Microsoft’s Encarta Muddles the Middle East

Distortions about the Middle East dispensed by the mass media can mislead news consumers of all ages, but especially worrisome is misinformation purveyed in reference works. Microsoft’s popular Encarta Encyclopedia, available on the Internet and in expanded form on CD, is a troubling mix of solid information, bias and error.

While a 22-page section on Israel’s people, geography and history by Bernard Reich, for example, is faithful to the record, other parts are marred by distortions and inaccuracies. A number of these were “contributed by” the University of Oregon’s Shaul Cohen.

Among them is a section entitled “Arab-Israeli conflict.” That account severely blurs Arab aggression against the Jews from the Mandate period to the present, repeatedly equating the violence by the parties. Of the years after 1922, Cohen writes:

Both Jews and Arabs conducted terrorist attacks and intermittent, low-level warfare.

Evidently Cohen thinks such language adequately encompasses the anti-Jewish riots of 1929 in which Arabs, incited by wild, false claims of Jewish designs on Islamic shrines, killed 133 Jews. According to historian Martin Gilbert, of the 116 dead on the Arab side, all but six were killed by British police.

The same pattern prevailed in the 1936 Arab riots, in which Jews were overwhelmingly the victims of violence, and not its perpetrators. In the first month, for example, 21 Jews were killed by Arabs, and no Arabs by Jews.

The Peel Commission of 1937 observed:

It is true of course that in times of disturbance the Jews, as compared with the Arabs, are the law-abiding section of the population, and indeed, throughout the whole series of outbreaks, and under very great provocation, they have shown a notable capacity for discipline and self-restraint.

Nor did Cohen mention in his review that the Peel Commission called for a division of Palestine between Jews and Arabs, which the Jews agreed to and the Arabs rejected.

Cohen’s equating of Jewish and Arab conduct even extends to his falsifying of such basics as the content of and response by the parties to UN Resolution 242. The writer states:

Arabs and Israelis both rejected Resolution 242. The Arab states continued to call for the destruction of Israel, while Israel for its part refused to withdraw from the territories it occupied.

Israel explicitly and repeatedly accepted the resolution, as a 1974 UN report underscored. Among supportive statements cited were numerous ones by Israel’s Abba Eban, including:

The Government of Israel, out of respect for the Security Council’s resolution of 22 November 1967 [UN Resolution 242] and responding affirmatively thereto, assures you of its full cooperation in your efforts with the States concerned to promote agreement and to achieve an accepted settlement for the establishment of a just and lasting peace, in accordance with your mandate under the resolution.

Moreover, Cohen’s equating of Arab calls to destroy Israel with Israel’s failure to “withdraw from the territories it occupied” misrepresents 242’s content. The Arab states were specifically required to cease “belligerency” and acknowledge the “sovereignty” and right of every state to “live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force.” Israel was explicitly not obliged to withdraw from “the” territories it occupied. It was assumed for reasons of Israeli self-defense that not all the land could be ceded; the language was thus crafted to omit the definite article “the” which Cohen misleadingly inserts.

Nor was any withdrawal required in the absence of a negotiated agreement.

Cohen is no less deceptive in summing up Oslo. He writes:

Despite these accomplishments [creation of the PA, a treaty with Jordan and diplomatic relations with various Arab states] some terrorism and bloodshed continued. Palestinians conducted attacks on Israeli citizens, and on a number of occasions Israeli extremists responded in kind.

Cohen’s insinuation of multiple “in-kind” responses to Palestinian terrorism suggests Israelis have bombed Palestinian buses, cafés and malls filled with innocent men, women and children, and done so with the involvement, funding and approval of their leadership and public. But Baruch Goldstein, acting on his own, was the sole Jewish mass killer, and was overwhelmingly repudiated by Israeli officialdom as well as by the public.

Similar egregious fictions characterize the breakdown of the Camp David negotiations of 2000, which Cohen claims “foundered over expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the issue of how Israelis and Palestinians could share the city of Jerusalem.” Far from entailing “expansion” of settlements, Israel agreed to consolidate and remove settlements.

Not surprisingly, the writer’s profiles of Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat are similarly biased. While the former is pejoratively cast as “controversial,” “hardline,” disobedient, deceptive and “reckless,” Arafat is a “Nobel laureate” who is sometimes “accused” of failing to prevent terrorism.

Myriad other distortions mar the Encarta commentaries which, for Microsoft’s good name and the public good, should be thoroughly and speedily corrected.


Originally published in the Jerusalem Post.

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