MY WORD: Bernard Lewis’s century

The world according to the remarkable scholar and celebrity historian

(photo credit: ARIEL JEROZOLIMSKI)
I’d like to congratulate Bernard Lewis: Not only did he celebrate his 100th birthday on May 31 – an achievement which obviously owes something to forces and good fortune beyond his direct control – he should be congratulated for not spending the better part of the century, and certainly recent decades, saying: “I told you so!” The temptation must be enormous.
I met Lewis only once, when he came to The Jerusalem Post offices in 2007, to share his incredible wisdom with editorial staff.
Refreshing my memory ahead of writing this column, I checked what was on record from that meeting, and was reminded how chilling it had been, despite the delivery in Lewis’s trademark British cultured tones and style, that belie his modest Anglo-Jewish origins and his status as a naturalized American citizen for decades.
In an interview with him written at the time by then editor-in-chief David Horovitz and reporter Tovah Lazaroff, Lewis was asked: “In your writings you have spoken of the feelings of humiliation and rage in the Muslim world. When will their rage subside, if at all?” The answer: “One way [for them] to alleviate their rage is to win some large victories. Which could happen. They seem to be about to take over Europe.”
Post: “‘About to take over Europe?’ Do you have a time frame for that? It sounds pretty dramatic.”
Lewis: “No, I can’t give you the time frame, but I can give you the stages of the process: Immigration and democracy on their side, and a mood of what I can only call self-abasement on the European side – in the name of political correctness and multiculturalism, to surrender on any and every issue.
“I was talking only the other day at the Herzliya conference with a German journalist.
We were chatting informally over a cup of coffee. He was expressing his profound alarm at the mood of what he called self-abasement among the Germans at the present time. ‘We mustn’t do anything to offend them. We must be nice to them. We must let them do things their way,’ and so on and so on and so on.”
What does that mean for the Jewish communities of Europe, even in the short term, Lewis was asked.
“The outlook for the Jewish communities of Europe is dim,” he replied.
Soon, he warned, the only pertinent question regarding Europe’s future would be, “Will it be an Islamized Europe or Europeanized Islam?”
LEWIS IS a rare breed: a celebrity historian and scholar. He coined the phrase “the clash of civilizations” – made famous by Samuel Huntington – and many of his studies on the Ottomans and the Middle East are still considered classics.
Not bad for somebody born the same month as the Sykes-Picot agreement dividing the Middle East between the British and the French.
A few years ago, I reviewed a collection of his essays, speeches and articles titled Faith and Power: Religion and Politics in the Middle East.
A line of thought that appears throughout is that the separation of “church and state,” such a basic concept in most of the Western world, is not compatible with Islam.
Among his insights: “The emergence of a population, many millions strong, of Muslims born and educated in Western Europe will have immense and unpredictable consequences for Europe, for Islam and for the relations between them.”
I don’t want to hear a “Told you so!” so much as an update in the wake of the current mass migration to Europe’s shores, as borders in the Middle East disappear and fences are erected even within the European Union.
He doesn’t get everything right – who can? – but some special Lewis touches that I found in the book when I first read and reviewed it, stood out again when I dusted off my copy for another look in honor of his centennial birthday.
“Comparing the relationship between property and power in the modern American and classical Middle Eastern systems, one might put the difference this way: In America one uses money to buy power, while in the Middle East, one uses power to acquire money,” he writes.
Similarly, Lewis recognizes the “intensely personal character” of almost all aspects of Muslim government, where the ruler, families, clans and ethnic loyalties are far more important than the state itself.
This, I believe, is the key to understanding what is going on now, and will continue to be true.
It’s not a criticism. It’s a phenomenon that requires recognition and understanding.
Any discussions on a future Palestinian state, for example, should take into account the rivalry (to put it lightly) between Gaza and the West Bank, and even between different cities within the West Bank.
TRIBALISM IS inherent in human nature.
It is natural to identify with a smaller unit.
We may live in the global village, and even consider ourselves citizens of the world, but ultimately there is always some other identity closer to home.
This is an underlying message behind Britain’s upcoming Brexit vote on whether or not to leave the EU – which will have tremendous implications for the UK and also for nationalist, breakaway movements throughout the continent.
It’s the premise that every major sporting event is based on.
If the vast majority of its residents were to consider themselves primarily as Europeans, whose nationality is of secondary importance, the 2016 UEFA European Championship, the 15th such quadrennial football championship, would not be kicking off on June 10 and the world would not be gearing up for the Rio Olympics later this summer.
The heightened security is a sign of the downside of the tribalism. More classic Lewis: In a chapter headlined “License to kill,” he stresses: “At no point do the basic texts of Islam enjoin terrorism and murder,” adding, however: “Terrorism requires only a few.”
That is true for terrorism committed by supremacists of all backgrounds, of course.
My British background made it inevitable that I have an affiliation to a football club, even without understanding the game. In England, it was easy: My family has traditionally been Arsenal supporters and I saw no reason to break that multi-generational chain.
When I arrived in Jerusalem, I gravitated to Beitar Jerusalem, which was on a winning streak, and quite often my work for the Post’s local paper in the late 1980s took me to events and parties where the team members would hang out. (I recall local legend Uri Malmillian telling me that playing football was similar to playing chess, you had to have a strategy and be able to think a few moves ahead.) I remained loyal to the team as long as I could. Ultimately, it wasn’t the players who got me down but the fringe group of violently racist fans known as La Familia.
It takes a huge amount of courage and conviction to break away from a top team, but Beitar Nordia Jerusalem did just that – it created a fan-based club where, unlike Beitar Jerusalem, everyone could feel safe and at home.
Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, I often followed its most recent – hugely successful – season via Facebook updates as I prepared for Shabbat on a Friday afternoon. A new coach, Moshe Salmi, was appointed this week.
The team, and its fans, are good sports, crying “foul” at racism and proving that pride does not have to be accompanied by prejudice.
In the Irving Kristol lecture delivered in March 2007, Lewis said: “A favorite theme of the historian is periodization – dividing history into periods. Periodization is mostly a convenience of the historian for purposes of writing or teaching. Nevertheless, there are times in the long history of human adventure when we have a real turning point – the end of an era, the beginning of a new era. I’m becoming more and more convinced that we are in such an age at the present time – a change in history comparable with the fall of Rome, the advent of Islam, and the discovery of America.”
What the future will bring, only time will tell. That, and perhaps, a thorough review of Bernard Lewis’s remarkable work.
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