Saturday, February 18, 2006

Anti-semitism and short-circuited thinking

Bernard Lewis is a professor emeritus of Near Eastern studies at Princeton. He is a well-known scholar of the Ottoman empire, and has written several books on Islam, including some that were influential in the neoconservative community. He has occasionally been a controversial figure among Middle Eastern scholars. In particular, Juan Cole wrote a strongly negative review of What Went Wrong: The Clash between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East. (Note that the hardback subtitle of the same book is the anodyne "Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response" and the paperback subtitle is the peppier, more barbarians-at-the-gate subtitle, "The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East")

The American Scholar has an essay titled "The New Anti-Semitism" in the February issue — not available online — that seemed interesting. Only a few paragraphs in, I was startled to find the following:
Anti-Semitism is something quite different [from racial prejudice]. It is marked by two special features. One of them is that Jews are judged by a standard different from that applied to others. We see plenty of examples of this at the present time. But there too one has to be careful. There can be different standards of judgement on other issues too, sometimes even involving Jews, without anti-Semitism or without necessarily being motivated by anti-Semitism.

For instance, in mid-September 1975 in Spain, five terrorists convicted of murdering policemen were sentenced to death. European liberal opinion was outraged that in this modern age a West European country should sentence people to death. Unheard of! There was an outcry of indignation, and strong pressures were brought to bear on the Spanish government. But in the Soviet Union and its satellite states during the same period, greater numbers were being sentenced to death and executed; and, in Africa, Idi Amin was slaughtering hundreds of thousands, a large part of the population of Uganda. Hardly a murmur of protest in the Western world.

The lesson is very clear. Right-wing governments (General Francisco Franco was still in charge) are not allowed to sentence offenders to death; left-wing governments are. A further implication: slaughter of or by white people is bad; slaughter of or by people of color is normal. Similar discrepancies may be found in responses to a number of other issues, as for example, the treatment of women and of ethnic or other minorities.
This is flabby thought and flabby writing. I include the complete first and third paragraphs here only so that this essay can generally be seen for its inchoate beliefs and meaningless padding, and not just for the outrageous, false assertions.

His conclusions are monstrous: they are vague charges based on no evidence that try to associate the "left-wing" label with two of the most sickening political regimes in our planet's history. They are also incoherent. What is the meaning of protests over executions in Spain 30 years ago? What lesson should we draw from Idi Amin's rampage through Uganda, particularly since he was deposed in 1979? Even if we were stuck in the 1970s, as this superannuated historian apparently is, what definition of "left-wing" and "right-wing" governments should we use that could support these conclusions?

Idi Amin was a politician/murderer who was motivated by the visions he received. He was not the leader of a "left-wing government." There may be people who believe that slaughter of or by people of color is normal. Yet, it is equally true that Amin's action received world-wide condemnation, and no one who didn't have a white hood in their closet believed that this homicidal maniac was excused on the basis of his color or his victim's colors.

By sloppy writing, we are also met with the assertion that the Soviet Union received "hardly a murmur of protest" for the executions it performed, and it was excused somehow because USSR was a "left-wing government." This assertion is so profoundly untrue as to border on the psychotic. The cold war versus the Soviet Union engulfed the entire world. The nearly five decades it took, the trillions of dollar it spent, the lives it lost in regional and proxy conflicts around the globe, all of that may be considered as more than a murmur of protest. There were literally innumerable ways in which the Soviet Union was more than condemned for its actions, it was openly attacked and its demise feverishly plotted.

The next paragraph begins:
These examples show that even a wide disparity of standards of judgement is not necessarily in itself evidence of anti-Semitism. ...
No. No, they don't. Those examples show nothing of any relevance whatsoever to anti-Semitism. It is true that Idi Amin was allied closely with the PLO — but that is not referred to above. It is true that anti-Semitism has been an essential part of European and Christian history, and it was occasionally virulent in the Soviet Union — but that is not referred to anywhere in this essay.

This essay is crap, unworthy of an undergraduate. I know little of Bernard Lewis that is not directly referenced in this essay. Based on what I have read so far, however, I think he is ready to be put out to pasture.

(Photo courtesy of, run by my friend Tibor)


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