(April 21, 2018 / Embassy of Israel in Washington, D.C.) Bernard Lewis, who passed away over the Shavuot holiday at age 102, is known as one of the most outstanding historians of the Middle East. Yet unlike far too many Mideast scholars, Lewis never combined his natural scholarly sympathy for the Arab and Muslim people of the region with an antipathy towards Zionism and the Jewish people. Indeed, Lewis was a life-long Zionist and a friend to Israel.
While much contemporary scholarship of the Middle East has been ideological, Lewis is best known for his accurate and honest studies of the area’s people. Fluent in at least eight languages (including Arabic, Turkish, Persian and Hebrew), his studies will remain a treasure to all who are interested in the region.
Lewis has also proved a prescient scholar. In his 1976 essay “The Return of Islam,” Lewis predicted that a “clash of civilizations” was coming, rightly anticipating the rise of radical, theocratic Islamic regimes. Similarly, his bestselling What Went Wrong?, written just before, but published after, 9/11, explained the reasons for the hostility of these governments for the West and for Israel, and why their societies and economies were floundering.
Among his more than 30 books and countless articles is his definitive work, The Jews of Islam. This work neither romanticized Jewish life under the Islamic governments that existed before the creation of Israel, nor was it a mere polemic. Instead, it aimed to show what really happened: how Jews frequently lived under various caliphs and sultans as useful and tolerated, though disfavored, subjects.
Raised in a middle-class Jewish home in England and educated at the University of London, Lewis was a naturalized American and taught for many decades at Princeton University. For more than 40 years, he spent the winter months in Tel Aviv, where he taught classes in Middle Eastern history and worked with budding Israeli scholars of the region.
Throughout his career, Lewis mentored many of the greatest scholars of the Middle East and Israel, including Fouad Ajami, Martin Kramer, Harold Rhode and former Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren. In addition to his work on Arab history and culture, he offered fascinating reflections on Israel, particularly on how Jewish history has helped the country to maintain its democratic character despite the Jews not having had experience with political sovereignty for 2,000 years.
As an honest scholar, Lewis could not ignore Arab anti-Semitism and the growth of Israel-hatred. Even when Middle East Studies were becoming deeply politicized, Bernard Lewis remained committed to historical accuracy, standing out as a beacon of integrity and a supporter of Israel.