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.
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.
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.