I was with the neocons– (Then I went to the Middle East)

on 20 Comments

In April, Greg Eow wrote a letter to a professor he had met in graduate school at Rice University, Ussama Makdisi, describing his political transformation. Eow (who is pictured above, in Jerusalem) now shares it with us.

Dear Professor Makdisi,

I don’t know if you remember me, but I finished my PhD in the Rice history department in 2007.  I was one of Thomas Haskell’s students.  We ran into each other a handful of times, including once when I helped you with some of the microfilm machines in Fondren Library.  Anyway, this is a strange e-mail, both to write and most likely to receive.  But I wanted to tell you about some recent experiences which have profoundly changed my view of the Israeli-Palestinian issue.  You have demonstrated an interest in changing how people think about the issue, and so I thought you might be interested in what for me has turned out to be a transformative event.


First of all, a quick word about presuppositions.  I confess that I previously never paid a great deal of attention to the Israeli-Palestinian issue.  Insofar as I did follow the issue, my sympathies were with neoconservatives.  Samuel Huntington and Bernard Lewis were my guides.  They were realists, I would tell myself, whereas those who quarreled with them, for instance colleagues at Rice who were more interested in postcolonial studies than I, had political axes to grind.  Not for me the romance of resistance.  I was a good skeptic, an empiricist; and if there was a problem in Israel it was clear to me it had to do with Muslim fundamentalism, terrorism, and the clash between Enlightenment values and democracy on the one hand and premodern tribalism and totalitarianism on the other.

Flash forward a couple of years. 

I’m through with grad school, I finally have some time and money, and I embark on a self-directed course of study on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  I have my feelings, sure, but I realize that I don’t know a whole lot, that a lot of smart people disagree with me, and now I want to make a good faith effort to learn about the issue and test my prejudices against the scholarship in the field.  I read Rashid Khalidi, Edward Said, Benny Morris, Patrick Seale, David Fromkin, Juan Cole, Efraim Karsh, Tom Segev,  William Cleveland, Bernard Rougier, Albert Hourani.  I read your book and article on anti-Americanism.  And I spend two weeks traveling through Syria, Lebanon, Jerusalem and the West Bank.  In sum, I read about forty books from a number of different standpoints and travel through the region to see what is going on with my own eyes.

The result?  Well, the whole experience essentially knocked me on my butt.  I was wrong about a great many things.  And not just wrong but deeply wrong.  Wrong to a degree that to realize it has left me shaken, wondering how exactly I got to be so intellectually, and in this case morally, obtuse.  Just a taste of the data that undid my worldview:

1)  The Arab people I met in Syria, Lebanon and the West Bank (and Jerusalem), the vast majority of them Muslims, were almost uniformly lovely, warm, and welcoming.  I wasn’t expecting passersby in the street in all of these places to invite me into their homes for tea to discuss how much they "hate George Bush, but like Americans."  (This happened too often to count.)  Pretty much everyone thought U.S. policy was a disaster.  But they were angry about policy and lovely to me in ways that make the "they hate us for our freedom" line not only inaccurate but criminal.  Among the people I met:  a 20 year old Shiite Muslim named Mohammed whom I met in the Bequaa Valley.  Mohammed supports Hezbollah because of their 1) resistance to Israeli incursions into Lebanon (he didn’t say anything about Hezbollah provocations), 2) their welfare programs, and 3) their support of the Palestinian cause (all his words).  He’s been to Mosque no more than twice in his life, eats pork, and likes nothing more than going dancing in Beirut.  That is to say, he is entirely secular.  With Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington as my guides, I have no way to make sense of such an encounter.

2)  Driving through the West Bank at night allows one to see the proliferation of illegal Israeli settlements with immediate and striking force.  They are everywhere, some small, some huge, in the high ground lit up like prisons.  I thought the reason why the two-state solution had failed was Palestinian intransigence.  A look at the settlements – even a quick look – demolishes such a simple explanation.  Traveling through the West Bank at night, and later visiting and talking with people in Ramallah, reinforced an essential point:  Israel, at least powerful forces within Israel, is actively pursuing policies to colonize and annex the West Bank while simultaneously making life so difficult for Palestinians that they will pick up and leave.  The evidence was there for anyone with eyes to see, irrefutable and horrible in its obviousness.  How I got duped by the "Israel wants peace behind the 1967 borders but extremists deny it to them" line is a question I will be asking myself again and again with embarrassment and not a little shame.

I could go on, but this (unsolicited) e-mail has gone on long enough and you get the point.  What I’m saying is this: keep writing, keep telling U.S. citizens to better inform themselves about what is going on in their name and with their tax dollars.  If they’re honest, and they go see for themselves what’s going on, I can guarantee that the reasonableness of what you and others have written on the matter will soon become apparent.

20 Responses

  1. BradAllen
    August 13, 2009, 12:43 pm

    Bernard Lewis, is a dupe used by the Neocons during the Bush admin to distort Mid East history and political entities. He was used because he sounded like he knows what he’s talking about, but like Allan Dershowitz, he is just another mouth piece and a whore who would say and o anything for money. I wonder how many people listened to this fool on TV and said, wow he sure knows his stuff…gag…dress them up, paint lipstick on them and they’re still pigs.

  2. Richard Witty
    August 13, 2009, 1:10 pm

    Better to get specific.

    What of Bernard Lewis’ comments do you disagree with?

    Learning is not an either/or proposition. One doesn’t learn, “everything that x says is wrong”. One learns, “question and investigate further.”

    They could be mostly right, partially right, slightly right.

    • VR
      August 13, 2009, 3:41 pm

      Richard, generally speaking his entire premise is faulty and self-serving, he is what one calls a classic Orientalist in the sense of State service – but is even more skewed because of his appearance as an “expert.” The praise heaped on him by some just shows the widespread nature of this particular “service.” I mean, I can stomach even some of the European Orientalists because of their fields of expertise – but the immense hatchet job done on over a billion people by Lewis makes me gag every time.

      Edward said gave a glimpse of this never ending project of deception and almost sheer nonsense that Lewis has been involved in for over 50 years. Lewis “work purports to be liberal objective scholarship but is in reality very close to being propaganda against his subject material.” Lewis’s work is “aggressively ideological.” He has dedicated his entire career, spanning more than five decades, to a “project to debunk, to whittle down, and to discredit the Arabs and Islam.”

      “The core of Lewis’s ideology about Islam is that it never changes, and his whole mission is to inform conservative segments of the Jewish reading public, and anyone else who cares to listen, that any political, historical, and scholarly account of Muslims must begin and end with the fact that Muslims are Muslims.”

      His work is fraught with insinuations and sleight of word while he delivers screeds about how objective and fair historical analysis must be. That all “universal values” originate in the West, etc. that is why the “democratic” state of Israel is resisted… I mean I could go on and on. Huntington picked up on his pitches of the “Monolithic Islam and Arab” narrative, and it graduated to a further push for the recognition of a mythical “clash of nations.” There is sheer absence of any context, reducing everything to two fighting monoliths – Islam and the West. With any knowledge to be really frank, his writings are comical, to the unaware they are totally misleading and poisonous.

      Is that good enough for you Richard? If not we could open one of his “classic” works and I will rip it to shreds before your eyes.

      • homingpigeon
        August 13, 2009, 4:24 pm

        Ya, I think these guys, Lewis, Pipes, etc., must have gotten into a quarrel with a cab driver in Beirut or Cairo when they were young and just haven’t gotten over it. And so they devote their lives to studying the Mideast with the unfortunate goal of making “propaganda against their subject material.”

      • Richard Witty
        August 13, 2009, 8:37 pm

        Are those quotes of Lewis? From what material? In what context?

        I don’t know enough to agree or disagree with you or the author.

      • VR
        August 14, 2009, 12:07 am

        Far be it from me to try to educate you in this forum Richard, so I will provide a few links for you if you want to know about the “handiwork” of Bernard Lewis –


        Start here (above link)

        As the West began it’s “conquering” path through the Middle East, it was the job of some to study these cultures that they assaulted and enslaved, they were called orientalists. It was the job of the orientalist to so categorize and define the existence of the people, that the conquering power could exploit to the fullest extent the population(s).

        These orientalists at the beck and call of conquering powers began to describe the people as if they were totally other – different in every sense from the refined, intelligent and noble people who fancied themselves their superiors and therefore masters. If one looks at the time of the crusades there is very little different by way of demeaning description, and in the same way this was used as an excuse to conquer and “civilize” these backward and ignorant mass of humanity – create a “New Middle East,” which really means first colonialism, and than neocolonialism – exploitation of natural and human resources, creating beneficial borders of division for weakness, etc.

        The people who were the object of exploitation were narrowly defined, as if their aspirations were other than human. That they did not have the same love for their families and their children that the Judeo/Christian betters have, and they do not have the same sense of community, but on the contrary that they cannot be reasoned with and are barbaric – violent, and without mercy. A total caricature in order to justify any act against them.

        Yet millions of them live among people in the United States, in this very diverse culture. If they are so different, so backward and retarded, such violent people, than how are they living among us in such peace? If you travel through these countries in the Middle East you find great diversity, community and care.

        What is amazing in this scenario is that the people who promote this view claim to be the heirs of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and it’s natural offspring of humanism. Many confess to be in the Judeo-Christian tradition which claims to believe that man is created in the imago dei, the image of god which claims the dictum “love your neighbor as yourself.” Yet they “officially” spread this spurious lie through an elite which deceives their people, and an ignorant mass which believes their lies.

        So those who claim to drink from this enlightened spring of humanism, the use of reason to claim the highest pinnacle for mankind, vilifies and creates death and destruction in these lands. As if there is some impenetrable wall that separates us from other human beings, like we have been thrown back 200-300 years without the abilities of modern communication. As if there are no commons, and that we do not live in a world enriched by a multiplicity of cultures!

        Essentially, this is the teaching and legacy of Bernard Lewis.

      • Richard Witty
        August 14, 2009, 4:31 am

        Thats a quote of Edward Said, not of Lewis.

        How can one comment on Lewis, from the words of a critic?

        I don’t grant either Lewis or Said authority. I’ve read and met Said. I’ve not read Lewis.

  3. Todd
    August 13, 2009, 1:42 pm

    Lewis does claim that the West should have close ties to Israel, so that is reason enough to ignore him. I’m not sure if Lewis claims that Muslims hate the West because of its freedom, but he does claim that some of the friction between the civilizations is because Islam is backwards. Right or wrong, I don’t think Americans need the likes of Lewis as a middleman in our relations with the Islamic world.

  4. Citizen
    August 13, 2009, 2:33 pm

    Lewis’s version of historical cause and effect as between the West and the classical Middle East reads like a pontificating constant slur against that East , capsulized forever when he
    equated Tiger Wood’s natural propensity for, and ability at golf with Arafat’s natural propensity for, and ability at terrorism. If he wrote the same way about “Backward Africa”
    for example, he would’ve been kicked out of any influential position forever, and quickly.

    link to counterpunch.org

  5. America First
    August 13, 2009, 6:26 pm

    Lewis’s work is simply an international extension of the Freudian “projective theory” of anti-Semitism. To Lewis, the Arabs’ problems with Israel are due to the Arabs’ lack of “modernization,” not to Israel’s conduct. That is similar to the view of the Freudians and Frankfurt School that anti-Semitism is always due to the anti-Semite’s mental disease, never to the Jews’ conduct. The worst part is they all pose as objective scholars of these matters, interested only in the good of humanity or America’s national interests. It is vital that Lewis and his ilk be exposed as Jews loyal to Israel, period.

  6. Gene
    August 14, 2009, 12:26 am

    Slightly dated but still a good appraisal of Lewis in my view.

  7. Richard Witty
    August 14, 2009, 4:35 am

    On disagreement.

    There are very few that I out and out reject, that I think that nothing that they state is true, either in thesis or in support for it.

    I have more confidence in my own intellect than that, than to regard the “other” as that dangerous that I cannot assess, pro’s and con’s.

    Whose analysis do you trust so thoroughly that you’ll believe every word on the basis that they said it? And whose analysis do you distrust so thoroughly that you’ll disbelieve every word?

    For me the answer to both those questions is NOONE.

    • Todd
      August 14, 2009, 10:25 am

      I have enough confidence in my own intellect to be able to spot the likes of Bernard Lewis without having to read everything he writes. Lewis is to academic scholarship what Sasha Baron Cohen is to comedy and entertainment.

    • VR
      August 14, 2009, 10:53 am

      That is OK Richard, this can be said about anyone and does not address the issue at hand, but it is OK…LOL

  8. Shafiq
    August 14, 2009, 6:15 am

    Admittedly, I haven’t read any of Benny Lewis’ work but I have read Samuel Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civilisations’. I not only found it wrong, but dangerous.

    The first problem I had with it, was myself – where did I fit in? Was I part of the West or was I part of the Islamic civilisation? In reality, I’m part of both.

    I found it dangerous because if many influential people believe in it, we end up having a ‘cosmic’ war between these so-called civilisations, where lots of people die and all sides lose. It was, simply put, a dangerous self-fulfilling prophecy. The War on Terror started off as a ‘clash’ but as soon as Iraq turned nasty, the Bush administration realised that this wasn’t going to work. The problem is, as the politicians stopped believing in it, as mass of ordinary Americans and Britons have started to believe.

  9. Julian
    August 14, 2009, 8:59 am

    I’m surprised Phil didn’t cover the article in the NY Times by Hussein Agha and Robert Malley.
    link to nytimes.com
    “The ultimate territorial outcome almost certainly will be found within the borders of 1967. To be sustainable, it will need to grapple with matters left over since 1948.”
    The “matters” from 1948 is whether the Palestinians will accept a Jewish State whatever the borders.

    • VR
      August 14, 2009, 3:09 pm

      Julian, in regard to –

      “Few Israelis quarrel with the insistence that Israel be recognized as a Jewish state. It encapsulates their profound aspiration, rooted in the history of the Jewish people, for a fully accepted presence in the land of their forebears — for an end to Arab questioning of Israel’s legitimacy, the specter of the Palestinian refugees’ return and any irredentist sentiment among Israel’s Arab citizens.”

      I say this is not a problem with a simple proviso – it can be recognized as Jewish state as long as it it not murderous and aggressive toward the Palestinians and its neighbors. People say “Jewish State” as if it is in a vacuum, but what if it resembles and fully acts like Apartheid South Africa or worse (those who have visited from SA have said that it is worse). Israel has the right to be a racist state? Israel has the right to continue the occupation as it sees fit? Etc., etc. Even if you read Benjamin Netanyahu’s definition of a Palestinian state –

      “…Mr. Netanyahu conceded the principle of a Palestinian state, but then described it in a way that stripped it of meaningful sovereignty. In essence, and with minor modifications, his position recalled that of Israeli leaders who preceded him. A state, he pronounced, would have to be demilitarized, without control over borders or airspace. Jerusalem would remain under Israeli sovereignty, and no Palestinian refugees would be allowed back to Israel.”

      This is laughable, it shows no intention of not continuing a process of oppression, it shows no intention of a viable state – essentially it shows no recognition of any Palestinian state. There is also no fairness in the international communities position on any supposed negotiation process – the Palestinian must disarm, they must recognize an aggressor colonialist Israel, they must renounce violence (defense), they must accept all of the previous ridiculous parameters of previous bad faith negotiations, and Israel does not have to do any of this – complete bullshit.

      There are no viable peace negotiations (just “piece” negotiations, where Israel steals more land as they negotiate in “good faith”), there is no viable offer of a Palestinian state, there is no impartial partner at any supposed negotiation table (where the U.S. acts like counsel for Israel) – it is all a joke. This administration does everything without any teeth, totally useless – it is also a joke, just like the previous ones.

  10. Citizen
    August 14, 2009, 3:20 pm

    Yep, it sure looks like the same old song and dance, Yiddishe Theater writ large. What I object to is the compound insult to egalitarian principles, on top of which my taxpayer dollars pay for, and for which, my country is now viewed as a rogue nation around the world, and hence subject to future terror. Could it get worse for a normal American, as far as foreign policy is concerned? Yes, it’s worse because our MSM does not even inform
    us of this situation.

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