Israel studies. Why? MESA is still the largest clearinghouse for Palestine studies. It isn’t for Israel studies, which have their own association (the Association for Israel Studies) and a separate annual conference. And since, for the last couple of years, MESA has been formally debating the possibility of passing a BDS resolution, not a few Israel scholars have packed up and left the organization. Israel studies are expanding—just not at MESA.
Another factor contributing to the relative decline of Palestine studies is BDS. Because the old guard, such as Columbia’s Rashid Khalidi and Lila Abu-Lughod, have so totally immersed themselves in identity politics and BDS activism, Palestine studies are regarded as tainted by advocacy. Why would a promising young scholar enter such a field, when the first thing he or she must do is sign an ideological pledge of allegiance? And why enter it if you can make a bigger mark in a more visible, faster-growing, and less politicized area of study? BDS is driving ambitious young scholars away from Palestine studies, which have become a closed echo chamber.
This is the context for understanding the BDS drive in MESA. It’s a last-ditch effort to assert the primacy of Palestine, by insisting that Israel uniquely deserves condemnation (in a Middle East mired in gross human rights violations), and that the Palestinians uniquely deserve sympathy (in a Middle East awash in refugees and suffering). In the past, there was no need to run such a campaign. Back in 2005, I did a similar paper-count on MESA’s conferences, and found that papers on Palestine and the Palestinians outnumbered those on any other country. Edward Said had turned the Palestinians into MESA’s chosen people. But over the years, that special privilege has been eroded. BDS activism at MESA now functions as a substitute for the conference papers and panels, as a rear-guard tactic to keep the Palestinians from falling further down the scale.
I have no idea what will come out of MESA this year or next—probably nothing good, and possibly some sort of precursor to a BDS resolution. But the easy privileging of Palestine in Middle Eastern studies is over. That’s a good thing. The over-concentration of a whole branch of area studies in one highly politicized corner did inestimable damage to the field’s reputation. The Middle East keeps changing, so does America, and new realities generate new priorities. I can’t predict how Middle Eastern studies will be reconfigured as the ground shifts. But a quiet transformation is underway, even if no one has the courage to acknowledge it. Happy fiftieth, MESA.
Order your copy of my new book, The War on Error: Israel, Islam, and the Middle East from Amazon right here. Josef Joffe: “Martin Kramer exposes sloppy or mean-spirited thinking with an incisive mind and first-rate empirical research. This collection is required reading for anybody who prefers intellectual rigor to ideological obfuscation.”
Moment Magazine runs a symposium in its November-December issue on “The Growing Gap Between Israel and American Jews.” Contributors include Elliott Abrams, Daniel Gordis, Yossi Klein Halevi, Aaron David Miller, Jonathan Sarna, Anita Shapira, Abe Sofaer, Dov Zakheim, and more. Here is my contribution.
It would be difficult to find two halves of one people who inhabit such totally different worlds. The blue-state suburbs of America, where most American Jews reside, are the most stable, secure and peaceful abodes known to humankind since the Garden of Eden (in one word: ever). In most of these places, no soldier has fired a shot in more than a century. American Jews are a minority of just under two percent of the population in an open society that embraces them. Having let their guard down, they’re being assimilated away.
Israeli Jews are just under two percent of the population of the Arab world, which adamantly refuses to “normalize” them in any way. They are subjected to barrages of threats in a region where people fulfill threats of violence every day. Arabs can be ruthless to one another: The death toll in nearby Iraq and Syria since 2003 is about equal to the massive death toll of the American Civil War. It doesn’t take much imagination to guess what would happen to Israel’s Jews were they to let their guard down. Is it any wonder, then, that American Jews and Israelis see the world differently?
Yet despite the perils, Israeli Jewry is thriving. When Israel was born, there were nine American Jews to every Israeli Jew. Now they are at parity, and the long-term trend is clear: Israel is destined to become the center of the Jewish world. Sovereignty is such a powerful elixir that Jews who enjoy it thrive even in the most troubled part of the world. In less than a century, the center of world Jewry will have moved from Europe to America, then from America to Israel. Alas, some American Jews are experiencing this as a loss. The negation of Israel is one (minority) response among those who can’t grasp the dilemmas of sovereignty in an often anarchic world. But the majority of American Jews are driven by a sincere desire to help Israel prosper. Where their expectations aren’t realistic, Israel must work to change them. But it must never ignore them, lest the Jews cease to be a people.