A Harvard-affiliated center in Cambridge that provides seminars on the Middle East to Massachusetts public school teachers and students recommends materials that promote a stridently anti-Israel point of view, an Advocate investigation revealed this week
Among the materials used by Harvard's Middle East Studies Outreach Center is the Arab World Studies Notebook, a 500-page binder of curriculum materials produced by the Middle East Policy Council and Arab World and Islamic Resources. MEPC receives direct funding from the government of Saudi Arabia, and AWAIR receives funding from Aramco, the Saudi state oil company.
Critics of the notebook, including the American Jewish Committee, charge that it is riddled with inaccuracies and falsehoods. The notebook "appears largely designed to advance the anti-Israel and propagandistic view of the Notebook's sponsors," AJC said in a statement last year.
Some of the problematic passages in the book cited by the notebook's critics include:
• In a chapter on American policy in the Middle East, one of the book's contributors writes: "The questions of Jewish lobbying and its impact on Truman's decision with regard to American recognition [of Israel in 1948] – and indeed the whole question of defining American interests and concerns – is well worth exploring."
• In a chapter called "The Question of Palestine," the book asserts that before the start of the 1948 war, "armed Jewish groups had driven much of the Palestinian population from their homes, thus capturing most of the Palestinians' land through acts of sheer terror and intimidation."
• In the section on Arab culture, one chapter is devoted to Jerusalem, described as an "Arab city" surrounded by high rises "built for Israeli settlers to strengthen Israeli control over the holy city."
• Israel is missing from a map of the Middle East; a map of Palestine encompasses the pre-1948 boundaries.
Harvard's outreach center has used the notebook in department of education-sponsored teacher training institutes. The center is one of 18 Middle East centers around the country that receive federal funding under title VI of the 1958 Higher Education Act; each center receives about $500,000 a year, according to a report by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in 2005.
The department of education stopped contracting with the Harvard center after 2002; however, the center still recommends the notebook as a resource for teachers and it is used in seminars it conducts in Massachusetts schools.
Center director Barbara Petzen told the Advocate that the notebook is one of a "multitude" of sources it uses in teaching about the Middle East, and that it is not used in teaching about the Arab-Israeli conflict.
But, Petzen stressed, almost any material on the Arab-Israeli conflict is bound to anger one side or the other.
"As with any conflict in history, as historians our job is to look at multiple perspectives. I'm not an activist; I'm trying to understand the place we are at and how we got there," she said.
Sandra Stotsky, a former commissioner with the Massachusetts department of education, wrote about the notebook and teacher training institutes put on by faculty from the Harvard center in a 2003 report titled "Stealth Curriculum: Manipulating America's History Teachers."
For her, the lack of scholarly rigor in the notebook goes beyond a "slanted" version of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
"This is not just a Jewish issue," Stotsky said. "It's a Christian and an American issue," she said, stressing that the notebook's editor, Audrey Shabbas, has also been taken to task by members of the Algonquin Indian tribe over a passage from the materials that claims Arabs had arrived in North America before Europeans and intermarried with members of the tribe.
Shabbas, whom the Harvard center's Web site describes as a "respected educator," taught a teacher-education course on Islamic art at the center last year.
Stotsky said that it's not hard to understand the allure of the notebook, which only costs $15 when schools also participate in a free workshop, funded by the MEPC. On its Web site, the council claims to have given workshops in 175 cities in 43 states.
"Teachers figure, ‘We've got to have professional development, this is a free workshop, so let's bring in Audrey Shabbas and the Arab Studies Notebook. There's no problem with it because it's clearly been vetted by Islamic scholars,'" Stotsky said.
Another local organization that specializes in providing curricular materials and training to history and social studies teachers is Primary Source, a Watertown-based nonprofit that has put on workshops in more than 30 school districts around the state.
Primary Source's Middle East studies program is closely linked to the Harvard center. It lists Barbara Petzen as a faculty member, and this fall the two organizations put on a series of adult education seminars together, including one titled "Palestine."
The Arab Studies notebook is one of the resources available in the center's library of resources.
Primary Source's Middle East studies program coordinator did not return calls for comment.