On a weekend late in October 1970, we were part of an informal group of seven meeting in a cabin in New Hampshire. All of us were active then in the broad movement against the US war in Indochina. Some of us had lived in the Middle East, working in church or Peace Corps volunteer programs. We all had experienced frustration with the absence of any reliable coverage of events there, and with the reluctance of the movement we were part of to include the Middle East within its general critique of US foreign policy. This meeting, as it happened, was the beginning of MERIP.

Most of us were then working closely with the Committee of Returned Volunteers (CRV). Since 1967, this group had been mobilizng Peace Corps, and other, volunteers against the war. As a group of persons intimately familiar with US policy in Asia, Africa and Latin America, CRV had become an organization whose perspective linked the Vietnam war to US policy in the rest of the Third World. This organic anti-imperialism, rooted in close experience, made CRV a natural resource for the larger anti-war movement on developments in Brazil, southern Africa, the Philippines and numerous other “Vietnams waiting to happen.”

Our efforts to expand CRV’s agenda to include the Middle East had been hampered by the small number of us with Middle East experience, and by the competition for political attention from other, less problematic, arenas of struggle. And to some extent CRV reflected within itself the ambivalence of the “new left” toward the question of Palestine and Israel, and the consequent reluctance to grapple with the political dynamics of the Middle East.

This sense of Israeli/Middle East “exceptionalism” was pervasive in the independent left. Existing critiques of US support for Israel were inadequate. They came primarily from politically conservative sources, which argued that US support for Israel was not in “our” interest, as determined by oil company executives and others with ties to the conservative Arab regimes. On another front, the style and content of the controversial anti-Zionist proclamations, after 1967, of militant black organizations like the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee reproduced the perspective of readily available sources such as the Egyptian and other Arab nationalist governments. Elsewhere on the progressive end of the spectrum, the views advanced by established left parties appeared to us to derive from party lines rather than specific analysis, and were therefore not suited for reaching the minds of our cohorts in the amorphous “movement.”

MERIP’s Agenda

At this moment, though, a sense of opportunity complimented the acute need for an independent base of critical information and analysis. The liberal and social democratic orthodoxy that characterized the civil rights movement was already under challenge from the defection of militant black groups. “New left” journals like Liberation and Ramparts randomly published articles on the Middle East that did not conform to the semi-official Israeli version of history and politics there. Developments such as these represented small but significant breaches in the ideological consensus that had prevailed among the varied components of the “movement.”

The Zionist establishment responded to these stirrings in two ways. There was, on the one hand, an effort to paint all the critics, and especially the black organizations, with the brush of anti-Semitism, but shrill and constant use of this charge diminished its effectiveness. There was, simultaneously, a concerted attempt to propagate a “radical Zionism” that distanced itself from the more odious stances of the Israeli government and packaged Zionism, in the jargon of the “new left,” as “the Jewish national liberation movement.” Numerous conferences and publications, many financed by Zionist agencies, gave this line a brief but widespread currency.

All these developments signified to us that the momentum of events in the Middle East since the 1967 war, and most critically the emergence of the Palestinian resistance movement, had inserted the Middle East, and US policy there, on the agenda of the “movement” — though still mainly as an item to dodge and avoid. This is the context in which we had come to think concretely in 1970 about the need for an organization like MERIP. That spring, the US invasion of Cambodia prompted a dramatic escalation of outrage and activity against the war. In September, the Nixon administration collaborated with Israel to encourage King Hussein to crush the Palestinian movement in Jordan. The palpable threat of US military intervention precipitated a flurry of demonstrations and rallies.

These were miniscule compared to the activities against the Indochina war, and they did not outlast the immediate crisis. But this convergence of events did foster receptiveness to an analysis that grasped the shared interests of the US, Israeli and Jordanian governments. In most people’s minds, for sure, the complexities of the Middle East were still reduced to “Arab versus Israeli,” but this paradigm was no longer adequate to explain the actual dynamics there. On another front, criticism of US policy in Iran was growing vocal and visible, partly in response to the opposition of Iranian students in this country. What was needed, it seemed to us, was some appreciation of how Iran, and Israel-Palestine, related to US interests and strategy in the region and globally.

Without question, the issue of Palestine and Israel was central to the urgency behind MERIP’s formation. The visibility of the Palestinian conflict with Zionism since 1967, and the redefinition of “the Arab-Israeli conflict” in precisely those terms, made it an issue the left could no longer ignore but had to put aside willfully. We were encouraged at this point, too, by Fawwaz Trabulsi’s and Ahmed el-Kodsy’s pioneering efforts to comprehend the contradictions of Arab nationalism.

While we expressly decided that MERIP would not be a Palestine solidarity group, much of our initial work did nonetheless focus on Palestine. Those of us who had recently traveled to Jordan and Lebanon had written articles for existing publications, which MERIP reprinted and distributed as pamphlets. We considered it important to present the thinking of the Palestinian movement in its own words, and so we made available what we judged to be the most important texts of Fatah.

MERIP was predicated on the notion that Palestine was a central issue, but not the exclusive issue. The main task, we concluded at this founding meeting, was to analyze and document US strategy and policy in the Middle East, and the political economy of the region. It would only be possible to confront directly the reluctance of the “new left” to take up the question of Palestine and Israel if we could also effectively analyze, for instance, the oil industry in Saudi Arabia, or the strengths and weaknesses of “Arab socialism” in Egypt. We would advance, by our practice, the notion that these and other societies could be understood in terms other than their forsworn enmity toward Israel. We would, at the same time, integrate the Middle East into the emerging “new left” critique of US policy.

The Magazine

We defined our task, from the outset, as providing information and analysis that would be published and circulated in the existing left or “alternative” media. Even the first issue of MERIP Reports, in May 1971, was designed to provide short articles (on Sadat’s purge of leftists within the Egyptian regime, and on Israeli negotiating strategy) to newspapers and magazines, which would then reprint them or integrate them into their articles. MERIP Reports was thus conceived as an occasional “backgrounder,” as a source for other outlets, rather than as a magazine in its own right. The earliest issues consisted of several mimeographed pages, and addressed developments in Iran as well as Israel, Oman as well as Egypt.

But the media network we envisioned serving was too unstructured, and the results too uncertain, to sustain this original conception. It became clear that MERIP itself, through the Reports, would have to present our work to the public. Throughout 1971 and 1972, the Reports appeared irregularly. By early 1973, the collective decided that if MERIP Reports was to be a successful vehicle for our work, it would have to be issued on a reliable and regular basis. Potential subscribers needed some assurance that MERIP Reports would still be arriving a year hence. Our publishing experience so far left us little doubt of the commitment we were assuming. This decision helped solidify MERIP as an organization.

It was not long before the production of MERIP Reports became the top priority of the organization, with members of the collective sharing responsibility for writing and editing, typesetting and layout, circulation and budgeting. Public speaking, though, continued to be an important aspect of our work. This complemented the effectiveness of the magazine, introducing it to campuses and communities across the country. The regular appearance of the magazine, and our ability to cover breaking stories like the energy crisis and the October War, enhanced the repute of MERIP spokespeople. The increasing quality of the magazine, and the publication in 1975 of Joe Stork’s Middle East Oil and the Energy Crisis as MERIP’s first book, enabled us to reach still wider audiences. In this period, also, MERIP became more widely known internationally, as our work was translated into many languages.

Dramatic developments in the Middle East grew perceptibly in frequency and in their impact on people’s lives here. It was in this context that MERIP could assert itself as a resource for its primary audience, the independent left in the US. Another important audience for our work was the many citizens and residents here from Middle Eastern countries. The interest of these persons in the region was already highly developed, but they appreciated MERIP’s frank approach to all the governments of the region, and sympathic but candid reportage of the popular movements. Along with thousands of other readers, they welcomed an analysis of US policy based on material interests rather than the worn shibboleths of “Zionist conspiracies.”

The Organization

In these first years, MERIP as an organization consisted of clusters of people around offices in Boston and Washington. Like many groups of the “new left,” we operated in a somewhat anarchist fashion. Membership in the collective was fluid. Those who worked around the office were considered part of the organization, and there was no formal leadership or division of responsibilities. There was an effort to overcome any division of labor, and to rotate and share all tasks — writing and editing, typesetting and layout, filling orders, raising funds. Our masthead underscored the idea that the collective members were identical with the direct producers.

By the middle of the decade, the conditions that had permitted many of us to work for MERIP for free or for exceedingly low salaries had altered considerably. Some members of the collective left to take other jobs. Others continued to be involved, but no longer as direct producers. In the summer of 1975, we closed our Boston office and hired two new staff persons from outside the collective to work with the Washington office.

This Washington-based, four-person staff configuration, in which other members of the collective were involved in policy decisions but had other employment or primary commitments, was a period of transition. There was inevitable confusion and tension within the collective over responsibilities and expectations, as the formative ideas of the organization continued to be influential. The work that had formerly involved six or seven persons was now handled almost entirely by four. Staff work increasingly focused on production (typesetting, layout, editing) and administrative tasks. Extensive speaking and writing, previously important aspects of the work of collective members as producers, were no longer possible. Another source of pressure developed simultaneously. Fundraising and financial management were neglected under the pressures of day-to-day production, and MERIP’s capacity to pay even extremely modest salaries was cast in grave doubt.

These pressures created some movement in the direction of formalizing relationships and responsibilities. In the fall of 1976, MERIP established an editorial committee, with members drawn from the larger collective. Others in the collective became associates, maintaining a voice in the collective’s editorial and organizational policies. In order to facilitate our greater reliance on authors outside the collective, we established a network of contributing editors that included a range of people abroad as well as in the US. Their experience and contacts vastly improved our presence and outreach. From its beginning, MERIP had tried to solicit articles from outside the collective. Unlike the situation in Latin American or Asian studies, though, there was at this early stage no identifiable grouping of progressive writers and scholars knowledgeable about the Middle East. By necessity, the vast majority of early MERIP issues were written within the collective. Over the second half of the decade, MERIP attracted a number of excellent writers and scholars who broadened the range of questions that MERIP could cover well.

This expanded editorial network was a process that we nurtured over the subsequent years, but these were years when neither the organizational structure nor the resources available were adequate to the tasks we faced. Towards the end of 1977, a New York office was established, with a fundraising emphasis, while the total staff was reduced to three. Typesetting and layout were contracted out, and staff responsibilities increasingly demarcated. Intense debate over the merits of this structural shift, whether it should be undone or consolidated, was finally resolved by the beginning of 1980, when the collective decide to press forward in the same direction. This led to the structure with which MERIP concluded its first ten years: one full-time editor and clerical support person each in New York and Washington; considerable staff specialization; many operational tasks contracted out; collective determination of basic editorial and organizational policy.

MERIP continued to grow and develop during this four-year transition period. This growth, in fact, fueled our conviction that resolution of the conflict was worth the effort. The magazine, now professionally typeset and designed, attracted many new readers as the intensity and momentum of Middle East developments, and US policy there, exploded. The decision to shift to computerized subscription servicing streamlined what had been a tedious in-house procedure and opened up the possibility of large scale direct mail promotion. National and regional distributors were able to place MERIP Reports into many more bookstores and newsstands than could the MERIP staff. Our new subscribers in 1980 outnumbered our total subscribers in 1978. Now, after ten years, MERIP Reports reaches some 25,000 subscribers and bookstore and library readers.

As circulation expanded, so did revenues. Additionally, MERIP’s capacity to raise funds for special projects grew in a time when such funds were exceedingly hard to come by. But there has been a constant pressure on MERIP’s resources even so, and funds available have rarely been adequate to MERIP’s needs. Throughout the first years, the organization has been sustained chiefly through the inestimable contributions of its collective members and staff, and their families, who have withstood the financial difficulties of the organization by making them their own. Our capacity for similar maneuvering in the period ahead is quite slim. MERIP’s financial condition at the end of its first decade is far stronger than in the early years, but remains nonetheless precarious. A major task for our second decade is to expand income from the magazine and other operations so as to achieve substantial self-sufficiency.

Looking Ahead

One achievement, then, of our first decade was a viable and productive organizational structure, knitting together several dozen people on four continents around a small core staff. This leaves MERIP well poised to seize new opportunities and cope with new challenges. As we reflect on MERIP’s first decade, it seems to us that our work has verified one important proposition that we began with: The Middle East, including the Palestine question, is best understood in terms of class and social forces at work in those societies, and the intersection of those forces with foreign capital and state interests. Our formulations of such analyses, by necessity, have become more sophisticated. Our initial sense of the invariable growth of revolutionary forces and tendencies, and the weakening of conservative and reactionary forces, has been vigorously revised by the decade that both ensconced Anwar al-Sadat in Egypt and drove the Pahlavis from Iran.

It has been a decade of enormous change at every level. Middle Eastern societies have been caught up in the global economy at an unprecedented pace, and in a manner that has exacerbated the world economic crisis. The manifestations of this crisis in US policy — the energy crisis, the Rapid Deployment Force and the Carter Doctrine, the AWACS imbroglio — reflect the confusion and desperation of strategists and policymakers coping with the contradictions that previous strategies and policies have fostered. Each “solution” provokes a subsequent, and more critical encounter.

The character of the decade has marked MERIP and its possibilities. One critical element of our environment is the growing network of persons who can write the kinds of articles we require. MERIP itself, we think, has contributed to the emergence of this network, by consistently providing both a source and an outlet for independent, critical analyses of Middle East developments. For the US, at least, the network no doubt reflects the increasing attention of US capital and the state to the Middle East over this period, and the growth of Middle East programs in US universities. More fundamentally, it is the cumulative, long-term product of political changes that have produced, not only in the US but internationally, a radical generation of researchers and scholars extremely sensitive to the impact of their work on the societies they study.

Our capacity to confront the challenges of the period ahead testifies to our accomplishments over the decade past. Equally important, this capacity has developed in response to a social need for information and analysis of the sort we have been providing, a need reflected in our wider readership not only in the United States and Europe but around the world, and not least in the Middle East itself. The absence of reliable alternative sources is not limited to the US alone. Palestinian friends from the West Bank, for instance, have written us that MERIP Reports has been the only source of information and analysis available to them about the Iranian revolution that is not tied to a movement or a government uncritically endorsing or implacably opposing the revolutionary regime.

After ten years and 100 issues, MERIP’s sense of accomplishment is tempered by an even greater sense of responsibility, to provide the most considered and accurate information and analysis on the Middle East and US policy there at a time when the threat of intervention and conflagration has grown more acute than ever. The decade ahead, we are sure, will be one of great danger and some opportunity. We intend to struggle against the dangers and seize the opportunities. For this, MERIP’s first decade was important. It was a start.

How to cite this article:

Peter Johnson, Joe Stork "MERIP: The First Decade," Middle East Report 100 ( ).
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