The Master Historian of the Middle East

Bernard Lewis, the preeminent scholar of Islam and the Middle East, has died two weeks shy of his 102nd birthday. Author of erudite works in the history of Arab and Islamic societies, Lewis was also a man of the world and a versatile writer for general audiences who married a commanding voice with an engaging and graceful style. In the aftermath of 9/11, he won great influence with best-selling works like What Went Wrong? and The Crisis of Islam. Born and educated in England, in the 1970s Lewis moved to the U.S. where he lived (apart from winters in Tel Aviv) until his death. To mark his centenary in 2016, the historian Martin Kramer, a friend and former student, published in Mosaic a retrospective analysis and assessment of Lewis’s career and achievement:

When [Lewis’s article] “The Return of Islam” appeared [in Commentary magazine] in 1976, the notion that Islamists might one day seize the Grand Mosque in Mecca, overthrow the monarchy in Iran, assassinate Anwar Sadat, kill 241 U.S. Marines in Beirut, fly planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and reestablish a caliphate ruling over an Islamic state in Syria and Iraq, would have seemed like pulp-novel scenarios with probabilities of zero. In fact, nothing of what we regard today as the infrastructure of Islamism was visible at all.

So how did [Lewis] discern the “return”? “From the 1970s onward,” he would later write, “to anyone following events in the Muslim world and reading or listening to what Muslims were saying in their own languages, the surge in religious passion was increasingly obvious.” In fact, he was practically the only one to whom this was obvious.

In a reply to published comments on his essay (by Robert Irwin, Itamar Rabinovich, Eric Ormsby, and Amir Taheri), Kramer includes a personal note from his days as Lewis’s student and office assistant:

Every few weeks, Bernard would invite me to lunch at the Institute [for Advanced Study], 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.  . . .  Such gifts of precious time were hardly mine alone. . . . His generosity to students and younger scholars assured him a devoted personal following over the course of several generations. . . .

Kramer sums up:

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. . . . 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.

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More about: Bernard Lewis, History & Ideas, Islam, Middle East

For Israelis, Anti-Zionism Kills

Dec. 14 2018

This week alone, anti-Zionists have killed multiple Israelis in a series of attacks; these follow the revelations that Hizballah succeeded in digging multiple attack tunnels from Lebanon into northern Israel. Simultaneously, some recent news stories in the U.S. have occasioned pious reminders that anti-Zionism should not be conflated with anti-Semitism. Bret Stephens notes that it is anti-Zionists, not defenders of Israel, who do the most to blur that distinction:

Israelis experience anti-Zionism in a different way from, say, readers of the New York Review of Books: not as a bold sally in the world of ideas, but as a looming menace to their earthly existence, held at bay only through force of arms. . . . Anti-Zionism might have been a respectable point of view before 1948, when the question of Israel’s existence was in the future and up for debate. Today, anti-Zionism is a call for the elimination of a state—details to follow regarding the fate befalling those who currently live in it. . . .

Anti-Zionism is ideologically unique in insisting that one state, and one state only, doesn’t just have to change. It has to go. By a coincidence that its adherents insist is entirely innocent, this happens to be the Jewish state, making anti-Zionists either the most disingenuous of ideologues or the most obtuse. When then-CNN contributor Marc Lamont Hill called last month for a “free Palestine from the river to the sea” and later claimed to be ignorant of what the slogan really meant, it was hard to tell in which category he fell.

Does this make someone with Hill’s views an anti-Semite? It’s like asking whether a person who believes in [the principle of] separate-but-equal must necessarily be a racist. In theory, no. In reality, another story. The typical aim of the anti-Semite is legal or social discrimination against some set of Jews. The explicit aim of the anti-Zionist is political or physical dispossession.

What’s worse: to be denied membership in a country club because you’re Jewish, or driven from your ancestral homeland and sovereign state for the same reason? If anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism are meaningfully distinct (I think they are not), the human consequences of the latter are direr.

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More about: Anti-Semitism, Anti-Zionism, Hizballah, Israel & Zionism, Palestinian terror