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Bernard Lewis: 100 Years in the Making

May 22nd 2018

Books

As three commercial airliners crashed into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon on the orders of Osama bin Laden, Lewis’s What Went Wrong? The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East was in galleys, almost ready for press. It became a major best seller.

With the publication the next year of The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror, Lewis had two number-one best sellers on the New York Times nonfiction list — one in hardcover and one in paperback.

“My historical studies suddenly became relevant,” he writes in his 2012 memoir, Notes on a Century. He was interviewed endlessly, and was invited to Washington, D.C., to educate politicians and to lecture at think tanks.

Even more than his vast erudition and capacious memory, it is his unparalleled ability to fit things together that has made Lewis one of the best-known public intellectuals of our time. It is not the historian’s task to predict the future, according to Lewis. “He can discern trends. He can look at what has been happening and what is happening and see change developing. From this he can formulate, I will not say predictions, but possibilities, alternative possibilities.” Long before 9/11, Bernard Lewis had been doing that as well as anyone in the world.

In 1976, he published an article in Commentary, “The Return of Islam,” that broke with the prevailing orthodoxy that the Middle East was rapidly headed toward a future of secular revolutionary movements.

The standard American college textbook on the Middle East at that time bore the title The Passing of Traditional Society: Modernizing the Middle East.

That year, Anwar Sadat was firmly in control in Egypt, and the Muslim Brotherhood was under his thumb; the Shah of Iran was still ensconced on his throne; and Osama bin Laden had just graduated an elite high school where he wore a blazer and tie. Sadat’s assassination by the Muslim Brotherhood, the Shah’s overthrow by the Ayatollah Khomeini, Hezbollah’s bombing of a US Marine Corps barracks in Lebanon killing 241 servicemen, and 9/11 were all in the future.

Yet Lewis urged “modern Western man… unable for the most part to assign a dom­inant and central place to religion in his own affairs, [and thus] unable to conceive that any other peoples or any other place could have done so,” to pay heed to what those living in the Middle East were saying and writing, all of which pointed to a “surge in religious passion” and to the continued universality and centrality of Islam as the primary element of personal identity.

Lewis did not specifically predict the Islamic Revolution, but he had already read Ayatollah Khomeini’s The Islamic State, in the original Persian, by the time Khomeini took power, and was quick to disabuse all those who imagined that he would put Iran on a path of greater freedom than it had traveled under the Shah.

In “The Roots of Muslim Rage,” published in the Atlantic in 1990, he devoted a section to the “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the West, represented by the United States, three years before Samuel Huntington made the phrase famous, with all due attribution. (Lewis had actually first used the term in a 1957 panel at Johns Hopkins University.)

“Islam from its inception is a religion of power, and in the Muslim world view it is right and proper that power should be wielded by Muslims and Muslims alone…

That non-Muslims should rule over Muslims is an offense against the laws of G-d and nature,” Lewis had explained in “The Return of Islam.” And thus it was natural that the “growing awareness of the heirs of an old, proud, and long dominant civilization, ofbeing overtaken, overborne, and overwhelmed by those they regarded as their inferiors,” should give rise to rage.

To those who preached nonsense about reconciliation between the three great “Abrahamic faiths,” Lewis argued that the very resemblances between Islam and Christianity had made ongoing conflict between the two inevitable from the time Islam swept out of the Arabian peninsula. Both proclaimed possession of the one true faith and a duty to spread that faith to every corner of the earth. “Each recognized the other as its principal, indeed its only rival.”

Lewis was one of the first to take note of the “Declaration of the World Islamic Front for Jihad against the Jews and the Crusaders,” issued in an obscure London Arabic paper in February 1998 by Osama bin Laden. Lewis began his piece in Foreign Affairs as only one deeply immersed in Arabic literature could, with attention to the declaration as a “magnificent piece of eloquent, at times even poetic, Arabic prose.”

He noted that bin Laden’s list of grievances gave pride of place by a wide margin to the evils of America for its presence on the holy soil of Arabia “spread[ing] in it like locusts, crowding its soil, eating its fruits, and destroying its verdure… at a time when the nations contend against the Muslims like diners jostling around a bowl of food.” Bin Laden called “on every Muslim who believes in G-d and hopes for reward to obey G-d’s command to kill the Americans and plunder their possessions wherever he finds them and whenever he can.” Israel was a distant third in bin Laden’s list of grievances.

Already in 1999, Lewis expressed doubts about American staying power in the Middle East, and predicted that Russia, then “crippled by its internal problems,” would eventually reassert itself in the region, as it has done with a vengeance in Syria.

Not every forecast has proven correct. Lewis was one of the invitees on the White House lawn for the 1993 handshake between Israeli prime minister Yitzchak Rabin and PLO chieftain Yasser Arafat, and found the experience deeply moving. Martin Kramer, former director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, points out that nearly two decades earlier, Lewis had written of the PLO in Commentary: “The PLO… makes little serious attempt to disguise its intention of using any West Bank state of which it may obtain control as a first step toward the realization of its aim — the liquidation of Israel…” Kramer attributes what Lewis would soon admit was a mistake in judgment to the triumph of his hope for an Israel living in peace over experience.

By any standard, Bernard Lewis has had one of the most remarkable scholarly careers of the 20th century. He is the author of 32 books — 15 subsequent to his “retirement” at 74 — which have been translated into 29 languages, and 200 articles and monographs.And he has guided the research of generations of graduate students, which has privileged him with an unparalleled web of connections throughout the Muslim world.

At times, he has been a player, not just chronicler of events. Well before the Yom Kippur War, he was tasked by Egyptian diplomat Tahseen Bashir with bringing to Israeli leaders the message that President Sadat was ready to make peace. Bernard met with then prime minister Golda Meir, whom he describes as having a “personal filtration system” that allowed through only what she wanted to hear, as well as Moshe Dayan, Yitzchak Rabin, and Menachem Begin. Only the last was eager to pursue the diplomatic feelers.

Lewis was in Egypt when the Yom Kippur War broke out and for two months thereafter. And he admits that perhaps peace had to wait until Sadat was fully convinced that Egypt could never defeat Israel militarily, and also until he was able to reframe the initial Egyptian crossing of the Suez Canal as a significant Egyptian victory.

At 100, he does not hear well enough to be interviewed for a profile. But if I cannot speak to him, at least I have his memoirs, which take him up to the age of 95. In addi­tion, Mosaic recently published a lengthy appreciation of Lewis by Martin Kramer, who first met him as a graduate student at Princeton, and five responses from others who have been close to him for decades.

And for years, I have been friendly with Harold Rhode, who describes Lewis as “a father to me.” His own father passed away when he was 14.) Rhode has spent thousands of hours in private conversations with “Uncle Bernard,” with the explicit goal of being able to one day share him with those not privileged to know him in person. He is the only non-family member to whom Lewis has ever dedicated one of his books.

As a midlife baal teshuvah, Harold is in an excellent position to discuss his mentor’s Jewishness, a subject about which they have spoken frequently. Lewis is of pure Litvak stock. He still recalls his bar mitzvah tutor, Leon Shalom Creditor, a Hebrew and Yiddish journalist originally from Dvinsk, as a “true scholar” who introduced him to both modern and Biblical Hebrew. With the help of Mr. Creditor, Lewis discovered that Hebrew can be learned no less than French or Latin and held more attraction for him than either.

After his bar mitzvah, he surprised his parents by asking to continue learning with Mr. Creditor, with whom he proceeded from Tanach to Talmud over a period of years. From a young age, Lewis displayed an uncanny facility for languages. He has translated Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and Hebrew poetry. But only his translation of Shlomo Ibn Gabirol’s Keter Malchut was published as a book.

He has always insisted on his Jewishness, even when it would have been more convenient not to do so, as when applying for a temporary residence visa in Turkey, while working in the Ottoman archives. The clerk claimed that his religion must be Protestant because he listed his nationality as English. To which Lewis replied with some indignation that he most certainly had not said he was Protestant. “I know what I am.”

Harold points me to the ante-penulti­mate paragraph in an essay entitled “The New Anti-Semitism,” in which Lewis discusses the introduction into the Mus­lim world of a previously foreign type of anti-Semitism — defined not just as the normal hatred of different peoples for one another, but the attribution of cosmic evil to Jews.

He notes that for theological anti-Semitism, there was a “cure” — to become a meshumad. Racial anti-Semitism, which first arose during the Spanish Inquisition as suspicion of Jewish conversos and which reached its apotheosis under the Nazis, however, left Jews with no way to escape from anti-Semites. The modern anti-Semitism, expressed primarily as irrational hatred of Israel, however, once again leaves Jews with an “out” — they can join those baying for Israel’s destruction.

Bernard Lewis first crossed into Eretz Yisrael from Egypt in the late 1930s, and described that crossing to Rhode as “one of the most deeply moving moments of my life.” Once Harold remarked to him, “My soul feels at peace in this land,” to which Lewis replied, “I know exactly how you feel.”

Were Lewis still able to travel alone to Israel, Harold tells me he has no doubt that the scholar would greatly prefer to spend his days in the “air of Eretz Yisrael.” And he has purchased the closest possible burial plot to his apartment, which overlooks the Mediterranean at 1 Trumpeldor Street.

Since 1980, he has held an appointment as a visiting fellow at Tel Aviv University, which requires him to deliver two public lectures and meet with graduate students. On those visits, which in later years extended to months at a time, he would meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu every year to share his perspective on the region.

I ask Harold how he first became close to Uncle Bernard. In 1977, Harold was working on his PhD at Columbia. And he was having difficulty with the Ottoman documents, which are extremely hard to read. They are written in Arabic script, including Turkish sounds for which there are no parallels in Arabic, and with most of the points that distinguish between letters in written Arabic missing. He contacted Lewis and asked him for help. Lewis offered him 15 minutes between 10:00 and 10:15 the next day.

Despite the brief time available, Harold began the meeting by taking five minutes to tell Lewis of his impact on Harold’s thinking. Until he read “The Return of Islam,” Harold related, he had always considered himself good at amassing facts, but a poor analyst of those facts. After reading the article three times, however, he realized that what he had been lacking was a conceptual framework. (Rhode went on to work for nearly three decades as a Middle East analyst in the Department of Defense, a job secured in large part due to the backing of Uncle Bernard.)

Lewis was obviously intrigued by the nervous young man and asked his about his plans after completing his doctorate. Then he shocked Harold by inviting him to lunch. Not until 3:30 in the afternoon did the conversation end. And even then, Lewis offered his new disciple his copy card to reproduce any documents he might want on Princeton’s Xerox machines.

That extraordinary generosity to his students is central to the memories of all Lewis’s disciples. One of the great joys of his life has been watching former students become “independent scholars and teachers and researchers of renown.” In that sense, he has been a “proud papa many times over.”

Prof. Bernard Lewis with Italian journalist Fiamma Nirenstein.

Martin Kramer, today president of Shalem College in Je­rusalem, first met Lewis as a 22-year-old graduate student at Princeton. Bernard was nearly forty years his senior, and al­ready the dominant figure in the field. Within a month, Ber­nard had arranged an assistant teaching position for Kramer, given him the key to his office at the Institute for Advanced Study, and tasked him with cataloguing incoming scholarly offprints. Kramer would sit at his desk on weekends marveling at the scope of his correspondence from around the world.

Once a week, they would lunch together, followed by a vigorous walk in the woods. Then they would repair to Lewis’s office, where he would choose a shelf in his massive library and go through each volume, “estimating each tome’s significance to scholarship, sharing some lore about the author, and parsing the dedication.”

In his encomium on Lewis’s 90th birthday, the late Middle Eastern scholar Fouad Ajami described their first meeting, when Ajami was just beginning his professorial career. Bernard asked him where he was from, and Ajami named “an obscure place without history” in southern Lebanon. Lewis immediately offered him access to his vast archives of Ottoman documents, including the land deeds of that remote hamlet.

Humor is the leaven of both Lewis’s writing and all his personal relationships. A note left in his War Office file by a commanding officer in World War II reads, “His sense of humor should not be taken as seditious.”

His greatest loss upon moving to Princeton from SOAS in 1974 was the inability of Americans to grasp his dry wit: “[G]entle irony which is a normal component of intellectual discourse in England was either missed entirely or misunderstood…. For me, not being able to use irony is like cooking without using salt or pepper.”

Lewis writes of the rich vein of humor in Muslim texts, even religious ones, over more than a millennium, and it is clear he prefers to make his points in the memorable mot juste, either his own or those of others. On the speculative nature of reconstructing the past, he quotes Anatole France’s praise of a certain scholar: “He’s truly a great historian; he has enriched his subject with a new uncertainty.” The hardest thing for a historian under the Soviets, a Russian historian once told him, was not predicting the future “but predicting the past.”

From his earliest lecturing in America, Lewis detected a great interest in the Mid­dle East “uncomplicated by any knowledge of the region or by any realization of the complexity of the problems involved.” He was constantly put in mind of Adlai Ste­venson’s remark that “for Americans every question must have an answer and every story a happy ending.”

On the fecklessness of American foreign policy in the Middle East, he cites a Turkish general: “The real problem with having the Americans as your allies is you never know when they will turn around and stab themselves in the back.” Long before President Obama’s outreach to Iran, he explained Western diplomacy in terms of Groucho Marx’s remark that he would not belong to any club that would have him for a member: “We do not worry about any government that would seek our friendship. It’s only our enemies in whom we are interested.” The weak American response to the seizure of the US embassy in Tehran shocked the mullahs and convinced them that it is “more profitable to be an enemy rather than a friend of the United States.”

Though he can “play” in 15 languages, Lewis rarely lectures in anything other than English. The great violinist Isaac Stern once asked him why he did not lecture in Hebrew in Israel. Bernard inquired, in return, whether he played the piano. Stern told him that all professional musicians can play the piano. “Well, why don’t you give concerts on the piano?” Lewis asked. Stern im­mediately grasped his point: “The English language is my instru­ment. I can speak other languages, but I can’t perform in them.”

Many of his pithily expressed judgments immediately lodge themselves in the mind precisely because of their elegance. Comparing the outset of World War II to the present moment, he once told Fouad Ajami that the British were then confident of prevailing because “we knew who we were; we knew who the enemy was; we knew the dangers and the issues. By contrast, today we don’t know who we are, we don’t know the issues, and we still do not understand the nature of the enemy.”

Prof. Bernard Lewis with longtime partner Buntzie Churchill.

Because of the preeminence of Bernard Lewis in Middle Eastern studies, the late Edward Said, a professor of literature at Colum­bia, made him the bête noire of his enormously influential 1978 work Orientalism. Mere mention of Said’s name is enough to cause Lewis acolytes to bristle.

Said’s stated purpose was to delegitimize all Western scholarship of the Middle East as inherently racist and a tool of Western imperialism. His unstated purpose was to bolster the Palestinian cause, for which he served as a propagandist and member of the PLO national council. Bernard Lewis, the Jew and Zionist, had to be destroyed.

Employing the methods of contemporary literary criticism, Said argued that it is impossible for any culture to be understood other than by those born into it. His was a prescription for intellectual laziness.

Lewis, who had immersed himself since his early years in all the Middle Eastern languages and traveled far more widely in the region than Said, was the antithesis of such sloth. He did not deny that certain nuances may only be fully understood by one born into a particular culture. Nor did he maintain that history is an objective sci­ence. He never told his Muslim students that they must be “neutral” on matters of great import to them, only that they must be “honest” as historians.

Honesty was a particular problem for the uniquely mendacious Said. Of Orientalism, Lewis remarked, “It is hard to know where ignorance ends and deceit begins.” He finds Said ignorant of both European and Arab history. Said, for instance, places the Muslim conquest of Turkey before that of northern Africa; in fact, it came 400 years later. Western study of the Middle East began long before Western governments were active in the region, and was not therefore the handmaiden of imperialism. Indeed, Robert Irwin notes, most Western Orientalists were anti-imperialists, deeply sympathetic to the cultures they studied and eager to see Middle Eastern peoples no longer subjects of foreign rule.

Said offered his own life of exile from his native Jerusalem as a prototype of the Pal­estinian “nakba.” He even wrote and narrat­ed a BBC documentary In Search of Pales­tine, in which he offered his personal story as a microcosm for the Palestinian people.

Yet as Justus Reid Weiner demonstrated in a 1999 Commentary article, that “narrative” (one of Said’s favorite words) was a lie. Shortly after Said’s birth in his aunt’s house in Jerusalem, his father, who hated Jerusalem, took the family from Jerusalem to Cairo, where Edward and his siblings were given an upper-class Protestant upbringing before he was sent to prep school and college in America.

Said claimed in 2003 that “Lewis hasn’t set foot in the Arab world for at least 40 years.” That was a complete fabrication. For decades, Lewis was an annual visitor to Cairo and Amman, where he enjoyed a close friendship with Crown Prince Has­san, brother of King Hussein. He dined privately with the Libyan strongman Gaddafi, King Hussein, Turkish president Turgut Ozal (with whom he had a longstanding relationship), and the Shah of Iran. He was invited by the governments of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Oman to visit their countries.

He mentored and maintained contact after they returned to their native lands with hundreds of students from Muslim lands, who ventured West to seek their own history in a manner free of inherited attitudes and imposed constraints.

The Muslim Brotherhood translated his 1963 work The Middle East and the West into Arabic. The translator wrote in his preface: “I don’t know who this person [the author] is but one thing is clear. He is, from our point of view, either a candid friend or an honest enemy, and in any case one who disdains to distort the truth.”

As a product of the Anglo-Saxon world, Lewis did not hide, in Fouad Ajami’s words, from his Iranian, Turkish, and Arab readers — who recognized their own tormented civilizations in his works — his conviction that “the ways of the West carry with them the hopes of other civilizations.” Amir Taheri thrilled to hear him break with protocol in Iran in the early 1970s to make critical remarks at an official dinner party: “[He] criticized us because he respected us and, perhaps, even loved us a bit.” And in Turkey, he told the leadership in the 1990s that secularism need not and should not entail the crushing of religion.

Always he wrote with sympathy of the power of Islam to uplift “drab existences.” And he even found within the history of Islamic polities a rejection of arbitrary and tyrannical rule, and a long tradition of consultative governance that can provide models for the development of civil society in Muslim countries.

But he would not hide the arrested political development of Muslim societies. And for that Said hated him.

Prof. Bernard Lewis (r) with Vice President Dick Cheney. Photo courtesy of Harold Rhode.

Those eager to discredit Lewis have accused him, based on his relationship with Vice President Dick Cheney, of being one of the architects of the Second Iraq War, a charge he hotly denies. True, he views the decision of the President George H.W. Bush to leave Saddam Hussein in control of the state, the Iraqi army, and his revolutionary guard, at the end of the First Iraq War, to have been a tragic mistake. And he labels a “catastrophe” Bush the elder’s call on Kurds and Shiites to rise up against Saddam, followed by standing by and letting Saddam slaughter then when they heeded that call. Subsequently, he urged both the Bush I and Clinton administrations to pledge support for a declaration of a Free Iraq government by groups within that country, who explicitly eschewed any request for American military aid. But by 2003, his focus was on the Iranian nuclear program, not Iraq.

The thrust of American policymaking in the Middle East, Lewis argues, should be to show “that there are rewards for friendship and penalties for hostility to the United States.” Too often it has been the opposite. Thus with respect to Iran, the goal of the United States should have been to encourage the Iranian people and scare its leadership. During the 2009 Green Revolution, the Obama administration did exactly the opposite.

In a 2006 e-mail to National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, Lewis warned that trying to negotiate with Iran, as President Obama eventually did, from a position of weakness in Iraq and in the face of repeated Iranian insults, would be read as an “expression of weakness and fear.”

And consistent with his longstanding critique of Western failure to take into account Islamic religious beliefs, he derided the possibility that MAD (mutual assured destruction) could serve as a deterrent to the Iranians. For Iranian leaders, “who seem to be preparing for a final apocalyptic battle between the forces of G-d and of the Great Satan — the United States,” he argued, mutual assured destruction would have no meaning. Only the final destination — hell for the infidels and the delights of heaven for the believers — matters. “For people with this mindset, MAD is not a constraint, it is an inducement.”

After 9/11, Richard Bulliet, a professor of Islamic history at Columbia, quipped, “Does this mean I’m throwing my copy of Orientalism out the window? Maybe it does.”

When the works of Edward Said are mere cultural artifacts of a bygone era, like those of the Sovietologists who predicted the eternity of the Soviet Union, Bernard Lewis’s books will still be read and studied. Better than revenge, the truth will have prevailed.

Reprinted with permission of Mishpacha Magazine. © Mishpacha Magazine Inc. All rights reserved.


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