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Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company The New York Times
January 2, 2000, Sunday, Late Edition - Final
Where the Historical Is Political

By Geoffrey Wheatcroft; Geoffrey Wheatcroft's books include "The Randlords"
and "The Controversy of Zion."

York: Schocken Books. $21.

Few subjects are so absorbing as names and identity, or so fraught. These
are basic tools for the historian, but are agonizingly complex and
excruciatingly controversial. Now in his 84th year, the eminent scholar
Bernard Lewis has spent his life dealing with history, religion, culture,
language and, not least, terminology, in a region where all these are as
fraught as anywhere. He has published more than 30 books, has received many
academic honors and has held posts at numerous universities, though his two
long professorial stints were 25 years at the University of London and
another 12 at Princeton University.

His chosen field is one where the seemingly simplest analysis and definition
can be dangerous. Even the titles of those two professorships -- Near and
Middle East" and "Near East" studies -- beg questions, as does the title of
his new book. Lewis himself recognizes that the term "Middle East" is
"meaningless, colorless, shapeless and for most of the world inaccurate,"
and over the past century has been flexible to the point of emptiness.

In 1958 Lord Vansittart wrote that when he was a young diplomat 50 years
earlier "we had none of the sloppy modernism which lumps everything from the
Mediterranean to Bengal as Middle East." Actually, this was accident as much
as sloppiness. In political and journalistic parlance it had made sense of
sorts to speak of Near and Far East, with a Middle falling between. Then
during World War II the Middle East Command of the British armed forces
expanded in all directions for operational reasons, and the Near East=

Having grown, the meaning of the term has since drastically shrunk. In a
newspaper, "the Mideast" will likely as not be euphemistic shorthand for the
conflict between Jew and Arab in what used to be called the Holy Land. Or
more broadly it may intend the Levant (another antique term which could be
usefully revived), the eastern seaboard of the Mediterranean. Even if, as
Lewis says, the Middle East has no collective identity like Europe, India or
China, it is nevertheless the spiritual and mystical center of the world for
much of mankind, and it is no accident that it has so often been a
battleground or that its identities are so complex. The nine admirably
erudite and illuminating essays in "The Multiple Identities of the Middle
East" discuss these difficulties.

Three primary human identities are acquired at birth, Lewis notes: "blood,"
+place" and "faith," though these tend to overlap and intermingle with one
another and then with further layers of identity. If anything, he
exaggerates the degree to which this is a specifically Middle Eastern
phenomenon. He says that only three countries in the region -- Turkey,
Arabia and Iran -- conform to what he calls the European convergence of
nation, country and language. But to call this European is misleading. Such
a convergence may be the Platonic ideal of modern nationalism, but in
reality Portugal is unique in Europe as a country whose boundaries haven't
changed for several centuries, whose population is completely uniform in
religion and whose political territory exactly coincides with language.

In the Middle East, language throws fascinating light on the theme of
confused identity in a way that takes a man of Lewis's polyglot learning to
perceive. Others will have noticed that Asia Minor is dotted with deserted
Greek Orthodox churches, sad legacy of the Anatolian Greeks, who are among
this century's all too many collective victims and vanished communities. Few
but Bernard Lewis would have spotted that the "Greek" inscriptions there are
actually in Turkish, written in Greek characters. He goes on to discuss a
whole range of such transliterated tongues, comparable with the Jewish
vernaculars Yiddish and Ladino (in origin German and Spanish dialects
respectively, both written in Hebrew script). Other Jews wrote Arabic in
Hebrew letters, and Christians wrote Arabic in the Syriac script, while
Muslims in reconquered Spain wrote Spanish in Arabic script.

As to place names and their implications, Lewis notes correctly that the
name Palestine was barely used in the place itself between antiquity and the
20th century. Then 80 years ago, during one of those fits of absence of mind
in which the British Empire was said to have been created, a "government of
Palestine" was established. As Lewis says, events have removed this
government, while creating for the first time a Palestinian nation. He muses
dryly that "had the Jews disappeared like most of the peoples of antiquity,
the Palestinians might have claimed to be the heirs of ancient Israel, as
the Egyptians were of the Pharaohs and the Iraqis of the kings of Babylon."
But the Jews did not vanish, they even returned; and suddenly we're no
longer talking etymology, topography or history, we are talking politics of
a most fractious kind.

Not that there is ever any clear distinction between past and present. In
the Middle East more than most places, "the historical is political." During
the appalling Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88, both sides regularly invoked the
battle of Qadisiyya, fought "in 636 or 637" (as Lewis puts it with a
scholar's skeptical touch). And the Egyptian soldier who assassinated
President Anwar el-Sadat shouted, "I have killed Pharaoh."

This interaction between history and politics affects the austere writer.
When Lewis began his career nearly 60 years ago, with books like "The
Origins of Ismailism" and "Turkey Today," he could not have guessed that a
lifetime later he would be in the wars himself, much attacked by Edward W.
Said. But then Lewis began teaching and writing before the Jewish
catastrophe in Europe, and the creation of Israel, which between them
changed everything. Not least they have made writing sine ira et studio
about Lewis's chosen field very difficult. In a new afterword to his 1986
"Semites and Anti-Semites" (Norton, paper, $14), Lewis laments the
continuing Arab violence -- verbal if not physical -- toward Israel and
toward Jews ("Independence Day" was released in Lebanon only when all signs
of a hero's being Jewish were cut), while offering a partial defense of
Israel's rule -- benevolent by the standards of the region" -- over the

And yet, whatever partisanship he may be accused of, or whatever his
sympathies may actually be, Lewis is right in his broader analysis. It's
very well for Said to complain about "Orientalism," or for others to bemoan
"Eurocentricity." The fact is that the world today has been shaped by
Europe, or the West, whether the world likes it or not. As Lewis says, the
scientific study of the history, religions and languages of his chosen
region was in the first place entirely the work of European and then
American scholars. The very fact that "this parochial term," the Middle
East, has come to be used around the world is, as he points out, striking
testimony to the way that European influence persists after the age of
imperial rule.

He is also correct in saying that two ideas, both of European origin,
dominated political thought and action in the Middle East for most of the
20th century, socialism and nationalism -- and that "by now both have been
outdated, the one by its failure, the other by its success." Saying that
nationalism has succeeded needs to be qualified. The colonial yoke was
thrown off more because the colonial powers got bored and went home than
because of indigenous efforts at insurrection, and Arab nationalism is
factitious almost by definition.

Nowhere is the contradiction between two identities, national and religious,
more acute than between Arabism and Islam, however much effort has been made
to reconcile them. And nowhere does the question of national consciousness
become trickier. A hundred years ago, a Palestinian didn't know that he was
a Palestinian: a man in Jaffa or Jerusalem, asked what he was, would have
give the hallowed answer, "I am a Muslim from here." Lewis quotes Said Halim
Pasha, grand vizier of the Ottoman Empire (on its deathbed) saying in 1917
that "the fatherland of a Muslim is wherever the Shariah prevails."

Then again, the most remarkable and extreme case of nationalism in the
region has been Jewish nationalism, or Zionism. This is a movement purely
European in origin, and a fascinating example of "invented tradition," not
to say of willfully misunderstood identity. Maybe Bernard Lewis, so learned
and perspicacious in examining the confused and misleading identities of
Islam and Araby, could turn more of his attention to that extraordinary

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