The New York Times stands by its error

Tweet by Max FisherMax Fisher of the New York Times has taken to Twitter to defend his claim that David Ben-Gurion “emerged from retirement in July 1967 to warn Israelis they had sown the seeds of self-destruction.” According to Fisher (in an article that ran on the front page of the Times on July 23),

Ben-Gurion insisted that Israel give up the territories it had conquered. If it did not, he said, occupation would distort the young state, which had been founded to protect not just the Jewish people but their ideals of democracy and pluralism.

Fisher sourced this story (via a link in the online edition of the Times) to a recollection by the late Arthur Hertzberg, a noted Conservative rabbi. Hertzberg, writing in the New York Review of Books in 1987, claimed to have heard the grim prophecy during an encounter between Ben-Gurion and American Conservative rabbis at Beit Berl (near Kfar Saba) in July 1967.

As it happened, a few months ago I’d grown suspicious of this story, and so I tracked down the transcript of Ben-Gurion’s remarks in his archives. I found no evidence of his having said anything of the sort. I published my findings back in April, so imagine my surprise when Fisher ran with a lede repeating a fable I’d just debunked. My blog doesn’t have quite the circulation of the New York Times, but it’s where I pointed to the problem, and that brought it to the attention of Fisher and his newspaper.

Fisher now tweets to me that “we’ve looked into this very carefully and, after speaking with the Ben-Gurion Archives and reviewing the historical record, stand by the story.” I’m pleased that Fisher took my challenge seriously, and didn’t just blow it off. But I’m afraid he’s fallen well short of meeting it.

• •

Fisher’s first line of defense is that perhaps I’m not working from the correct transcript. He reports that he’s reached out to the Ben-Gurion Archives, “and the archivist said that the transcript you refer to could be from a different speech. It does not match the reported location, Beit Berl, and is only partial. They may simply not have the correct transcript on file.”

Sorry, Max, it’s not from a different speech. I’ve uploaded the transcript here. It’s dated July 12, 1967, the date of the meeting, and while it doesn’t specify any location, it records Ben-Gurion saying the following (at the start of the second paragraph): “I don’t have much to add to the remarks of Dr. Hertzberg.” Ben-Gurion even told an apt story: he’d once asked an Orthodox rabbi to explain how Conservative Jews differed from Orthodox ones. The Orthodox rabbi, “an honest man, answered that a Conservative Jew rides to the synagogue on the Sabbath because he doesn’t know it’s forbidden, while an Orthodox Jew also rides, [even though] he knows it’s forbidden.” So there’s no doubt whatsoever: I have the correct transcript. This is Ben-Gurion in the room with Hertzberg, bantering with the Conservative rabbis from America. Fact-check fail at the Times.

The twelve pages of the transcript don’t include even a hint that Ben-Gurion made the dramatic renunciation of territorial acquisition that Fisher, relying on Hertzberg, claims he made. Ben-Gurion alluded only once to a possible withdrawal: “If Nasser wants to take back the Sinai or a large part of it, let him make peace with us.” The transcript may be incomplete, a possibility I noted in my article. Still, while it is pointless to speculate on what else Ben-Gurion might have said, it would be bizarre if something as earth-shaking as a warning of Israel’s possible “self-destruction” didn’t make it into the transcript.

Or into Ben-Gurion’s diary, which I can now add as additional source. In his diary entry of July 12, Ben-Gurion summarized his own remarks. (This, after complaining that he had to sit through a long-winded speech by Hertzberg, who also introduced Ben-Gurion “with several inaccuracies about my life.”) Ben-Gurion’s own summary tracks the transcript, and includes nothing whatsoever on territorial concessions. I’ve uploaded it here.

Nor is there any corroboration in the Mapai party newspaper Davar of July 14. It summarized Ben-Gurion’s remarks to the Conservative rabbis (Ben-Gurion, it noted, “was preceded by a lecture by Prof. Hertzberg”). Here, too, as in the transcript, there is no attribution to Ben-Gurion of any territorial position, except this quote about Jerusalem: “We will not return Jerusalem—and no force in the world can take it from us.”

So we have three contemporary sources for this event, and not even one corroborates Hertzberg’s belated account of it.

Max Fisher in the New York TimesBut “we don’t have to go off Hertzberg’s account,” Fisher suddenly announces, because “in any case, multiple historical accounts have independently reported that Ben-Gurion made a statement like this immediately after the war.” These “historical accounts” turn out to be a few screen shots of secondary works comprised of unsourced or fragmentary quotes about Ben-Gurion’s territorial desiderata. None has Ben-Gurion warning against “occupation” as a threat to Israel’s “democracy and pluralism.” And none qualifies as “immediately after the war.” Remember, the point of Fisher’s lede isn’t that Ben-Gurion was willing to trade territory for peace under certain conditions. It’s that Ben-Gurion supposedly warned that Israel would destroy itself if it didn’t retreat, and that he made such a prophecy as early as July 1967. Fisher brings no new evidence for either.

In fact, we already have a precise and authoritative statement of Ben-Gurion’s position “immediately after the war”: his personal press release that appeared in almost all the Hebrew newspapers on June 19. He issued it in order to banish any misunderstanding of his views, and I’ve uploaded a reproduction of the version published in Davar with the same purpose. I’ve also made a translation of its programmatic bullet points. Here we go:

• We are now in possession of the Sinai peninsula, the West Bank of the Land of Israel, the Syrian heights east of the Jordan river, Gaza, and the Old City of Jerusalem and its environs.

• We must be prepared to discuss peace with all our neighbors who fought us: Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq. However, I am not sure the other side is prepared for that.

• If Egypt agrees to conclude a peace treaty with Israel—and commits to our freedom of navigation, not just in the straits of Eilat, but also in the Suez Canal—we will be ready to evacuate the Sinai desert immediately after the signing of the treaty.

• We will not discuss the Old City of Jerusalem and its environs with anyone. It was the capital of Israel at the time of King David, and so it will remain forever. The State of Israel will safeguard the holy places of the Christians and Muslims not less than [past] Muslim rule, or the rule of the Crusaders.

• We will propose to the inhabitants of the West Bank to choose representatives with whom we will conduct negotiations on a West Bank autonomy (excluding Jerusalem and its environs), which will be tied to Israel in an economic alliance, and which will have its outlet to the sea via Haifa or Ashdod or Gaza.

• A Jewish army will be stationed on the western bank of the Jordan river to protect the independence of the autonomous West Bank.

• The Gaza Strip will remain in Israel, and efforts will be made to resettle its refugees in the autonomous West Bank, or in other Arab territory, with the assent of the refugees and the assistance of Israel.

• If Syria agrees to sign a peace treaty, and commits to preventing attacks on Israeli settlements by Syria’s inhabitants and from within its territory, we will evacuate the Syrian [Golan] heights now in our hands.

• All the Jews who lived in Hebron and its surroundings will be allowed to return to their former homes, even after the West Bank is granted internal autonomy.

• We will propose a peace treaty to King Hussein between Israel and the East Bank of the Jordan, and will agree to give it an outlet to the Mediterranean, like that given to the West Bank.

In short: all of Jerusalem and Gaza to Israel, autonomy for the West Bank, the Israeli army on the Jordan river, and the return of territory to Egypt and Syria, but only in exchange for peace treaties. (Soon amended: he took the Golan off the table at the end of August.) In an interview published only three days before the Beit Berl meeting, Ben-Gurion elaborated: the West Bank should be a “protectorate” of Israel, and Israel should run its foreign affairs and defense. Any objective reader must agree that nothing in this program even faintly resembles “giv[ing] up the territories” to avoid “self-destruction.”

There’s also no doubt that Ben-Gurion, “immediately after the war,” thought that Israel should sit tight if the Arab states refused to negotiate for peace on Israel’s terms. Only five days after the Beit Berl meeting, Ben-Gurion wrote this in a personal letter: “I myself doubt whether Egypt or Syria is capable of sitting with us to discuss peace. May the government of Israel have the strength and the will to hold on to the conquered territories, when our neighbors refuse to discuss peace with us.” You read it right: that’s only five days after the alleged remarks at Beit Berl.

For the next few years, he remained fairly steady. In September 1969, Eliezer Livneh, a founder of Mapai who’d joined the “Greater Israel” movement, wrote to Ben-Gurion to ask for further clarification. His reply of September 30:

I said more than once to journalists that if there were a chance for “true peace” [shlom emet] (and by true peace I mean stability and common action in economics, politics, and education), I would be for the return of territories (except for the Old City of Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, and Gaza). But unfortunately I don’t see any proximate chance for true peace, and thus no room to speak about return of territories. Instead, we must take care to (1) promote increased immigration (without which the territories cannot be settled), (2) increase Jewish fertility (without which the Arabs will become a majority), and (3) be an exemplary people.

This perfectly summed up Ben-Gurion’s position until about 1970. In his own defense, Fisher brings a few quotes from the 1970s (coinciding with the War of Attrition with Egypt), in which Ben-Gurion seems more eager for compromise, at least with Egypt. In this phase, while he always insisted that Israel keep Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, he stopped mentioning Gaza, and sometimes even dropped his insistence on full, cooperative peace with Egypt. But towards the very end (he died in 1973), he drifted in the other direction, into open support of the settlements in the Sinai.

And while he favored autonomy over annexation of the West Bank, Hebron may have been another matter. In January 1970, he contributed a preface to a book on the Jewish presence there. “We will make a great and awful mistake,” he wrote, “if we fail to settle Hebron, neighbor and predecessor of Jerusalem, with a large Jewish settlement, constantly growing and expanding, very soon.” In 1972, he surprised many when he announced that the Jewish settlement in Hebron “should be able, in the fullness of time, to become a part of the state of Israel.”

• •

In sum, there’s no evidence that Ben-Gurion warned Israelis that their victory “had sown the seeds of self-destruction,” either in July 1967 or later.

Now I don’t expect working journalists to know all aspects of history, do original historical research, or read sources in foreign languages. History is an exacting profession, certainly no less than journalism. I do expect journalists to take notice when faced with the consensus of historians. Fisher writes that “we feel” that the lede of his article “constitutes accepted, established history and stand by the story.” To the contrary: I don’t believe a single competent Israeli historian or Ben-Gurion biographer would validate the story as it appears on page A1 of the New York Times. And although Hertzberg’s tale has been in print for over thirty years, you won’t find it repeated in any scholarly history or biography.

So the article in the Times simply recycles a myth. And it’s not the first time. Here is the late Anthony Lewis, in an opinion column in the Times, June 9, 1987: “Mr. Hertzberg heard a prophetic warning from David Ben-Gurion in July 1967, a month after the war. Ben-Gurion said it was urgent to return the captured territories at once, for holding on to them would distort and might ultimately destroy Israel.” The story seems irresistible, and the New York Times has a tradition of serving it up to readers, without ever fact-checking it.

I’m not paid to uphold the credibility of the Times, but let me offer a constructive suggestion to those who are. I knew Arthur Hertzberg, a man larger than life. It seems to me that Fisher has deprived him of his rightful place on the front page. Standing by the story really does mean standing by Hertzberg, so why not explicitly cite him as the source? (As Anthony Lewis did.) Put his name somewhere in the online version (“according to Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg”), so everyone will know that this account isn’t attested by any historical source. It’s an uncorroborated story told twenty years after the fact by an activist American rabbi with an agenda.

And no more than that.

, , , , ,

Appreciating Bernard Lewis

Last week, in Washington, I had the privilege of participating in a panel devoted to the late Bernard Lewis (it was titled “Appreciating a Scholar of Consequence”). Hats off to The Washington Institute for Near East Policy and its director, Robert Satloff, for organizing the first event in the United States to revisit the work of Lewis.

All of the panelists first met Lewis while studying in Princeton. The others were Katherine Nouri Hughes, whom Lewis inspired to write a marvelous historical novel set in the sixteenth-century court of Süleyman the Magnificent; and Michael Doran, who’s gone on to great things in Washington, in and out of government. (Also in attendance were son Michael Lewis and his wife Jessica; Buntzie Ellis Churchill, Lewis’s companion and sometimes co-author; Harold Rhode, a devoted friend; and many more.)

You can watch the whole thing here. (An hour and a half, comprised of a clip of Lewis with George Shultz when both received the Scholar-Statesman Award of The Washington Institute; three short presentations; and a discussion.) For those with less time, I’ve pulled out my own talk (fifteen minutes) and put it here. In my remarks, I asked what made Lewis so determined to keep on plugging, even into his nineties. Clue to the answer: 1940.

(And if you know Hebrew, I also spoke at a Tel Aviv University event in Lewis’s memory. A video my remarks is here. That address closely tracked my article on Lewis for the website of Foreign Affairs.)

I know of other planned events, and will report them as they occur.

,

Debunked, but still fit to print on page one

Nothing gives a historian greater satisfaction than correcting a persistent error. And nothing is more frustrating than the resurrection of that error even after it’s been corrected. Especially if it suddenly surfaces on the front page of the New York Times.

In Monday’s edition, on page A1, an article by Max Fisher appeared under the headline “Israel, Riding Nationalist Tide, Puts Identity First. It Isn’t Alone.” This is the lead:

Amid a moment of national euphoria, Israel’s founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, emerged from retirement in July 1967 to warn Israelis they had sown the seeds of self-destruction.

Israel had just won a stunning military victory against its neighbors, elating Israelis with a sense that the grand experiment of a Jewish state might really work.

But Ben-Gurion insisted that Israel give up the territories it had conquered. If it did not, he said, occupation would distort the young state, which had been founded to protect not just the Jewish people but their ideals of democracy and pluralism.

In the print edition, this claim about Ben-Gurion wasn’t sourced, but the online version provided a link. Where did it lead? To an article by the late Arthur Hertzberg, once a prominent American rabbi, in the New York Review of Books back in 1987. There Hertzberg claimed to have heard Ben-Gurion, right after the 1967 victory, “insist that all of the territories that had been captured had to be given back, very quickly, for holding on to them would distort, and might ultimately destroy, the Jewish state.”

This week, Hertzberg’s report hit the front page of the New York Times, via Max Fisher. That’s too bad, because only three months ago I thoroughly debunked it at Mosaic Magazine. Although the Hertzberg story is often quoted, it struck me as dubious, knowing what I know about Ben-Gurion’s stated, public position in 1967. So I went to the trouble of asking the Ben-Gurion Archives in Sde Boker to help locate the transcript of the talk that Hertzberg attended. They did, and there’s no evidence whatsoever that Ben-Gurion said what Hertzberg claimed he heard.

Moreover, there’s ample evidence that Ben-Gurion wanted to keep lots of territory. In June 1967, he proposed to annex Jerusalem and Gaza, and make the West Bank an autonomous zone dependent on Israel. He did propose to return the Golan and Sinai to Syria and Egypt, but only in return for “true peace” by treaty. By summer’s end, he’d taken the Golan off the table, and a few years later, he was arguing against returning Israeli settlements in the Sinai and for including Hebron in Israel.

Since the New York Times isn’t going to correct the error, I’m excerpting the part of my article that unravels the Hertzberg claim, supported by verifiable Ben-Gurion quotes, in the hope that you’ll share it. I’ve only got a few thousand subscribers, which is nothing compared to the more than half a million who saw the story on the front page of America’s newspaper of record, and the 2.6 million digital subscribers who might have seen it. But who knows? Maybe the next journalist will do some research before he or she recycles this myth, and will somehow stumble on the truth. The more places it can be found, the more likely that is.

Below is the excerpt, reproduced by permission of Mosaic Magazine. Read the whole article here.

* *

This brings us to Ben-Gurion’s position after the 1967 war. Two decades after that conflict, in a 1987 article in the New York Review of Books titled “Israel: The Tragedy of Victory,” the gadfly American rabbi Arthur Hertzberg would recall hearing a speech by Ben-Gurion in July 1967 at the Labor training institute Beit Berl outside Tel Aviv. Hertzberg’s summary:

Ben-Gurion insisted that all of the territories that had been captured [in the June Six-Day War] had to be given back, very quickly, for holding on to them would distort, and might ultimately destroy, the Jewish state. He made only one exception of consequence: the Israelis should not relinquish control of the whole of Jerusalem. Ben-Gurion’s most striking assertion that night was that he did not expect immediate peace with the Arabs; for its own inner health, he said, Israel needed only to give back the territories very soon in return for a workable set of armistice arrangements.

That July speech, Hertzberg insisted, had “become my most vivid memory of Israel in 1967.”

In 2003, Hertzberg repeated this story in the introduction to a manifesto entitled The Fate of Zionism. In that “unforgettable encounter,” he now wrote, Ben-Gurion had demanded that Israel “give back, immediately, all the territory that it had captured” except Jerusalem; otherwise, “it would be heading for historic disaster.” With his “wrathful cry that the most glorious of Israel’s victories could turn out to be even more poisonous than defeat,” Ben-Gurion, according to Hertzberg, “was the true Zionist prophet” who “planted in me a recurring discomfort.” Thus, when Hertzberg himself later called for a Palestinian state, he claimed he was simply “follow[ing] after David Ben-Gurion, who dissented, at the end of his life, from the platform of the very Labor party he had helped to fashion.”

The problem with this story is that Ben-Gurion never uttered the words Hertzberg attributed to him. The transcript of his speech, delivered to a visiting group of Conservative American rabbis on July 12, 1967, is preserved, and while it may not be complete, it bears not the faintest resemblance to Hertzberg’s account of it. There is no mention of the West Bank or its inhabitants, no mention of urgent withdrawal, no victor’s remorse. When Ben-Gurion wasn’t lauding Israel’s astounding victory, or reminiscing about his own past, he was haranguing the rabbis over Israel’s desperate need for Jewish immigration from America so that it could rapidly settle 100,000 Jews in unified Jerusalem. “Ben-Gurion Calls for Mass Immigration in Conservative Rabbinic Seminar,” ran the headline in the Israeli daily Davar two days later. If Ben-Gurion had said anything remotely resembling what Hertzberg claimed he said, that headline would have been radically different.

Nor does Hertzberg’s account bear the slightest resemblance to Ben-Gurion’s own precise statement of what he thought should be done with the occupied territories, laid out in a public letter composed with all the force of his considerable personal authority. Sent to the editors of the Hebrew press, the letter was published in nearly all of the major dailies on June 19, nine days after the war’s end. “If Egypt agrees to conclude a peace treaty with Israel,” he wrote,

and commits to our freedom of navigation, not just in the straits of Eilat but also in the Suez Canal, we will be ready to evacuate the Sinai desert immediately after the signing of the treaty. . . . If Syria agrees to sign a peace treaty, and commits itself to preventing attacks on Israeli settlements by Syria’s inhabitants and from within its territory, we will evacuate the Syrian [Golan] Heights now in our hands.

Armistice agreements, as in 1949? Hardly: Ben-Gurion was willing to return territory only in return for full peace treaties. “I am not sure the other side is prepared for that,” he added.

In fact, there was no difference between this position and the Israeli cabinet decision of June 19: Egypt and Syria would be offered full withdrawal for full peace. But for Ben-Gurion it didn’t take long for Syria’s Golan Heights to be removed from the table: after a visit there in August, he concluded that Israel should settle and annex them.

As for Jordan, Ben-Gurion would return nothing. The Old City of Jerusalem and its surroundings would remain entirely in Israeli hands (it had been Israel’s “eternal capital” since the time of King David). When it came to the rest of the West Bank,

We will propose to the inhabitants . . . to choose representatives with whom we will conduct negotiations on a West Bank autonomy (excluding Jerusalem and its surroundings), which will be tied to Israel in an economic alliance, and which will have its outlet to the sea via Haifa or Ashdod or Gaza. A Jewish army will be stationed on the western bank of the Jordan River to protect the independence of the autonomous West Bank. . . . All the Jews who [once] lived in Hebron and its surroundings will be allowed to return to their former homes, even after the West Bank is granted internal autonomy.

He was even more specific in an address to an Israel Bonds delegation in August. In his view, the West Bank should be an “autonomous though not independent province.” This scheme for the Palestinians hardly constituted “dissent” à la Hertzberg. It basically tracked Ben-Gurion’s proposals of 1956 and 1958, and also the earliest form of the plan for the West Bank drawn up after the Six-Day War by then-Minister of Labor Yigal Allon.

And once again there was another newly occupied territory, in addition to eastern Jerusalem, that Ben-Gurion proposed to annex outright:

The Gaza Strip will remain in Israel, and efforts will be made to settle its refugees in the autonomous West Bank, or in other Arab territory, with the assent of the refugees and the assistance of Israel.

Picking up here on his earlier ideas about Gaza, he still thought it crucial to extend Israel’s coast all the way down to the Egyptian border, even if that meant assuming responsibility for (the dispersal of?) Gaza’s 350,000 Arabs.

In sum, in Ben-Gurion’s plan, no part of the Land of Israel west of the Jordan would be “given back” to anyone. Israel would patrol its entire eastern frontier, the West Bank would become a subordinate “province” of Israel, and the Gaza portion, evacuated of some of its Arabs, would be annexed outright.

In the following months, Ben-Gurion didn’t deviate from this plan. On August 1 (that is, after his Beit Berl remarks), he participated in a Q&A session with students of the Hebrew University. Repeating every one of his points, he added: “In my opinion, the Sinai, the West Bank, the [Golan] Heights, and the Gaza Strip can wait; we have time. But we have to work immediately to build Jerusalem.” So much for acting to return territory “very quickly,” “very soon,” or “immediately.” Indeed, as a recent study demonstrates, Ben-Gurion invested his greatest energies after the war in plans for absorbing all of united Jerusalem into Israel—including such far-out proposals as demolishing the walls of the Old City. More than two years later, in 1969, his position still hadn’t changed:

If there were a chance for “true peace” (and by true peace I mean stability and common action in economics, politics, and education), I would be for the return of territories (except for the Old City of Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, and Gaza). But unfortunately I don’t see any proximate chance for true peace, and thus no room to speak about return of territories.

By 1971, his view hadn’t much altered. He had stopped mentioning Gaza alongside Jerusalem and the Golan Heights as territory Israel had to keep. But his concept of “true peace” remained absolute. Asked by an American senator what it meant, he answered: “Nu, it’s fairly simple. Peace such as that which exists between Belgium and Holland.”

But this wasn’t his final stop. As time wore on, and the wait for “true peace” lengthened, Ben-Gurion envisioned still more revisions to the pre-1967 status quo. In 1972, he was asked whether he’d changed his views during the five years since the war. Ben-Gurion replied that in 1967 he’d been willing to return all of the Sinai, but Egypt had still refused to make peace.

In the meantime, we are settled in the Sinai, and important things are being done there. There is a big difference between returning barren desert and returning settled areas. I would not order the dismantlement of the settlements in the Sinai and the return of territories to Egypt. Something changed in Sinai since the Six-Day War, and things continue to change. It’s one thing to return desert, another to return territory settled by Jews.

When asked whether his revised view included the West Bank, and particularly Hebron, he added: “Provision should be made for a large and growing Jewish settlement in Hebron that should be able, in the fullness of time, to become a part of the state of Israel.” This repositioning didn’t pass without notice outside Israel: “Ben-Gurion Switches on Annexation,” announced a headline in the New York Post. It was the last major statement by Ben-Gurion on borders; he died the following year.

So Hertzberg’s Ben-Gurion—advocate of an immediate, unilateral, and almost total Israeli withdrawal—was a figment of the rabbi’s imagination. But Hertzberg didn’t consciously fabricate him. (I allow myself to say this as someone who briefly had Hertzberg as a teacher.) He simply did what many do when they want to validate their own political notions: they trace them back to a (mis)quotable “founding father.” No doubt, Hertzberg’s encounter with Ben-Gurion—the “George Washington of Israel”—was as “unforgettable” and “vivid” as he claimed. But two decades after the fact, he remembered only those fragments of Ben-Gurion’s remarks that he could distort and cram into his own by-then alienated verdict on 1967: “It would have been better had the Six-Day War ended in a draw and not in a series of stunning victories.”

, , , , ,

The conflicted legacy of Bernard Lewis

This essay appeared at ForeignAffairs.com on June 7, 2018.

Bernard Lewis's LegacyBernard Lewis, historian of the Middle East, passed away on May 19, just shy of his 102nd birthday. No other person in our time has done as much to inform and influence the West’s view of the Islamic world and the Middle East. A long career of scholarship in the United Kingdom, followed by decades as a public intellectual in the United States, earned him readers across the globe. After the 9/11 attacks, he became a celebrity: “Osama bin Laden made me famous,” he admitted. The two short books he published after the terror strikes became New York Times bestsellers. Charlie Rose couldn’t get enough of him.

Regard for Lewis extended well beyond (and above) the general public. He was also known to be a valued interlocutor of Turkish and Jordanian statesmen, Iran’s last shah, Israeli prime ministers, and U.S. President George W. Bush and his team. Bush was even spotted carrying a marked-up copy of one of Lewis’s articles. As the “war on terror” and its Iraqi sequel unfolded and unraveled, he became the subject of magazine profiles and cover stories. Bernard Lewis knew the Middle East, and America thought it knew him.

Or did it? “For some, I’m the towering genius,” Lewis said in 2012. “For others, I’m the devil incarnate.” Despite having written 30-plus books (including a memoir) and hundreds of articles, and undertaken countless interviews, Lewis was widely misunderstood. Many of those misunderstandings, latent since he went silent a few years ago, reappeared in his obituaries, mixed with either admiration or vitriol.

Continue reading here.

Bernard Lewis rests among the greats

Today would have been the 102d birthday of the historian Bernard Lewis. He died in New Jersey on May 19, and was laid to rest on May 24 in the old cemetery on Trumpeldor Street in the heart of Tel Aviv, only a short distance from the seaside apartment he kept for many years.

Trumpeldor cemetery is, to Tel Aviv, what the Père Lachaise cemetery is to Paris. Here, mostly in the southwestern corner, are the graves of the great lights of Hebrew letters: Ahad Ha’am, Bialik, Tchernichovsky, Brenner. Alongside them are Zionist luminaries: Nordau, Arlosoroff, Sharett, Dizengoff. Here also lie Israel’s two most renowned artists, Rubin and Gutman, as well as the singer Damari and the satirist Kishon. And many more.

The Trumpeldor cemetery filled up long ago. The late poetess Dalia Ravikovitch, in “The Hope of the Poet,” wrote these lines:

The best of all possible worlds,
Is a grave they’ll dig for you,
After lobbying in the mayor’s bureau,
In the cemetery on Trumpeldor Street
At a distance of sixty meters
From Bialik’s grave.

This is exactly where Bernard Lewis was laid to rest a week ago, in the furthest corner, by an old tree. I gave one of the several eulogies, a short one, and it follows below.

• •

One of the things we shall all miss most about Bernard is his storytelling. He was of course a historian, but he was also a raconteur of a very high order. As it happens, he used to tell a story, preserved in his memoirs, that connects to this place. It’s about his first love: the Hebrew language.

Bernard famously would say that he became enamored of Hebrew while preparing for his Bar Mitzvah. When it was over, he insisted on continuing his Hebrew study, and his father obliged by finding him a tutor. Thus did Bernard become a budding Hebraicist. As a teenager, he translated into English “quite an immense quantity” of modern Hebrew poems. “I think there must have been hundreds of them,” including Bialik’s “In the City of Slaughter” and “The Dead of the Desert.” Most went unpublished, but not all, although Bernard often signed them with a pseudonym.

And now, the story. We return to the year 1932, to a Bohemian spa resort. I quote from Bernard’s memoirs:

During the summer of my sixteenth year I went to Karlsbad with my mother, who wanted to take the waters. One of our fellow guests at the hotel was a lawyer from Tel Aviv. This was a golden opportunity to speak Hebrew, and I jumped at it. We had some conversation, not always easy, but on the whole fairly successful. He asked me if I were reading any Hebrew books, and I mentioned that I was an avid reader of the poems of H. N. Bialik and had, in fact, brought my copy with me.

“Oh,” he said, “Did you know that Bialik is in Karlsbad now at a hotel not far from here? I know him. Would you like to meet him?” I was ecstatic at this opportunity to meet the greatest living writer in the Hebrew language. A meeting was arranged and, trembling with excitement, I was brought into the presence of the poet.

Bialik had no great interest in our conversation and, looking back over the years from the other side of the fence so to speak, I can sympathize with his boredom. But he was gracious and was willing to sign my copy of his book. It remains one of my treasured possessions.

Bialik died two years later, and he’s lain in this cemetery, right over there, for the last 84 years. I never asked Bernard why he wanted to be buried here, although it’s a wish that goes back a good while. The obvious explanation is that it’s close to his apartment by the sea, where he felt so at peace. But I wonder whether it’s also because it’s near to the resting place of Bialik and the other Hebrew greats, and that here he would be reunited with his first love: Ivrit, Hebrew. He mastered many languages. But Hebrew he loved, and from it stemmed the love for his people and this land.

Some of you will recall the New York gala in his honor a few years back. There Bernard made a reference to a Hebrew mutation that had impressed him.

“There is a common Israeli phrase,” he said, “when offering birthday greetings to the elderly, to say ad meah v’esrim, ‘to a hundred and twenty.’ Sometimes nowadays they modify it by changing one Hebrew consonant and saying ad meah k’esrim, ‘to a hundred like twenty,’ which I think on the whole is a more attractive proposition. I am approaching that rapidly. I have been in my long life, and remain, very fortunate.”

Bernard came closer than just about anyone to fulfilling the “more attractive proposition.” He was very fortunate—and so were we. He always reserved the best of himself for us. So let us offer thanks for the good fortune that not only gave him to us, but did so in such abundance.

, ,