The War on Error

Martin Kramer. Transaction Publishers/Routledge, $44.95 (342p) ISBN 978-1-4128-6499-2

A disciple and intellectual scion of Bernard Lewis, Elie Kedourie, and Shabtai Teveth, Kramer (Ivory Towers on Sand) casts himself as the custodian of the historical record and corrector of fallacies peddled by agenda-driven ideologues in academe and beyond.

The founding president and current chair of the department of Islamic and Middle Eastern studies at Shalem College in Jerusalem, as well as the Koret visiting fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Kramer initially recounts his personal experiences in the field and provides a review of contemporary surveys of the Middle East, then trains his scholarly sights on various targets, including opportunistic documentarians, disingenuous pseudo-historians, and terrorists’ apologists. In this collection recycling and revising twenty-five of his thematically-related articles, reviews, and lectures, he challenges the likes of Palestinian Arab academic Edward Said (long discredited) and former Israeli journalist Ari Shavit (readily debunked and lately disgraced), and goes several rounds with notorious Israeli historian Benny Morris. Among the specific topics of contention are Orientalism, New Historians and historiography, Jew-baiting via Holocaust inversion, and the eristic clash at Lydda in 1948.

Kramer’s modus operandi is to confront those who have garnered attention and comment, even awards and prizes, despite disseminating half-truths or outright lies. He rightly excoriates the elite tastemakers of American Jewry for doling out acclaim and lavishing opportunities on the eminently undeserving (an obvious exercise in self-congratulation wherein American Jewish literati, literary organizations, and media outlets fête Israeli counterparts whose views mirror their own).

How easy it is to like those we agree with, those who confirm our own good judgment and considered opinions. But the honest seek the truth to the maximal extent possible, and appreciate the same in others, especially in so-called thinkers, thought leaders, and public intellectuals who wield influence. When it comes to historians, there is the additional element of responsible construal, of researching the evidence, gleaning the facts, and offering reasonable interpretations thereof while steering clear of conjecture and misrepresentation. Precision in diction and qualified findings are among the sine quibus non of the field that not all practitioners have mastered, as Kramer notes with regards to the works of his adversaries. A sloppy historian’s surmise today can become tomorrow’s controlling myth.

And as Kramer points out, “a major problem in advancing the understanding of the Middle East is that many of its interpreters have made a virtue of bias and a vice of objectivity.” Like his teacher Lewis, he acknowledges that “absolute objectivity is unattainable, but that does not mean it is unapproachable.” Overall, he depicts the field of history as susceptible to solecisms resulting from advocacy scholarship and willful deception, underscoring the exigency for self-critical scholars, researchers, and teachers who defer to evidence and peer review, engage in reappraisal, and remain vigilant against speculation and bias confirmation.

When it comes to Israel, Kramer endeavors to dispel doubt, and like his onetime instructor Fouad Ajami, “to break down the wall the Arabs thought they had erected around Israel, but in truth had erected around themselves.”

Kramer is equal parts academic historian, forensic detective, and expert myth-buster. In his career-long war on error, he has absorbed blows from cerebral heavyweights and lightweights alike and lives to tell the tale, one chapter at a time. He is consistently a pleasure to read: cogent because coherent, authoritative because thorough, and generous when it comes to the presentation and prioritization of the views of both his predecessors and opponents (a wisely-inherited hallmark of the House of Hillel).

The inherent peril in highlighting one’s fact-based jousting with disreputable characters is that one thereby resuscitates and imputes ongoing relevance to them, which they would otherwise lack. Some foes are better left mummified. The only justification for revivifying past battles would be to set the record straight once and for all, thereby hammering the proverbial nail into the coffin. Hopefully, for anyone still in doubt about the Middle East’s misrepresenters, The War on Error will do just that. Readers with an interest in the history and contemporary politics of the Middle East, Islam, and Israel—or simply in the stroke-and-riposte of scholarly debate—will recognize Kramer as a torch-bearing treasure. (Oct. 2016)