Posts Tagged Elie Kedourie
Posted by Martin Kramer in on October 11, 2010
Martin Kramer, “Elie Kedourie,” Encyclopedia of Historians and Historical Writing (London: Fitzroy Dearborn, 1999), vol. 1, pp. 637-38.
Kedourie, Elie 1926-1992
British historian of the modern Middle East
For forty years Elie Kedourie was the most formidable practitioner of a dissident historiography of the Middle East, one who rejected the post-colonial dichotomy between Western guilt and Eastern innocence. In detailed studies of British diplomatic history, he attributed the failure of British imperial will in the Middle East to romantic illusions about the Arab-Muslim world. In his studies of Middle Eastern politics, he documented the importation of radical nationalism that ultimately transformed the Middle East into what he called “a wilderness of tigers.” A deep conservatism, born of a disbelief in the redemptive power of ideological politics, suffused all of Kedourie’s writings. Armed with a potent and lucid style, he waged a determined defense against the siege of Middle Eastern history by leftist theory, the social sciences, and fashionable Third Worldism. Kedourie’s iconoclastic work forms the foundation of a diffuse school that views the post-Ottoman history of the Middle East not as an “awakening,” but as a resurgence of its own despotic tradition, exacerbated by Western dissemination of the doctrine of self-determination.
Kedourie made his first systematic critique of British policy in his Oxford thesis, later published as England and the Middle East (1956). The thesis constituted a closely documented indictment of the British for their encouragement of Arab nationalism during and after World War I, especially in Kedourie’s native Iraq, where Britain had imposed a militantly Arab nationalist regime upon a diverse society. It also included a devastating account of the adventurism of T.E. Lawrence, at a time when Lawrence was still an unassailable hero. (Richard Aldington’s debunking biography would not appear until two years later.) Kedourie’s thesis stirred the ire of one of his examiners, the Oxford Orientalist Sir Hamilton Gibb, who insisted that Kedourie alter his conclusions. In a decision that demonstrated the depth of his convictions, the 28-year-old candidate refused, withdrawing the thesis and forgoing the doctorate. By then, the conservative political philosopher Michael Oakeshott had extended a hand to Kedourie, bringing him back to the London School of Economics (LSE) in 1953, where he remained for his entire career.
Kedourie’s criticism of Britain’s indulgence of Arab nationalism animated much of his later work. This reached its culmination in his monumental study of the correspondence exchanged during World War I between the British high commissioner in Egypt, Sir Henry McMahon, and the leader of the Arab Revolt, the Sharif Hussein. In the Anglo-Arab Labyrinth (1976) demonstrated how later British officials, motivated by a mixture of self-doubt and self-interest, accepted the Arab nationalist claim that Britain had promised the Sharif a vast Arab kingdom including Palestine. Kedourie argued that Britain had made no such promise, and that British self-reproach over “defrauding” the Arabs rested upon a myth of Britain’s own making.
In an earlier essay, his most famous, Kedourie traced the intellectual origins of this British loss of confidence. “The Chatham House Version” (1970), a reference to the influential Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, constituted a sharp critique of its guiding spirit, Arnold J. Toynbee. Kedourie regarded Toynbee’s theory of civilizational decline, built on improbable analogies, as an exercise in moral self-flagellation that denied the civilizing role of empires, Britain’s included. For Kedourie, the end of empire—of Hapburgs, Ottomans, British—tended to bring not national liberation but misgovernment, frequently followed by lawlessness and oppression. The failure of the Middle East to find political equilibrium figured as the theme of his last book, Politics in the Middle East (1992).
In his critique of modern nationalism, Kedourie ranged beyond the Middle East, as did much of his teaching at the LSE. In his book Nationalism (1960), he emphasized the fluid character of national identity, which rendered national self-determination “a principle of disorder.” For Kedourie, nationalism represented an ideological temptation, which spread across the world in no discernable pattern, but largely in parallel with European influence. Ernest Gellner later criticized Kedourie for failing to explain the spread of nationalism in sociological terms, particularly as a feature of the early stages of industrialization. Kedourie pointed to many obvious exceptions to this postulate, and rejected any sociological explanation as a form of reductionist “economism.”
In this as in many other debates, Kedourie vigorously resisted the penetration of the social sciences into history, maintaining the primacy of evidence over all theory. In his many general writings on historiography, he criticized Marxist determinism, the structuralism of the French Annales school, and psychohistory of any kind. Kedourie maintained that “history has no depths to be plumbed or main lines to be traced out,” and that “history does not need explanatory principles, but only words to tell how things were.” These views, combined with his conservative politics, made him an adversary of mainstream trends in Middle Eastern studies. Kedourie’s own preferences governed Middle Eastern Studies, the quarterly he founded in 1964.
In his later years, Kedourie became a well-known public intellectual in the United States, warning Americans against the same flagging of will that had diminished Britain. While his influence among conservative American intellectuals grew, he became disillusioned by the declining standards of British universities, including his own. He retired from the LSE in 1990, and was about to take up a new chair in modern Middle Eastern history at Brandeis University, when he died at the age of 66.
Born Baghdad, 25 January 1926. Attended Collège A-D Sasson and Shamash School, Baghdad; BSc, London School of Economics, 1951; graduate work, St. Antony’s College, Oxford, 1951-53. Taught (rising to professor) at London School of Economics, 1953-90. Married Sylvia Haim in 1950 (2 sons, 1 daughter). Died 29 June 1992.
England and the Middle East: The Destruction of the Ottoman Empire 1914-1921, 1956
Nationalism, 1960; revised 1993
Afghani and Abduh: An Essay on Religious Unbelief and Political Activism in Islam, 1966
The Chatham House Version and Other Middle Eastern Studies, 1970
Editor, Nationalism in Asia and Africa, 1970
Arabic Political Memoirs and other Studies, 1974
In the Anglo-Arab Labyrinth: The McMahon-Husayn Correspondence and Its Interpretations, 1914-1939, 1976
Islam in the Modern World and Other Studies, 1980
The Crossman Confessions and Other Essays in Politics, History and Religion, 1984
Politics in the Middle East, 1992
Hegel and Marx: Introductory Lectures, 1995
Maurice Cowling, Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England, 2 vols., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980-85
“Scholars on the Sidelines” is the headline of an op-ed by Harvard’s Joseph Nye in Monday’s Washington Post. There he notes that the Obama administration has appointed few political scientists to top positions, and predicts a widening of the divide between policymaking and academic theorizing. His Harvard colleague Stephen Walt has echoed the complaint, placing the blame upon scholars who follow what he calls “the cult of irrelevance.” Michael Desch, a Notre Dame political scientist, also has written in the same vein in a new piece entitled “Professor Smith Goes to Washington,” claiming that while Obama may be “depopulating the Ivy League and other leading universities with his appointments,” it’s unlikely the academics can match the influence of the think tanks or overcome the anti-intellectualism that pervades society and government.
I addressed the question myself, in an article entitled “Policy and the Academy: An Illicit Relationship?” originally delivered as a lecture in 2002. The occasion was the tenth anniversary of the passing of Elie Kedourie (1926-1992), who taught politics at the London School of Economics and whose work has had an abiding influence upon many students of the Middle East, myself included. My subject was a short essay by Kedourie, dating from 1961, entitled “Foreign Policy: A Practical Pursuit.” I explored (and contested) Kedourie’s principled belief that policy and the academy should not meet, and that the divide benefited them both.
My piece is on the web and many have read it. But now that this debate has resumed, I think it useful to provide access to Kedourie’s own text—a trenchant 1,100 words—which I think speaks rather more forcefully than my synopsis of it. Read his piece first, and only then read my discussion of it. (By the way, the poet he quotes is Eliot; the poem, Gerontion. And yes, Kedourie usually did put “social scientists” in quotation marks.)
The Israeli “disengagement” from Gaza stirs my memory of my only visit to the place. It was twenty-two years ago, before the words intifada, Hamas, and “Oslo” had entered the Israeli-Palestinian lexicon. I had taken up my appointment at Tel Aviv University a couple of years earlier, and we had a treat that semester: the historian Elie Kedourie and his wife Sylvia left the comforts of London to spend the term with us. One of our tasks was to fill up their time with interesting people and trips. Someone had the idea of taking them to Gaza, and I went along to provide small talk on the way. As Elie had a famous aversion to small talk, it was a daunting assignment.
Our guide on that occasion was Zvi Elpeleg. I came to know Zvi quite well in the mid-1990s, when he served as Israeli ambassador to Turkey and opened many doors for me. But back then, I knew him only as a street-smart Arabist who’d served in every war as a military governor. As a young man in the mid-1950s, he had governed a large swath of the Arab-populated “Triangle” in Israel. He later served as a military governor in Gaza in 1956, in the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, in Fayed in Egypt in 1973, and in southern Lebanon in 1982.
In Gaza Elpeleg still knew plenty of people. He had kept up old ties and did some business there. So he was more than happy to plan the day, do the driving, and introduce the Kedouries to some of his friends. In those days, driving an Israeli car through Gaza was a routine exercise, not fraught with any great danger. As we left, Zvi deliberated over whether he should take his sidearm; I don’t even recall whether he did.
During the drive down, I did my best to distract Kedourie, and at one point touched a nerve. Elie had been born and raised in Baghdad; he had left Iraq for Britain in the general Jewish exodus, never to return. Since we were headed into Gaza, I asked him whether he had traveled anywhere else in the Arab world—perhaps to Egypt, about which he had written a great deal. He answered that he hadn’t, and then pointedly added that he didn’t feel any need to do so. I was taken aback, but it reminded me of an old Jewish-American joke. Irv wants to impress his Old-World Jewish mother with his success. “Mama!” he announces triumphantly, “Sheila and I are going to Europe!” “Nice for you,” the old lady mutters dismissively, “I’ve been already.”
Here and there, as we drove through Gaza City, older men waved to Elpeleg or shouted out greetings. He’d obviously left an impression all those years ago. And our prime destination was one of his old interlocutors: Haj Rashad ash-Shawwa, a former mayor of Gaza (twice appointed and twice deposed by Israel) and a big landowner and citrus merchant, who had a long history of shifting to and fro among Israel, Jordan, and Fatah. He also enjoyed the exclusive franchise for issuing travel permits for Gazans who wanted to visit Jordan—the so-called “Shawwa passports”—and applicants formed a crowd outside his offices. Haj Rashad was nearing eighty, which made him the grand old man of Gazan politics.
I can’t say I remember exactly what Haj Rashad and Elie Kedourie said to one another about the issues of the day. Back then, “peace” diplomacy focused on getting Palestinian notables to come out for King Hussein in favor of a Jordanian-Palestinian federation. Haj Rashad was all for it, and so were many Israelis and Americans, but the “Jordanian option” never gelled. I do remember Haj Rashad and Elie hitting it off nicely. Here were two men who shared a memory of British order in the Middle East, who distrusted nationalist passion, and who exchanged views with meticulous civility. So we drank our coffee and mulled over various proposals, unaware that the pressure outside was building toward an explosion. They lived through its beginning, but not to its end: Haj Rashad died of a heart attack in 1988, and Elie died of the same in 1992.
Given the little history I’ve just described, I’ve wondered what Elie would have thought of the Israeli “disengagement” from Gaza. In 1978, he published an article entitled “The Retreat from Algeria” in the Times Literary Supplement. It was of a piece with his reproach of Britain for “abandoning” its responsibilities in the Middle East. “France and Frenchmen were guilty of a wrong no greater than that committed by the conquerors whom they supplanted,” he wrote. “What seems exorbitant and monstrous is for a state deliberately, suddenly and precipitately to withdraw its protection from those who look to it for the defense of their lives and possessions.” Algeria, he once told an interviewer, “was abandoned in the most lamentable and pitiless fashion, from one day to the next. Abandoned without any regard to the interest of those for whom France had taken responsibility for 130 years. That much can be said. In Algeria the French had a great responsibility and they fell down on it.”
But this responsibility—and this was Kedourie’s point—was owed by France to all the inhabitants of Algeria, not only the settlers. The French army had quelled the Algerian insurrection by 1959, he wrote. “This could have been the opportunity for the French state to assume its historic responsibilities, and at least to institute a public order which was not the plaything of the pieds noirs [the Europeans settled in Algeria], which would treat Frenchmen and Muslims as equals, and protect the life, property and livelihood of all without exception.” De Gaulle’s retreat not only betrayed the pieds noirs (who had seen him as their savior); above all it betrayed the Muslims, who were left to the terror and vengeance of the FLN.
This passage, more than any other, makes it impossible to infer anything about Gaza from what Kedourie wrote about Algeria. In leaving Algeria, Kedourie argued, France failed to live up to its universalist ideal. But Israel claims no “civilizing mission,” it has never annexed territory that would compel it to assume full responsibility for large numbers of Palestinians, and its long-standing objective has been to find someone credible to assume that responsibility. In leaving Gaza and putting up a high barrier there and in the West Bank, Israel has spurned the messianism of the far right and the universalism of the far left. It is still inspired by the model of the classic nation-state, in which the dominant nationality enjoys a clear majority and lives behind impermeable borders. Today Israel is reaffirming its faith in that model.
The problem is the weakness of Palestinians who share that faith. In leaving Gaza to the Gazans, Israel hopes to compel the Palestinians to mirror Israel. It’s a gamble: people like Haj Rashad don’t call the shots. Israel will soon find out whether, in the person of Abu Mazen, it has found someone who does.