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Edward Gibbon’s “Jewish Problem”: Can a Great Historian’s Anti-Semitism Be Exonerated?

Feb. 15 2017

In his recent Naïve Readings, Ralph Lerner offers essays on eight masters of rhetoric, ranging from Francis Bacon to Abraham Lincoln, and including the medieval Jewish philosophers Judah Halevi and Moses Maimonides. Among them is an analysis of the treatment of the Jews in the work of the 18th-century British historian Edward Gibbon. Steven Lenzner writes in his review:

[The essay] “Gibbon’s Jewish Problem” . . . presents Lerner with a problem: how to deal with a great author who denigrates (in a manner unworthy of himself) a noble people that has too often been the victim of thoughtless scorn. To be sure, Lerner would not tarry with an author who would engage in thoughtless scorn, but what of thoughtful and rhetorically allusive scorn? In a subtle and nuanced reading of the self-styled “philosophic historian,” Lerner reveals how Gibbon, in his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, employed the Jews as a useful foil indirectly to criticize Christianity, of which he was no admirer and which could not, at that time, be subjected to frontal attack. . . .

Lerner clearly admires Gibbon, but he struggles to reconcile that admiration with his entirely reasonable disapproval of Gibbon’s embrace of a rhetoric that could (and would) be employed to render “Jews less than fully human.”

Lerner reaches a reconciliation—insofar as he can—in two ways. First, he draws attention to other elements of Gibbon’s writings and actions that point to a more thoroughgoing humanity: “In calling [the Jews] an unfortunate and unhappy people, the ‘philosophic historian’ displays more than a symptom of compassion.” The second way is by pointing beyond Gibbon to a contemporary “who had the vision and fortitude to declare openly an enlarged and liberal policy [beyond toleration] that he commended to the rest of mankind as worthy of imitation.” That would be George Washington.

Read more at Weekly Standard

More about: Ancient Rome, Anti-Semitism, Christianity, George Washington, History & Ideas

 

Israel Agreed Not to Retaliate During the Persian Gulf War—and Paid a Price for It

Feb. 19 2018

During the Persian Gulf War of 1991, Saddam Hussein fired 39 Scud missiles at Israel, killing one person and causing extensive property damage. Under intense pressure from the first Bush administration to sit still—ostensibly because Israeli involvement in the war could lead Arab states to abandon the White House’s anti-Iraq coalition—Jerusalem refrained from retaliating. Moshe Arens, who was the Israeli defense minister at the time, comments on the decision in light of information recently made public:

[W]hat was George H.W. Bush thinking [in urging Israel not to respond]? His secretary of state, James Baker, had accompanied the U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Charles (Chas) Freeman, on a visit to King Fahd in Riyadh on November 2, 1990, two-and-a-half months before the beginning of the war, to obtain the king’s approval for additional deployment of U.S. troops in his kingdom in preparation for the attack on Iraq.

He was told by the king that although they would not welcome Israeli participation in the war, he understood that Israel could not stand idly by if it were attacked by Iraq. If Israel were to defend itself, the Saudi armed forces would still fight on America’s side, the king told Baker. So much for the danger to the coalition if Israel were to respond to the Scud attacks. Israel was not informed of this Saudi position.

So why was President Bush so intent on keeping Israel out of the war? It seems that he took the position, so dominant in the American foreign-policy establishment, that America’s primary interest in the Middle East was the maintenance of good relations with the Arab world, and that the Arab world attached great importance to the Palestinian problem, and that as long as that problem was not resolved Israel remained an encumbrance to the U.S.-Arab relationship. If Israel were to appear as an ally of the U.S. in the war against Iraq, that was likely to damage the image the U.S. was trying to project to the Arabs.

In fact, immediately upon the conclusion of the war against Saddam Hussein, Baker launched a diplomatic effort that culminated in the Madrid Conference in the hope that it would lead to a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It didn’t. . . .

Read more at Jerusalem Post

More about: George H. W. Bush, Israel & Zionism, Israeli history, Peace Process, Persian Gulf War, US-Israel relations