It was a very entertaining 90th birthday, exactly 10 years ago, for which people from all over the world came to Philadelphia, to celebrate with Princeton Professor [emeritus] Bernard Lewis, the world's greatest Middle East historian. We were welcomed by the lady of the house, the energetic and elegant Buntzie Churchill, a woman who has been the love of Lewis's life for the past two decades.
Yesterday, May 31, Lewis celebrated his 100th birthday. Though having lived in the US since 1974, he still shows strong signs of his British upbringing, most notably his accent, his tweed jacket and his general reserve. This undoubtedly contributes to his desire to now have a small birthday celebration, in spite of his having lived for a century.
But at his 90th birthday celebration 10 years ago, we were many. We got together for two days, and we all even sported T-shirts emblazoned with a beautiful picture of Bernard.
People came from East and West. Members of the three great monotheistic religions all gathered together to celebrate Bernard and his contribution to Western understanding of the Islamic world.
Together we represented the complicated universe of the man who was the first to have the courage to love Islam and consider it an essential part of Western humanistic studies, on the one hand, and to explain how terribly dangerous it is, on the other.
As a younger scholar, he was already speaking of "clashes of civilizations." In January 1976, he wrote in Commentary:
Islam from its inception is a religion of power, and in the Muslim world view it is right and proper that power should be wielded by Muslims and Muslims alone. Others may receive the tolerance, even the benevolence, of the Muslim state, provided that they clearly recognize Muslim supremacy. That non-Muslims should rule over Muslims is an offense against the laws of God (...) Islam is not conceived as a religion in the limited Western sense but as a community, a loyalty, and a way of life...
So, at the historical Bellevue Stratford Hotel — which, according to an old Philadelphia legend, was famous for hosting Nicholas II, the last czar of Russia — we discussed and debated Islam's relationship with the West and with itself. Among us were people wearing tailored Western suits, neck ties, hijabs and turbans.
Among the myriad of attendees were then-Vice President Dick Cheney, who flew in specifically for the event; Henry Kissinger; the great Sufi leader, Sheikh Kabbani, always intent on establishing contact with non-Muslims; Fouad Ajami, the late, great Lebanese-American historian who had the courage to write The Dream Palace of the Arabs: A Generation's Odyssey, a severe critique of his own culture; Zainab al-Suweij, president of the American Islamic Congress (originally from Basra, Iraq), a brilliant and warm woman; and the Somali-Dutch Ayaan Hirsi Ali, then a recent refugee in the US, who had suffered terrible persecution at the hands of Islamists, but proud and ready to fight.
There was no animosity at the event; only a kind of scientific, yet affectionate, air of inevitability about the combustible situation in the Muslim world, from which then, as now, we were unable to find a way to inoculate ourselves. But, perhaps due to his innate optimism, Bernard always tried to find a light at the end of the tunnel, no matter how dim. It is an optimism that possibly stems from a mixture of British pride and love for America's great democratic society, which welcomed him so warmly when he immigrated there, after living 58 years in the UK.
At the end of the event, Bernard gave a moving speech, without notes, offering insights into the Islamic world by reciting quote after quote off the top of his head. We were left flabbergasted by his perfectly crafted oratory, in which he managed to accomplish something that very few people are able to do: be fair and respectful of Islam, while highlighting the perils of its rage.
It was through his knowledge of Middle Eastern languages, spoken with an accurate and even thespian accent, that Bernard was able to predict the advent of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's monstrous regime, at a time when everyone was fawning over the Iranian revolution. It was also through this mastery of language and culture that he was able to see what was emerging from Osama Bin Laden, who declared war against the "Crusaders (i.e. Christians) and the Jews."
Indeed, we always knew that Bernard could give us just a bit more insight into Islamic societies than anyone else – and he often told us something utterly unexpected. (His dozens of essays, countless readings, airplane trips, including on the American president's helicopter, and even camel rides, when he was a young officer in the service of His Majesty the King, all contributed to his unique take on the Middle East and the world.)
Whether debating, speaking on a panel, or lecturing solo, Bernard never avoided answering a question. More importantly, he never had a problem telling his audience that he did not have an answer.
We, Fiamma Nirenstein and Harold Rhode, have been his passionate God-children: Harold as his pupil and Fiamma, who met him in 1991 and has been with him ever since then. Others who feel that closeness to Bernard are: Aydan Kodaloglu, an amazing Turkish businesswoman; Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer; former World Jewish Congress executive director Dan Diker; renowned Mideast historian Martin Kramer; and so many others from whom we ask forgiveness for not having sufficient space to name here.
A love shared with us — the authors of this article — that Bernard stoked year after year, was for the state of Israel, where Bernard spent much time. He used to live for three months out of every year in his apartment in Tel Aviv, overlooking the sand, sun and waves of the Mediterranean. He always said that the minute he arrived in his home-away-from home, he felt a deep sense of contentment and happiness. And, as soon as he arrived, he would immediately start responding to the many invitations he and Buntzie received from his Israel-based friends.
Once, at one of many dinners that Fiamma organized for him in Jerusalem, he brought together, among others, Teddy Kollek, the mythical mayor of Jerusalem, a lion loved/hated by Arabs and Jews, and a member of the Nashashibi family, related to Ragheb Nashashibi, who had been the Arab mayor of Jerusalem during the British Mandate. All three of these men, from such different backgrounds, were sporting lovely English-cut tweed jackets, and sipped whisky before dinner.
At another of Fiamma's dinner parties for Bernard was historian Benny Morris, who at that time still blamed the Jews for the 1948 Arab refugee crisis that coincided with the establishment of the state of Israel. At that dinner, Morris turned to Bernard and said there was no proof that the Arabs had invited the Palestinians to leave and then return at gunpoint to their abandoned homes. Bernard sent Fiamma to get a book from her study, told her to open it to a certain page, and then read aloud a note that quoted the appeal of then Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al Said to Syrian Prime Minister Khaled al 'Azmin, asking the "Palestinian brothers" to temporarily leave their homes. Morris tried to react, but Bernard, always courteous and open to debate, closed the door. I think that Morris, an intelligent man, probably took Lewis' attitude into consideration when he later changed his views. If so, it wouldn't be the first time that Bernard managed to have such an impact.
It would be useless here to list Bernard's immense body of work, though everyone is familiar with The Middle East, Islam and the West, The Arabs in History and Semites and Anti-Semites. But we want to stress that what people find most remarkable about him is his subtlety — for being the only historian who based his work entirely on Ottoman and Arabic sources, when the Arabs closed their doors to Western studies. Indeed, contrary to how many describe him — as an "occidentalist" (vs. Edward Said's "orientalism"), his exposition is truly global. Moreover, Lewis has constantly striven to delve deeper and deeper into the history of the Middle East, hoping to find more insights to help him and his readers understand both the Muslims and the impact of the West on the Islamic world. This is crystal clear in his book What Went Wrong, which is in essence an expression of profound pain. This is why his quiet but constant and repeated predilection for Israel has always been so paternal and warm in the face of Arab denial.
On a personal note: Bernard has bestowed thousands of gifts on Fiamma, in the form of stories and insights, as the two sat by or strolled along the Tel Aviv seashore. And to Harold, Bernard constantly emphasized that the key to understanding the Middle East and other parts of the Muslim world was Islamic culture.
We congratulate Bernard on his 100th birthday by quoting Dick Cheney on his 90th: "Bernard... may you live to 120!"