Henry Kissinger's observation of Anthony Lewis, "He's always wrong,"
applies not only to the columnist's colossal misappraisals of the murderous
Khmer Rouge and the Ayatollah Khomeini, and to his inane prediction that the
Gulf War would become another Vietnam, but, most aptly, to his relentless
misrepresentations of truth about Israel and the Middle East. Spurred by an
apparently bottomless rancor towards Israel, Lewis has focused obsessively on
that nation over the twenty years of his tenure as columnist for the
New York Times. Between 1976 and 1988, for instance, one third of
Lewis's columns on all international affairs were devoted to the
Israeli/Palestinian issue. Numbingly repetitious, Lewis casts himself always as
the bitterly pained friend proffering wisdom to the benighted Jews. Titles of
his columns capture the hectoring and self-importance: "Time to Speak the
Truth," "Israel Against Itself," "Before It Is Too Late,"
"A Broken Dream," "Home Truths, Hard Truths," "The
Most striking in all these analyses is Lewis's bald indifference to the
physical security of Israelis. From the comfort of Cambridge, Massachusetts, he
lectures them unblushingly on their failure to accommodate enemies sworn to
their destruction. Painting the PLO as moderate and agreeable, and ignoring
entirely the lethally-armed Arab dictatorships arrayed against Israel, Lewis is
undeterred by factual data in vaunting his notions of Israeli villainy and
intransigence and Arab innocence.
In December of 1988, when Nabil Sha'ath, Arafat's senior advisor and the
chairman of the Palestine National Council, demanded "the liberation of
the entire Palestinian soil...and the annihilation of Israel" Lewis
intoned, "The PLO has now said that it accepts Israel" (12/11/88).
Eight days after the head of the PLO Political Department, Farouk Khaddoumi,
announced on April 5, 1989, that regaining part of "Palestine" would
only be the beginning, and that "We will pitch our tent as far as our
bullet reaches," Lewis informed readers that the PLO was seeking "a
In a continuum of interchangeable commentary he has harangued the Israeli
government for its deviation from the Lewis version of the Zionist dream, often
seizing on specific allegations of abuse against individual Palestinians. In
contrast, he has never evinced interest in nor anguish for the Jewish victims of
Arab terror. Nor are the pregnant women, teachers, nurses and elderly among the
Palestinian population murdered by other Palestinians in the escalating "intrafada"
included in Lewis's narrow spectrum of moral concerns. Likewise, Lewis was
silent in 1988 when Iraq gassed 5,000 Kurds. He has also been mute to the
ongoing genocide by the Arab government of Sudan against southern Christian and
animist blacks, a slaughter that has taken over a million black lives in the
past forty years.
Lewis's dangerously skewed view of the Middle East was on display in
articles he filed recently from Egypt. While acid in his scrutiny of Israel,
Lewis's voice is deferential and generous in considering the "pressures"
Egypt faces ("Mubarak's Egypt," February 6, 1992). In fact the
columns amount to a coverup of conditions in Egypt. Fawning in his praise of
Hosni Mubarak's policy of "gradualism," Lewis fails to remind readers
of the Egyptian's status as an unelected dictator, destined to rule like his
predecessors until old age or assassination brings him down. Tough questions
about democratic governance are reserved by Lewis for Israel.
Calling Egypt "an island of stability" in a turbulent region,
Lewis bares his indifference to the oppression endured by millions of
Egyptians. Thus, he is unperturbed by a "stability" that, according to
Amnesty International and Middle East Watch, includes routine and widespread
government torture of prisoners. Lewis reserves his indignation about prison
He is untroubled by a "stability" which allows the Egyptian
government to ban the Arab world's most promising women's rights organization,
the Arab Women's Solidarity Association (AWSA), headed by physician and writer
Dr. Nawal El-Saadawi. Middle East Watch termed the dissolution of the key
reformist group, in September, 1991, "A new assault on freedom of
expression in Egypt." The oppression of millions of Arab women in
conditions Israelis, or Lewis's native Bostonians, would find intolerable does
not awaken even a passing interest in the columnist.
He is unmoved by a "stability" which, according to the February
Index on Censorship, entails government censorship of newspapers, books,
magazines, movies, plays, radio, TV and videos. Lewis, it should be noted, has
for many years been a Lecturer at Harvard Law School where he instructs his
students on the Constitution and the Press! Apparently he deems the people of
Egypt less in need of fundamental rights than Americans or, say, Palestinians.
Egyptians recently suffered a particularly ominous government assault on
free expression that has shaken the artistic and journalistic communities. In a
widely publicized case that culminated only weeks before Lewis's excursion to
Egypt, the Mubarak government sentenced novelist Alaa Hamed, his publisher and
his printer to
eight years in prison for
producing an allegedly blasphemous book entitled
A Distance in A Man's Mind. According to one Egyptian writer, Youssef
Kaeed, "Cultural circles have been in a state of real shock, bordering on
panic and horror...." Playwright Karim Rawy called the jailings "one
of the worst forms of censorship." One wonders what journalistic canon
justifies Lewis's fevered examination of any conceivable Israeli infraction yet
ignores wholesale human rights violations in Egypt.
By coincidence a mega-story specifically involving Israelis was also
breaking in the Egyptian press during Lewis's visit. The story soon consumed
every news outlet. It concerned the apprehension of alleged Israeli spies who
were said by the government-controlled Egyptian media to be carrying the AIDS
virus and intending to infect the Egyptian people. American travelers in Egypt
described the story as one that occupied the conversation of every public
official and citizen.
Israeli commentators were horrified at the rampant demonizing of Israel.
Among charges fanned by wild accounts in the press, Israel was accused of
plotting to kill Boutros Boutros-Ghali, of spreading agricultural pests and
hoof and mouth disease, and of dispatching teenage prostitutes to infect
Egyptian youth. In fact, the individuals charged were three Israeli Arabs, not
Jews as the headlines had trumpeted. None had AIDS and none was a spy or guilty
of any of the bizarre allegations. One Israeli journalist called the campaign
unprecedented in its vilification and likened it to historic libels against the
Lewis's comment on Egyptian-Israeli relations: "I found no hint of
hostility when Israel was mentioned."
This astounding response is unsurprising; Lewis has always been indifferent
to what the periodic convulsions of government-orchestrated anti-Jewish hatred
by Egypt portends for genuine peace between the Arabs and Israel. Once asked by
this writer why he expresses no concern about the anti-Semitism that has long
infected the Egyptian mass media, Lewis's furious rejoinder was that there was "so
much" to write about, that he couldn't cover everything.
Given the evidence of Lewis's grotesquely warped view of Israel in world
affairs and its devastatingly deformative impact on his writing about events in
the Middle East and elsewhere, the question remains why a newspaper of the
stature of the New York Times retains him.