Former Israeli ambassador: Bernard Lewis proved you can be a Zionist and a great historian of Islam

Historians in the News
tags: Bernard Lewis

Itamar Rabinovich, president of the Israel Institute, is a former ambassador of Israel to the United States (1993-1996). Among his books is a biography of Yitzḥak Rabin, forthcoming from Yale.

Can one be a Zionist and, at the same time, a great historian of Islam and the Arabs? As Martin Kramer’s essay, “The Return of Bernard Lewis,” amply attests, and as its subject’s life and career unambiguously demonstrate, the answer is a resounding yes. 

Before going further, we need to pause at the peculiarity of the question itself—a question seldom posed in other contexts. No one normally asks whether a Protestant American scholar living at the time of the cold war could simultaneously be a great historian of Russia or an expert on Soviet foreign policy. By contrast, however, a powerful current of opinion has long held Western and non-Muslim scholars to be disqualified by definition from the objective study of Islam and the Arabs. 

In recent decades, the most influential statement of such rejectionism was Edward Said’s 1978 book Orientalism. There Said argued that, from its beginnings in the 19th century until the present day, Western study of the Middle East has been not only uninformed but manipulative of historical fact, infected by patronizing arrogance, and a willing accomplice of imperialist designs on Muslim lands and peoples. 

In the roster of contemporary “Orientalists” vilified by Said and his many supporters and followers in the academic world, the one subjected to the harshest attack has been Bernard Lewis. In Lewis’s case, the vitriol has been compounded by the fact that here is a scholar both Jewish and a supporter of Israel—self-evident indicators, in the Saidian scheme, of anti-Muslim prejudice and an innate incapacity for true historical understanding.

Putting these spurious allegations to rest would be a waste of time and space. Lewis’s enormous body of work speaks for itself. One need only note in addition that Lewis’s scholarship and expertise are everywhere reinforced by an obvious spirit of empathy with Arab and Muslim peoples, not to mention, as those who know him will readily testify, enduring friendships with many individual Arabs and Muslims.

Read entire article at Mosaic Magazine

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