The War on Error: Israel, Islam, and the Middle East is my new collection of twenty-five essays and articles, some of them published for the first time. Order the book from Amazon in paperback or Kindle.
In connection with publication, please watch or read the following:
• View my opening remarks at my book launch, held at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, here. That’ll take only thirteen minutes. If you have an hour and a half, you might watch the entire event, featuring responses from Benny Morris and Hussein Ibish. There’s also a rapporteur’s summary of the event.
• Read the first review of the book by Jonathan Marks, written for Scholars for Peace in the Middle East in The Algemeiner, here.
• Read a profile of me and my work by Shepard Barbash in The Federalist, here.
• Lee Smith interviewed me for the blog of The Weekly Standard, here.
In The War on Error, historian and political analyst Martin Kramer presents a series of case studies, some based on pathfinding research and others on provocative analysis, that correct misinformation clouding the public’s understanding of the Middle East. He also offers a forensic exploration of how misinformation arises and becomes “fact.”
The book is divided into five themes: Orientalism and Middle Eastern studies, a prime casualty of the culture wars; Islamism, massively misrepresented by apologists; Arab politics, a generator of disappointing surprises; Israeli history, manipulated by reckless revisionists; and American Jews and Israel, the subject of irrational fantasies. Kramer shows how error permeates the debate over each of these themes, creating distorted images that cause policy failures.
Kramer approaches questions in the spirit of a relentless fact-checker. Did Israeli troops massacre Palestinian Arabs in Lydda in July 1948? Was the bestseller Exodus hatched by an advertising executive? Did Martin Luther King, Jr., describe anti-Zionism as antisemitism? Did a major post-9/11 documentary film deliberately distort the history of Islam? Did Israel push the United States into the Iraq War? Kramer also questions paradigms—the “Arab Spring,” the map of the Middle East, and linkage. Along the way, he amasses new evidence, exposes carelessness, and provides definitive answers.
• Elliott Abrams, senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, Council on Foreign Relations:
“The best antidote to academic assaults on Israel and false versions of Zionist history is Martin Kramer. These essays on Israel and on current Arab and Islamic politics show him at his best: a sharp, wise, and very funny guide. If you’ve read this all before, read it again; time has only made his analyses more telling. If you don’t know Kramer, you’re in for an intellectual feast.”
• Josef Joffe, fellow of the Hoover Institution and the Freeman-Spogli Institute for International Studies, Stanford University:
“What is the Talmudic spirit? It is to poke, probe and provoke, never to let received notions stand. Today’s Middle East harbors more half-truths and willful misrepresentations than oil under its sands. Concepts like ‘Orientalism’ are ideologies posing as dispassionate scholarship. Islamism is a magnet for apologists blind to the region’s cultural pathologies. Terrorism is transfigured into legitimate anti-colonialism, even though the Arab world has been independent for two, three generations. Martin Kramer has done the ‘Talmudic’ thing, exposing 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.”
• Gilles Kepel, professor at the Institut d’études politiques de Paris (Sciences Po) and member of the Institut universitaire de France:
“Martin Kramer is a major scholarly contributor to the worldwide political debate about the contemporary Middle East. Not all will agree with his strong views, but they are always stimulating and challenging, and it is worth taking up such a challenge in the unprecedented chaos that the region has witnessed since 9/11, both within its ever-changing borders and in its complex relations with Europe and America.”
• Michael Mandelbaum, Christian A. Herter Professor of American Foreign Policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies:
“In The War on Error, Martin Kramer, an eminent scholar of Middle Eastern affairs, fearlessly and eloquently exposes the myths, half-truths, and outright lies that pervade the public discussion, and so inhibit public understanding, of the region he knows so well.”
• Michael Oren, member of Knesset and former Israeli ambassador to the United States:
“Martin Kramer, a preeminent and prolific scholar of the Middle East, provides expert and singularly clear-sighted insights into this crucial region. Whether writing about the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the West’s relations with Islam, or the global struggle against terror, Kramer is at once deeply informed, courageous, and engaging.”
• Itamar Rabinovich, president of the Israel Institute and former Israeli ambassador to the United States:
“Martin Kramer spans an unusual range. He is a first-rate historian of the modern Middle East who is as masterful with social media as he is with the traditional archive. This new collection of essays and papers deals with the most current issues in Middle Eastern politics and policies from a perspective that only a profound historian possesses. But Kramer is not encumbered by his academic baggage; he writes well and vividly. I sometimes disagree with him but I always read carefully and learn something new or different. I strongly recommend the book for the professional and the lay reader.”
• Ruth R. Wisse, former professor of Yiddish and comparative literature, Harvard University:
“Correcting error is the indispensable first step in stopping terror. No one writes better on the Middle East, its distorters and misinterpreters than Martin Kramer. He must be read—to be believed.”
Why are Sunni Arabs generating waves of terror and zeal for the caliph? I argue that it’s a reaction to a century of steady erosion of Ottoman-era Sunni dominance, especially in the zone between the Mediterranean shore and the Persian Gulf. It’s not a sudden collapse, it’s a long-term unwinding that has taken Jerusalem, Damascus, Beirut and Baghdad out of Sunni hands. The Shiites (and Jews), once last, are now first—and Arab Sunnis blame the West. (I also have something to say about the Sunni-mania in Israel.) Read the entire piece here, at Mosaic Magazine.
Today I offer the last word in the exchange of tributes to Bernard Lewis, prompted by my June 1 essay on the occasion of his 100th birthday, and the four responses that followed (by Itamar Rabinovich, Robert Irwin, Eric Ormsby, and Amir Taheri). Highlights: I recall Bernard’s admission of an error, and reveal the secret of how he managed to belt out a book a year during “retirement.” Click here to read in full.
This article will appear the July/August 2016 issue of Foreign Affairs, and may be previewed online.
Was the feud between U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, first over settlements and then over Iran, a watershed? Netanyahu, it is claimed, turned U.S. support of Israel into a partisan issue. Liberals, including many American Jews, are said to be fed up with Israel’s “occupation,” which will mark its 50th anniversary next year. The weakening of Israel’s democratic ethos is supposedly undercutting the “shared values” argument for the relationship. Some say Israel’s dogged adherence to an “unsustainable” status quo in the West Bank has made it a liability in a region in the throes of change. Israel, it is claimed, is slipping into pariah status, imposed by the global movement for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS).
Biblical-style lamentations over Israel’s final corruption have been a staple of the state’s critics and die-hard anti-Zionists for 70 years. Never have they been so detached from reality. Of course, Israel has changed—decidedly for the better….
Read the rest here.
Yesterday was the 100th birthday of Bernard Lewis, preeminent historian of the Middle East and Islam. Today, Mosaic Magazine has published my essay for the occasion. I take as my point of departure an article Lewis wrote for the January 1976 issue of Commentary, entitled “The Return of Islam.” That article defied conventional wisdom and heralded the advent of a new era in the history of the Middle East. Lewis was pilloried for writing it, but subsequent events, from the Iranian revolution to 9/11, utterly vindicated him. Mine is the monthly essay at Mosaic Magazine, which means that responses will be published there throughout June, and I’ll have the final word at the end of the month.
The latest manifestation of “the return of Islam” is the Islamic State, and one wonders what Lewis would write about it were he still an active scholar. The Islamic State, with its deliberate attempts to mimic the early Islamic conquests, would provide a rich lode. It isn’t hard to imagine the themes Lewis would elucidate: the jihad mode of warfare, the meaning of the caliphate, the restoration of slavery, the symbolism of beheading and other forms of execution in Islamic history, the Islamic concept of the apocalypse, and on and on.
It would be the sort of exercise he accomplished in 1967, when he published a lively and lightly erudite book on the medieval Assassins, a group whose violence became so infamous that it gave us our word for murderous treachery. The Assassins sold more briskly, in many editions and translations, than just about any work on early Islamic history, and for an obvious reason: the back jacket of one new edition described it as “particularly insightful in light of the rise of the terrorist attacks in the U.S. and in Israel.”
In the original book, Lewis drew no comparisons, but he added a preface to later editions, in which he cautiously did just that, pointing to “interesting resemblances and contrasts.” Most of these related to Iran and its Shi’ite extensions, an obvious parallel. (The Assassins were an offshoot of Isma’ili Shi’ism, with bases in Iran and Syria.) But no resemblance appears closer than that between the Assassins and the Islamic State today.
“Of all the lessons to be learnt from the Assassins,” Lewis concluded,
perhaps the most important is their final and total failure. They did not overthrow the existing order; they did not even succeed in holding a single city of any size. Even their castle domains became no more than petty principalities, which in time were overwhelmed by conquest.
If that’s the main lesson, then it’s sobering to realize that the Islamic State, entrenched for the last two years in the cities of Raqqa and Mosul, has already achieved more than the medieval Assassins, against a much more formidable alliance than the Assassins ever faced. While the Obama administration has vowed to defeat the Islamic State, most analysts are busy explaining why inflicting “final and total failure” on the Islamic State is impossible, at least for now.
The Assassins didn’t peter out. Their enemies decided to extirpate them. That the Islamic State has managed to carve out its own principality on such a scale, and hold it for so long, doesn’t speak well of the resolve of its enemies. At some point, it will probably suffer a blow from which it won’t recover (although one doubts that its leftovers will become “small and peaceful communities of peasants and merchants,” as was the case with the Isma’ili descendants of the Assassins). But by that time, it may well have metastasized to many other places.
All of which is to emphasize, if any emphasis were needed, that the writings of Bernard Lewis remain a useful stimulus for thinking and lesson-learning about the Middle East, still in the throes of the “return of Islam.” Events will prompt readers to consult his works again and again.
Happy birthday, Bernard! To 120, and then some.