Najda: Women Concerned About the Middle East, a national organization based in Berkeley, California, has been developing educational materials and conducting teacher training workshops on the Middle East for nearly 30 years. Najda has established a strong reputation among social studies teachers and administrators; it produced its first publication for pre-collegiate teachers (The Arab World: A Handbook for Teachers) after the California State Board of Education asked the organization to conduct a review of social studies textbooks being considered for adoption.
Now Najda has made available Arab World Notebook: Secondary School Level, edited by Audrey Shabbas and Ayad al-Qazzaz (1989) — a loose-leaf compilation of curriculum materials and educational resources aimed at counteracting inaccuracies and distortions in the presentation of the Arab world to secondary students. The text is divided into three sections: 20 thematic subjects, each of which includes an introductory essay, student readings, a lesson plan and a resource list; 21 country profiles with basic data, maps and resource lists; and guidelines for evaluating textbook coverage of Islam, medieval Arab civilization and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Although secondary school teachers are the primary intended audience for this book, others involved in basic teaching about the Arab world and the Middle East will also benefit from its information, resource lists and suggested teaching techniques.
Included among the subject themes are sections on food, literature, music and family (including a perceptive essay by Elizabeth W. Fernea) that humanize Arabs and their culture. The section on women avoids confronting women’s oppression and offers the popular but problematic argument that there is no basis in Islam for the subjugation of women. The woman question is emblematic of the inherent difficulties in a pedagogical project seeking to affirm the history and culture of an oppressed people. How can this be done at an introductory level, where some simplification is necessary, without falling into uncritical idealization?
The lesson plan for the thematic section on Palestinians was created by the United Nations North American Coordinating Committee of Non-Governmental Organizations on the Question of Palestine, of which Najda is an active member. The introductory essay to the section on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict attempts to finesse the red-herring issue of terrorism by using the term only as a description of the Zionist underground groups in the mandate period — the Haganah, the Irgun and Lehi.
Even if executed flawlessly, this rhetorical strategy would arouse suspicion among readers familiar with the issue. But lumping together the three Zionist military organizations despite significant differences among them, incorrectly attributing the massacre of Dayr Yasin to the Haganah and including an inflated assessment of Israeli troop strength in the 1948-1949 war undermine the attempt to raise the issue of Zionist terrorism. The brief historical survey of the conflict from 1917 to 1987, while useful, can leave the reader unclear about the course of critical events and the motivations of the actors (for example, the discussion of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war). The lesson plan for this theme, though, is a good illustration of the “critical thinking skills” pedagogical method that emphasizes exposing students to multiple points of view, evaluating arguments and distinguishing fact from opinion.
Robert I. Friedman, an investigative journalist who has previously written about Meir Kahane and the Jewish Defense League in The Village Voice and The Nation, has developed his fascination with the fanatic rabbi and his extremist politics into a biographical expose: The False Prophet, Rabbi Meir Kahane: From FBI Informant to Knesset Member (Lawrence Hill Books, 1990). After an entertaining account of Kahane’s career as an FBI informant and organizer of pro-Vietnam war sentiment among Jewish college students, Friedman relates the origins of the Jewish Defense League as a reaction to the rise of black political power in New York City in the late 1960s. The 1968 teachers’ strike was an early expression of the tension between blacks and Jews in New York and provided the context for the JDL’s explosive appearance on the political scene. Pursuing its own agenda, the FBI attempted to use the JDL to attack the Black Panther Party.
In late 1969 and early 1970, Kahane under the influence of Geula Cohen, then a Herut Knesset member and now a leader of the right-wing Tehiya Party, shifted the political focus of the JDL to the issue of Soviet Jewry. Many of the JDL’s subsequent violent attacks against Soviet institutions in the United States were planned and coordinated by Cohen and a group of right-wing Israelis, including high-ranking Mossad members, headed by Yitzhak Shamir.
Friedman’s coverage of Kahane’s political career in Israel — his formation of the Kach Party and election to the Knesset in 1984 on a platform of virulent anti-Arab racism — may seem anti-climactic in light of the Israeli Central Election Commission’s exclusion of Kach from the 1988 elections on the grounds that it is a racist and anti-democratic party. But though Kahane’s personal political career may well be at an end, the sentiment and social forces he was able to mobilize remain political factors in Israel today.
An important legacy of the Kahane phenomenon that has received only minimal attention is the network of American Jewish institutions and individuals that Kahane has been able to draw upon to fund his projects and provide a cover for his activities. Friedman exposes some of these connections in chapter 13 and elsewhere throughout the book. The demonstration that Kahane is not an isolated phenomenon, but rather has had important associations with respected individuals and institutions in both the United States and Israel may be the most important point to emerge from The False Prophet. This issue apparently prompted the attack on the book in the New York Times Book Review (May 13, 1990) — a good indicator that there is something here deserving of attention.