DURING THE HOSTAGE CRISIS, Americans described the Middle East as a barbaric area, a place where ignorant subhumans engaged in terror. Stupid Khomeini jokes abounded, later replaced by equally nonsensical remarks about Qaddafi. Little objectivity and understanding have been shed on the region by a people whose country's financial and strategic interests often outweigh local concerns of Middle Easterners. The Carter Doctrine--whose sole purpose is to protect American interests in the Middle East, with force if necessary, despite their implications--stands as a case in point. In such a climate, then, it's surprising when an American-written report on the Palestinian problem. Iran, Lebanon, Afghanistan and other regional issues conveys the kind of sensitivity and unbiased analysis A Compassionate Peace provides.
"Where in the dreams of the Zionist founders of Israel was there a vision of Israel as an army of occupation?" With this question, Everett I. Mendelsohn, professor of the History of Science, who wrote the study with the American Friends Service Committee, begins his discussion of Israel's occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. But the analysis of the Arab Israeli/Palestinian conflict, which occupies half of this work, isn't an exercise in ideological claptrap. Serious questions surface and so do concrete solutions. On the Palestinian question, Mendelsohn urges the implementation of the U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, which calls for Israel to relinquish occupied territories, recognize the P.L.O.--which in turn would recognize Israel--and accept the establishment of a Palestinian state.
Mendelsohn convincingly argues in one chapter that ignoring the P.L.O. represents closing one's ears to the chosen voice of the Palestinian people while in the next chapter, he strongly supports the continued existence of Israel. Ironically, this apparent contradiction in many ways approaches a resolution to the Arab/Israeli/Palestinian problem. Mendelsohn spares us the diplomatic nonsense; his points are clear and balanced. He condemns Begin's annexation/settlement policy in the occupied territories as well as the P.L.O.'S reluctance to recognize Israel. The foreign policies of the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., both of which tend to stand innocently in the wings, elicit criticism as well. They selfishly inflict the American-Soviet dispute on a region whose occupants have many more pressing concerns than whether the "Reds are coming" or whether the descent of the "Capitalist boogeyman" is imminent.
THE BOOK'S CRITICISM, however, avoids self-indulgence; bitching isn't the answer. What comes forth is a sensitive analysis of a horribly complex issue laid out with such clarity that even a novice can begin to understand. But the book is not merely an opinion piece. Extensive footnotes, references, appendices and maps make it a concise work of scholarship."
The chapter on Iran, a mere 13 pages, best epitomizes this conciseness. Despite its brevity, the chapter emerges as one of the book's strongest sections. No yellow ribbons are tied or confetti thrown. Instead, the chapter details the events, including C.I.A.-backed activities that sparked a revolution, and assesses its consequences. Mendelsohn and the American Friends Service Committee correctly point out that as far as the Americans were concerned, the revolution represented the loss of their "friend" the Shah. They write. "No major group within the United States (except some Iranian students) supported Iran. The only 'blame' that could be pinned on any American was blame for not doing something to free the hostages." Who will forget the months of hoopla that followed the hostages' return as Americans sought to forget (or refused to acknowledge) the series of American follies that precipated the revolution and the takeover to begin with?
Instead of attacking the revolution, Mendelsohn calls it "one of the more remarkable political events in recent history. Millions of Iranians using primarily non-violent collective action rendered ineffective the most powerful and well-armed military force in the Middle East." To be sure, Mendelsohn attacks and deplores recent repressive Iranian government actions, but the equally deplorable U.S. actions don't escape examination.
This second report from the American Friends Service Committee--the first, Search for Peace in the Middle East, was published in 1970 in response to the '67 war--goes a long way in weeding out the propaganda bellowing forth from all sides. Needless to say, however, the report contains flaws. The Committee avoids the subject of Libya like the plague and only mentions Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia in the context of the Palestinian problem. Moreover, the report stands as a foreigner's testimony--only Americans sit on the Committee.
But in the end, the lack of misguided American bias and scholarly egoism, especially from a Harvard professor, make A Compassionate Peace refreshing.