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Happy 100th birthday Bernard Lewis!

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On the occasion of Bernard Lewis’s 100th birthday we must never overlook the prominent role of Bernard Lewis in hasbara circles and Eurocentric racism. Lewis has dutifully served Western political interests for many decades and brazenly used his scholarship to promote those interests under the guise of academic objectivity.

If it is true that you are the company that you keep, then these results speak for themselves. The very Right Wing Gatestone Institute, friend of the great Alan Dershowitz, praises the centenarian on the occasion of his birthday, and not to be outdone Daniel Pipes chimes in with his accolades:

He’s impressively fit in body and mind, spending time on the computer, ever the raconteur (“What’s a Jewish joke? One which non-Jews can’t understand and Jews have heard a better version of”), and conjuring up anecdotes from a time before the rest of us were born (his 1946 discussion with Abba Eban about the latter’s career choices). It’s wonderful to see him doing well even if it’s sadly understandable that he no longer engages in scholarship nor opines on current events.

And there is this symposium appreciating Lewis from the National Review. I was thrilled to see the vile Ayaan Hirsi Ali – who is married to the Imperialist apologist Niall Ferguson – add her voice to the amen chorus:

Bernard Lewis once asked me, Is there anyone who as a leader has really impressed you? And I said, well, you do. He smiled and said he was flattered, but asked about a political leader. And I had to think about it. He said the fact that you have to think about it so long is a mark of our time.

I was expecting to see her pal Bill Maher as well – but no luck! If only Christopher Hitchens were alive to add his voice to the cheering chorus of Lewis-lovers.

And where would we be without accolades from the arch-Orientalist Martin Kramer? Here, Kramer offers an excellent précis of Lewis’ thought:

Islam the religion, he wrote, was “the chief contender with Christianity for the hearts of men,” while Islam the civilization was both “the nearest neighbor and deadliest rival of European Christendom.” Because Islam and Christianity were “sister religions”; because both civilizations shared the legacy of Mediterranean antiquity; and because both owed much to Jewish religious tradition and Hellenistic thought, each “recognized the other as its principal, indeed its only rival.” Bernard described their bitter contention as a family feud over “an immense shared heritage,” between two civilizations “divided by their resemblances far more than by their differences.”

It would be hard to overestimate the significance of this insight. By the time Bernard wrote these lines, a cultural industry had developed around the notion that Muslims and Christians (as well as Jews) could be reconciled by emphasizing their commonalities. This would eventually develop into today’s faddish concept of three “Abrahamic” faiths, a kind of prophet-sharing plan intended by its advocates to blunt the fact of mostly Muslim hostility by emphasizing how much Islam shares with Christianity (and Judaism) and downplaying the differences.

Bernard argued exactly the opposite. Yes, Islam regarded Christians (and Jews) as “people of the Book,” and so showed tolerance to those who submitted to Islamic rule. But there could be no greater affront to Islam than the continued existence of an independent Christendom, precisely because of its declared prior claim to many of the same proofs of superiority as were claimed by its Islamic rival.

Indeed, not only were the two civilizations rivals; they were locked in “almost permanent conflict” from which there were no true respites. For well over a millennium, from the first Islamic conquests in the 7th century through the last Ottoman siege of Vienna in the 17th, Islam had been on the march. Later, Europe would launch “a counterattack into the lands of Islam and establish European imperial domination in old Islamic territories.” For Bernard, this “ebb and flow of Muslim empire in Europe and of European empires in the land of Islam” was part of one “long and—alas—unfinished struggle.” No matter how much modern Westerners might wish to consign that struggle to the dustbin, Muslims would not oblige them—hence, the “alas.”

Kramer confirms what has now become standard operating practice in the hasbara world: Christianity is not only superior to Islam, but is the very driver of civilization against the barbarity of the East.

Lewis was the first to articulate a “Clash of Civilizations” thesis, later popularized by Samuel Huntington, which has become ubiquitous in Right Wing discussions of the West and Middle East.

It is crucial that Lewis reject the Convivencia of Jews, Muslims, and Christians in Spain, North Africa, and the Middle East and emphasize the dystopian theme of conflict and persecution.  Like many Ashkenazim he turns a blind eye to the long Christian persecution of the Jews, fixating instead on the sporadic cases of Muslim persecution of Jews and Christians.

We have most recently seen this idea coming from self-hating Sephardim like Rabbi Marc Angel and Vanessa Paloma which reflects the toxic Lewis spirit.

It was my attack on Lewis’ vile Anti-Sephardi and Anti-Arab racism that prevented my article on “The Levantine Option” from being published by The New York Times Op-Ed page many years ago. The article was eventually published by The Huffington Post.

Here is the quote from Lewis’ best-seller What Went Wrong? which expresses his contempt for Arab Jews and their culture:

The conflict, coexistence, or combination of these two traditions [i.e. the Judeo-Christian and the Judeo-Islamic] within a single small state, with a shared religion and a common citizenship and allegiance, should prove illuminating. For Israel, this issue may have an existential significance, since the survival of the state, surrounded, outnumbered, and outgunned by neighbors who reject its very right to exist, may depend on its largely Western-derived qualitative edge.

Here is my response from the article in which I defend the classical Sephardic heritage and the spirit of Convivencia:

The opposition between East and West promoted by Lewis, a permanent feature of the discourse on the conflict as reproduced by the Western media, is a dangerous mechanism that has occluded the voice of Jews who once maintained a crucial connection to the organic world of the Middle East. The silencing or marginalizing of the Arab Jewish voice has had a profoundly deleterious affect on the conflict.

What if the future of the Middle East lay in the amicable interaction of the three religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, in a symbiotic formation that lays out the commonalities rather than the deep-seated differences that are rooted in the Ashkenazi experience?

If such a symbiosis were desirable, the memory of Moorish Spain where the three religions were able to coexist and produce a civilization of great worth, would take prominence. The Sephardic voice would be central in articulating what was termed Convivencia, the creative cultural dynamic that fired medieval Spanish civilization, until its collapse in 1492.

“The Levantine Option” would help collapse the alienating cult of persecution harbored in classical Zionist thought and omnipresent in the rituals of the state of Israel, replacing it with a more positive view of the past. The nihilistic “realism” of the current Israeli approach, centered on the institutionalized perpetuation of the twin legacies of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism, would be countered by memories of an indigenous Jewish past that had a constructive relationship with its surrounding environment. “The Levantine Option” would create a shared cultural space for Jews and Arabs to bring down the walls and barriers between the peoples.

Until we develop ways to talk to one another in a substantial and civilized way – from within a shared cultural space that exists for those of us who still espouse “The Levantine Option” – the questions surrounding Israel and Palestine, as well as the endemic violence that is a malignant cancer in the region, will continue to haunt Jews, Arabs and the rest of the world.

So while the Zionists celebrate the career of Bernard Lewis, Sephardim have much less to be appreciative for, as his “success” has led to our continuing failure and exclusion from the mainstream Jewish discussion.

David Shasha

David Shasha is the director of the Center for Sephardic Heritage in Brooklyn, New York. The Center publishes the weekly e-mail newsletter Sephardic Heritage Update as well as promoting lectures and cultural events. His articles have been published in Tikkun magazine, The American Muslim, the Christian Progressive and other publications. To sign up for the newsletter visit the Sephardic Heritage Google Group at

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13 Responses

  1. pabelmont on June 3, 2016, 4:11 pm

    If Sephardic Israelis are excluded as such from Zionist tribalism, but are nevertheless urged to be/become good tribal Israelis (of 2nd class, Ashkenazic Israelis having captured permanent 1st class), that means that nihilistic Zionism has deliberately destroyed not only much European Jewish culture (Yiddish), but Sephardic Jewish culture (Sephardic Pride, Arabic as a Jewish language, other Jewish languages), and as noted has deliberately destroyed the memory of the convivencia — Andalusian multiculturalism before the reconquest by Spanish Christian princes c. 1492 and the Inquisition & exile of all non-Christians: Jews and Muslims — all for the sinister Zionist purpose of replacing all Jewish history with the holocaust and European antisemitism and using the resulting “victimhood” as perpetual knives in the back of Jewish rapproachment with Israel’s neighbors and as perpetual sources of power for Israel over Europe and America. Zionism has exacted a high cost, a very high cost, born chiefly by Palestinians, but also by Sephardim and all others who come under the cruel Zionist iron fist.

    [I can’t believe that was one sentence! Was it? No, two.]

    • ritzl on June 3, 2016, 5:17 pm

      I wonder what prevents Sephardic Israelis from rejecting the Ashkenazi worldview in Israel and politically allying with the Joint List to recreate Convivencia as a modern problem solving method/force in Israel.

    • ritzl on June 3, 2016, 5:19 pm

      As you point out pabelmont, there seems to be more than enough potential political fissures there to enable that realignment.

  2. tokyobk on June 3, 2016, 5:27 pm

    It’s also my opinion Judaism will indeed be better off when it spins off its the axis of ashkenazi culture. White New York Jews and US transplants to the OT are only one type.

    But Spain in your memory is a bit romanticised, and liberal Protestant culture probably did more to free and empower Jews than any other.

    Its not one or the other.

    • silamcuz on June 4, 2016, 2:31 am

      To be honest, it is impossible to define what constitute Ashkenazi culture today, as we know that historically, Jews in Europe held highly diverse and opposing views of the world as well as Judaism itself. I would argue that it is the right-wing pathology is the problem among the white Jews, as is it among the white Americans with their support of Republicans and neoliberals.

    • MHughes976 on June 4, 2016, 12:59 pm

      Ferdinand’s treacherous expulsion of the Moors is one of the few actions subject to moral condemnation as a wretched deed by Machiavelli and he mentions Ferdinand with an exceptional frisson. I wonder if he expected his Christian readers to agree with him, especially the Spanish ones – ie to regret Convivencia now that it was thoroughly wrecked? I suspect he spoke for an intellectual minority and that it took a long time for the few real manifestations of Convivencia to be recognised and for the romantic legend about it to grow.

  3. hophmi on June 3, 2016, 6:32 pm

    “Like many Ashkenazim he turns a blind eye to the long Christian persecution of the Jews”

    ROTFLMFAO. Ashkenazim turn a blind eye to Christian persecution of the Jews? Is this a serious statement?

  4. anti_republocrat on June 4, 2016, 12:51 am

    On Bernard’s birthday, it’s worth noting that his “arc of crisis” has roots that go back to before his birth in 1916. I just read in Sami Adwan, Dan Bar-On and Eyal Naveh, Side by Side, Parallel Histories of Israel-Palestine:

    In light of the strong European colonial competition, Britain called for the formation of a high committee of seven European countries. The committee submitted its report in 1907 to British Prime Minister Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman. The report asserted that the Arab countries and the Muslim-Arab people living in the Ottoman Empire presented a very real threat to the colonial countries. The report made the following recommendations:
    1. To promote a state of disintegration, division and separation in the region.
    2. To establish puppet political entities under the aegis of the European imperialist countries.
    3. To combat all kinds of unity (intellectual, spiritual, religious, or historical) and find practical means to divide the region and in­habitants from each other.
    4. To ensure the implementation of the previous recommendations, to create in Palestine a “buffer state” which would be populated by a strong, foreign human presence hostile to its neighbors and friendly to European countries and their interests.

  5. dmol on June 4, 2016, 7:38 am

    >It is crucial that Lewis reject the Convivencia of Jews, Muslims, and Christians in Spain, North Africa, and the Middle East and emphasize the dystopian theme of conflict and persecution. Like many Ashkenazim he turns a blind eye to the long Christian persecution of the Jews, fixating instead on the sporadic cases of Muslim persecution of Jews and Christians.

    Youre an imbecile you has never read lewis’s work if you believe that.

    • Mooser on June 4, 2016, 12:26 pm

      “Youre an imbecile you has never read lewis’s work if you believe that.”

      Enough of all this blather. Let’s get down to statistics. What’s the score? Who’s ahead at this time, the Muslims or the Christians?

  6. Misterioso on June 4, 2016, 10:41 am

    Edward Said on Bernard Lewis:

    “Lewis is an interesting case to examine because his standing in the political world of the Anglo-American Middle Eastern Establishment is that of the learned Orientalist, and everything he writes is steeped in the ‘authority’ of the field. Yet, for at least a decade and a half his work in the main has been aggressively ideological, despite his various attempts at subtlety and irony. I mention his recent writing as a perfect exemplification of the academic whose work purports to be liberal objective scholarship but is in reality very close to being propaganda AGAINST his subject material. But this should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the history of Orientalism; it is only the latest – and in the West, the most uncriticized – of the scandals of ‘scholarship.'” (Orientalism, 1978, Page 316)

  7. gamal on June 4, 2016, 7:27 pm

    Drunk and battered at martial arts seminars i met Bernard at a dinner with the king of morocco he was very worried about American Christian anti semitism

    We the Arabs pissed ourselves laughing at him the mans is an idiot

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