Archive for category Sandbox

Seven black swans in the Middle East

New York Times covers 9/11The subject of strategic surprise is a large one, and it has inspired a fair amount of theoretical literature. The following catalogue isn’t intended as a contribution to theory. It is the evidence behind my personal observation that, for as long as I have studied the Middle East, all of the profoundly formative events have been “black swans,” imagined or predicted by almost no one. For an expert, that’s humbling (or should be).

But, first, what is a black swan? For centuries, it was assumed in Europe that all swans were white. The phrase “black swan” was used as we would use “flying pig”: a metaphor for something that couldn’t exist. But then a 17th-century Dutch explorer observed a black swan in Australia. That single sighting demolished an assumption that had stood since time immemorial.

The concept of a black-swan event was popularized a few years ago in a bestselling book with that title. Its flamboyant author, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, argued that the most dramatic changes in politics, economics, and technology come out of the blue. A black-swan event, ran his definition, “lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility” (my emphases).

So a black-swan event is more extreme than a low-probability event. A black-swan event has no prior indication that it’s even possible. It’s unthinkable. And yet, Taleb concluded, while black swans themselves are rare, we live in a world largely fashioned by such once-unthinkable events. This wasn’t an entirely original argument, but his showmanship turned “black swan” into a common figure of speech.

Of course, what constitutes a black-swan event is a matter of perspective. Your assumptions may be upended by a surprise attack, but it’s no surprise to the attacker. For example, the June 1967 Six-Day War, preemptively initiated by Israel, was a black-swan event for Egypt, but obviously not for Israel.

In what follows, the perspective I assume is American. My seven black-swan events not only took Washington by surprise, but had far-reaching impacts on U.S. interests and policies. Also, while it’s tempting to go way back in time for more examples, I’ll limit myself to events within living memory, which (depending on your age) you probably remember, too.

Discover the black swans by reading the rest of this article at Mosaic Magazine, at this link.

The rise of Israel in three acts

On Israel’s 71st anniversary, I offer a reflection on the incredible (some might say, miraculous) appearance of the leaders who steered the Zionist project through three crucial turning points. Most national movements have one paramount hero. Zionism has at least three: Theodor Herzl, Chaim Weizmann, and David Ben-Gurion.

Why so many? Given the anomalous situation of the Jews, dispersed for two millennia, creating a Jewish state from scratch couldn’t have happened without preliminary and intermediate stages that most national movements don’t require. At any transitional stage, things could have gone wrong (and almost did). That they went right is due to the perfectly timed interventions of these three men. Were these leaders flawed? In some ways, yes. Were they a team? In most ways, no. Yet their flaws seem smaller at a distance, and their actions seem part of one inspired plan.

Israel doesn’t have the equivalent of a Presidents’ Day. All the more reason to take a few moments this day to ponder the role of individual will in the rise of Israel. Do just that at Mosaic Magazine, at this link.

Three Zionist Leaders

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Sudden succession in the Middle East

Sudden SuccessionWhat’s the effect when Middle Eastern leaders make sudden and unexpected exits? Of course, there’s always a question of who will follow. But beyond succession mechanics, is a leader’s departure necessarily history-changing?

The answer: it depends. And my answer: it depends mostly on where the hand of fate interrupts the leader’s arc of life. The Washington Institute for Near East Policy is running a new series on hypothetical succession scenarios in the Middle East. My contribution, the opening salvo, is a historian’s take on sudden departures.

Illnesses and assassinations account for most of them. Some had profound consequences, but others didn’t, even if they unfolded in dramatic ways. I take a look at some famous cases, from Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia. At eight pages, it’s obviously more a think piece than an all-encompassing theoretical statement. So read it, think a bit, and come up with your own modifications.

Read here.

If so, then why didn’t MLK condemn Israel?

Martin Luther KingYou’ll recall the piece by Michelle Alexander that ran in the New York Times this past Martin Luther King Day. Her money quote: “If we are to honor King’s message and not merely the man, we must condemn Israel’s actions.” It set me to thinking: why did MLK not condemn Israel’s actions in the twenty years between 1948 and 1968? It’s not as though there weren’t opportunities: Israel stood repeatedly in the dock during his lifetime. And why didn’t he say anything about the Palestinian “plight”? Especially as he got a high-level tutorial on the subject during a visit to East Jerusalem in 1959? I try to answer these questions in a new piece for Mosaic Magazine.

Read it here.

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Bernard Lewis, between memory and legacy

I made the following remarks at the unveiling of Bernard Lewis’s gravestone at Trumpeldor Cemetery in Tel Aviv on February 6.

Bernard Lewis's graveTwenty years ago, I asked Bernard Lewis if he had ever written any obituary notices about friends. He wrote to me to say that he had found all of them, and sent me copies. There were exactly three (none of which appears in his bibliography). He ended his cover letter to me with these words: “I have no other such notices in the course of production, preparation, or even contemplation, and it seems likely that my next appearance in this context will be in the heading, not the signature.”

It’s remarkable that Bernard, in the course of so long a career, produced only a few appreciations of departed colleagues. (I’ve found one more, for a total of four.) He wrote no obituaries even of his close friends, such as Paul Kraus, Shlomo Dov Goitein, “Taki” Vatikiotis and Charles Issawi, just to name a few.

Why? What was it about the genre of the memorial eulogy or obit that didn’t appeal to him? I have no answer to this question, but I have a strong suspicion that he thought that writing these things wasn’t very useful. At the end of the day, it isn’t the eulogies that determine how a scholar is regarded going forward. It’s whether future generations deem the scholar’s own work to be of lasting relevance.

And so Bernard kept to his work. Bernard’s loved ones have erected a fine stone here in his memory. But in a way, Bernard erected his own monument, in his works of scholarship. That monument is a groaning shelf of books in our libraries.

It is important here to distinguish between memory and legacy. Those of us who stand here today have our memories of Bernard, which we cherish. We share them with one another, to console ourselves, and also because by sharing these memories, we hope not to lose them to time. But I think Bernard would be the first to warn us that memory is a fickle thing. I refer you back to his wonderful short book History: Remembered, Recovered, Invented. Memory doesn’t come out well in the comparison. He would be the first to point out that when we reassemble here in ten years, we’ll remember less, and less accurately, not more, and more accurately.

Preserving memory is a lost cause. But constructing legacy isn’t. In this case, its foundation is Bernard’s work. And the people who will elaborate Bernard’s legacy going forward will be, by necessity, people who never knew him and so don’t remember him. But they will have read him, and found that Bernard’s ideas still speak to some contemporary issue, some present or future need. If Bernard Lewis remains useful to them, his legacy will live.

For that to happen, people who have never heard of Bernard will have to discover him. For those of us who teach, write, speak, or administer, our mission is to put Bernard front and center. Since May, there have been at least five gatherings devoted to him—at Tel Aviv University, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, ASMEA (the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa), the American Historical Association, and Shalem College.

This is only the beginning. Much more remains to be done, if young people are to be persuaded to read Bernard. And on this score, I’m optimistic. Every other year, I teach a course on Bernard, and young students are fascinated by him. And why not? His prose style is timeless, his range covers everything, and he was involved in some exciting controversies.

The opportunities are endless. For example: it is now the 40th anniversary of the Iranian revolution this month. This is an opportunity to remind audiences of how Bernard explained the revolution, with a link to his 1985 piece “How Khomeini Made It” at the New York Review. Then there is his 2009 article in the Wall Street Journal, entitled “Israel’s Electoral System is No Good.” That piece is certainly evergreen. Let each of us who is positioned to do so mention Bernard whenever we see an opening, whether it’s in a scholarly article or a Facebook post or even a tweet. He’s always pertinent.

May Bernard’s memory be a blessing, for as long as we can still remember. But may his legacy be a guide, long after our memories of him have dimmed.