The Middle East: Questions for U.S. Policy

Brown University’s Choices Program aims to “create engaging educational resources and make innovative scholarship accessible to diverse classrooms.”  The program’s educational resources have been used by approximately “one million students representing all fifty U.S. states as well as by students in about two hundred international schools” each year.  The program’s curricular materials have been utilized “in approximately 8,000 high schools in the United States.”  The program has been publishing a series on current and historical topics in the international arena that purports to “place special emphasis on the importance of educating students in their participatory role as citizens.”  One text produced as part of this series is The Middle East: Questions for U.S. Policy, a document that claims to “draw students into the policy debate on the issues that shape U.S. ties to the region.”  The text states, “Students examine the region’s history, the role the United States has played, and how U.S. policy affects the lives of people in the Middle East.”  Unfortunately, the text’s coverage of Jews, Zionism, and the State of Israel at times obscures more than it illuminates, omitting significant historical data crucial for understanding U.S. policy relating to the Middle East and promoting misleading supplementary resources.

Prioritizing Arab Historical Claims Over Jewish Ones

The document gives greater historical weight to Arab claims to the Holy Land than to Jewish claims to the Land of Israel by locating Arabs in the distant past while focusing on Jews in modernity.  For example, the section, “What is Zionism,” claims that “Arabs had lived in Palestine for over a thousand years,” but states, “The Zionist movement originated in the late nineteenth century in Eastern Europe,”[1] neglecting to mention that Jews have lived in the land of Israel for millennia, long predating the Arab conquest of the region in the seventh century CE, preceding the emergence of Islam by a thousand years.  This significant omission leaves readers with the false impression that Arabs hold a stronger historical claim than Jews to the land in dispute.

Omitting Jewish-Majority in Land Allotted to Jews

The section, “The Creation of Israel,” claims that “Arabs […] were in the majority in Palestine.”[2]  In fact, while Arabs did constitute a majority in western Palestine, Choices fails to mention that, as the political scientist Mitchell Bard has noted, Jews did constitute a majority of residents in the part of the land allotted to Jews in the partition resolution and in Jerusalem.[3]  This significant datum underscores the fact that Jews were not seeking to rule over a majority Arab population as Choices readers might have been led to believe.

Downplaying Arab Annihilationist Aims

In the same section, the text claims, “Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Transjordan (present-day Jordan) invaded Israel to defend Palestinian Arabs’ claim to this land.”[4]  In fact, Arab leadership in 1948 aimed not merely “to defend Palestinian Arabs’ claim to this land,” but rather to destroy the Jewish state.  As the secretary-general of the Arab League, Abd al-Rahman Azzam Pasha, stated, “It will be a war of annihilation.  It will be a momentous massacre in history that will be talked about like the massacres of the Mongols or the Crusades.”[5]

Distorting Start of First Intifada

One section asserts that the first intifada was a response to actions of the Israeli government that 

intensified its policy of building settlements for Israeli Jews in the West Bank and Gaza territories…confiscated Palestinian land, arrested and detained Palestinians, and implemented  discriminatory taxes and regulations.”[6]  

While such actions might have contributed to the first intifada, historians have noted that the intifada was precipitated by a false rumor.  For example, Middle East historian Barry Rubin notes:

The uprising began spontaneously on December 8, 1987, after two Palestinian vehicles collided with an Israeli army truck at a military checkpoint in the Gaza Strip.  Four Palestinians died, and a rumor was spread that the accident was a deliberate act of murder planned by Israel, the first in a wave of misinformation whose dissemination became increasingly organized in later years.[7]

By emphasizing certain contributing factors while omitting others, Choices deprives its readers of the information needed for a balanced understanding of the multifaceted origins of the first intifada.

Simplifying Truman’s Support for Israel’s Establishment 

The sections, “World War II and the Middle East” as well as “The United States, Israel, and the Palestinian Territories,” only mention the Nazi genocide of Jews in the context of discussing President Harry S. Truman’s support for Zionism.  Thus, the former states, “As the extent of Nazi atrocities became known, public support for open Jewish migration to Palestine increased.  U.S. President Harry S. Truman (1945-1953) became personally committed to the Zionist cause.”[8]  The latter states, “President Harry Truman was particularly committed to Israel’s formation and survival after the genocide of Jews during World War II.”[9]  However, historians Allis Radosh and Ronald Radosh argue that Truman’s Christian beliefs influenced his support for Zionism, stating,

Truman claimed his interest in Palestine went back to his childhood.  Raised as a Baptist, he had read the Bible “at least a dozen times” before he was fifteen […]Truman had an almost fundamentalist belief in the Bible and as an adult looked to it for inspiration and guidance […] [I]n the Bible[,] he read of the Jewish people’s longing to return to their ancient homeland and G[-]d’s desire for them to do so […] Sam Rosenman thought that Truman’s religious training and familiarity with the Old Testament gave him, as one of his biographers put it, “a sense of appropriateness about the Jewish return to Palestine.”[10]

The Holocaust was, thus, not the only factor influencing Truman’s support for Zionism, but readers of Choices would not have realized that other factors played a role in influencing Truman’s position vis-à-vis Zionism.

Sanitizing the Aims and Actions of Palestinian Terrorists

The sections, “The United States, Israel, and the Palestinian Territories” and “What is Hamas?” sanitize the aims and activities of Palestinian terrorist organizations.  The former states, “Palestinian military and political organizations have fought to recover control of Palestinian land from Israeli occupation and control.”[11]  The latter describes the terrorist organization, Hamas, as “a Palestinian resistance organization that rejects a two-state solution” that “Israel saw […] as a security threat.”[12]  This presentation of Palestinian terrorist organizations, like Hamas, omits the genocidal aims and terrorist violence against Israelis and Palestinians perpetrated by such organizations.  The historian Anita Shapira notes that

Hamas asserted that the rule of all the infidels, Jews and Christians alike, was doomed to extinction.  When the day came, rule over all of Palestine would be transferred to the Muslims, and the Jews would be expunged.  The Hamas worldview saw no place for Israel in the Middle East, and its propaganda was replete with antisemitic messages.[13]

By describing Hamas and other similar organizations as simply expressing opposition to “a two-state solution” and attempting to “recover” some “land,” while omitting such organizations’ genocidal aims, antisemitism, and terrorist activities, Choices fails to provide its readers with a full understanding of such organizations.

Promoting Partisan and Misleading Resources

In the “Supplementary Resources” section, Choices encourages readers to consult James Gelvin’s book, The Israel-Palestine Conflict: One Hundred Years of War, and John J. Meirsheimer and Stephen M. Walt’s book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy.  CAMERA Education Institute Director Steven Stotsky has written a thoroughgoing critique of the former text here, while CAMERA has assembled a list of reviews, analyses, research papers, blog posts, media coverage, and columns critiquing and commenting on the latter text here.

Conclusion

The goal of Choices to educate students about policy debate relating to the issues shaping U.S. ties to the Middle East is admirable, but Choices attempts to do so in ways that are problematic, including the following:

  • Misprioritizing Jewish and Arab claims to the Holy Land
  • Omitting mention of a majority-Jewish presence in partition resolution’s land allotment
  • Ignoring annihilationist rhetoric and activities of Arab leadership
  • Providing an imbalanced portrayal of the start of the first intifada.
  • Omitting the influence of President Truman’s religious beliefs on his support for Zionism
  • Sanitizing the aims and activities of Palestinian terrorist organizations
  • Promoting partisan and misleading supplementary resources about Israel

Teachers should seek a more balanced account of Israel’s founding and the continuing conflict with the Palestinians than what Brown University’s Choices program offers.  The authors of the Choices program should take the above criticisms into account if they want to effectively educate students about Middle Eastern history, the role of the United States in the region, and the ways in which U.S. policy influences people’s lives in the Middle East.

[1] Leidy, Joe, and Caroline Zhang. The Middle East: Questions for U.S. Policy, Second Edition. Providence: Brown University, 2022, p. 6.

[2] Leidy and Zhang, The Middle East, p. 18.

[3] Bard, Mitchell G. Myths and Facts: A Guide to the Arab-Israeli Conflict. Chevy Chase: American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, 2017, p. 32.

[4] Leidy and Zhang, The Middle East, p. 19.

[5] Bard, Myths and Facts, p. 37.

[6] Leidy and Zhang, The Middle East, p. 30.

[7] Rubin, Barry. Israel: An Introduction. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012, p. 44.

[8] Leidy and Zhang, The Middle East, p. 14.

[9] Ibid. p. 46.

[10] Radosh, Allis, and Ronald Radosh. A Safe Haven: Harry S. Truman and the Founding of Israel. New York: Harper Perennial, 2010, pp. 47-48.

[11] Leidy and Zhang, The Middle East, p. 46.

[12] Leidy and Zhang, The Middle East, p. 47.

[13] Shapira, Anita. Israel: A History. London: Brandeis University Press, 2015, p. 413.

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