James Zogby’s Column
A few weeks ago, New York’s senators Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton held an inflammatory press conference to denounce what they called “Palestinian incitement against Israel.”
Speaking for the two, Senator Schumer observed that while an Israeli-Palestinian ceasefire had been negotiated by CIA chief George Tenet, it might only provide a temporary reprieve from violence because: “as long as Yasser Arafat instructs the young people of Palestine to hate the Jews in a way not unlike what the Germans did in the `30s … then there won’t be peace.”
And so Schumer announced that he and Clinton were writing to President George W. Bush urging him “to press Arafat to end the use of hateful, anti-Israel rhetoric in official Palestinian statements, schoolbooks and newspapers and make that agreement a precursor to any future talks.”
For his prime evidence of this Palestinian incitement, Schumer cites what he calls “the sixth-grade textbook called `Our Country Palestine’, put out by the Palestinian National Authority.” Schumer argues that the book states “There is no alternative to destroying Israel” and then it says “all of Palestine is ours.”
A briefing paper released by Schumer’s press office repeats this claim. The paper cites the above quote, claiming that it appears as the “banner of the title page of Volume I” in `Our Country Palestine’. The book is described as “required reading under the new Palestinian sixth-grade curriculum.”
In response to questions at their press conference both senators further elaborated on their charges noting that these books are used in “all the schools,” according to Schumer, while Clinton added that: “They’re required.”
The problem with the case presented by Schumer and Clinton is that it is a fabrication based on a distortion.
The facts are: there is no sixth-grade Palestinian textbook called `Our Country Palestine’. In fact, that book is not used in any Palestinian schools; since 1967, the only textbooks used in the West Bank and Gaza were Jordanian and Egyptian textbooks approved by the Israeli occupying authority; after Oslo, the PNA was allowed, for the first time, to produce its own educational material. Because of the costs involved, to date, the PNA has only been able to issue its textbooks in the first and sixth grades; the sixth-grade series does not include any book named Our Country Palestine; there is an encyclopaedia named `Our Country Palestine’, one of the works by Palestinian author Mustafa Dabbagh. It was written in 1947 and subsequently reissued in 1988.
Dabbagh’s life is, in fact, discussed in one of the PNA’s sixth-grade texts called `Our Beautiful Language’. In this treatment of his life, it is merely mentioned that he wrote an encyclopaedia called `Our Country Palestine’. This encyclopaedia is not in print, and is not currently available in the West Bank or Gaza. A review of the books in this encyclopaedia, however, makes it clear that nowhere is there the banner “There is no alternative to destroying Israel!”
So where did Schumer get this information on which he based his erroneous allegations? In November and December 2000, a group calling itself “Jews for Truth Now” printed inflammatory ads in Israeli and US papers. These ads feature the quote “There is no alternative to destroying Israel” and allege it is the “banner on the title page of `Our Country Palestine’,” which they further allege is “a book introduced [emphasis added] by the Palestinian [National] Authority into the sixth-grade curriculum.”
The information for this ad apparently comes from the work of another group called the Centre for Monitoring the Impact of Peace (CMIP). Starting from the slim thread that the PNA’s sixth-grade text makes mention of `Our Country Palestine’, the CMIP charges that the PNA “introduced the book [an artful expression that could suggest, to a careless reader, that the book is actually being used]”.
An independent Palestinian group run by Dr Hanan Ashrawi has reviewed the CMIP report, complete with all the offensive quotes it alleges to have found in `Our Country Palestine’, and concludes that neither “there is no alternative to destroying Israel” nor any of the other alleged quotes are found anywhere in the book in question. And, of special concern here, these quotes most certainly do not appear in any book used in the PNA’s sixth-grade curriculum.
And so now the trajectory of Schumer’s lie may be traced.
Step 1: CMIP’s review of `Our Beautiful Language’ and its mention of Dabbagh and his encyclopaedia `Our Country Palestine’. CMIP suggests that `Our Country Palestine’ has, therefore, been “introduced” into the curriculum.
CMIP presents quotes they allege are from the book. These quotes do not exist in the book in either its 1947 original printing nor its updated 1988 edition.
Step 2: “Jews for Truth Now” take the quote: “There is no alternative to destroying Israel” and make it the banner headline for an anti-Palestinian newspaper ad. They describe it as being from `Our Country Palestine’ and repeat the fabrication that this book has been “introduced by the Palestinian [National] Authority into the curriculum.”
Step 3: Schumer expands on the fabrication by distorting it once more. In the senator’s briefing notes, `Our Country Palestine’ becomes “required reading” under the new Palestinian curriculum.
Other allegations made by Schumer in his press briefing are also distortions, but what is most troubling about the senator’s comments were their clear bias, their anti-peace intent and the senator’s obvious effort to use the entire case to vilify and demonise PNA President Yasser Arafat.
Nowhere in Schumer’s comments is there any concern for recent Israeli acts of incitement such as: Israeli religious leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef calling Palestinians “poisonous vipers” and saying Arabs should be “annihilated”; Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon calling Arafat a “murderer and pathological liar”; Sharon’s continued use of “Judea and Samaria” when speaking about the West Bank and Gaza, language used precisely to indicate that these areas are Israeli; and the Israeli army’s website’s use, as well as daily Israeli newspapers, of maps displaying Eretz Israel, depicting the West Bank and Gaza as Israeli.
Schumer and Clinton displayed clear bias and a lack of good judgement in accepting as fact a distortion created by a pro-Israeli group. They compounded their error by further exaggerating this claim in their comments to the press and in their letter to Bush. In doing so, they did a disservice to their positions as US senators and to the pursuit of truth and peace.
What is disturbing here is not the distortion perpetuated by a pro-Israeli group or the use of this distortion by two US senators. It is the fact that this distortion was not responded to when it first occurred back in November 2000, and that it was allowed to grow into a campaign. Immediate measures should have been taken to stamp it out.
The Israelis and their US supporters have made a cottage industry of this incitement work. Weekly they propagate their case with the new “incitement” – cartoons in the Arab press, statements of Arab leaders or quotes from books. For years now, we have argued that Arab officials need to take this campaign seriously and help combat it: by helping us have the sources cited by these pro-Israel propagandists to see if their charges are valid (as, in the Schumer case, they were not); and by documenting Israeli acts of incitement from political and religious leaders, official government materials and schoolbooks.
The simple fact is that this incitement campaign is an Israeli weapon that has been used effectively against the Palestinians, precisely because it has never been directly challenged. Israeli fabrications, exaggerations and misquotes have not been exposed. Nor have Israelis been made to answer for their own incitement.
A public and effective response is needed. This issue will not go away by itself. It must be combated before it does more damage to the Arab cause in the United States. I met recently with Arafat and his leading advisers, urging them to work with us to create such a response. It should be done.