Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday eulogized Bernard Lewis as one of the greatest Middle East historians of the era, following the longtime Princeton professor’s death at 101.
“Bernard Lewis was one of the great scholars of Islam and the Middle East in our time. We will be forever grateful for his robust defense of Israel,” Netanyahu’s office said in a statement.
“I will always feel privileged to have witnessed firsthand his extraordinary erudition and I gleaned invaluable insights from our many meetings over the years. I was also deeply moved by his wide ranging conversations with my late father, Professor Ben Zion Netanyahu,” he added.
“Professor Lewis’s wisdom will continue to guide us for years to come.”
Lewis, whose influential books shaped generations of Middle East scholars but whose views stirred fierce passions, died at an assisted living facility on Saturday, The Washington Post reported.
Lewis “roamed souks and back streets for British intelligence during World War II; had tea in Golda Meir’s kitchen in honor of his ardent support of Israel; dined with Pope John Paul II; and was hosted in the Peacock Throne court of Iran’s former shah,” the Post said of him. He also “built a parallel reputation that spilled far beyond academia. It brought him into the folds of Washington’s power brokers and policy shapers after his move to Princeton University in 1974.”
Interviewed in Israel in 2011, when the Arab Spring uprising was in full swing, Lewis warned presciently about the possibility of Muslim parties winning control of Egypt, urged the world’s democracies not to misguidedly push for elections throughout the region as an ostensible panacea, and instead recommended that the West encourage the gradual development of local, self-governing institutions, which he said accorded with the Islamic tradition of “consultation.”
In that conversation — with David Horovitz, the founding editor of The Times of Israel who was then editor of The Jerusalem Post — Lewis endorsed the theory that a central reason “for the relative backwardness of the Islamic world compared to the West is the treatment of women.” He argued: “A child who grows up in a traditional Muslim household is accustomed to authoritarian, autocratic rule from the start. I think the position of women is of crucial importance.”
Asked how Israel should respond to the protests, Lewis urged: “Watch carefully, keep silent, make the necessary preparations. And reach out. Reach out. This is a real possibility nowadays. There are increasing numbers of people in the Arab world who look with, I would even say, with wonderment at what they see in Israel, at the functioning of a free and open society.”
He cited two things which he thought would help towards a better understanding between the Arabs and Israel: “One of them is the well-known one, of the perception of a greater danger,” where he said some in the Arab world “see Israel as a barrier against the Iranian threat.” And the other, “probably more important, is [regarding Israel] as a model of democratic government. A model of a free and open society with rights for women – an increasingly important point, especially in the perception of women,” said Lewis. “In both of these respects I think that there are some hopeful signs for the future.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also eulogized Lewis on Sunday. “The world lost a true scholar and great man, Bernard Lewis, this past week. There is less knowledge and less wit with us today following his passing,” he said in a statement.
Pompeo said he only met Lewis once, “but read much of what he wrote. I owe a great deal of my understanding of the Middle East to his work. Mr. Lewis was a hard-nosed defender of democracies around the world — including in the Middle East. He was also man who believed, as I do, that Americans must be more confident in the greatness of our country, not less.”
Born in London to a Jewish family, the longtime Princeton university professor was a Cold War hawk, a strong pro-Israel advocate, and influential among White House and Pentagon planners of the US-led 2003 invasion of Iraq.
His books included “The Arabs in History” (1950), “The Emergence of Modern Turkey” (1961), and “The Crisis of Islam” (2003).
Lewis was among the leading proponents of the idea of “a clash of civilizations” between Christianity and Islam as a major source of post-Cold War conflict. Lewis argued the roots of the battle lay in the similarities at the core of the two faiths, distinguishing them from other major religions.
“You had two religions with this shared ideology living side by side,” he told NPR in 2012. “Conflict between them was inevitable.”
Well into his 80s, Lewis rocketed unto best-seller lists and became an in-demand television commentator with an aptly-timed volume completed just before the 9/11 attacks, “What Went Wrong?: The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East.”
Former Vice President Dick Cheney said of Lewis in 2006: “You simply cannot find a greater authority on Middle Eastern history.”
Lewis drew controversy, too, in his rejection of labeling the Armenian holocaust a genocide, a stance that led to objections over him being awarded the National Humanities Medal by President George W. Bush. His association with Bush and Cheney led some to label him the intellectual father of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Lewis rejected that view as “nonsense” and claimed he opposed the war, though he authored a 2002 article headlined “Time for Toppling” in The Wall Street Journal that argued: “A regime change may well be dangerous, but sometimes the dangers of inaction are greater than those of action.”
Some critics derided what they said was his Eurocentric “clash of civilizations” view of the Middle East.
“For some, I’m the towering genius,” Lewis told the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2012, according to the Post. “For others, I’m the devil incarnate.”
One critic, the late Columbia University Middle East expert Edward Said, slammed Lewis as “active policy scientist, lobbyist and propagandist” in a 1982 reply to Lewis in the New York Review of Books.
Lewis in turn accused Said — author of the influential book “Orientalism” (1978) — of unleashing an “unsavory mixture of sneer and smear, bluster and innuendo.”