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Semites and Anti-Semites: : AN INQUIRY INTO CONFLICT AND PREJUDICE by Bernard Lewis (Norton: $18.95; 257 pp.; footnotes)

October 26, 1986|Charles D. Smith | Smith is professor of Middle East history at San Diego State University

Bernard Lewis, a noted historian of Islamic history at Princeton University, has devoted much of his recent research to the study of Jews in the Muslim world. In his "The Jews of Islam" (published 1984), he was remarkably sensitive to the complex nature of Jewish-Muslim relationships down to the 20th Century. Then, when discussing Zionism and the call for a Jewish state in Palestine in his final chapter, he resorted to a simplistic account of Arab opposition derived from Nazi anti-Semitism, shifting his perspective from the Middle East to Europe and abandoning his prior concern for historical context.

This discrepancy reappears in the book under review where Lewis' alternate frameworks of analysis based on European and Middle Eastern experiences lead him to conflicting conclusions. His focus--developed after extensive consideration of European anti-Semitism, the Holocaust and the traditional place of Jews in the Islamic world--is Arab anti-Semitic attitudes towards Israel. He writes on two levels, one reflecting scholarly standards of inquiry, the other using scholarly references to buttress partisan assertions.

Lewis, the scholar, contends that the basis of Arab hostility toward Israel is political, not racial. But crushing defeats, most notably in the 1967 war, shattered forever the traditional Muslim image of the weak, subservient Jew. This caused Arab leaders to encourage the portrayal of Israelis and all Jews in racist stereotypes derived from Christian anti-Semitism and Nazi ideology. Anti-Semitism became a means of compensating for defeat by assigning its causes to conspiracies beyond Arab control.

The current output of Arab anti-Semitic literature would "suggest that classical anti-Semitism is an essential part of Arab intellectual life . . . almost as much as happened in Nazi Germany," but Lewis discards that hypothesis. He sees this vitriol as politically inspired, rooted in identifiable grievances, and likely to disappear if they are resolved. He concludes that Arab anti-Semitism differs markedly in this regard from its intrinsically racist Christian counterpart.

Lewis develops this thesis with great insight, but his characterization of this propaganda as "political anti-Semitism" is not new. Yehoshafat Harkabi made the point in his "Arab Attitudes Towards Israel" (published 1971). And the thesis must be sifted from among many assertions by Lewis designed to convey the opposite impression, namely, as he argues throughout the book, that Arab opposition to Zionism and Israel has reflected perennially--not just recently--racist anti-Semitism.

The author skillfully creates a historical sequence to support the latter contentions. He has a chapter on "The Nazis and the Palestine Question." He presents most Arabs as imbued with Nazi ideology in the 1930s, before he examines the early contacts between Zionists and Arabs that predated Hitler by 40 years and included frequent Zionist calls for expulsion of the Arabs from Palestine. This chapter is designed to create the impression of racism despite later qualifying remarks. Thus, when discussing the Nazis and Palestine, Lewis links Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat to the Nazi rhetoric that supposedly characterized Ahmad Husayn's Young Egypt society throughout the 1930s. In fact, no such identification can be established, nor is there any evidence that Sadat ever belonged to Young Egypt.

Later, in a chapter on the Middle East, Lewis attributes the pro-Nazi sentiments of many Arabs to their desire to be rid of their British rulers. Certainly true of Sadat, this desire was far more typical of Arab attitudes at the time, but Lewis' conclusions are so generalized that one retains the impression that Nasser and Sadat were simply anti-Semites.

Partisanship triumphs on the final page where Lewis declares that the course Arab leaders choose in portraying Israelis may determine not only the likelihood of peace, certainly arguable, but also the fate of Israeli democracy. Israel has never been "polluted by sectarian and ethnic discrimination," Lewis says, and if it sinks to that level, the fault will be the Arabs'.

Always a clever writer, Lewis outdoes himself in this conclusion. Sectarian and ethnic differences have always existed in Israel. They were recognized and manipulated by Israel's founders, as shown in the new book by Dan Segev, "1949, the First Israelis" (published 1986). Their impact on Israeli society, brilliantly exploited by Menachem Begin in his rise to power, has been clearly presented in the study by the Israeli sociologist, Sammy Smooha, "Israel: Pluralism and Conflict" (published 1978), and most recently in the popular account by Amos Oz, "In the Land of Israel" (published 1983).

Chances for peace would be better served if Israelis as well as Arabs accepted responsibility for their mutual and intercommunal prejudices. Ultimately, this book illustrates how one sympathetic to Israel would like to evade that responsibility and persuade others to do likewise.

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