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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

 

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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.

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