CAMERA Op-Ed: The U.S. State Department Should Take Bernard Lewis’s Advice

“We live in a time,” renowned historian Bernard Lewis wrote in his 2013 memoirs, “where great energies are devoted to the falsification of history—to flatter, to deceive or to serve some sectional purpose. No good,” he warned, “can come from such distortions.”

The U.S. Department of State, which is attempting to rewrite history, would be wise to heed the late historian’s warning.

On March 30, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken unveiled the 2020 Human Rights Report, which seeks to provide “objective and comprehensive information to Congress, civil society, academics, activists and people everywhere” about the status of human rights in various countries. Regrettably, in some respects, the report fails by its own standards.

Indeed, the 2020 Human Rights Report even goes so far as to alter the number of Iranian protesters murdered by the Islamic Republic.

In 2019, thousands of Iranians took to the streets to protest the regime only to be shot by government security forces. As a previous State Department Human Rights Report noted, more than 1,500 were murdered, 7,000 wounded and more than 12,000 locked up in Iran’s notorious prison system. But as Ellie Cohanim, the former U.S. deputy envoy to combat anti-Semitism, observed in National Review, the new report “made a key paragraph from that Iran report disappear, covering up the number of Iranian citizens killed by the regime—from 1,500 down to 304. The new, smaller figure comes from Amnesty International, which itself has admitted that the assessment of casualties is incomplete.”

The State Department’s decision to alter the body count is suspect. As Reuters noted in a Dec. 23, 2019 report, Iranian officials themselves told the news agency that 1,500 individuals, including “at least 17 teenagers and about 400 women,” were murdered.

“In one incident in the city of Mahshahr,” reported Reuters, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps “forces reportedly shot and killed up to 100 protesters who had sought refuge in a marsh, after authorities violently dispersed the initial protest in an adjacent town, according to media and NGO reporting based on witness accounts.”

Yet when reporter Hiba Nasr of Ashraq News asked a senior State Department official, Ambassador Lisa Peterson, to explain why the agency suddenly changed its figures by more than 80 percent, Nasr was told, “we’ll have to come back to you on that question.”

Gabriel Noronha, a former State Department special adviser on Iran, called the unexplained revision “deeply troubling.” In his previous capacity, Noronha had spent “weeks poring over mortality figures from towns” in Iran and “cross-checking them against” figures provided by Iranian officials in that December 2019 Reuters interview. He concluded that “the figure of 1,500 stands up to scrutiny.”

To be sure, the 2020 Human Rights Report does document abuses by the regime. As Tzvi Kahn, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, observed, the report “paints a grim picture of a society dominated by a ruthless Islamist dictatorship.”

Yet in his remarks delivered upon the report’s release, Blinken singled out several countries for their human-rights violations, including Burma, Yemen, Syria and others, though omitted Iran.

Nor was the Islamic Republic the only beneficiary of government-published revisionist history.

The March 2021 edition of a Congressional Research Service (CRS) report titled “The Palestinians: Background and U.S. Relations” asserts that “since the early 20th century, the dominant national goal has been to establish an independent state in historic Palestine” (the area covered by the British Mandate until the British withdrawal in 1948). Over time, the report adds, “Palestinians have debated among themselves, with Israelis and with others over the nature and extent of such a state and how to achieve it.” That CRS paper cited the late notorious anti-Israel author Edward Said’s book, The Question of Palestine, as evidence. It is unclear if previous versions of the report made the same mistake.

As Joshua Muravchik, among others, has documented, Said—a literary critic and defender of Palestinian terrorist groups—falsified his own personal background and engaged in what can charitably called shoddy scholarship. These untruths are extensive and have been well catalogued, including by the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis (CAMERA). For a nonpartisan entity like CRS to treat him as a credible source is deeply troubling.

The report’s claim that since “the early 20th century,” the “dominant national goal” of Palestinians has been to “establish an independent state in historic Palestine” is false.

To begin with, the term “Palestine” derives from the second century C.E. when the Romans crushed the revolt of Bar Kokhba, retook Jerusalem and Judea, and expelled many of the native inhabitants—that is to say, Jews—and renamed the area Palaestina. There was no Arab presence in the land until well after the Islamic and Arabic conquests of the seventh century. Furthermore, in modern history, under the Ottoman Empire, the phrase “Palestine” was sometimes used to describe, often vaguely, a geographic area that was more commonly referred to as Southern Syria.

As the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs pointed out in a 2017 report, the Palestinian historian Muhammad Y. Muslih observed that during the entire 400-year period of Ottoman rule (1517-1918), before the British set up the 30-year-long Palestine Mandate, “there was no political unit known as Palestine.” In Arabic, the area was known as al-Ard al-Muqadassa (the holy land), or Surya al-Janubiyya (southern Syria), but not Palestine.

The political movement to consider the area as part of Southern Syria was active well into the mid-20th century. As late as May 31, 1956, the future head of the Palestine Liberation Organization Ahmed Shukeiri told the U.N. Security Council: “It is common knowledge that Palestine is nothing but Southern Syria.”

Indeed, Palestinian Arab nationalism is a modern invention. Most Arabs in the area did not join the British-sponsored Arab Revolt during World War I, in which a minority of Ottoman Arabs rebelled, often for the promise of gold and sometimes for a vague notion of Arab self-determination and/or independence.

And early leaders like Amin al-Husseini—hailed as a “pioneer” by current Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas—initially sought for the area to be part of a Hashemite-led Kingdom of Syria. When he helped provoke anti-Jewish riots in Jerusalem in 1920, Husseini and other provocateurs did so to the chants of “Faisal is our King.” Faisal, the future ruler of Iraq, was born in present-day Saudi Arabia. As for Husseini—the “founding father” of Palestinian Arab nationalism—the historians Barry Rubin and Wolfgang Schwanitz noted that he was “first and foremost a Pan-Arab nationalist” who sought a “large Syrian state that would include what are today Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and perhaps more.”

Husseini’s ambitions were shared by his successor and distant cousin, Yasser Arafat, who ruled over portions of Lebanon and Jordan and would have completely controlled the later had an attempted coup against Jordan’s King Hussein been successful.

Accordingly, the claim made in CRS’s 2020 report is incorrect. Along with the unexplained change to Iran’s body count, it raises another troubling question: Why the revisionist history?

“Those who are unwilling to confront the past,” Lewis wrote, “will be unable to understand the present and unfit to face the future.”

(Note: A slightly different version of this article appeared as an Op-Ed in JNS on April 9, 2021)

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