In all the richly deserved encomiums that came in the wake of Tony Lewis’s death, there is scarce mention of Lewis’s frequent commentary on the Israel/Palestine conflict. It is as if all he wrote about – and this, all agree, he did brilliantly – was the law and the courts. But in fact his interest in the Middle East, and on the dilemmas confronting Israel, was of long standing, a theme to which he returned again and again.
Yet it is precisely that theme that has occasioned an outpouring of post-mortem vitriol, as if any recognition of the Palestinian question merited Lewis’s angry dismissal as an enemy of Israel. This does an injustice not only to Lewis, but to serious engagement with the core conflict in the region.
I once asked Lewis whether he would show me the correspondence his outspoken columns had provoked, and he gave me a very thick folder to peruse. (My best recollection, which may be mistaken, is that he replied to all those who wrote to him.) Any worthy columnist receives at least a trickle of noxious mail. (I do not mean “critical”; I mean noxious). Lewis received a torrent.
Comes the question: Was Anthony Lewis, in any sense, an enemy of Israel?
His critics cite any deviation from what amounts to the AIPAC line. So, for example, here’s Lewis in 2002: “In the days after the 1967 war, when Israel was celebrating its great victory, an Israeli I know warned that triumph could lead to disaster. Capture of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip, he said, would tempt Israel to settle those territories. That would mean colonialism, with all its arrogance and inhumanity. It would undermine the character of Israel. And it came to pass. The settlement process, carried on for more than three decades, has been sustained by colonial methods: suppressing the local population, seizing land, giving settlers superior legal status. The consequences have been as my Israeli friend foresaw, corrupting. Now the attempt to extend Israel’s dominion threatens its hard-won asset of international legitimacy.”
Yet in that same article, in the New York Review of Books, Lewis notes that “After Camp David, the conflict rose to new levels of bloodshed and destruction. Palestinians carried out appalling acts of terrorism. Hamas’s suicide bombers and then elements of Arafat’s Fatah targeted civilians in cafés and pizzerias.”