Barry Rubin was one of the leading Middle East scholars and analysts of his generation.
He was also a patriot of two countries – Israel and the United States – a dissenter, and a moral and intellectual beacon for thousands of people in many lands.
Barry brought to his work a tremendous, searing energy, which made him famously prolific. This energy stayed with him throughout the illness which has now prematurely ended his life. He was still composing articles in the very last days, when his hands could no longer work the keyboard. He stayed with his chosen mission to the end.
What was the source of this extraordinary energy and commitment? It is vital to note that Barry’s work was characterized not only by its analytical depth, but also by a profound sense of moral urgency. This set him apart from the scholarly and academic mainstream. There was always a sense behind his words of some urgent wrong to be righted, or some piece of information which must be revealed and understood, with no time to waste.
There are many examples from his work which demonstrate his prescience, clarity and moral commitment.
And since he believed in backing up claims with empirical evidence, here are a few of these: In Tragedy of the Middle East, Barry expressed a cogent and extremely prescient critique of the prevailing political culture in the Arab world. Many of the points he raised in this seminal work form the basis of the claims that were raised by liberal Arab oppositionists in the first days of the “Arab Spring.”
The closed nature of regional political systems and economies, the cynical misuse of anti-American and anti-Israeli rhetoric, the vast disparities in access to wealth and power – all are noted here. Barry championed in a practical way the cause of Arab reform and liberalism in the region when it still went largely unnoticed by most analysts.
At the same time, he had no illusions about the balance of political power in the Middle East and was also among the first to predict the rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood and the acute dangers inherent therein.
Barry was similarly among the first to detect the anti-Western and anti-democratic tendencies of the Erdogan government and the AKP in Turkey. I remember him issuing a passionate, uncompromising warning in this regard on many platforms, as other scholars sought to outline what they imagined to be more “nuanced” or “measured” positions. Of course, Barry’s assessment of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the nature of his ambitions is now mainstream.
In his book The Truth about Syria, Barry wrote the only serious, book-length treatment of the Assad dictatorship in Syria that sought to issue a clear moral indictment of this brutal and murderous regime. This work is in my estimation the equivalent in the Syrian context of Iraqi dissident Kenan Makiya’s famous Republic of Fear, which revealed to the world the true nature of Saddam Hussein’s regime in the 1980s.
Again, at a time when the prevailing wisdom was that Syria was a rather pleasant place, when Syrian President Bashar Assad and his wife were received by the Queen of England, when The New York Times was running long segments on Damascus and Aleppo as charming and adventurous tourist destinations, it was Barry Rubin who pulled off the mask and revealed the Assad regime for what it was.
Once again, he incurred the condescension of much of the academic community on Syria for his passionate and strident tone. And once again, events have proved him right. This book, and the moral courage of the man who wrote it, deserve far wider recognition.
Finally, Barry was among the first analysts of US politics to recognize that the Barack Obama presidency would represent a sharp break in American policymaking, rather than a continuum. He noted this when Obama was still a candidate for the Democratic nomination in 2008, and he sought to raise the alarm for what he saw as a danger both to America’s global standing and to its relationship with Israel. Again, his analysis was ahead of its time.
Barry’s writing deserves to be placed high in the canon of contemporary Middle East analysis. But there was another, more private aspect to his work, which involved his consulting with senior figures in the Israeli policymaking world, and advising and mentoring younger scholars, researchers and activists.
Regarding the former, Barry had been acting in the year prior to his death as an unofficial adviser to a senior minister in Israel’s government, a member of the inner security cabinet.
This relationship had great promise, but was sadly cut short by Barry’s illness. In a similar vein, in recent years he had developed a close connection to one of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s closest advisers.
Barry was both discreet and modest about these connections, but he was also aware of their importance.
But it is a mark of Barry’s nature that his network of connections went far beyond the senior reaches of Israel’s establishment.
So on the same day that he might be corresponding with members of the Israeli Cabinet, he would be meeting with visiting Turkish friends to discuss their fears regarding the direction of their country, or having coffee with a member of the Kurdish underground who was passing through Tel Aviv, or speaking with a brilliant young officer of IDF Military Intelligence, or advising an unusually talented young Iraqi Arab scholar concerning the direction of his research.
These are all real examples whose outlines will be instantly recognizable to those who knew Barry well.
None of these people knew each other. They might not have agreed about very much if they had met. But all found it beneficial to communicate with Barry, and all learned and benefited from his knowledge. In turn, their insights helped to give his work the unusual depth and breadth which characterized it.
Barry’s work was a 24-hour-a-day project for him. He was always switched on, reading, speaking, learning, writing, contributing.
He was a fascinating, multi-dimensional man, with many levels to his personality and to his interests. In his youth, he had been a radical, in the ferment of the US campuses of the late 1960s and early 1970s. In the second part of his life, Israel and the Jewish People were his abiding passion. Throughout, he was fascinated by the history of the land of his birth, the USA, and by its traditions of liberty and possibility.
As Walt Whitman described America itself, so Barry too “contained multitudes.”
Because of all this, there will be thousands of people, in Israel, in the broader Middle East, in the US and in Europe who will be feeling themselves diminished by his passing.
Barry would have allowed scarce time for lamenting, however. He would have stressed the urgency of the hour, and the need to get organized and back to work.
We will learn from his example.
And despite the grievous loss, it is accurate to say that in a number of ways, he is still with us. Barry liked to split issues up into three components, so here are three of the ways in which his presence will linger and continue to serve as a beacon illuminating the way.
First, in his books and his writings, which are readily available and which together form a monument and a testimony to a life spent learning, studying and analyzing the Middle East and public policy.
Second is the example he set of how to live, in his generosity, staunch integrity, and passion above all for his family, but also for his friends, and for the causes to which he was committed.
And finally, for those of us who were privileged to work closely with him, in the memory of the very dear and wonderful personality that lay behind all of this scholarship and industry, and which will continue to remain beloved in our hearts for as long as we live.
Teacher and mentor, husband and father, scholar and friend and traveling companion, Barry Rubin is gone too soon – far too soon. It remains for those of us who learned from him to continue to walk along the lines he set and thus to honor his memory.
The author is a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs Center at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, and a fellow at the Middle East Forum. He is the author of The Transforming Fire: The Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict (Continuum, 2010) and a columnist at The Jerusalem Post. Spyer holds a PhD in International Relations from the London School of Economics and a master’s in Middle East Politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.