As citizens of the free world, let alone members of the University community, students ought to do everything possible to challenge systematic prejudice and bias. But what can they do? Let me suggest some ways they may begin correcting distortion within the classroom and also beyond it.
First, have a reliably scaled map of the entire Middle East in view during any discussion of the Arabs and Israel. Since the map shows that Israel takes up about one percent of the region—about the proportion of Rhode Island to the United States—the complaint against Israel is turned back against those who question its expanse: how much less land do the Jews deserve compared to the vast holdings of the Arabs? The Arabs have 21 countries; Islam rules in 40. Why then accuse the Jews of having too much when the Arabs consider all they have is still too little? Why does their obsession with the tiny Jewish enclave prevent them from attending to the manifold problems of their own societies?
Second, have on hand a 1921–1923 map of Great Britain’s division of the mandated area of “Palestine.” Although the entire Palestine Mandate was to have been open for Jewish settlement, the British lopped off 80 percent of it to create Transjordan after the Hashmites were expelled from Arabia by the Ibn Saud family. This map makes it clear that Jordan represented the lion’s share of historical Palestine; indeed, the majority of Jordan is still made up of Palestinian Arabs, just as the majority of Palestinian Arabs reside in Jordan. How is it, then, that those who question the Jews’ right to their part of Palestine do not simultaneously challenge Jordan’s right to the Arab part of Palestine? The map highlights the scandal that Arab refugees were not settled in that abundant land just as Jewish refugees from Arab lands were resettled in Jewish Palestine.
Have in view a political map of the Middle East that is color-coded according to levels of democracy and autocracy. That tiny blue patch of Israel hemmed in by shades of purple will show that the war against the Jewish State is simultaneously a war against the only democracy in the Arab part of the region. Any criticism of Israeli democracy within the context of Middle East politics is subject to strict comparative standards, or else it is merely an excuse for delegitimating the Jewish people.
It is also useful to keep on hand a chart of the population statistics to register the preposterous imbalance of the so-called Arab-Israel conflict. There are presently about 13 million Jews in the world, four or five million fewer than there were in 1939, while there are over 250 million Arabs with ties to over a billion Muslims worldwide. Since Judaism predates Islam by millennia, this asymmetry obviously attests to opposing religious priorities—self-limiting in one case, expansionist in the other. The Jews’ concept of election puts enormous pressure on them to try to live up to the measure of God—a moral outlook that does not tempt many converts, and has made Jews notoriously susceptible to political defeat. By contrast, Islam is a religion that has affirmed itself through conquest. Along with its humanitarian and spiritual teachings, the sword is one of its proudest symbols, and the current effort to increase its numbers, including in America, is part of this drive for universal reach. Is there anything wrong with that? Perhaps not. But why should Islam’s drive for hegemonic rule be credited over the Jewish people’s struggle for survival? Thanks to the lopsided ratio of the two parties, only the Arabs can bring peace to the Middle East, and only if they accept that Jews are also entitled to their land.
While history cannot be summarized in charts, a reliable chronological timetable helps to counter disinformation by keeping the sequence of events firmly in view. History records that the United Nations voted the partition of Palestine on November 29, 1947. The Jews accepted it, the Arabs did not. Israel declared its independence on May 14, 1948. Five Arab countries invaded Israel, vowing in the words of the Secretary-General of the Arab League, that “this will be a war of extermination and a momentous massacre which will be spoken of like the Mongolian massacres and the Crusades. Israel’s conquest of what was formerly the West Bank of Jordan in 1967 was the result of the Arab war against the Jewish state, the so-called occupation of those disputed territories cannot retroactively have become its cause.
There are many good sources on the Middle East. Although teachers may assign books exclusively hostile to Israel, you are always free to explore the other side of the story. To see how widespread the problem Harvard students may be facing is, see Martin Kramer’s Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America. Bernard Lewis’ most recent book, What Went Wrong: Western Impact and Middle Eastern Responses offers a terse, deeply knowledgeable historical analysis of his subject.
Students who wish to defend Israel sometimes think that they are engaged in a parochial cause that concerns them only because they are Jewish, or because they have Jewish sympathies or Jewish friends. But in fact, their fellow students may be afraid to stand up for the Jews because of the enormity, intensity and ubiquity of the propaganda against them. This is as true today as it was in the 1930s and for many of the same reasons. Aggression against the Jews is the common denominator of many of the greatest tyrannies of the modern age, and the epidemic of anti-Semitism in Arab lands is all too disturbing evidence of the drift of their political culture.
To be sure, those who blame Israel for the aggression against it usually deny that they are anti-Jewish. They say that they are merely anti-Israel and anti-Zionist, not against the Jewish people as such. But as Hillel Halkin sums it up in the latest issue of Commentary, “Israel is the state of the Jews. Zionism is the belief that the Jews should have a state. To defame Israel is to defame the Jews. To wish that it never existed, or would cease to exist, is to wish to destroy the Jews.” This syllogism should be borne in mind by those who help to prosecute the Arab war against the homeland of the Jewish people, for unlike Christianity and Islam, the Jews claim only a single land, and that one of the smallest on the globe.
Ruth R. Wisse is the Peretz professor of Yiddish literature and professor of comparative literature.