Semites, antisemites, and Bernard Lewis

In 1986, Bernard Lewis published an unexpected book. Entitled Semites and Anti-Semites, it combined a careful typology of Jew-hatred, and a sobering account of how antisemitism had spread through the Arab world. Regarding the latter, Lewis made this arresting judgment:

The level of hostility, and the ubiquity of its expression, are rarely equalled even in the European literature of anti-Semitism, which only at a few points reached this level of fear, hate, and prejudice. For parallels one has to look to the high Middle Ages, to the literature of the Spanish Inquisition, of the anti-Dreyfusards in France, the Black Hundreds in Russia, or the Nazi era in Germany.

Lewis thoroughly documented the extent of the “new antisemitism” with his customary erudition, and the book became a classic. Yet it also stirred controversy. Its conclusions were challenged both by the Palestinian activist Edward Said, and by the historian of antisemitism Robert Wistrich.

Why did Lewis write this book? And why did he conclude that Arab antisemitism owed more to Europe than to Islam? In this illustrated webinar, done for the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism at Indiana University, I take a deep dive into the background and substance of Semites and Anti-Semites. View it here or below.

(And a correction: the head of MI6 was Stewart Menzies, not Robert.)

The clash of civilizations: whose idea?

In Samuel Huntington’s famous 1993 article, “The Clash of Civilizations?” (yes, it had a question mark), he wrote that “on both sides the interaction between Islam and the West is seen as a clash of civilizations.” Then he brought this supporting quotation from Bernard Lewis:

We are facing a mood and a movement far transcending the level of issues and policies and the governments that pursue them. This is no less than a clash of civilizations—the perhaps irrational but surely historic reaction of an ancient rival against our Judeo-Christian heritage, our secular present, and the worldwide expansion of both.

In a footnote, Huntington located this quotation in Lewis’s article “The Roots of Muslim Rage,” which appeared in The Atlantic Monthly in 1990.

The quoting of Lewis by Huntington led to the widespread conclusion that it was Lewis who came up with “the clash of civilizations,” and who seeded Huntington with the idea. So when Lewis died in 2018, many obituaries gave him credit (or blame) for inspiring Huntington. 

But this turns out to be trickier than it seems.

  • First, it’s quite possible, even likely, that Lewis borrowed “clash of civilizations” from someone else.
  • Second, Lewis wasn’t altogether happy with the way Huntington recycled “clash of civilizations,” and hesitated to endorse it. This may have been due, in part, to the criticism of Huntington made by Fouad Ajami.
  • Third, by “clash of civilizations,” Lewis meant something both less and more than Huntington’s “clash.”

I explore all this in a webinar for the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA), an association founded by Lewis and Ajami. View my full presentation below.

What would Bernard Lewis say?

Bernard Lewis passed away two years ago, and the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET) put together a panel to mark the occasion. Here are my remarks. No one has filled the stage vacated by Lewis, and I explain why. I also dwell on his interesting definition of antisemitism (it might surprise you), and his critique of Middle Eastern studies (it diverges from the usual one). Twelve minutes of your time. Click here.