Posts Tagged Bernard Lewis
As I followed the fierce debate over President Trump’s executive order, denounced by its opponents as a “Muslim ban,” my thoughts turned the Jewish ban that changed the career of my mentor, Bernard Lewis.
Lewis, the great historian of the Middle East who last May turned 100, travelled extensively in Arab countries in the late 1930s and 1940s. Born in Britain to British-born parents, he traversed French-ruled Syria for his doctoral work, and then served in the British army in Arab lands during the Second World War. In 1949, at the age of 33, he was already a highly-regarded academic authority on medieval Islam and a full professor at the University of London. The university gave him a year of study leave to travel in the Middle East. But the Arab reaction to the creation of Israel derailed his research plans. Lewis explained what happened in an article published in 2006:
Virtually all the Arab governments announced that they would not give visas to Jews of any nationality. This was not furtive—it was public, proclaimed on the visa forms and in the tourist literature. They made it quite clear that people of the Jewish religion, no matter what their citizenship, would not be given visas or be permitted to enter any independent Arab country. Again, not a word of protest from anywhere. One can imagine the outrage if Israel had announced that it would not give visas to Muslims, still more if the United States were to do so. As directed against Jews, this ban was seen as perfectly natural and normal. In some countries it continues to this day, although in practice most Arab countries have given it up.
Neither the United Nations nor the public protested any of this in any way, so it is hardly surprising that Arab governments concluded that they had license for this sort of action and worse.
According to Lewis (in his memoirs), some Jews fudged their religious identification on visa applications. (“One ingenious lady from New York City even described herself as a ‘Seventh Avenue Adventist.'”) Others simply lied.
But most of us, even the nonreligious, found it morally impossible to make such compromises for no better reason than the pursuit of an academic career. This considerably reduced the number of places to which one could go and in which one could work…. At that time, for Jewish scholars interested in the Middle East, only three countries were open—Turkey, Iran and Israel…. It was in these three countries therefore that I arranged to spend the academic year 1949-50.
In retrospect, it is fortunate that Lewis had to make the adjustment: he became the first Western historian admitted to the Ottoman archives in Istanbul, and his pioneering work in this area opened up a vast field of study. Yet his exclusion as a Jew clearly rankled. It was something he hadn’t experienced in Britain, yet Western governments now failed to stand up for their Jewish citizens by insisting that they be accorded equal treatment. And in the 1950s, it got worse: not only did Arab states not admit Jews, they drove their own Jews into exile. This may have been the animating force behind Lewis’s 1986 book Semites and Anti-Semites, one of the first to analyze the continuing mutations of antisemitism in the Arab world.
Today, Arab states don’t ban Jews as such. They do ban Israelis. In fact, six of the seven states featured in Trump’s executive order ban entry of Israeli passport-holders: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. (So, too, do another ten Muslim-majority states.) Those same six states also won’t admit anyone whose non-Israeli passport includes an Israeli visa. I’m not aware that the international community regards this as a particularly egregious affront to international norms. The governments of these countries regard every Israeli, whether Jewish or Arab, or any past visitor to Israel of any nationality, as a potential security threat. That’s not irrational, since some of these governments have a record of threatening Israel through incitement, sponsorship of terrorism, and dubious weapons projects.
Trump’s limited executive order doesn’t resemble the sweeping Jewish ban that changed the career of Bernard Lewis. It’s more in line with the Israel bans implemented in the very same countries he’s named. Trump regards holders of certain nationalities as potential security threats, and has excluded them on that basis. There’s plenty of room to debate the wisdom, efficacy, and even morality of the executive order. While the United States may not be as great an exception to the rule as it sometimes claims to be, it still isn’t Sudan or Yemen. And one would hope that the United States, which has invested untold billions (or is it trillions?) in intelligence collection and vetting since 9/11, would be capable of telling friend from foe, and victim from victimizer, within nations.
But the governments of states like Iran have no cause to profess outrage. No one has practiced blanket exclusion on the basis of nationality as unremittingly, decade after decade, as they have, and they aren’t likely to give it up any time soon. It would be unfortunate if this became the norm in the world. But it wouldn’t mark much of a change in the Middle East.
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.
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.
This post first appeared on the Commentary blog on November 23.
Over the coming days, I’ll be attending the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) annual conference in Washington. It’s time for me to catch up on the zeitgeist in my field, and there’s no better place to do that than at MESA. It’s been a long time—to be precise, sixteen years—since my last attendance at a MESA conference. MESA veterans might remember the occasion: Edward Said was being feted for his contribution (such as it was) to Middle Eastern studies. He was on the plenary podium, and I was in the audience. The British historian Robert Irwin hasn’t forgotten:
I well remember the 1998 Middle East studies association meeting held in the Chicago Hilton to mark the twentieth anniversary of the publication of Orientalism. Said appeared on a platform that was packed with his supporters. Critics from the floor were shouted down. I can still see and hear Homi Bhabha on the platform contemptuously booming out “Who are you? Who are you?” to one hapless member of the audience who was trying to make a point from the floor.
That “hapless member” was me. Irwin is accurate, except that there weren’t any other “critics from the floor” aside from me. Said, knowing I was in the audience, specifically invited me to stand up and challenge him, as though he were interested in a debate. That turned out to be a set-up. (Homi Bhabha, Said’s chivalrous defender on that occasion, is now alleged by the keepers of Said’s flame to have betrayed him by criticizing the departed Said through “Zionist argumentation.” Bhabha furthermore stands accused of being “popular in some leftist Israeli academic circles.” A falling out among post-colonialism’s thieves.)
The next time I figured in a MESA plenary, I wasn’t even there. It was in San Francisco in 2001, shortly after 9/11 and the publication of my book Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America. Franklin Foer went out to cover the conference for The New Republic, and in his report I read this: “There was one universally acknowledged villain at the conference—it just wasn’t Osama bin Laden. No, the man everyone loved to hate was Martin Kramer.” When my name was mentioned by someone in the plenary, “some in the audience actually hissed.” I suppose that was better than “Who are you?”
So now I’m back, not as a participant but as an observer. I’ve registered for the conference as a non-member, and that non-membership is principled. Its specific origin is the failure of MESA to overcome its political instincts and confer on Bernard Lewis the title of honorary fellow, reserved for a select few who’ve made exceptional contributions to the field. Whatever one thinks of Lewis’s politics, only an ignoramus or hack would deny his massive contribution to the field. Writing of Lewis, one former MESA president has testified to
the extraordinary range of his scholarship, his capacity to command the totality of Islamic and Middle Eastern history from Muhammad down to the present day. This is not merely a matter of erudition; rather, it reflects an almost unparalleled ability to fit things together into a detailed and comprehensive synthesis. In this regard, it is hard to imagine that Lewis will have any true successors.
Yet not only did MESA deign not to confer the honor upon Lewis, it bestowed it upon Edward Said, who brought Middle Eastern studies to the brink of ruin. Lewis never needed any honors from MESA: it was MESA that needed to honor him, and MESA’s failure to do so is evidence that it isn’t a scholarly association in the pure sense. So why join it?
That brings me to this year’s conference. MESA meets once every three years in Washington, to demonstrate its relevance to the powers that be. University-based Middle East centers feed at the taxpayers’ trough, and so it’s important to show up every few years at the doorstep of Congress, in an effort to prove that academe is “relevant” to the national interest. Some aspect of the program is pitched just for that purpose. (This year, it’s a panel on ISIS.)
The problem is that the radicals’ hormones are raging in the wake the Israel-Hamas war, and many of the rank-and-file would like to add MESA to the list of associations that have passed resolutions calling for an academic boycott of Israel. This isn’t such a smart thing to propose in Washington, and MESA’s president, Nathan Brown, has already reminded the members that MESA is “a non-political association.” But some MESA members think otherwise, and they’re always looking for ways to shove MESA even deeper into politics than it already is. In short, the conference is bound to be contentious.
In my next post, I’ll share my impressions of the triumphal reception accorded by MESAns to Steven Salaita, the anti-Israel tweet artist who got canned at the University of Illinois, and who’s become a jobless martyr.
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On Facebook, I ran a series listing the most influential modern books on the Middle East (in the English language). I selected each not on the basis of quality, but my rough assessment of a book’s impact on readers and politics, short-term and long. It’s rather rare for a book on the Middle East to have much of an influence in America and Britain; at most times, it’s a marginal region. But events have propelled a few books into the limelight, and these six, for better or worse, had an impact, influenced perceptions, and may have changed history.
Arabia of Lawrence
Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T. E. Lawrence (1926). I rather like Charles Hill’s depiction of Lawrence as someone “who wrote himself into history as a fictional character leading Arab tribes in revolt against the Ottoman Turks.” (Hill calls the book ” a novel traveling under the cover of autobiography.”) But the book lives, and is even said to have inspired U.S. counter-insurgency theorists in Iraq.
Arise, ye Arabs!
The Arab Awakening by George Antonius (1938). This purported exposé of British double-dealing provided all the pretext that Britain needed to retreat from its support for the Jewish National Home in Palestine, culminating in the 1939 White Paper. The British commander of forces in Palestine in 1946 said he kept the book “on my bedside table.” It also became the bible of American sympathizers of Arab nationalism. “We had our revered texts,” wrote the American Arabist Malcolm Kerr, “such as The Arab Awakening.” It has been refuted on many grounds, but while its influence doesn’t endure, it lingers.
God Gave This Land…
Exodus by Leon Uris (1958). Recently I asked a class of grad students in Mideast studies whether they’d heard of it, and I didn’t get a single nod. But this fictionalized account of Israel’s founding was said to have been the biggest seller since Gone with the Wind, propelled by a blockbuster motion picture starring Paul Newman. The novel, confessed journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, “set me, and many others, on a course for aliyah, and it made American Jews proud of Israel’s achievements. On the other hand, it created the impression that all Arabs are savages.” Arabs have been searching for their equivalent of Exodus ever since.
Orientalism by Edward Said (1978). Sigh… I suppose “baneful” is the best adjective. No book has done more to obscure the Middle East, and impart a sense of guilt to anyone who has had the audacity to represent it. The French scholar Jacques Berque (praised by Said) put it succinctly: Said had done “a disservice to his countrymen in allowing them to believe in a Western intelligence coalition against them.” But the book gave rise to a cottage industry in Western academe, and helped tilt the scales in academic appointments. Its influence may be waning, but it’s still on syllabi everywhere.
Fit to Print and Reprint
From Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas Friedman (1989). It spent nearly twelve months on the New York Times bestseller list and won the 1989 National Book Award for nonfiction. Coming in the wake of the 1982 Lebanon war and the 1987 intifada, it captured the “falling-out-of-love-with-Israel” mood, although it cut no slack for the Arabs either. Friedman has said he keeps threatening to bring out a new edition with this one-line introduction: “Nothing has changed.”
How the East Was Lost
What Went Wrong? by Bernard Lewis (2002). The book appeared in the aftermath of 9/11, and it rocketed to the New York Times bestseller list, where it spent 18 weeks. Lewis used his broad historical repertoire to explain “why they hate us.” (In a word: resentment, at failed modernization and an absence of freedom.) Lewis later summarized his view thus: “Either we bring them freedom, or they destroy us.” Some in Washington took him literally.
At a reader’s suggestion, I’m adding a seventh book to my list. It’s The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-49 (1988) by Benny Morris. Drawing on Israeli archives, Morris did what no Palestinian Arab historian had managed to do: (partially) validate the Nakba narrative. The book confirmed Israel’s “original sin” in the eyes of the Israeli left, and persuaded Palestinians (wrongly) that Israel might compromise on the “right of return.” Neither the criticism by Efraim Karsh, nor the political swerves of Morris himself, could mitigate the book’s political impact.
This doesn’t exhaust the list of books about the Middle East that made the New York Times bestseller list or won the admiration of scholars. That bibliography would be much longer (and some years ago, I myself put together a different list, of choice scholarly works). But for sheer influence in the longer term, I don’t see another book that deserves inclusion in this club. If you have other ideas, share them at this link on Facebook.