Most of the columns I write are inspired by something I saw in the news, something that just does not sit right with me historically. One area where I find a great amount of misunderstanding is in reporting on the Middle East. I am an American historian, but my secondary Ph.D. field was in the Middle East and I teach an Introduction to the Middle East class at USAO. I spend a good portion of that class clearing up misconception about the region, many that are propagated by some of the media. This morning I heard such a report.
The big news this week is the moving of the American Embassy to the Israeli capital of Jerusalem. This is important news and an extremely complicated situation. What makes it harder is the biases of the reports. The reporter claimed that moving our embassy to Jerusalem strengthens Israel’s claim to that city as Israel’s capital and hurts Palestinians dreams for their own state.
I find flaws with both statements. First, Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. I am not commenting whether it should be or not, just that it is. Agree or disagree, Israel is a sovereign nation and as such can designate its own capital. Unless America feels it has the right to designate another nation’s capital, then we must accept Jerusalem and should have our embassy there.
Secondly, losing Jerusalem should not hurt Palestinian dreams of a separate state. The two sides should continue to work for a two-state solution. Jerusalem was never and will never be on the negotiation table for the Israelis; moving the embassy to Jerusalem does not change that equation. Israel will never give up the city. Palestinians have many legitimate claims to Jerusalem, one of which is that it is the third holiest city to Islam. While that is true, Jerusalem is also the most holy city to Judaism and not one the Israelis are willing to negotiate. Other than angering the Palestinians toward America, making it harder for the U.S. to negotiate a treaty, nothing else changes when it comes to the control of Jerusalem.
In my Middle East classes, the largest issues I confront and try to correct is that all Muslims are terrorists or at least hate America; Islam is a violent and hateful religion; and Muslims and Jews have a hateful relationship and violent past that goes back for centuries. The first two are incorrect but too large a topic to tackle right now. For the purpose of this column, the third is just not backed by history and the reporting of such should end.
The reporting of such historical falsehoods is usually in the context that peace is too difficult to achieve in the Middle East because the belligerent’s feud goes back for centuries and is too problematic to overcome. Not that peace will be easy in any way, but if we correct the narrative, we can see hope.
A very quick history of this region, and I mean very quickly. Before WWI, the nations that make up the Middle East did not exist. The region was under the control of the Ottoman Empire and ruled by Turks. During WWI, the Ottomans sided with Germany and fought against the English and French. The Allies convinced the Arab tribes to unite under the Hashemite chief Hussein and fight against their Turkish rulers (this is the Lawrence of Arabia story). The Hashemites had the authority to lead because they controlled the area of Mecca and were promised the land as an Arab nation.
It turned out that the French and British were actually planning to control the region and so, after the war the two nations carved up the Ottoman Empire and created a series of nations known as mandates– Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Palestine. The mandates were to be under the influence of one of the European nations until they were fit to rule themselves, which they never would be. To make a long story short, Hussain’s son Faisal led the Arab Revolt. The British, trying to keep their promise of an Arab Kingdom, gave Faisal the Kingdom of Iraq. Hussein, not happy with the new terms, sent his second son, Abdulla, north from Arabia to cause problems. To appease Abdulla, the British carved a 5th mandate out of their land, called it Transjordan, and placed Abdulla on the throne.
After the war ended some European Jews, Zionists, asked the British for permission to settle back in modern-day Israel, their ancestral homeland. The British were fine with the idea but ran it past Faisal as the spokesman for the Arab people. Faisal gave his permission; up to that point, the Arabs and Jews had coexisted in peace. I want to repeat that, in the early 1900s, Jews and Arabs got along perfectly well and had for generations. With Faisal’s blessing, the Jews started moving into the region. Again, I am cutting out a bunch of detail, but eventually the European Jews moved in with money and power and displaced the Arab people from their land. Eventually the British, with pressure from the Arabs, cut off Jewish immigration. However, the Zionists Jews came anyway, smuggling themselves in when necessary (watch the Paul Newman movie “Exodus”).
The next major event is WWII. With the Holocaust, the Allied powers wanted to help the Jewish people with anything they wanted. What they wanted was Israel. Now with the support of the Western powers, the Jewish people were allowed to settle in Palestine. What that meant for the Palestinian people was that they were pushed off the land they had for generations. The United Nations controlled this region and divided it into an Arab part, a Jewish part, and a controlled occupied part in Jerusalem. Finally, in 1948 through a war with all the surrounding Arab nations the Jewish army won control and declared a new Jewish State of Israel. Later they took control of Jerusalem in a 1967 war.
The Arab-Israeli feud is not centuries old. It is not even a hundred years old. It really got going in 1948. If it has modern roots, it can have modern solutions. I spent a week in Israel last year and one aspect I found interesting was visiting towns like Nazareth. Nazareth is an Arab Israeli town, meaning that most of the inhabitants are Arab citizens of Israel. About twenty percent of Israel is Arab. Theirs is not a perfect situation, but far better than those living in the West Bank. There are so many issues to talk about in this nation and both sides share plenty of blame, but as I sat in an Arab Israeli’s restaurant talking with him and eating excellent shawarma, I saw that Arabs and Jews can get along. First, we need to fix the historical narrative that teaches that the people have been fighting too long for peace.
Dr. James Finck is an Associate Professor at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma in Chickasha.