As I followed the fierce debate over President Trump’s executive order, denounced by its opponents as a “Muslim ban,” my thoughts turned the Jewish ban that changed the career of my mentor, Bernard Lewis.
Lewis, the great historian of the Middle East who last May turned 100, travelled extensively in Arab countries in the late 1930s and 1940s. Born in Britain to British-born parents, he traversed French-ruled Syria for his doctoral work, and then served in the British army in Arab lands during the Second World War. In 1949, at the age of 33, he was already a highly-regarded academic authority on medieval Islam and a full professor at the University of London. The university gave him a year of study leave to travel in the Middle East. But the Arab reaction to the creation of Israel derailed his research plans. Lewis explained what happened in an article published in 2006:
Bernard Lewis: became a Turkish specialist because Arab countries would not let him in
Virtually all the Arab governments announced that they would not give visas to Jews of any nationality. This was not furtive—it was public, proclaimed on the visa forms and in the tourist literature. They made it quite clear that people of the Jewish religion, no matter what their citizenship, would not be given visas or be permitted to enter any independent Arab country. Again, not a word of protest from anywhere. One can imagine the outrage if Israel had announced that it would not give visas to Muslims, still more if the United States were to do so. As directed against Jews, this ban was seen as perfectly natural and normal. In some countries it continues to this day, although in practice most Arab countries have given it up.
Neither the United Nations nor the public protested any of this in any way, so it is hardly surprising that Arab governments concluded that they had license for this sort of action and worse.According to Lewis (in his memoirs), some Jews fudged their religious identification on visa applications. (“One ingenious lady from New York City even described herself as a ‘Seventh Avenue Adventist.'”) Others simply lied.
But most of us, even the nonreligious, found it morally impossible to make such compromises for no better reason than the pursuit of an academic career. This considerably reduced the number of places to which one could go and in which one could work…. At that time, for Jewish scholars interested in the Middle East, only three countries were open—Turkey, Iran and Israel…. It was in these three countries therefore that I arranged to spend the academic year 1949-50.In retrospect, it is fortunate that Lewis had to make the adjustment: he became the first Western historian admitted to the Ottoman archives in Istanbul, and his pioneering work in this area opened up a vast field of study. Yet his exclusion as a Jew clearly rankled. It was something he hadn’t experienced in Britain, yet Western governments now failed to stand up for their Jewish citizens by insisting that they be accorded equal treatment. And in the 1950s, it got worse: not only did Arab states not admit Jews, they drove their own Jews into exile. This may have been the animating force behind Lewis’s 1986 book Semites and Anti-Semites, one of the first to analyze the continuing mutations of antisemitism in the Arab world.
Today, Arab states don’t ban Jews as such. They do ban Israelis.
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