Nicole Brackman is a senior research analyst and director of curriculum development at the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), a media-watch organization.
A reference work, it goes without saying, hould provide dispassionate and impartial information, leaving the reader to form his own opinion. Yet, in this age of politicized scholarship, even reference works wear editorial and authorial views on their metaphorical sleeves. The Middle East, subject of so much disputation, is no exception to this trend. One outstanding example, reviewed at length in this journal, is The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World.1 Another, widely sold in book stores across the United States, is the Dictionary of the Middle East,2 a successful one-volume compilation written by Dilip Hiro, a journalist of Indian origins and author of many books on the Middle East. The success of the latter book despite its many flaws, plus the publisher's response, offer insight into the state of learning on the Middle East today.
PERCEPTION AND REALITY
Designed for use by the general public, students, and scholars, the Dictionary of the Middle East is advertised and marketed as an objective reference work by its respected publishers, St. Martin's Press in the United States, Macmillan in the United Kingdom. They call it an "authoritative reference book" and a "must-have reference for anyone interested in the Middle East."
The book has won an abundance of favorable reviews from such publications as The Economist, Choice, and International Affairs. They variously describe the book as a "useful resource for students and non-specialists" (Paul Lalor), "essential reading" (Valerie Hall), "easy to read and comprehensive in scope" (The Historical Association), and "a most useful work" (Booklist). But perhaps the most laudatory review was by Richard Curtiss, formerly secretary of the American-Arab Affairs Council and presently executive editor of The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, a viciously anti-Israel magazine that sometimes borders on the antisemitic. Curtiss described his reaction to Hiro's Dictionary as "love at first sight."3 Such reviews have assured the Dictionary a place on the shelves of many individuals and libraries.
If the reputation of the author and the publisher give the Dictionary credibility, the review by Curtiss provides a warning: this is, in fact, an unabashed polemic against Israel. Worse, it is plagued by errors. Whether writing about the ancient era or the modern, the author is constantly indifferent to factual precision. Together, bias and inaccuracy seriously compromise its suitability as a reference work.
FACTUAL MISTAKES: THE ARAB-ISRAELI CONFLICT
Errors related to Israel's wars with its Arab neighbors abound, starting with the 1948 war, which Hiro distorts in virtually every aspect. To begin with, he calls this the "Palestine War," as though it had nothing to do with Israel's independence. Then he uncritically accepts Arab claims, for example, by inflating the number of Jewish fighters. This error is not innocent; it has the effect of hiding the basic imbalance of the 1948 War-that five Arab armies attacked the nascent Israel. Hiro alleges 109,000 Jewish soldiers fought, whereas scholars such as Chaim Herzog and Nadav Safran maintain that only 40,000 to 47,000 Jewish soldiers met the invading forces from five Arab countries-and of those, only 15,000 were trained field soldiers, the rest being local civil guardsmen.4
Hiro's description of the Six-Day War of June 1967 suffers from a similar distortion. He states that "Syria informed Egypt's president ... of Israeli troop concentration along its border." In fact, as all sides now concede, the Soviets fabricated reports of Israeli troop concentrations and conveyed these to the Syrians; nothing at all of the sort happened. The United Nations Truce Supervision Organization explicitly reported that it had failed to detect any Israeli troop concentration;5 further, Egyptian Defense Minister Shams ad-Din Badran testified that the Egyptian chief of staff at the time of the crisis, General Muhammad Fawzi, flew to Syria after the Russians had reported on the troop concentrations and reported back that there was no sign of any unusual Israeli activity and that the Russians must have been "having hallucinations."6
A dictionary requires definitions that are clear, fair, and accurate. Hiro's are imprecise, unfair, and inaccurate.
The Irgun, a military defense organization formed by the Revisionist Zionists during the 1937 Arab revolt, he describes as an organization that engaged in "terrorist activities." In contrast, enemies of Israel-the Palestine Liberation Organization, Black September, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Hizbullah, Hamas-are described with such terms as "militant," "guerrilla," and "liberation." How can Irgun be terrorist and not these latter, all of which used terror against civilians to further their goal of exterminating the State of Israel? The Arab groups usually attack civilian rather than military targets in
Israel, so describing them as "guerrillas" is specious and points to political bias.
Entries for the Arab groups sanitize both their purpose and methods. The description of Black September refers to two Israeli athletes "having died in the struggle" at the Munich Olympics in 1973, effectively hiding how they were murdered in cold blood. Hamas, Hiro tells us, kidnapped an Israeli soldier in 1994; but he does not choose to indicate that this young man, Nachshon Wachsman, was then murdered by his Hamas captors.
The entry about "Jews in the Arab Middle East" makes no reference to the dire conditions that forced Jews to flee Arab countries around the time of the establishment of Israel. Instead, Hiro presents the mass migration as a voluntary movement of people. "After the Palestine War [of 1948-49] most of the Jews left Egypt ... . Most of the Jews left [Iraq], mainly for Israel. A majority of them departed Syria following the Palestine conflict." But more than 600,000 Jews did not simply "leave" and "depart" their homes in Arab countries, where they had centuries or even millennia of historical attachment, not to speak of their worldly possessions. In reality, they were driven out of their homes by campaigns of violent, state-sponsored persecution and robbery. In Iraq, for example, hundreds of Jews were imprisoned or killed in anti-Jewish pogroms. Property all over the Arab world was confiscated, while support for Zionism or Israel was made a capital offense.
Hiro cannot even get geography right. "Judea," he writes,
was the name given by the Romans to the vassal kingdom in Palestine which came under their rule in 63 BC. This lasted until 135 AD, when it was renamed Palestina. The term Judea was revived by Israel's right-wing government in 1977.
In fact, the name Judea long predates the advent of the Romans, going back to the ninth century B.C.E. The area retained this appellation as an autonomous province of the Roman Empire. The British Mandate authorities also used the terms Judea and Samaria in A Survey of Palestine, their official geography.7 The Likud party was thus part of an established tradition when it used the terms "Judea and Samaria" rather than "West Bank."
A REFERENCE WORK?
To document these and many other errors, this writer produced a nearly 9,000-word critique of the Dictionary8 and sent it on January 2, 1998, to Garrett Kiely, director of the Scholarly and Reference division at St. Martin's Press. I then asked that an independent reviewer assess the book to recommend changes for any future editions. In a response dated January 21, 1998, Mr. Kiely politely but firmly refused to acknowledge either error or responsibility. He dismissed the issues I raised as "matters of opinion, political perspective or authorial judgment as to which among the universe of available facts ought to be included." Further correspondence was no more productive, with the director insisting that the errors involved were "matters of opinion or spin," and then refusing to engage an independent analyst.9 In brief, St. Martin's generally sought to deflect editorial responsibility away from itself and proved thoroughly closed even to the idea of improving possible future editions of the Dictionary.
When it became clear that without external action there would be little redress from the publisher, I alerted libraries, book stores, and student book catalogues about the Dictionary's misclassification as a reference work. Our hope was that placing the book among the nonfiction titles, rather than in the reference section, would signal that, despite the word "dictionary" in the title, this work is not wholly objective. In addition, I began a campaign to publicize this issue in the media. Moshe Kohn, a columnist for The Jerusalem Post, wrote an article on May 2, 1998, that ran in the domestic and international editions in which he publicized the problems with the Dictionary of the Middle East and St. Martin's stonewalling on the issue. The column brought a large response, and readers sent many letters of complaint to John Sargent, the chief executive officer of St. Martin's, to local libraries, the American Library Association, and book chains. They pointed out the book's problems and asked that it be reclassified out of the reference section.
The response to our efforts was limited but fairly encouraging. Many book chains (Borders Books, Barnes & Noble, and Waldenbooks), agreed to examine the book to determine if a re-classification was warranted, and some stores did in fact shelve the book in the Middle East section. A large scholastic catalogue company, Regent Book Company, Inc., removed the Dictionary from its catalogue offerings for schools and libraries. Most libraries responded by placing the Dictionary of the Middle East in the nonfiction Middle East collection, not the reference section. Several libraries noted that it is their common practice to accept patron suggestions to counterbalance a book's perceived shortcomings or bias, rather than re-classify it. Only one library, the public library in Evanston, Illinois, gave a pointedly negative answer, citing the pro-Israel stance of activists who supported the letter writing initiative as reason to ignore criticism of the book.
A publisher is responsible for the merits of a book that carries its name. This means primarily editing a book for accuracy and integrity. There is obviously a difference between factual errors and the authorial prerogative to have a personal perspective or bias; unquestionably, editorial oversight should emphasize eliminating the former, not the latter, though the difference between them is often a delicate and subtle one.
In this light, St. Martin's refusal to be held accountable for the book's errors does not bode well for readers who depend on the integrity of reputable scholarly publishing houses for their research, information, and teaching material. The Dictionary of the Middle East is part of a larger problem, where fact checking, editorial oversight, and quality control are substandard, as shown most spectacularly in recent months by the CNN "Tailwind" story of alleged U.S. use of nerve gas in Vietnam. Once-dependable publishing houses, newspapers of record, television networks, and other heretofore unimpeachable media sources can no longer be trusted on their own.
The fear of embarrassment and negative publicity keeps the media in line. That places an obligation upon us in the audience, when faced with substandard materials, to voice dissatisfaction loudly and call for redress. Vigilance, activism, and publicity are necessary to hold journalists and publishers accountable for the factual reliability of their work. In a time of exponentially increasing information, readers, listeners, and viewers must be highly alert to mistakes and distortions.
1 Edited by John L. Esposito (New York: Oxford University Press, 1905). Reviewed in the MEQ, Sept. 1995, pp. 85-87.
2 New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996.
3 The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Sept. 1998, pp. 123-4.
4 Chaim Herzog, The Arab-Israeli Wars (London: Arms and Amour Press, 1982), pp. 19-20; Nadav Safran, Israel, The Embattled Ally (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981), pp. 44-45.
5 Cited in Safran, Israel, the Embattled Ally, p. 391.
7 A Survey of Palestine (Jerusalem: Government Printer, 1946-47), p. 103. This study, prepared for the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry, was reprinted in 1991 by the Institute for Palestine Studies, Washington, D.C., and the new edition includes laudatory quotes by Walid Khalidi and Albert Hourani on the back cover.
8 Interested readers may send for a copy to P.O. Box 2681, Silver Spring, Md. 20915. Other mistakes are found in the definitions of the Jewish holidays, the incorrect designation of Israel's ancient capital, and the misidentification of King David as the son of King Saul.
9 The St. Martin's Press reluctance to be held accountable for a publication's flaws was unfortunately not without precedent. It had plans in 1996 to publish a biography of Joseph Goebbels written by Holocaust revisionist David Irving and responded with hostility to criticism (comparing efforts to stop this book's publication with Nazi and fascist censorship). Only under enormous pressure did St. Martin's finally decide to withdraw the book from publication.