Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Erich Waldemar Bethmann; A Lifelong Servant of Truth

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Erich Waldemar Bethmann; A Lifelong Servant of Truth

Article excerpt

The man and the woman had traveled totally different paths before meeting in the late 1940s to discuss establishing an organization to improve understanding between the peoples of the Middle East and Americans. The result was the creation in 1951 of the American Friends of the Middle East (AFME), which, with its successor organization, AMIDEAST, has helped sustain the reputation of America and Americans in the Middle East in the face of US government policies disliked by most of the area's people.

The woman was world-famous journalist Dorothy Thompson, widow of Nobel-prizewinning novelist Sinclair Lewis and long-time passionate advocate of a Jewish state in Palestine.

The man was Erich Waldemar Bethmann (pronounced "Bateman"), a Berlin-born Adventist minister fluent enough in Arabic to preach in that language in the 1920s and 1930s in Egypt, Jordan and Iraq. As a German national, Bethmann had been interned by the British army in 1939 at the outbreak of World War II.

When it was over, he chose in 1946 to emigrate to the US rather than return to the war-devastated and occupation-divided homeland he had left more than 20 years earlier. He then had to wait a further three years before being reunited with the wife and three children he had not seen for 10 years.

Promoting Better Understanding

Living in the US, Bethmann longed to use his linguistic skills and specialized knowledge to promote better understanding between Americans and Middle Easterners. In addition to his "German handicap," however, he was an "Arabist," a term originally intended to denote skill in the language and understanding of the history and culture of the Arabs, but to which a pro-Israel media in America had already begun to attach negative connotations.

When Bethmann first met Thompson he found her also deeply troubled by the human degradation she had witnessed in Palestinian refugee camps in the Middle East. She found herself in a moral dilemma. She had placed her extraordinary written and spoken communication skills at the service of the creation of Israel, to which the refugees had now lost their lands and homes. She was beginning to see her duty as acknowledging Palestinian suffering, and bringing it to the attention of her fellow Americans.

She met and discussed fervently with Bethmann and others what might be done. The result was AFME, which used Thompson's famous name and the Middle East expertise of Bethmann and others to get started.

A Philosophical Look Back

Now retired in Washington at 87 years of age, Bethmann looks back philosophically on the vicissitudes of his life, almost as if he were commenting on the misfortunes of a third person.

Although he inherited a considerable estate from his mother, this was wiped out in Germany's ruinous inflation of the 1920s. Did he blame the onerous Versailles Treaty for the downfall of Germany's democratic Weimar Republic and his own financial loss? "No," he says. "That is only hindsight."

After graduating as a minister in 1927 from an Adventist college in Germany, he went to Cairo as a 23-year-old missionary, only to realize that he would have to learn Arabic to be effective. Two years of Arabic language study at the American University of Cairo followed, then four years preaching, mainly at Assiut in upper Egypt.

Reverend Bethmann confides that he was not very successful at "making new Adventists." He did, however, learn a lot about Arabs, Islam, Christianity in the Middle East and the Arabic language. This was distilled in his 1950 book, Bridge to Islam, published by the Southern Publishing Association of Nashville. …

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