American Arabists and Changing American Attitudes to Israel

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Robert Kaplan in The Arabists,189 traces how a small but powerful elite of families and friends came to dominate America's relations with the Middle East for over a century, and in particular their perceptions of Jews and Arabs. Known as 'Arabists,' they had gone 'ethnic' immersing themselves in Arab life and culture and enjoying privileged access to the ruling Arab families. They served as educators, military attaches and diplomats, perpetuating both the Western romance with Arabia while at the same time playing a seminal role in the growth of Arab nationalism.

They were descended from the first Americans to travel to what became Lebanon and Syria, the missionaries, scholars and explorers, an extension of the ruling WASP of 19th Century America, but without the imperialist and colonialist agenda which drove much of European interest in the area. These men and women dominated American policy and shaped American perception of the Arab world until World War II. From the late 1940's, coinciding with the birth of the State of Israel, a significant change occurred in the US diplomatic corps, which reflected the country's new ethic and social diversity.

Kaplan describes the impact of this change within the State Department, particularly marked since the 1970's, showing how the rise of Irish Catholics, Jews and Harvard experts within the diplomatic service loosened the grip of Arabists on Middle East diplomacy, and upon American attitudes to the Arab-Israeli conflict. In the early part of the 20th Century American perceptions were very different. For the grown children of those missionary families, returning to Lebanon as Foreign Service officers and educationalists,

Syria constituted much more than a home. It was almost a transplanted version of New England itself, a glorified tableau of Ivy League Brahmins, each with a foothold in the Lebanese mountains, a magical kingdom of Protestant families brimming with a spirit of adventure, rectitude, and religious idealism, where the twentieth century would not fully arrive until 1948. When it came, it came with a vengeance.190

In the Middle Ages the term 'Arabist' referred to a physician who studied Arab medicine. In the 19th Century it was also used of a student of Arab culture or language.191 From 1948 and the founding of the state of Israel the term Arabist quickly became a pejorative term for anti-Semitism. In the words of Richard Murphy, a former ambassador to Syria and Saudi Arabia, the term 'Arabist' came to describe,

'he who intellectually sleeps with Arabs,' someone, that is, assumed to be politically naive, elitist, and too deferential to exotic cultures. The word almost presumes guilt. The very syllables resonate with sympathy and possession-of and with the Arabs-in a way that a word like Sinologist does not.192

Early American missionaries to Lebanon and Syria included Bill Stoltzfus, Arthur & Ray Close, Talcott Seelye, David Zimmerman, and David & Grace Dodge.

In marked contrast to the conduct of European colonials... imperialism and commercial exploitation were entirely missing from the baggage carried by the missionaries in Lebanon. Nor did the Americans even present a threat to the local religious culture, as the missionary colonies in India, China, Burma and Siam would. For if truth be told, compared with the missionaries in the Far East, who won over significant numbers of Chinese to Protestant Christianity, the American missionaries in the Middle East were complete failures. The intractability of Islam quickly forced them to give up any hope of converting souls to Christ... It would be only as purveyors of Western education that the Americans in Lebanon were to succeed. And for that the local Arabs would learn to love them.193

The American Great Awakening fired enthusiasm for missionary work abroad and in the Middle East. A friendly agreement reached in the 1870's between three American denominations saw the Congregationalists take responsibility for Turkey, the Presbyterians for Egypt, Syria and Iran and the Dutch Reformed Church for the Arabian Gulf.

One could even date the beginning of the American Arabist tradition to 1827, when Eli Smith, the Connecticut Yankee from Yale, struck out from the relative safety of a nascent mission community in Beirut for the surrounding mountains, to live for several months with the Moslem and Druze villagers, studying their language.194

What made the contribution of American missionaries to the education of Arabs distinctive was their commitment to do so, at least initially, in Arabic. They wanted to convert from within in partnership rather than as Colonialists from the outside. Unlike the Jesuits who ran the French Catholic Schools, and who consequently attracted Arab families who wanted their children to receive a Western education, the American missionaries tried to avoid creating an elite who in the end would be divorced from their own culture. How far they succeeded is questionable. Hourani regards the ethos of such foreign academic institutions as causing 'social and psychological displacement' for Arab children learning a curriculum essentially 'alien' to their own.195

In The Arab Awakening, the standard treaties on Arab nationalism, George Antonius, himself an Arab Christian, offers a more positive assessment.

The educational activities of the American missionaries in that early period had, among many virtues, one outstanding merit, they gave the pride of place to Arabic... In that, they were the pioneers... the intellectual effervescence which marked the first stirrings of the Arab revival owes most to their labours.196

Daniel Bliss and David Dodge founded the Syrian Protestant College in Beirut in 1866, and while acknowledging the failure of previous American missionaries to convert Jews and Moslems or even the Eastern Orthodox, was nevertheless committed to teaching Arabs 'the Protestant values of democracy, hard work, and free intellectual enquiry.'197 The College actively encouraged discussion and free thinking on matters such as politics providing a fertile seed bed to Arab nationalism.

Despite the 'truncation' of Syria by British and French imperialism, Dodge, was still optimistic for the realisation of Arab nationalism, and under his leadership, the teaching staff, unlike the French Jesuit College, became internationalist, including many Arabs, Americans and Europeans.

AUB... became the heart of an Arab nationalist awakening... a world for whom the State of Israel was a provocative remnant of British colonialism, just as Maronite-dominated Lebanon was a remnant of French colonialism... AUB became, in a political-cultural sense, more influential that either the British or French governments in the Middle East; a startling achievement considering that the American government had recently retreated from the region and had no presence to speak of.198

But the dream of cultivating the inverse of colonialism was shattered by the outbreak of World War I when the traumatic effects of European geopolitical power struggles and colonial rivalries spilled over into the Holy Land. The vision of the American missionaries for a 'a borderless Arab nationalism' in which Syria followed the model of the United States becoming a liberal democracy was not shared beyond the majority Sunni Moslems, least of all by the Maronites, Druze, Greek Orthodox, Jews or Armenians living in uneasy coexistence.

During the First World War, besides the relief work of the Syrian Protestant College, the American missionaries in Syria, received the enormous sum of sixteen million dollars from churches in the United States for their work in feeding and clothing poor Arabs.

But while the British and French were drawing lines on the map and switching rulers around like chess pieces, the American Protestants were suffering alongside the victims of famine and massacre, which were the mundane consequences of World War I. While Britons like Lawrence, Philby and Miss Bell were falling in love with Arabs, the missionaries were learning-more than they ever had before-what it actually felt like to be like an Arab... in the hospices and soup kitchens of World War I Syria, far from the tents of kings and the power centers of London...199

In 1919, aware that the British and French were undermining his goal of self-determination in Syria, Woodrow Wilson sent Charles Crane, a wealthy American Arabist as head of the King-Crane Commission to investigate the wishes of the indigenous people. Reservations expressed by Arab leaders and expatriate Americans led Cranes Commission to recommend the abandonment of American support for a Jewish homeland, that further Jewish immigration be severely restricted and America or Britain govern Palestine.

While Crane went on to help finance the first explorations for oil in Saudi Arabia and the Yemen, his admiration for Hitler's Germany 'the real political bulwark of Christian culture', and of Stalin's anti-Jewish purges in Soviet Russia, led his biographer to describe his later life as dominated by,

...a most pronounced prejudice... his unbridled dislike of Jews.' Crane 'tried... to persuade ...President, Franklin D. Roosevelt, to shun the counsels of Felix Frankfurter and to avoid appointing other Jews to government posts.' Crane 'envisioned a world-wide attempt on the part of the Jews to stamp out all religious life and felt that only a coalition of Moslems and Roman Catholics would be strong enough to defeat such designs.' In 1933 Crane actually proposed to Haj Amin Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, that the Mufti open talks with the Vatican to plan an anti-Jewish campaign.200

It is significant that The Arab Awakening by George Antonius was funded by and dedicated 'To Charles R. Crane, aptly nicknamed Harun al-Rashid affectionately.'201

The reasoning behind opposition by American missionaries to the founding of the state of Israel is a complex one. In 1948, weeks before the founding of the State of Israel, Bayard Dodge retired from AUB for Princeton in New Jersey. In April he wrote a watershed article in Readers Digest entitled, 'Must There Be War in the Middle East?'

This six-thousand-word article, while forgotten and obscure, is the definitive statement of American Arabists on the birth of Israel. Though he cautioned, 'Not all Jews are Zionist and not all Zionists are extremists,' for Dodge the Zionist movement was a tragedy of which little good could come. Dodge was not anti-Semitic... Dodge's argument against Zionism rests, not on the politics of the movement, but on the Arabs' opposition to it, which in Dodge's view made the Zionist program unrealistic and therefore dangerous. Years and decades of strife would, Dodge knew, follow the birth of the Jewish state. As a result, wrote Dodge, 'All the work done by our philanthropic non-profit American agencies in the Arab world-Our Near East Foundation, our missions, our YMCA and YWCA, our Boston Jesuit college in Baghdad, our colleges in Cairo, Beirut, Damascus-would be threatened with complete frustration and collapse... so would our oil concessions,' a scenario that Dodge said would help Communist Russia. Dodge then quoted a fellow 'American Middle East expert' as saying that 'they [the Russians] intend to get many thousands of Russian Communist Jews into the Palestinian Jewish State.' Though Dodge made passing reference to the Holocaust (barely three years old at the time he wrote the article), he appeared oblivious to its psychological and historical ramifications upon the European Jewish refugees in Palestine. While admitting that the Arabs would never countenance a Jewish state, Dodge nevertheless exhorted Jews to lay down their arms and talk to the Arabs. The article ends with a quote from the Bible, 'Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, saith the Lord of Hosts.' Dodge did not seem aware that the death-camp-haunted Jews of Palestine read the Old Testament with different eyes from those of a Protestant missionary.202

Kaplan argues that Dodge's views were representative of the wider expatriate and missionary community of Beirut who believed the US, British and Russians morally and politically wrong to railroad the partition of Palestine through the United Nations. Richard Crossman, the MP who was a member of the Anglo-American team investigating the Palestine crisis in 1947, observed that the American Protestant missionaries, 'challenged the Zionist case with all the arguments of the most violently pro-Arab British Middle Eastern officials.'203 Based on the perceptions of Bill Stoltzfus, who during his diplomatic career had been US Ambassador to six Arab countries, Yemen, Bahrain, the Y.A.E., Qatar, Oman and Kuwait, Kaplan concludes,

..the American community on Lebanon was almost, to a man, psychologically opposed to the State of Israel. But very few went over the line into anti-Semitism.204

Furthermore, President Harry Truman's foreign policy advisers were opposed to the proposal to recognise the state of Israel which they saw as a threat to maintaining good relations with the strategic oil-rich Arab nations, at the very time America was engaged in a race to thwart Soviet hegemony. In his memoirs Truman claims his State Department specialists were opposed to the idea of a Jewish state because they either wanted to appease the Arabs or because they were anti-Semitic, a charge many disputed claiming Truman was playing domestic politics, more concerned for the growing influence of American Jews than the advice of his Foreign Service professionals.

Sympathy for the Arabs and Palestinians in particular, continued among American Foreign Service officials working in the Middle East. Wat Cleverius, an Arabist, was transferred from Saudi Arabia to Tel Aviv in 1969, as economic officer, was responsible for US charities working among Palestinians, including CARE, Catholic Relief and Lutheran World Service, following the annexation of the West Bank by Israel. Looking back over three years work he wrote,

By the time I left Israel in 1972, I had begun to witness enormous corruption on the part of the Israeli civil-military establishment on the West Bank, in the form of humiliations, physical intimidation, and petty bribes that Arabs had to pay Israeli officials. Old Arab men were made to kiss the asses of donkeys in front of their families. Once the Likud came to power in 1977, they really promoted the head crunchers. They put the toughest and poorest Iraqi Jews and other Sephardim [Oriental Jews] in the West Bank, in order to really beat up the Arabs.205

American Foreign policy under Presidents like Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson tended to favour maintaining the status quo in the Middle East combining,

...emotional sympathy toward Israel-albeit in varying degrees-friendship toward the Arabs, and, most important of all, a desire to avoid conflict.206

The Six-Day War was bad news for Arabists. 'Israel was strengthened, Arab states were humiliated, and US embassies in Arab countries were closed, forcing many an Arabist to switch careers.'207 The seismic effect of the Six-Day war changed more than the borders of Israel. Her perceived US strategic value in the Middle East coincided with Richard Nixon's election as President. Critical of the State Department and FSO's, Nixon believed, astonishing number of them have no obvious dedication to America. ..and evinced 'an expatriate attitude.' Even worse in Nixon's eyes, FSO's were the kind of people likely to be Democrats. Nixon was also a cold warrior who saw the Middle East, not in its own terms, but in terms of the world-wide struggle against the irrevocably in bed with the Arabs, making Israel a valuable Cold War asset.208

Nixon chose Henry Kissinger, a Jewish refugee from Germany, to head the National Security Council. According to Kaplan,

While previous administrations sought to avoid conflict in the Middle East, Nixon and Kissinger saw the imminent threat of confrontation as a series of opportunities for rearranging the pieces of the Arab-Israeli puzzle more to America's liking... with American Jews proud and energised as a result of Israel's war victory, Nixon saw Middle East negotiations as a loser in domestic political terms... In other words and put crudely, the relationship between the American president and the American Jewish community now loomed larger than the relationship between Arabists and their personal connections in the Levant.209

Arabists like Andrew Killgore, for example, who gave 25 years to serving in the US Foreign Service in many Arab countries, found himself, in 1974, when he expected to be named ambassador to Bahrain, exiled to the embassy in New Zealand. 'I thought that... I'd never get a good job [in the Arab world], because the Zionists, in my view, had it in for me at that time.'210 Regarding Kissinger, Killgore, who in 1977 became US ambassador to Qatar, was even more outspoken,

Henry, of course, was just a fifth columnist, as far as I am concerned. He was working for the Israeli's... Henry's real objective was to get out of the Middle East the Arabists that the Zionists didn't like. Because Henry was not so crypto-he just was Zionist.211

Following his retirement in 1980, Killgore went on to publish The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, in which in 1987 and 1988 he made the following provocative statements,

It is wrong and perverse for fanatical elements within the two and a half percent of our population who are Jewish to hold Congress hostage... America must regard the Israeli progression from penetration to direction of U.S. foreign policy as the work of a master criminal.212

1970 saw a coup attempt against the pro-Western government in Jordan by the PLFP and Syria, which, in the eyes of the United States, would have only benefited the Soviets.

Nixon and Kissinger faced a stark realization, only Israel could save the king of Jordan and preserve the balance of power in the region. The threat of Israeli military intervention caused the Syrians to retreat, allowing King Hussein to crush the Palestinian guerrillas in what came to be known as the Black September War.

The U.S.-Israeli strategic relationship was born amid the ashes of the failed fedayeen revolt. In the three years leading up to the 1970 Jordan crisis, annual U.S. military aid to Israel averaged under $47 million. In the three years succeeding the crisis, the annual aid averaged over $384 million.213

The influence of AUB on the post-war Arab world can be measured by the fact that at the Charter meeting of the United Nations in 1945, AUB graduates outnumbered those of any other university on the world.214 By the late 1960s, the faculty were pro-Palestinian, anti-Nixon and antiwar, and drew parallels between American imperialism in Vietnam and Israel.

David Dodge, acting president of AUB and the great-grandson of its founder Daniel Bliss, was ironically the first American to be taken hostage in Lebanon following Israel's invasion in 1981. On being released a year later, Dodge gave the following explanation for his abduction,

We condoned Israel's invasion of Lebanon and my kidnapping was in part due to the actions of Israel and U.S. support of Israel. Yes, I feel more strongly than ever that American policies in the Middle East are not even-handed enough.215

Another American missionary taken hostage in 1984, Ben Weir and his wife Carol were highly critical of American policy in the Middle East. Weir was a lecturer at the Near East School of Theology in Beirut, an ecumenical Seminary committed to training Protestants for ministry in the Arab world. Without the kind of government backing available to AUB, NESTB was even more dependent on and integrated within the indigenous Moslem Arab culture. Kaplan argues, 'The Weirs represented the extreme evolutionary offshoot of the American missionary adventure in Lebanon...' 216 David Long, an American State Department Arabist, was responsible for liaising with the Weir family in the negotiations to get Weir released. He wrote later,

The Weirs treated me and the State Department as the enemies, even though we were their government, trying to help get Ben Weir released... Carol Weir and her church group had this holier-than-thou attitude toward the U.S. government. They didn't even want the CIA to debrief him when he was released, even though the debriefing could have helped other hostages. To them, the CIA and the Israelis-not the kidnappers were the enemy.217

In any country, changes in foreign policy will invariably reflect, to some degree, changes in domestic perceptions of the world. Kaplan explains how in the 1970s and 1980s, in regard to the Arab-Israeli conflict, a gulf emerged between the experiences of the American expatriate missionary-diplomatic community living in the Middle East and American public opinion back home.

The historic relationship between a group of privileged Americans and the educated stratum of Arabs in Greater Syria was just not something that an increasingly ethnic and middle-class society in the United States was even aware of or to which it could easily relate. Regarding Israel, while those like Dodge, Seelye and Mrs. Weir were in a unique position to witness the very worst aspects of the Israeli national character, Americans at home could identify with positive aspects of Israeli life more easily than they could with anything going on in the Arab world, especially in blood-spattered Lebanon. For all its faults and crude tactics, even AIPAC was psychologically closer to mainstream America than the AUB crowd was.218

America's desire to be 'even-handed' is typified by the continued presence of an embassy in Tel Aviv and a consulate in East Jerusalem.

The Jerusalem consulate is the most controversial U.S. diplomatic mission in the Middle East, if not in the world. It represents the Arabist frontline against the pro-Israel section of the State Department, as represented by the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv, forty-five minutes away with no crossing points in between.

The consulate building in Arab East Jerusalem was a rebuke to the State of Israel. It was, to all intents and purposes, an American embassy located on territory controlled by the Israeli government. But the consulate did not recognise the Israeli government in Jerusalem, nor did it primarily deal with Israelis, its main purpose was to deal with Arabs in Jerusalem and the West Bank under Israeli military rule. Because the United States did not recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital, the consulate tried to insist that when the U.S. ambassador to Israel visited Jerusalem from Tel Aviv he should not fly the American flag on the hood of his limousine. Jerusalem was the consulate's turf, not the embassy's. The consulate in East Jerusalem, a graceful old stone building near the mediaeval Arab souk, was Araby, while the embassy, situated on a noisy and garish street in the heart of Jewish Tel Aviv, clearly was not. A war raged between the two installations.219

Ironically, pro-Zionist Senator Bob Dole has recently introduced legislation to the American Senate which requires the US Embassy to be rebuilt in Jerusalem by 31 May 1999, and authorising $100 million for 'preliminary' spending in the next 3 years. On 24th October 1995 he stated,

Israel's capital is not on the table in the peace process, and moving the United States embassy to Jerusalem does nothing to prejudice the outcome of any future negotiations.22ci

Marshall Wiley, was a US diplomat in Iraq, Lebanon and Israel from the early 1950s. In 1981, then the US ambassador to Oman, he resigned from the US Foreign Service because he opposed the aggressive support for the State of Israel given by the incoming Reagan administration. This was his outspoken assessment of Israeli policy toward the Palestinians.

Among the things I remember are the old Arab villages from the pre-1948 era that the Israeli's had bulldozed... The previous conquerors didn't displace the population the way the Israelis displaced the Palestinians. There was some resentment on my part toward Israel, because the viewpoint I had gotten in Israel was exposed as false when seen from the Arab side. The Palestinians lived in miserable conditions. Israeli colonialism is, in my view, worse than that of the [Ottoman] Turks.221

In what was becoming an increasingly pro-Israel administration, in 1989 Wiley went further arguing,

Israel is only about 2 percent of the [Middle East] population, and because of their support for that 2 percent, we're willing to alienate the goodwill of the other 98 percent, which have most of the land area and most of the resources, which, I think, in terms of our national interest, is a mistake.222

Ironically it was Moshe Dayan, the hero of Israel's Six-Day War, who recognised the value of American Arabists to Israeli security when he said, '..the more friends and influence America has in the Arab world [and elsewhere], the more secure Israel will be.'223

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