When Fouad Ajami, the foremost interpreter of the Arabs to America, passed away last June, the New York Times ran a strange obituary. In several places, it quoted a “profile” of Ajami written in 2003 by the journalist Adam Shatz for The Nation, even mentioning Shatz by name. But that was no straightforward profile. It was a hit piece, and the best evidence for that was Shatz’s description of Ajami as an “ardent Zionist” who had undergone a “Likudnik conversion.” At the time, this struck me as an ignorant slur, but it was even more jarring to see the very same hit piece (although not that particular claim) quoted more than a decade later in Ajami’s last hurrah in the New York Times.
When I was asked to speak at a November memorial for Ajami at the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies, I decided to set the record straight about Ajami and Israel. It’s a story I’m well-placed to tell, as his student and friend, and as someone who witnessed every stage of his quest to understand Israel. Obviously he wasn’t an “ardent Zionist,” and there was no “Likudnik conversion.” He made an honest effort to take Israel’s measure, so that he could satisfy his own burning curiosity and, more importantly, tell the truth about the Jewish state to the Arab world. It took uncommon courage, for someone from a Shiite village in south Lebanon, to cross the Allenby Bridge and later land at the airport named for David Ben-Gurion. He showed it, and I saw it.
I’ve now reworked that November address into an article. Read it at Mosaic Magazine, here.