Anthony Lewis, Teacher and Thinker, Cared More About Israel Than His Critics

Appreciation

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By Leonard Fein

Published March 28, 2013.
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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.”

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 feedback@forward.com


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