Open Zion

10.24.13

Tony Lewis, American, Jew, Remembered

Anthony Lewis will be remembered at the Kennedy Library in Boston on Monday evening. The time of tributes and obituaries has passed; this is the time of missing.

For about 15 years, Tony was a regular at a lunch group we started, just around the time Reagan was first elected. It was a moment when Boston-based writers and journalists felt that we were going into a kind of internal exile. Tony hardly missed a meeting; that's because, if he couldn't make it, we'd usually find another time.

Partly, of course, that was because he was the great veteran and carried the charisma of the Times. But the latter wore off after a while; and Tony's humility (which is distinct from modesty) made his presence a simpler pleasure than we younger writers could imagine at first. We wanted him there because our conversation needed a gyroscope. And in the months since his death, it's occurred to me often that he was that for his readers, too.

Tony was the writer you took for granted because his voice and temperament were so blended with America's foundational principles that you didn't really look to him for surprises. Rather, you looked to him for courage. If he was for it, no matter how fringe, then you could be. This mattered especially when the position was about Israel and fringe to American Jews, about which more in a moment.

I hasten to add that fringe was really not his style. He had the temperament of one who held things together because things fall apart: whatever was radical about his instincts intended politics to be brought ever closer to institutions and laws that promised stability: for family and privacy, for property (but not too much) and enlightenment. You felt that he wrote for Times readers because he could not write letters to Madison, his column a way to imagine the Federalist Papers up to date.

Enlightened liberalism, you see, entailed a certain courtesy, precision, evidence, reasoning. Wackiness (you didn't mention "Guys and Dolls" if you didn't want to change the subject) was for private spaces; public passion might be shown, but mainly in campaigns against those who would undermine the legal structures or cultural achievements out of which liberalism grows: campaigns against McCarthy, Communism, Jim Crow, Apartheid, empire, evangelical Reaganism.

And occupation. Tony sniffed out the illiberal drift of Israeli policy early on, especially when Yitzhak Rabin first took office in the spring of 1974, and it suddenly seemed clear that Golda Meir's petulant justifications for settlers and force had hardened into a consensus that outlasted her and the October War, portending the rise of a rightist bloc that would eventually put Israel's very existence at risk. In column after column, Tony implied but did not just say that applying the lessons of liberalism—rights, secularism, bourgeois moderation, etc.—to the Palestinian question would not only not compromise Israeli security but were the very things to make Israel resilient.

Among Palestinians, too, he sought out lawyers. For Tony, ordinary human rights meant political guile. That's because ordinary unfairness meant rage, rage meant cynicism about law, lawlessness meant violence, and being on the wrong side of indignation meant eventual defeat. Peace, Spinoza said, is not the absence of war but the presence of justice. He saw this in the South, in South Africa, in Europe. Israel was making a mistake that, when Tony wrote about it, could only be called "classical." 

Going around the West Bank with Tony meant seeing things plain, from a kind of historical distance: the felt-tip pen writing, the flip-page notebook, quotes piling up. Then, that signature sighing smile that said, "This will be bad."

I hasten to add that, though Tony had a deep affinity for Israel, he had no particular knowledge of, or interest in, Hebrew culture. He'd come to your child's Bar Mitzvah, but his interest in synagogues seemed anthropological. But Israel was on his mind. At our lunch group, Israeli policy always got its due, usually because Tony brought the subject up. Why? I never really asked. There was, I assumed, something about Tony's generation of American Jewish liberals that kept Israel in its sights: the Holocaust, the kibbutz, the valiance and folk-songs, the euphoria of 1967. The country's fate was interesting.  

But I think there was a peculiar kind of Jewish Americaness also in that fascination with constitutional law and legal exegesis. I often thought of Tony as a kind of secular Jew in the high sense, like Brandeis, or Louis Nizer, an original, responsible mind disciplined by a sense of working in a definite tradition; a man whose Torah was the constitution and Bill of Rights, and whose inspiration was prophetic—that is, a man who denounced injustices especially when the letter of the law got in the way of its (in this case) democratic spirit—and who poured his creative powers not into private art but public interpretation. No law was sacred, but the right to interpret law most certainly was.

Indeed, the law defined us: no bad apples, just bad barrels. Tony spent a good deal of time on foreign policy, but that could be misleading. His primary concern was, I think, how should a democracy behave in the world? How far can we go in understanding the strange other? That instinctive tolerance could get one into trouble. It could make you rationalize the likes of Robert Mugabe.  But most of all, it made you decent, like Dr. Rieux in Camus's The Plague.  

I like to think that, in another time and place, a person with Tony's sensibilities—his love of law and disgust with arbitrary power—would have been a Talmudist defying the Inquisition. Or at least he would have thought defying, elegant thoughts. For he also loved life itself, and would not have thrown it away in a hopeless show of resistance. In the absence of that love, what good is law?