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These are not the words of an enemy of Israel, and there is no doubt whatever that Lewis did not see himself as an enemy of Israel. Almost alone among major newspaper columnists, he would simply not let go of the issue, and of his profound sense that Israel’s policies were doing Israel – its standing, its security – much harm. As Ami Eden of JTA reports, Lewis – who grew up in a kosher home and whose family belonged to a Modern Orthodox shul – once told him that he “feels most Jewish when leading the Passover seder.”
Indeed, Eden reports that when David Bar-Ilan, former Jerusalem Post editor and spokesman for former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, once referred to Mr. Lewis as a “PLO booster for decades, a writer who yields to no one as an Arafat groupie,” Lewis’s response was “I resent that,” The founding of a Jewish state, he explained, was a “landmark” event in his life. “People,” he added, “should understand a very simple thing: “My view on the necessity of peace for Israel is based on my belief that that’s the only guarantee of Israel’s survival and good health and progress. I can’t understand why anybody who likes Israel wants Israel to live as it’s living now. That’s crazy.”
So, too, it is crazy – and ugly – to define this gentle man as an enemy. In my interactions with him he was unfailingly courteous, helpful and deeply, deeply concerned with Israel’s well-being. True, he toed no party line; as an independent columnist, he called ‘em as he saw ‘em. (That may well be why his OpEd column lasted from 1969 to 2001, and was inevitably the subject of water-cooler and dinner table conversation around the country.)
I have a kind of personal stake in his reputation. He’d read my essays in Moment Magazine and, later, in the Forward, and if something found special favor in his eyes, he’d drop me a note or, on occasion, call. It wasn’t the flattery that most touched me; it was the liveliness of his interest and the continuing evidence of his engagement with an issue that meant so very much to both of us.
So let the vitriol wash away, leaving the memory of a life richly lived. It was a life in which there was always time for others. He leaves the memory of a teacher who had more students than he could imagine.
Leonard Fein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org