Richard Wollheim

  • Semites and Anti-Semites by Bernard Lewis
    Weidenfeld, 288 pp, £15.00, August 1986, ISBN 0 297 79030 7
  • After the Last Sky by Edward Said and Jean Mohr
    Faber, 224 pp, £6.95, September 1986, ISBN 0 571 13918 3

Professor Bernard Lewis enjoys a worldwide reputation as a scholar of Near-Eastern history, and in his most recent work, Semites and Anti-Semites, he has chosen to concentrate his formidable powers of analysis, and a massive accumulation of fact, upon a relatively restricted topic, which nevertheless raises large questions of historical and political understanding. The book deals with the widespread adoption within the Arab nation-states of the classical anti-semitic rhetoric that has so consistently fouled Christian civilisation. The quotations Lewis has retrieved from journals of standing, indeed from writers who lay claim to respectability, make chilling reading. They depress our estimate of human nature.

Semites and Anti-Semites is subtitled ‘An Inquiry into Conflict and Prejudice’, and this is not strictly accurate, for the book manifestly and by design gives prejudice priority over conflict. This has the effect of making the material that Lewis has assembled manageable, and another consequence is that the book is immunised against the criticism that it does not give a detailed, nor even a rounded, account of what is at stake in the Arab-Israeli dispute. That there is, for instance, no reference to the perceived place of Israel in the strategy of the Cold War, or in the confrontation of the United States and the Third World, or, for that matter, in the complex process of decolonisation, is excusable in a book that sets out to examine, not the Arab case against Israel, but the degraded way in which that case has only too often been urged. Of course the privileging of prejudice over conflict cannot be effected without cost, and there are two distinct ways in which Lewis’s book pays a price. In both cases it is the book’s persuasiveness that is diminished. We are left wondering what really follows from the testimony that it provides.

In the first place, it is obvious that the claim that anti-semitism is widespread within the frontiers of the Arab nation-states is a quantitative claim, and accordingly there is no way in which the evidence that supports such a claim can be presented so as to be conclusive. Inevitably, everything depends upon the credibility that the author has established for himself, and Lewis, by abstaining from the substantive issues, leaves his objectivity unproven. Instead he falls back upon a certain judiciousness of tone, and judiciousness is the appearance not the reality of objectivity. In at least one passage it is the cover for innuendo. Having catalogued some of the nauseating stereotypes and fabrications in which anti-Israeli propagandists traffic, Lewis adds, slyly: ‘A point of some significance is that, while this literature is by now very extensive, few of the major figures of modern Arabic literature are among its authors.’

A second disadvantage of placing the study of prejudice above that of conflict is that it makes it extremely difficult for the reader to decide whether – or, more to the point perhaps, by how much – the racist rhetoric that Lewis quotes is in excess of what the conditions of conflict naturally generate. We all have short memories in this regard, but I vividly remember how appalled I was as a soldier in the last war, who had overcome pacifist doubts so as to join in the fight against racism, when I had to listen to the crude anti-German propaganda with which the fight was fuelled. And I remember just as vividly how no one around me seemed to mind it. They don’t to this day, and Churchill’s speeches are praised for their mastery of the English language.

However, it is certainly not my view that the way in which Semites and Anti-Semites has been organised reflects a purely compositional decision, which can be assessed by weighing up gains in coherence against losses in effectiveness. On the contrary, it seems to me that this book has the structure it has because of an underlying belief in which it is written. It is indeed this belief that gives the book its wider interest, and the belief is that there is a distinct ingredient to be found in human nature, which is of considerable depth though it is partially conditioned by history, and which is properly called anti-semitism, and that this ingredient has many direct consequences to its discredit, and is something which the world would be better without. I, too, believe that the world would be better-off without anti-semitism, but for the rest I think that the belief is dangerously simplistic, and that it has far too much in common with what its natural enemies, or the practitioners of anti-semitism, hold to be true. It gives the thought of the Jew far too much importance. The belief, in either an explicit or an implicit form, recommends itself to loyal supporters of the nation-state of Israel – or Zionists, as they are now often called, irreversibly but surely inaccurately – and it does so because it additionally gives support to, originally one cause, now two causes, which are close to them. These further causes, to which I shall return, are the legitimisation of the Israeli state and the depreciation of its critics.

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