Bernard Lewis' Anti-Semites

by Joel Beinin
published in MER147

Bernard Lewis, Semites and Anti-Semites: An Inquiry into Conflict and Prejudice (New York: W.W. Norton, 1986).


In the 1960s, nearly all university students in Middle East history courses read Bernard Lewis’ The Arabs in History (1950), The Emergence of Modern Turkey (1961) and The Middle East and the West (1964). Our teachers almost universally admired these books for their professional scholarship and clear exposition. Their attention to economic and social issues, while modest by today’s standards, was striking compared to the almost exclusive concern of Lewis’ contemporaries with religious and narrowly political topics.

Two decades later, the name of Bernard Lewis is a symbol of the ultra-politicization of Middle Eastern studies. Lewis is perhaps the most articulate and learned Zionist advocate in the North American Middle East academic community, and an important opinion leader outside the ranks of academia. He contributes to the leading mouthpiece of neo-conservative militant Zionism, Commentary, the leading pseudo-liberal journal, New Republic, and the semi-official forum for establishment discussion of foreign policy, Foreign Affairs. He has testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He has praised the nonpolemical objectivity of Israeli Middle East scholars while warning of the baleful effects of Arab money on Middle Eastern studies. [1] His book on Muslim-Black relations, Race and Color in Islam, was a thinly-veiled effort to undercut the rising sympathy of American and African Blacks for the Arab cause after 1967. He has led the counterattack against Edward Said’s critique of Orientalist scholarship and its underlying assumptions. [2]

The reason for Bernard Lewis’ appeal 25 years ago is the same as the reason for his disrepute in many circles today. He stands solidly at the center of the values and assumptions underlying Western European and North American imperial culture. Lewis is an unabashed believer in the superiority of Anglo-American liberalism. In Semites and Anti-Semites, the evidence for Anglo-American superiority is the assertion that anti-Semitism has been less virulent in England and the United States (and the Netherlands) than elsewhere in Europe (pp. 82, 96-98).

Conversely, Lewis assumes the evil and perfidy of the Soviet Union. Nowhere does he suggest that the consistently anti-Soviet and pro-American stands of the Israeli government and the majority of the world Zionist movement since 1949, despite the vital diplomatic and military contributions of the Soviet bloc to the establishment of the Jewish state, might be a substantial reason for the policies of the Soviet Union and its allies. When recounting the bombing of the Soviet embassy in Tel Aviv in 1953, Lewis makes sure to note that it was a small bomb (244).

Semites and Anti-Semites is structured as a comparison of the liberal progressive West, where anti-Semitism was once widespread and is now on the decline, with the Islamic East, where anti-Semitism was historically of minor significance but is now becoming widespread. The East/West dichotomy of Orientalist discourse is fused with the East/West demarcation between the Soviet Union and the United States. Lewis speaks of “the two Easts, European and Islamic” (68) and compares the treatment of Jews in Russia and in the Ottoman Empire (65, 72), even while admitting the fundamental difference in the status of Jews in the two empires and the more favorable conditions of Ottoman Jewish subjects. By associating the two Easts, Lewis appeals to the most popular political currents in the US -- Arab and Muslim bashing and anti-Soviet hysteria. The liberal West can condemn the leading anti-Semites of the contemporary world who are, in Lewis’ view, conveniently associated with each other.

Twenty years ago, cold war liberalism was still a viable intellectual stand; it enabled one to feel superior and progressive at the same time. The mainstream of the Zionist movement was an integral part of liberal imperial ideology and practice -- rooted in the view that progress resided in the West and that domination by the West was a small price to ask non-European peoples to pay in exchange for the benefits of modernization. The progressive content of the Zionist project was effectively questioned outside the Arab and Muslim world only after the June 1967 war.

Since the 1970s, in response to the related challenges to Zionism and the imperial superiority of the West, Bernard Lewis appears to have adopted a more openly polemical writing style and a paranoid view of the world which is at points profoundly out of touch with reality. He is convinced that it is “fashionable” to be a leftist or progressive (247). He believes that in the West “a large section of opinion, especially in the media, and in the literary and academic worlds” has been won over to “an anti-Israel pro-Arab stance” (188). Critics of Zionism in academia, according to Lewis, have been welcomed in departments of Arabic studies by their anti-Semitic colleagues (249).

In Semites and Anti-Semites the big question is: Is anti-Zionism or criticism of Israel, whether by Arabs or others, a form of anti-Semitism? Lewis appears to answer unequivocally in terms that may disappoint the Commentary and New Republic crowd:

It is unreasonable and unfair to assume that opposition to Zionism or criticism of Israeli policies and actions is, as such and in the absence of other evidence, an expression of anti-Semitic prejudice. The Arab-Israeli conflict is a political one -- a clash between states and peoples over real issues, not a matter of prejudice and persecution (20).

But much of the second half of Semites and Anti-Semites is devoted to cataloging and analyzing what Lewis does consider valid evidence of Muslim and Arab anti-Semitism. Thus Lewis gives with one hand a judicious statement of principle, but takes with the other hand by rehearsing a long list of anti-Semitic statements by anti-Zionist Arabs. (Collecting expressions of Muslim and Arab anti-Semitism has become a cottage industry among Israeli and Israeli-oriented Middle East scholars. The Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University is putting nearly every periodical published in the Arab world into a computer bank. This wonderful research tool is regularly abused for this purpose.)

The second half of Semites and Anti-Semites is an extension of the argument advanced earlier in The Jews of Islam (Princeton University Press, 1984). Historically the status of Jews under Islamic rule, while not one of full equality, was on the whole much better than under Christian rule. There was almost no religiously-based anti-Semitism of the type prevalent in medieval Christian Europe. Modern anti-Semitism was introduced to the Middle East by European missionaries and diplomats. Christian Arabs were quicker than Muslim Arabs to embrace anti-Semitism as a defense mechanism in the second half of the 19th century when competition between non-Muslim minorities intensified as European power spread across the Middle East and dislocated established economic and social relations. After the 1956 and 1967 wars, Arab anti-Semitism increased significantly. Today Arab anti-Semitism has reached “tidal proportions” (139) and “some Arab countries, now joined by Iran, have become the main centers of international anti-Semitism.” (195)

Anyone who used “international Judaism” as an analytical category would probably be branded by Lewis and others as an anti-Semite, and rightly so. Why, then, is “international anti-Semitism” any more acceptable? In this context it clearly betrays anti-Arab and anti-Muslim racism. Lewis offers no evidence to demonstrate that there is an organized anti-Semitic campaign that is coordinated in or by Arab or Muslim countries. Are all the inhabitants of those countries anti-Semites? How significant a social force is Arab or Muslim anti-Semitism? How representative of popular and elite opinion are the expressions of anti-Semitism which are cited? Which Arabs or Muslims are more likely to exhibit it and why?

These questions are not well answered by Lewis. His method is to produce texts which do indeed contain disgusting expressions of anti-Semitism. Lewis concludes that these are representative of Arab and Muslim opinion and that European-style anti-Semitism is now widespread in the Arab and Muslim world. The underlying context for almost all of the expressions of anti-Semitism cited by Lewis, however, is the Arab-Israeli dispute. Lewis acknowledges this, and consequently the political as opposed to the religious, racial or social character of Muslim and Arab anti-Jewish sentiment. But he is so anxious to demonstrate the congruence between European and Arab anti-Semitism that he seems to forget his own arguments about the difference in historical circumstances. He thus becomes incapable of making sense of much of the evidence of Arab anti-Semitism that he cites here.

It is true that the Palestinian Arab leader, al-Hajj Amin al-Husayni, spent World War II in Berlin as a guest of the Nazis. Amin al-Husayni’s leadership of the Palestinian Arab national movement is symptomatic of its weakness and part of the explanation for its failure to prevent the establishment of the state of Israel, but Palestinian Arab opposition to Zionism had little in common with Nazi anti-Semitism. Since Lewis does not adequately explain why sympathy with Germany and Italy was widespread in the Middle East during the 1930s and 1940s, he can not explain the political trajectory of some of those who held such sympathies.

For example, Lewis reserves some of his choicest denunciations for the anti-Semitic writing of the Egyptian journalist Anis Mansur (213, 216-17). Lewis acknowledges that Mansur was “close” to Anwar Sadat, but does not pause to ponder the contradiction between this fact and Sadat’s peace overtures to Israel. Mansur was not only close to Sadat, but was one of his most trusted unofficial advisors and editor of the main propaganda organ of the Sadat regime, October. Sadat himself, as Lewis acknowledges, collaborated with the Nazis during World War II. Lewis, however, can not quite bring himself to call it that and relies instead on an extensive quote from Sadat’s memoirs, Revolt on the Nile, to describe the circumstances of Sadat’s German connection (159). Lewis does not explain why these notorious anti-Semites braved the wrath of the entire Arab world to sign a peace treaty with Israel.

Pierre Gemayel, who founded the Phalange after returning to Lebanon impressed by the performance of the Hitler youth in the 1936 Berlin Olympic games, is omitted from the list of Arab political leaders who held pro-German sentiments in the 1930s and 1940s (148). Pierre’s son, Bashir Gemayel, led the Phalange when it was an ally of Israel in Lebanon. This too, is beyond the scope of Lewis’ explanatory powers. The pro-fascist sentiments of some revisionist Zionists, their cooperation with Mussolini and even expressions of admiration and willingness to cooperate with Hitler, are also omitted from Lewis’ account of fascist influence in the Middle East in the 1930s. [3] What could have been explained as a widespread rejection of British and French imperial rule and of hypocritical Western liberalism appears simply as increasing Arab susceptibility to Western-style anti-Semitism.

This is not the only flaw in Lewis’ understanding of political currents in the Arab world. Anyone who could term the official Egyptian government daily al-Jumhuriyah a “widely read religious daily” (230) lacks some of the basic tools necessary to analyze contemporary Arab politics. The main connection between al-Jumhuriyah and Islam that I have observed during several periods of residence in Egypt is that people are as likely to spread it on the ground as a prayer mat as to read it.

When it comes to Zionist texts, Lewis is much more discerning. The colonialist and imperialist ethos of Theodor Herzl and many of the early Zionists is acknowledged, but excused as simply part of the tenor of the times and, coincidentally, useful in winning British support for the Zionist project (175). Lewis quotes a passage from Herzl’s Utopian novel Old-New-Land to demonstrate that Herzl “was not a racist, and showed concern for black suffering that is unusual in 1902” (176). Concern for indigenous non-European peoples is less apparent in Herzl’s more realistic and programmatic The Jewish State, where he speaks of Zionist settlement in Palestine as an outpost of civilization against Asian barbarism. [4] Herzl’s diary, which presumably records his private opinions accurately, explicitly advocates expulsion of the Arab inhabitants of Palestine. The diary also indicates that Herzl knew that the activities which he considered necessary to carry out the Zionist colonization of Palestine would put the Zionist movement “in bad odor” with world opinion. [5] Lewis does not mention these well-known and widely quoted expressions of Herzl’s concern for Palestinian Arab suffering.

More virulent and more current expressions of anti-Arab racism in contemporary Israel receive only passing mention. Lewis refers to Meir Kahane, Raphael Eitan and Menachem Begin, but not by name. He acknowledges that the vicious racist remarks they have made about Arabs do exist, but he does not see fit to report them. In a classic case of blaming the victim, Lewis attributes the responsibility for Israeli anti-Arab racism, which according to him has become a significant phenomenon only in the 1980s, on prior Arab anti-Semitism. “Racism,” he says, “is an infectious disease” (212). Even if Lewis’ highly improbable version of the emergence of anti-Arab racism in Israel were true, he should at least have the intellectual honesty to inform his readers that the unquoted statements by unnamed Israeli political leaders to which he obliquely refers currently represent the views of at least a third of the Israeli voting public and very nearly a majority of Israel’s youth. [6]

Had he done that, Lewis would have been drawn dangerously close to reconfirming one of his original theses: that Arab anti-Semitism is a result of the Arab-Israeli conflict and not a cause of it. It would then be clear that on both sides the virulence of the conflict has given rise to racist sentiments which should be unequivocally disavowed by decent people everywhere. Having established that, it would be necessary to disassociate the Arab-Israeli dispute from the history of anti-Semitism in Europe. But to do so would be to deprive Zionism of its most powerful cultural and ideological lever in Europe and North America. Lewis therefore intentionally reinforces the Nazi/Arab equation, arguing that “Nazi-type anti-Semitism came to dominate Arab discussions of Zionism and Judaism, as well as of the state of Israel” after the Arab defeats in the 1956 and 1967 wars (240).

Arthur Hertzberg’s review of Semites and Anti-Semites noted some of the same problems identified here, but in the context of a much more magnanimous reading of the text. [7] Hertzberg could not believe that a great scholar like Bernard Lewis intentionally meant to omit Zionist and Israeli anti-Arab racism from the story. He therefore concludes that by “masterly indirection” Lewis’ book is intended as “a sermon to the Jews who are the people most likely to heed his voice.” While intended as a great compliment, this remark confirms Bernard Lewis’ status as a select participant in the insider discourse of the cultural elite. When Lewis writes a book which many will regard as inflammatory in tone and deeply flawed in content, Hertzberg takes this as a sign of mastery of the insider style that is required to convince Jews to reject the racist extremism of the Zionist ultras.

I sincerely hope that Semites and Anti-Semites succeeds in this task. It is formidable. But this kind of insular writing, rooted in the assumptions of domination, ultimately explains much more about the author and his intended audience than its ostensible subject.



[1] “The State of Middle Eastern Studies,” The American Scholar 48 (Summer 1979), pp. 365-81.
[2] “The Question of Orientalism,” New York Review of Books, June 24, 1982, and exchange of letters with Edward Said, August 12, 1982.
[3] See Lenni Brenner, Zionism in the Age of the Dictators (London: Croom Helm, 1983), pp. 109 ff.
[4] Excerpt in Arthur Hertzberg, ed., The Zionist Idea (New York: Atheneum, 1969), p. 222.
[5] The Complete Diaries of Theodor Herzl (New York: Herzl Press, 1960), Vol 1, p. 88.
[6] For details on the upsurge of racist and anti-democratic sentiment in Israel see Donald S. Will, “The Impending Polarization of Israeli Society,” Arab Studies Quarterly 8,3 (Summer 1986), pp. 231-252, and Joel Beinin, “Marching Toward Civil War,” MERIP Reports, #135/136, (Sept.-Dec. 1985).
[7] New York Times Book Review, June 15, 1986, pp. 13-14.

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