Remembering Prof. Barry Rubin: Scholar, Lion, Mensch


No one wrote better faster and no one wrote faster better.

That would be a fitting, but insufficient epitaph for the renown scholar Barry Rubin, who died earlier this week after a long struggle with cancer.

The stories of Prof. Rubin’s facility as a writer a legendary.  A mutual friend recalled a chat with Barry, in the midst of which Rubin declared, “Done.”

During the conversation, Rubin had dashed off a publication quality op-ed, while still holding up his end of the conversation.

I remember after drinks and hours of talk at a three-day conference, when I was ready for bed Rubin heading to his room to dash off a few pages for his upcoming book about Syria – he’d learned something new and it couldn’t wait.

Rubin was a leading scholar of Middle Eastern politics and history, but even that vast topic couldn’t contain his energies.  He wrote about U.S foreign policy, democratization, and model trains (and probably a bunch of other things that I haven’t heard about – but this post about an adventure as a civil war re-enactor is simply too wonderful not to share.)

This is a photo of my, all too modest, library of Barry Rubin books (he wrote over three dozen – plus innumerable academic and popular articles).  But – and this just exemplifies his approach to scholarship and sharing – he had made over a dozen of his books are available for free online.

But Barry was more than writer/scholar – although dayeinu it would have been enough.

He also built institutions, founded journals, and was a pioneer in using the Internet to promulgate quality scholarship. He had regular access to established media, but embraced new media whole-heartedly.

He had a tremendous talent for explaining the vast complexities of Middle East affairs and in illuminating them he could explain and defend Israel and its actions.  In this he was indefatigable.  I remember him speaking at my synagogue, happily taking questions for over an hour.  This wasn’t a tough crowd but it re-energized him to face the hostile audiences that a defender of Israel encounters and that he took on willingly and eloquently.

Every once in a while, it was a great pleasure when, in conversation, he told me, “I didn’t know that” or “You’ve persuaded me.”

That it didn’t happen often reflects my comparatively paltry knowledge and reasoning skills – not any stubbornness or inflexibility on his part.

But here’s the punchline, I didn’t know him that well.  He took an interest in me and was generous with his time (and with my modest capabilities I did any favor for him that I could.)  But I wouldn’t claim that we were that close, I was one of dozens (hundreds!) of aspiring scholars and activists he helped.

Barry Rubin was a first-rate scholar, a lion in defending Israel, and a real mensch.  He was only 64 when he died and undoubtedly had at least another dozen good books left in him (at least one book will be published posthumously).  But we must be grateful we had him with us as long as he did.

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