Archive for category Sandbox

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

, , , , ,

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.

, ,

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.

If Fouad Ajami had eulogized Bernard Lewis

Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami: two allies, now gone. In November, I appeared on a panel devoted to “The Enduring Legacy of Bernard Lewis” at the annual conference of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA). There I speculated on how Ajami might have eulogized Lewis, had he not predeceased him by four years. There’s plenty to go on: Ajami said much about Lewis, as a mentor, scholar, and friend. Why choose this topic for ASMEA? Lewis and Ajami co-founded the association: Lewis served as chair, Ajami as vice-chair.

For my address (18 minutes), click here or on the clip below. For the full panel, with additional contributions by fellow historians Jacob Lassner and Norman Stillman, go here.

, , ,