Deceit infects political discourse

Scott Laderman

Heard the one about U.N. weapons inspectors being expelled from Iraq in 1998? Or how about the International Atomic Energy Agency report claiming the Hussein regime is “six months away from developing a (nuclear) weapon?” These and other lies have become a staple of the George W. Bush administration. Reviewing his disturbing record of fibs, omissions and misrepresentations, The Washington Post recently concluded that “facts are malleable” to the current president.

On college campuses, a comparable scourge has been drawing public attention. From the case of Michael Bellesiles at Emory to that of Joseph Ellis at Mount Holyoke, a number of professors have lately demonstrated a stunning disregard for scholarly integrity.

The University has not been immune from this dread contagion. In a commentary in the Daily two weeks ago attacking me, Students for Justice in Palestine, and Na’eem Jeenah, the South African anti-apartheid activist who recently lectured on Palestinian human rights and a member of the Friends of Israel Executive Committee, wrote, “Jeenah commented twice during his presentation that ‘Jews have no racial connection to the land (of Israel).’ ” The author of the piece, Daniel Levin, deduced from this alleged statement the speaker was engaged in “a vicious, racist diatribe.” Yet Jeenah never said what Levin charges him with saying; the quote is, quite simply, a fabrication. I know this because I have in my possession a videocassette of the event. I have reviewed the tape in its entirety; the words “racial connection” never passed from the speaker’s lips.

The commentary also referred to a slogan inscribed on a T-shirt worn by someone at the presentation – “Palestine Will Be Free from the River to the Sea” – which, Levin claims, was “(juxtaposed against) a picture of an Islamic terrorist.” Pushing even further the preposterous interpretation spun in the Daily one week earlier by a fellow Friends of Israel member, Omri Fine, the author interpreted the slogan as a call “for the complete destruction of the State of Israel and the deaths of all its inhabitants,” insisting that it is “not a political statement but a racist appeal for mass murder.” The group’s membership would be well advised to consult a map. Of the territories the international community considers illegally occupied by Israel, the West Bank borders the Jordan River (“the River”) and the Gaza Strip borders the Mediterranean Sea (“the Ö Sea”). Moreover, the image on the T-shirt, which is clearly visible in the videotape, is of a pair of eyes. It features no bomb, no target, nor any weapon of any sort. It is possible to describe it as depicting an “Islamic terrorist” only under the racist presupposition that all Muslims or Palestinians are “terrorists.”

In an earlier column, I described as a “myth” the claim endorsed by Friends of Israel that “(a)pproximately 720,000 Arabs, encouraged by their leaders to leave, fled from what is now Israel” around the time of the 1948 war. I alluded to the research of three historians – Erskine Childers, Walid Khalidi and Benny Morris – in support of my contention. Levin retorted in his commentary that the work of Childers is “long-outdated,” and he inexplicably dismissed Khalidi as “ultra-biased and self-interested.” This is a creative means of evading their findings. The source of the myth on the flight of the refugees is the Israeli propaganda claim that Arab radio broadcasts urged the Palestinians to flee so as not to inhibit the armies of neighboring Arab states. To determine the assertion’s veracity, Childers and Khalidi examined the back files of the Near East monitoring stations of the British and U.S. governments; these covered the radio broadcasts and local newspapers in the region. The historians found no evidence to support the Israeli claim of Arab orders for a mass exodus.

Ironically, Levin regarded Childers’s work from the 1960s as “long-outdated,” yet he cited as support for the myth a 1948 article in The Economist. According to Levin, the publication “reported on Oct. 2, 1948, that ‘(o)f the 62,000 Arabs who formerly lived in Haifa not more than 5,000 or 6,000 remained. Various factors influenced their decision to seek safety in flight. There is little doubt that the most potent of the factors were the announcements made over the air by the Higher Arab Executive, urging the Arabs to quit.’ ” Levin misquoted the article. The final sentence actually closes with “urging all Arabs in Haifa to quit,” not “urging the Arabs to quit.” But more significantly, he neglected to disclose that the statement is not attributable to the journalist who wrote the story; instead, it is sourced to an unidentified “British eyewitness.”

There is no indication the reporter independently verified the announcements, and the allegation should thus have been treated with the same degree of caution as, say, eyewitness reports several weeks ago about a “white van” belonging to the Washington-area sniper. Yet most troubling is Levin’s failure to publicly acknowledge the article’s unequivocal claim that the “exodus happened in two waves.” It would have been difficult for him to miss this revelation, as it is located in a section of the report tellingly entitled “Exodus in Two Waves,” and is the same section from which Levin pulled the quote inaccurately transcribed in his commentary. During the “second wave,” the journalist for The Economist wrote, “the Israelis overran the Ramle-Lydda area,” and “Israeli troops gave (the families of the region) an hour in which to quit.” In other words, Levin’s own evidence unambiguously undermines Friends of Israel’s claim that approximately 720,000 Palestinian refugees are being encouraged by other Arabs to flee. In fairness, I should add most sources agree there were isolated examples of local Arab authorities instructing Palestinians to evacuate; the case of Haifa is perhaps the most well-known. However, Levin inappropriately extrapolates from this conclusion his erroneous statement that the “massive movement in 1948 of the Arab inhabitants of today’s Israel was in response to insistent and repeated calls for their emigration by their own leaders.” This is, again, a myth enjoying no credible support in the scholarly literature, and is a concomitant denial of what Palestinians refer to as “the catastrophe.”

In perhaps the most bizarre contention of his commentary, Levin was adamant that the work of Benny Morris shows “quite clearly, in writing, the exact opposite of what Laderman is attempting to argue.” I do not know how this statement can be taken seriously. Here, in his own words, is what Morris has to say on the issue: “There is no evidence that the Arab states and the AHC (Arab Higher Committee) wanted a mass exodus or issued blanket orders or appeals to the Palestinians to flee their homes (though in certain areas the inhabitants of specific villages were ordered by Arab commanders of the AHC to leave, mainly for strategic reasons).” Or again: “I have found no evidence to show that either the leaders of the Arab states or the Mufti ordered or directly encouraged the mass exodus during April (1948). It may be worth noting that for decades the policy of the Palestinian Arab leaders had been to hold fast to the soil of Palestine and to resist the eviction and displacement of the Arab communities.” And lest there be any doubt: “As to April and the start of the main exodus, I have found no evidence to show that the AHC issued blanket instructions, by radio and otherwise, to Palestine’s Arabs to flee.” Readers may decide for themselves whether Levin’s comment about Morris is rooted in sheer incompetence or, more plausibly, in what the University regards as “scholastic dishonesty.”

As much as I abhor the racist literature and de facto rejectionism of Friends of Israel, this is not simply a matter of political disagreement. Rather, it involves what appears to be fraud and deceit. The same rebuke must be leveled at the Bush administration. Propagating lies is a threat to democratic decision making. Fabricating or misrepresenting evidence of any sort is detrimental to both the United States and the University community. As peoples of a diverse nation, we should expect and welcome differences of opinion. Yet as scholars we must always adhere to the highest of ethical standards. Shamefully, President Bush and Friends of Israel have utterly failed in that endeavor.

Scott Laderman welcomes comments at [email protected]. Send letters to the editor to [email protected]