Semites and Anti-Semites 
by Bernard Lewis.
Weidenfeld, 288 pp., £15, August 1986, 0 297 79030 7
Show More
After the Last Sky 
by Edward Said and Jean Mohr.
Faber, 224 pp., £6.95, September 1986, 0 571 13918 3
Show More
Show More

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.

But now to the belief itself, and to what are likely to seem at first specious objections. Lewis, it must be pointed out, does not hold to the belief in anything like an extreme form. In its most extreme form, the belief conceives of anti-semitism as a drive of such a basic and entrenched nature that the slightest positive indication of its existence – a chance remark, a joke, a gesture – is conclusive proof of its existence and can outweigh any counter-indication. This is an attitude that some people also adopt towards homosexuality, and it betrays a cavalier approach to the intricacies of the mind. It might be called the cloven-hoof mentality.

Lewis’s commitment to the belief comes out when he writes: ‘In the years 1939 to 1945, between five and six million human beings, one million of them children, were rounded up, herded into camps, and put to death simply because they were Jews’. If at first this seems obviously right, it is also obviously wrong. The last painful phrase, which I have italicised, almost certainly catches the thought that passed through the minds of the executives of the Final Solution as they went about their demonic work. In consequence, the phrase might – but only might – also capture the reason that they had for acting as they did. But what the phrase certainly does not do is to give us an explanation of their actions. For us to have an explanation of these, what we have to be shown is how the thought, the thought that they had Jews at their mercy, connected with their deadliest, their most destructive, feelings so as to unleash total annihilation upon millions of innocent people. A purely cerebral explanation, which is what many accounts of the Holocaust amount to, is clearly insufficient. And the truth is that there is no real connection. So massive is the interval between the thought and the feelings over whose eruption the thought presides that we have to think of it as bridged by fantasy or hallucination, by confusion and denial, by crude identifications and devious substitution. That being so, the thought of the Jew must have operated in the mind of the anti-semite, not as reason, but as rationalisation. Maybe in some obscure way it licensed, but it did not stimulate, his murderous terror and rage. There are, as far as I can see, only two ways of avoiding this conclusion and of reviving, in the face of its implausibility, the simplistic account of anti-semitism: either we must believe that there is something about Jews that does make them inherently disgusting to their fellow human beings, or we must hold that, by some evolutionary quirk, anti-semitism has got wired into our nature.

Suppose we think, however, that anti-semitism is an expression of fundamental human aggression, which happens to have been channelled into a specious direction through the way in which thoughts of and about Jews have become associated with it, what is the significance of this conclusion, and why should it be, as I have suggested it is, something that an apologist for Israel would have any motive to dispute?

Once we reject the view that anti-semitism is an integral formation of the psyche, then the inquiry into which we are thrust is to try to understand how it is that extraneous thoughts can get cobbled up with our darkest emotions, so that they glorify, or normalise, or perhaps just obscure, the translation of those emotions into action. What, we have to ask, is the process in which these grotesque constellations of thought and feeling originate, and what circumstances favour their development? To such an inquiry empathy and recall are more relevant than dry historical narration. And, above all, we cannot assume that we have nothing within ourselves to contribute to the inquiry. The likelihood is that we do. Using the narrowest span of memory, we can try to remember how it was that, a few years ago, Englishmen, living under no obvious threat, could accept with equanimity the death at sea of several hundred sailors simply because – if I may borrow that phrase – they came from a country with which we were in dispute and which had a tradition of putting up too readily with dictatorial regimes. And if there are those who find it distasteful to talk in the same breath, as though that puts them on a par, of the drowning of a few hundred combatants and of the extermination of many millions of civilians of all ages, let us change the example. Let us instead cast our gaze forwards, and consider carefully how we are already preparing our minds to accept, at least as a strategic possibility, the ultimate holocaust, the oven of the entire human race, in whose glare the line between combatant and civilian will be bleached out once and for all.

But the question remains. Why should an apologist for Israel have any resistance to this kind of inquiry, and why should he have any commitment to a simplistic account of anti-semitism? This takes us to the two causes he is likely to feel that such a belief will further.

To the secular or sceptical mind – let alone to the devout mind of other religions – the historical legitimisation of the Israeli nation-state, which conceives of it as the re-entry into a promised land, is likely to seem exaggerated, and therefore it is only natural that reinforcement should be sought from elsewhere. An obvious source, or one that immediately suggests itself, is the recent history of Jewish persecution, and certainly this consideration transformed the case for the establishment of Israel in the eyes of the great powers. But for the case also to be cogent in the eyes of those who have to pay a price for accepting it, things would be better the stronger the link can be shown to be between the ground on which the citizens of the new state wish to defend its right to exist and the ground on which they, or their relations, were hounded to death. Hence the value of the belief that the victims of the Holocaust had died ‘simply because they were Jews’.

The deeper motivation of anti-semitism aside, however, there are difficulties with arguing the case in this way. One of these difficulties Lewis himself recognises when, repeating the assertion that people died in their millions ‘simply because they were Jews’, he is forced to add: ‘not even by their own definition of Jewishness’. The Nazi definition of a Jew admitted of degree, it took stock of paternity, and it more or less discounted religion. And another difficulty, which is inflammatory, is how to hold in balance, on the one hand, that for which so many died and, on the other hand, that for which others claim a novel citizenship, while at the same time thinking that the Nazi persecution of the Jews was racist but that the claims of Zionism are not.

Personally I feel that there is no real need to mess with such arguments, and that they are at best academic, and at worst serve to keep alive the lethal fiction of race. While the Palestinians may well have good strategic reasons for denying recognition to the state of Israel until they get something substantial in return – just as the blacks of South Africa may well have good reasons for refusing to renounce violence until they get something substantial in return – the legitimisation of Israel has been resolved by time, and no one could reasonably think that a solution for the area that did not respect the basic rights and expectations of those who were born there or have lived there for many years was just. But one consequence, as I see it, of relegating these specious arguments to limbo is that the problem can never again be thought of solely, or even perhaps primarily, as that of the Arabs accepting Israel. There is also the problem of the Israelis accepting where they are.

The other cause for which an Israeli apologist is likely to favour the simplistic account of anti-semitism emerges clearly in the last chapter of Lewis’s book. It is the denigration of critics of Israel by associating them with anti-semitism, and since Lewis has printed some of this material elsewhere he must regard what he has to say as important. I think it is. At first Lewis is extremely cautious in what he allows himself to say. He writes: ‘While anti-Zionism or anti-Israelism is not necessarily inspired by anti-semitism, the possibility cannot be excluded that in some cases it may indeed be so’. Quite right. But I cannot believe that any professor writes, or that any publisher pays him to write, so that such platitudes should find the light of day. In point of fact, it is suggested, a few pages further on, that a large number of Western critics of Israel, particularly those who ‘follow the fashionable leftist or progressive line’, are anti-semitic, since they fail to satisfy the criterion for good faith. For if critics of Israel, or sympathisers with the Palestinian cause, show a lack of interest in comparable causes in other parts of the world, then, in Lewis’s intimidating phrase, ‘questions may arise’. Lewis makes this point at the beginning and at the end of his book. But as a criterion of good faith, this is ridiculous. I can accept Lewis’s serious commitment to the cause of Israel without having to find out where he stands, say, on the American Indian movement.

The truth is, as over the centuries the better moral thinkers have seen, that our concerns and sympathies naturally and legitimately distribute themselves in ways that are moulded by our experience of life and our conception of ourselves. We respond differently to events that we perceive in common, and we perceive differently events that are equally visible to all of us. On my one visit to Israel, I was taken by some Israeli friends, peace-loving and generous in their attitudes, to the far north and shown the hole in the barbed wire, known as the Friendly Gate, through which, I was told with pride, Israeli doctors passed daily to work in poor Arab villages. It was at least a start, they said to me. But, as I stood shoulder to shoulder with them, all I was aware of was men in fatigues carrying out shells which they loaded onto Major Haddad’s tanks. By now my friends were speculating why the United Nations forces always acted so partially.

Edward Said’s essay about the Palestinians with photographs by Jean Mohr, who worked with John Berger, is a wonderful book. Text and images illustrate one another. The book is calculated to nourish and enlarge our sympathy and our imagination in just the way that social understanding requires.

Said was born in Jerusalem in 1935, a Palestinian Episcopalian and an American citizen. He left the country of his birth for Lebanon in 1947, and since his student days he has lived in the United States. He is a professor of English at Columbia University in the city of New York, and he has retained his links with the Palestinian movement. There are few countries in the Near East that he can visit with a sense of security, let alone the feeling that he is welcome. He is the favourite target of many. A couple of years ago a famous Israeli dove, and a philosopher, compared him to Enoch Powell because he criticised Israeli immigration policy for favouring easy access to Israel for Jews but not for others. But he did so, not to excitable Arab crowds on the West Bank but in the comparatively uncongenial atmosphere of New York’s Upper West Side. Both in his message and in the circumstances of its delivery he was the reverse of Enoch Powell.

Said’s essay allows vignettes or anecdotes of Palestinian life, as he remembers it from childhood or from more recent visits, to emerge out of, and disappear back into, general reflections upon the Palestinian condition, and in this way he gives his book a Proustian texture. For Said, the ultimate offence that has been committed against the Palestinians is that, pushed into the margin of history, they have been remade, in the general imagination, negatively, or always by reference to something they are not. Even the term ‘terrorist’, which power politics has forced upon them, defines them by how they fight back against those who have what they don’t have. The stories, memories, scraps of history and poetry, perceptions and aphorisms that Said assembles are intended to fill this void: to describe the Palestinians in themselves, or as they are.

One marvellous piece of black comedy is provided by a transcript, which Said reprints, of a radio exchange between a captured Palestinian and his Israeli interrogator. The broadcast was an exercise in propaganda. At the end, however, ‘the hapless, but by no means witless, prisoner’, as Said calls him, outflanks his interrogator, who is blinkered by counter-insurgency jargon.

Israeli broadcaster: Lastly, Mr Terrorist: would you like to send a message to your family?

Palestinian fedayi: I’d like to assure my family and friends that I’m in good health, and I’d also like to thank the enemy broadcasting facility for letting me speak out like this.

Israeli broadcaster: You mean the Kol Israel, The Voice of Israel.

Palestinian fedayi: Yes sir, thank you sir, naturally sir.

I am aware that it is by now a piece of right-thinking that, on the one hand, non-Jews, and, on the other hand, Jews, do not really have the right to speak critically of Israel. (This is the mirror image of that other piece of right-thinking: that, on the one hand, people from Eastern Europe, and, on the other hand, people from Western Europe, have a special obligation to speak out against the Soviet Union.) So I should state my credentials. In the eyes of Hitler, I would be a Jew because my ancestors practised Judaism. Different members of my family converted to different sects and I have no idea what religion my father, who came to England in 1900, was brought up in. I have no knowledge of Judaism, and my elementary feeling about religion is like that of David Hume; I am inclined to think that religions are worse the further they stray from polytheism. According to rabbinic law, which Lewis says gives the ‘authoritative’ answer, I am not a Jew, because of my mother, and, even if my mother had made me a Jew, my irreligion, let alone my Christian upbringing, would have made me an ex-Jew. My aunt and my first cousin, who was crippled from childhood through malnutrition in post-Versailles Germany, fled from Germany in the 1930s, were retrieved from Holland by the Nazis and perished in an extermination camp. A more distant cousin, who, because of intermarriage, was pronounced an Aryan by the Nazis, shared their fate. He worked as a doctor in Berlin until he was denounced by a jealous rival and was sent to Auschwitz, not as a prisoner, but (as it turned out) to work with Doctor Mengele, which he refused to do. All three perished as part of the same dark history.

Over the years some friends have tried to raise my Jewish consciousness. No one, I notice, has ever encouraged me to identify with the peasantry of north Devon and Somerset from which my mother’s family came, and I think it would cause embarrassment if I did. I am satisfied with my ancestry, and neither side of it has ever seemed to me to stand in the way of, and if anything has encouraged, my tempered espousal of the cause of Palestinian liberation.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences