How Arab States’ Ban on Jews Shaped the Career of a Great Historian

February 2, 2017 | Martin Kramer
About the author: Martin Kramer is a historian at Tel Aviv University and the Walter P. Stern fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He served as founding president at Shalem College in Jerusalem.

Noting Iran’s condemnation of the recent restrictions imposed on entry to the U.S., Martin Kramer reflects on the exclusion of Jews from much of the Middle East, and one of its unintended consequences:

Bernard Lewis, the great historian of the Middle East who last May turned one-hundred, traveled 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 World War II. In 1949, at the age of thirty-three, 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, [in the form of a publicly articulated refusal to give visas to Jews of any nationality], derailed his research plans. . . .

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 being excluded 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. . . .

Today, Arab states don’t ban Jews as such. They do ban Israelis. In fact, six of the seven states featured in Donald 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. . . . It would be unfortunate if this [sort of blanket exclusion] became the norm in the world. But it wouldn’t mark much of a change in the Middle East.

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