Remembering Barry Rubin
There is a Roman adage that determines how we are to relate to good men who have passed away: De mortuis nil nisi bonum (Of the dead, say nothing but good). This is the principle that governs every in memoriam, elegy or epitaph, following the convention that Plato in The Republic called a "noble lie," that is, "a falsehood that arises in case of need." The eulogy functions in the mode of exaggeration and omission, in effect, a rule of etiquette intended to censor or mitigate the complete truth or any intimation thereof in order not to dishonor the dead. Death is not only the great leveller, but the great exonerator as well, the verdict that acquits the deceased of his inevitably blemished humanity.
Provided the subject is not a beast among men, this is doubtlessly as it should be: the forgiving nature of memory in the face of the incommensurable. But there is also something to be said for honesty as the most genuine tribute to those who are no longer with us, a sign that love transcends the recognition of our natal flaws and imperfections, and sometimes even endears them to us. After all, who is it we truly wish to remember, the real man or a semi-fictional construct? It is also worth saying that a personal reminiscence is not an obituary or a eulogy; it is an attempt to furnish a balanced view of a complex, admirable and forceful individual whose presence among us made a difference for the better.
The passing of Barry Rubin, one of the most astute and indefatigable observers of the American, Israeli, and Middle Eastern political theaters, has generated a veritable trove of memorial articles, all of which attest to his analytical acumen and profound insights, his prolificity, his erudition, his warmth and kindness, his humor, his hospitality, and his personal magnanimity. For these encomiasts Barry Rubin was an Arthur Henry Hallam, a "Strong son of God," or an Adonais, whose "fate and fame shall be/an echo and a light unto eternity." And such recollections are essentially true, for the world is poorer without his wisdom, vitality and penetrating mind.
But Barry was much else, too, a man so passionately committed to his cause that he could be impatient, or even choleric, with those who dissented from his point of view.
For many years, I knew him only from his work, never having enjoyed the privilege of meeting him in person. One can imagine my surprise when I received a phone call from him one day to discuss a series of articles on Jewish and Israeli themes I had written for FrontPage Magazine and then-Pajamas Media. That was the start of our transatlantic relationship, culminating in a regular email correspondence and occasional calls from Israel that would arrive at any time of the day -- and sometimes night. Given the volume of his output, he must surely have burned the midnight oil.
Our conversations were not always uniformly amicable but they were always interesting and informative. He was a man of deeply held opinions and beliefs, which were not readily countered or revisable. He was not particularly enamored, to put it gently, of some of his celebrated colleagues --conservative authors and kindred Israeli journalists -- and rarely emended any of his convictions, which he seemed to regard as next door to infallible. Perhaps all great men share this sense of near-absolute assurance.
Justified as his confidence in his own assessments often was, Barry's articles did not always maintain the same high stylistic and rhetorical standard that his books exemplified. To take just one instance of the latter, his The Truth about Syria is a veritable masterpiece, a brilliant study of Syrian history and regime politics that would have prevented John Kerry and Hillary Clinton from disgracing themselves with their ignorant praise for Bashar Assad and their shallow knowledge of the country, had they only read it. But owing to Barry's journalistic prodigality, two or three articles appearing almost daily, his occasional writings could be typo-pitted, marred by pothole grammar and syntax, and ribboned with conclusions that sometimes did not seem clearly motivated by a preceding argument.
Not everyone would concur. Israeli political journalist David Hornik, for example, regards Barry's "high-quality articles" as "uniformly excellent and worthwhile." On the contrary, I detected a degree of unevenness in their general comportment that left me dissatisfied. Given his signature fecundity of commentary and exegesis leading to a sprinkling of errata and random non sequiturs, I took it upon myself to act as a friendly copy editor and email him corrections, for which he would graciously thank me. If memory serves, this practice went on intermittently for around a year. In that time we developed what I liked to think of as an intellectual intimacy.
But I then committed a serious blunder which effectively brought our "friendship" -- or working relationship -- to an ignominious halt. I had the temerity to criticize, lightly, respectfully, and with every extenuation, an argument he developed in Assimilation and Its Discontents about what he called "anti-Semitism's rout," which I considered an unfortunate misreading of a perennial situation. As I wrote at the time, "I suspect that Rubin's cheerful temperament may have clouded his view and caused him to forget that anti-Semitism is unlike other forms of irrational hatred and operates under a different set of laws."
Cheerful temperament notwithstanding, it did not take long for Barry to ring me from Israel and launch into a heated fulmination that crackled like radio static in my ears. Nothing I could say would soften the fury of his tirade. A second phone call only reinforced his displeasure. Next came an exchange of emails, Barry accusing me of scanty discernment, defective understanding, and an element of invidious schadenfreude. I, in turn, pleaded with him not to be "silly" and "over the top," and to "lighten up," until I finally lost my temper and suggested in no uncertain terms that he take his act elsewhere. There was something almost farcical about this denouement: two Jews attempting to strangle each other with their prayer fringes. So what else is new? From that point on we lost all contact with one another, neither of us, obviously, inclined to relent.
Despite the outpouring of loving recollections and panegyrics from his friends, admirers and benefactors -- all of which, it must be said, are accurate and honourable -- he was not an easy man to get along with if one happened to disagree with his pronouncements or question his postulates. I knew better than to broach the crucial question of the so-called "settlements," whose dismantlement Barry favored -- in my estimation, a grave misconception. And he could be far more dismissive of his peers than I was mildly critical of just one of his arguments. I am aware of some of his eulogists who, in private, had their troubled misgivings. He could be vehement, intractable, and abrasive if one fell afoul of him or disputed some of his findings, just as at other times he could be cheerful, generous, hospitable, and panoptic. One thing for sure: Barry was not one-dimensional.
Indeed, everything considered, Barry was among the best in his field, for the most part a hard-headed realist in his analysis of Middle East politics and the folly of American diplomacy in the region. He was an indispensable presence, fully himself in his unexpurgated nature, and should be remembered precisely as he was -- a great man, a Palladian scholar, and a major political writer in all his human foibles and complexities.