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 Israeli Tragedy."
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 negotiated peace."
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 conditions for Israeli prisons.
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 edition of 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 Jewish people.
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.