Revered and Reviled: Bernard Lewis

By | Nov 16, 2011

Lewis’ friendship with Henry “Scoop” Jackson, the Democratic senator from Washington, catapulted him into his new country’s corridors of power, where he became a powerful intellectual influence on the burgeoning neoconservative movement. Jackson was a fierce anti-communist and opponent of détente, with close ties to the Jewish community. In 1974 he co-sponsored the Jackson–Vanik amendment, which restricted trade relations with the Soviet Union in response to taxes it levied on Jews seeking to emigrate. As the leading defender of Israel in the U.S. Senate, Jackson was also critical of Soviet support for Arab regimes in the wake of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Lewis’ scholarship, which in its criticism of Islamic culture flew in the face of the so-called Arabists at the State Department, fit well with Jackson’s worldview. “Each of them brought something to the table: Jackson had tremendous political skill, while Lewis provided the view of a preeminent historian, which helped inoculate Jackson to the claim that he was running against all expert opinion,” says Robert Kaufman, author of Henry M. Jackson: A Life in Politics. “Senator Jackson believed the main problem in the Middle East was not Israel, but a broader culture of tyranny. Lewis deepened those instincts.”

Their relationship was mutually beneficial, Kaufman adds. In the 1970s, as a member of the Senate Committee on Government Operations, Jackson invited Lewis, then in his late fifties, to Washington to testify before Congress, giving him his first taste of “policy prominence.” Jackson brought Lewis into a circle of ambitious young men who, like him, were convinced that a tough stance with the USSR was vital to American interests. Among them were Jackson’s aides, two of whom—Wolfowitz and Perle—had been students of University of Chicago professor and early neoconservative thinker Albert Wohlstetter. Lewis’ relationships with this group of policymakers ensured that his influence on policy decisions would remain strong long after Senator Jackson passed away in 1983. These up-and-coming “Jackson Democrats,” as they were known, supported Ronald Reagan’s bid for president after Carter defeated Jackson in the Democratic primaries. Their shift to the Republican Party was cemented following the 1980 election, when many of them went to work for Reagan in the White House. In some ways, it was the watershed moment for the neoconservative movement—an ideology that went on to concentrate its foreign policy efforts on promoting liberal democracies in other countries.

“Lewis is the elder statesman of the neoconservative movement,” says Jacob Heilbrunn, author of They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons. “He provided the intellectual scaffolding for the belief that something was very wrong with Arab societies. His worldview was antithetical to the dominant one and he essentially reversed the terms of the debate.” Neoconservatives, with Lewis’ backing, argued that Israel was not the obstacle to peace; the problem lay in the makeup of Arab societies. Lewis, long a strong defender of Israel, has close ties to the Jewish state: He gives annual lectures at Tel Aviv University and owns an apartment there as well. “He sees Israel as a liberal democracy,” Kramer says, “the kind of democracy we hope for in other parts of the Middle East.”

Lewis’ close ties to Israel may be one of the reasons he changed his opinions about Turkey, the first Muslim nation to recognize the Jewish state and its longtime ally. In the first edition of The Emergence of Modern Turkey in 1961, and in a second that followed seven years later, Lewis had termed the Armenian genocide a “holocaust.” But by the third edition, published in 2002, he had a change of heart, replacing “holocaust” with the word “slaughter” and adding a reference to Turkish deaths as well. In 1985, he urged the U.S. Congress to refrain from passing a resolution that would condemn the event as “genocide,” and after he published a 1993 article on the subject in Le Monde, he was fined a symbolic one franc by French courts under the country’s Holocaust-denial laws. “There is no doubt the Armenians suffered a terrible massacre, but to compare it to what happened to the Jews in Nazi Germany is an absurdity,” he tells me.

Lewis’ reversal took the Armenian community by surprise, says Rouben P. Adalian, director of the Armenian National Institute in Washington DC. “For the Armenian community, it’s a huge preoccupation to have this history recognized and so, when Bernard Lewis enters the fray, it provides ammunition to the Turkish government in denying that a genocide took place. And so here we are, 95 years after the genocide, with piles of evidence, still having this conversation.”

Looking back, Lewis says that he felt comfortable in the neoconservative camp, and continues to feel that way. “Yes, I feel that ‘neoconservative’ is not an inaccurate description of me,” he says when I ask. Then he paraphrases the popular, though somewhat apocryphal Winston Churchill quote: “If you’re not a liberal when you’re 25, you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative by the time you’re 35, you have no brain.”

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