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Post Meeting Bernard Lewis
Created by John Eipper on 05/22/18 2:41 PM

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Meeting Bernard Lewis (Edward Jajko, USA, 05/22/18 2:41 pm)

I had the honor of meeting Bernard Lewis twice during my career in Middle East studies.

The first time was when I was either in college or graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania; I can't remember. In either case, it was the early or mid 1960s when Lewis had joined Princeton from the University of London for what seemed to be a temporary visit that turned out to be permanent. My teacher, Dr. S.D. Goitein, invited all of his students to his house to meet Prof. Lewis. In the course on Arab history that many of us were taking with Dr. Goitein, he was using as the textbook, or really as a sort of pony, the very thin historical-sketch History of the Arabs that Prof. Lewis had published as a Harper Torchbook paperback. I still have that book someplace. I recall that as an interesting evening in which Goitein was proud of both his guest and students. As I write this, I recall that at that get-together at Goitein's house, Prof. Lewis told of recent travels through Central Asia. I recall specifically his saying that, although he did not speak the various Turkic languages he came across in his travels, he was able to use his Turkish, in which he was fluent; there were enough similarities that he was able to get by.

I next met Prof. Lewis when he came to the Stanford campus to deliver the West Coast presentation of the Jefferson Lecture. This was when I was still curator of the Hoover's Middle East Collection. My boss was able to grab him during the day and I was in turn able to give Prof. Lewis a personal tour of the Middle East Collection in the Hoover Institution Library. Our collection paled in comparison with those that he was accustomed to using, that of Princeton University, for example, which is the best in the country and one of the best in the world, but he was still interested in what we had and generous with his compliments and evaluation. He was also generous with his time with and interest in me.

My late brother, who was then a civil servant at the highest levels of military intelligence in the Pentagon, in the days of Secretaries Rumsfeld and Cohen, spoke glowingly of the briefings that Prof. Lewis presented before senior staff of DoD.

The great strength of Bernard Lewis, besides his brilliance, phenomenal memory, and ability to synthesize tons to stuff mentally, was the fact that he had read simply everything, in many languages--Arabic, Hebrew, Persian, Turkish, and God knows what else. He had read all the Arab historians, of whom there are hundreds, at the very least, as well as the poets--thousands--and other authors, and done the same for the Persian and Turkish as well. He knew the Qur'an and its innumerable commentators, and the hadith and its commentaries. Of course, he knew the Hebrew and Greek scriptures--did I neglect to mention Greek and Latin among his languages?--and the Talmud. Whatever the controversies of his opinions and briefings, they were based on absolutely solid knowledge.

One example of this can probably still be found in the web pages of Foreign Affairs. In the 1990s, the London Arab newspaper al-Quds al-‘Arabi (a title that translates to Arab Jerusalem) published Usamah bin Ladin's declaration of war on "Jews and Crusaders [i.e. Christians] wherever they might be." In Foreign Affairs, Lewis published an absolutely brilliant analysis of this declaration of war, showing how UBL's mental, cultural, and of course religious reference points were totally foreign to those of the West. It was basically, get to know your enemy or else. It was brilliantly done and is worth reading and studying.

Bernard Lewis was not without controversy. There were those who had problems with even his first book, which was on Turkey, and scholars pecked away at him for all his life. I had problems with his book entitled, I believe, Semites and Anti-Semites. If I recall correctly, he begins the book by saying that to be anti-Israeli is not to be anti-Semitic. By the end of the book, he has argued himself into saying that the two are equated. I stress: if I recall the book correctly. There was, of course, the famous (or infamous?) controversy with the late Edward Said.

Edward Said was professor of comparative literature at Columbia University. He was a sort of disruptor of things Middle Eastern, having come up with his controversial ideas about Orientalism and published a successful book under that title. It was Said's view that traditional Orientalists had a skewed image of the Middle East as the Other. (It did not help things that modern "Oriental" studies, at least of Islam and the Middle East, were founded by a 19th century Hungarian Jew, Ignaz Goldziher.) Lewis was an Orientalist, a Mustashriq. I, too, was trained in the Orientalist tradition, and proudly call myself one. At a Middle East Studies Association conference some years ago, I was one of hundreds who attended a jam-packed battle between Lewis and Said. Prof. Lewis spoke first, receiving a rather lukewarm hand, followed by a rapid-fire Said, who got tumultuous applause. These were, after all, American university professors, for the most part, and students, hence "progressives." But while Edward Said, although a Columbia University professor, was a member of the Palestinian National Congress, he really couldn't hold a candle to Bernard Lewis in terms of Middle East scholarship.

Bernard Lewis was a university professor in the UK, then at Princeton. Then, when he had retired from Princeton, he was hired by the University of Pennsylvania and appointed as head of the then Annenberg institute of Judaic studies in Philadelphia. This institute was established by the philanthropist Walter Annenberg--who made his massive fortune by inventing and publishing TV Guide--on the demise of the Dropsie College of Hebrew and Cognate Learning, in Philadelphia. This unique graduate-level institution, which had produced many distinguished PhDs, had gone bankrupt. Annenberg bailed it out, transforming it into an institute under the auspices of the University of Pennsylvania. Bernard Lewis was appointed as its first dean. This was not a happy arrangement, and he left after about a year (I am using my recollections here). When we spoke about this, on his visit to the Hoover Institution, he was guarded and not happy.

The controversy with Said will continue to dog the memories of Bernard Lewis. But for those who knew him personally or who knew his work, he remains a giant. The simple fact is that he had read, understood, assimilated, and synthesized everything, and I mean everything, in Arabic, Turkish, Persian, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and God knows what other languages. The man was a giant.

JE comments:  To Prof. Lewis's intellectual achievements, we should add his superhuman longevity (he was born one month before the attack on the Somme, and died 12 days shy of 102).  A brilliant tribute, Ed.  Thank you.

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  • Bernard Lewis's Obituary: NYT (Edward Jajko, USA 05/25/18 2:15 PM)
    The long obituary of Bernard Lewis in the May 22 New York Times is worth reading. It even shows examples of Lewis's wittiness:

    Mr. Lewis's views on the connection between Islam and terrorism inspired controversy but also helped shape American foreign policy under George W. Bush.

    JE comments:  See below.  I never knew that "Clash of Civilizations" was first coined by Lewis, and later borrowed (famously) by Huntington.


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  • "Conflicted Legacy of Bernard Lewis": Martin Kramer (Luciano Dondero, Italy 06/10/18 4:35 AM)

    "The Conflicted Legacy of Bernard Lewis" is an essay about the recently departed scholar, written by Martin Kramer, an American-Israeli professor at Shalem College in Jerusalem. He is himself a scholar of the Middle East, focusing on Islam and Arab politics.

    The essay in Foreign Affairs is available here:  https://scholar.harvard.edu/files/martinkramer/files/the_legacy_of_bernard_lewis.pdf

    Kramer argues that "Bernard Lewis, historian of the Middle East, was widely misunderstood. But no other person in our time has done as much to inform and influence the West's view of the Islamic world and the Middle East."

    JE comments:  Was Lewis the "last Orientalist," as his detractors (such as the late Edward Said) claim, or the first real historian of the Middle East?  Kramer emphatically embraces the latter view. 

    To be sure, Kramer is an ideological disciple of Lewis.  Both have been labeled neocons, proponents of a muscular engagement with the Middle East that goes beyond scholarship to include nation-building (in Kramer's words, "social engineering").  History has shown that this means war.

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