By design, Joel Pollak's exposure to the Muslim world - of which Arabic is an important part - has been far more extensive than that of many Jews.
"I wanted to get to know the culture that was on the other side of this great divide that was emerging," said Pollak, a native of Johannesburg, South Africa, who began delving into that culture shortly before 9/11.
His quest to learn Arabic even took him to a madrassa, a Muslim study hall, in Capetown, South Africa, where he boarded with a Muslim family from 2001 to 2002. "I saw it as a learning opportunity. The family was quite nice, although some of their relatives were upset that they were renting to Jew," said Pollak, 31, who spent most of his childhood in the Chicago suburb of Skokie, Ill. "I was out of town on Sept. 11, and I remember my landlady calling me to tell me she was sorry about what had happened."
However, his experience on the far side of the socio-linguistic divide soured several years later in markedly different surroundings. He was again studying Arabic, this time as a second-year law school student last semester at Harvard University. The source of his discontent: A popular Arabic textbook used at Harvard that, according to Pollak, was studded with subtly anti-Israel propaganda that makes it appear that "Israel is not a legitimate part of the Middle East." Pollak wrote about his experiences early last month in an op-ed article in The Washington Post.
The textbook, titled Al-Kitaab (Arabic for "The Book"), is published by Georgetown University Press in Washington, D.C., which has disseminated "tens of thousands" of copies of Al-Kitaab to U.S. government agencies, undergraduate colleges and some high schools, a GUP spokesperson reported.
According to Pollak, most of the maps in the edition of Al-Kitaab that he and his classmates used (second edition, part one, copyright 2004) do not include Israel. Meanwhile, he maintained, the textbook and an accompanying DVD seem to glorify "anti-Western heroes," such as former Egyptian president and ardent Israel foe Gamel Abdel Nasser, who embody "totalitarian rage." Pollak said he was asked to recite a passage about Nasser in class, but refused. In addition, he stated, the DVD ignores that Israel - and not just the Palestinians - claims Jerusalem as its capital.
Richard Brown, the director of GUP, disputed Pollak's contention that Al-Kitaab has an anti-Western and anti-Israel agenda, but declined to evaluate the factuality of Pollak's claims.
"We do not traffic in materials that support totalitarian rage," he said, maintaining that GUP publications undergo rigorous internal and external review to ensure that they are accurate and free of political bias. "I stand by the work and Georgetown University Press stands by the work."
However, Brown, who has been associated with GUP for more than seven years, also said Pollak is not the first student who has complained about Al-Kitaab's depictions of geography in the Middle East. "On occasion," he explained, students have objected to maps in the book that do not include Israel. Brown said he did not know whether those complaints spurred any editorial changes in Al-Kittab. "We're always trying to improve our texts," he added. Research for Al-Kittab was underwritten with a $131,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, a federal government agency. In keeping with routine procedure, NEH did not examine the content of the materials unearthed by the authors of the textbook for possible bias, according to an NEH spokesperson.
In response to Pollak's op-ed, a letter to the editor appeared in The Washington Post that said Pollak's recommendation "is nothing more than a disgraceful call for censorship in the classroom." The letter writer, Maryam Monalisa Gharavi, was identified as a doctoral candidate at Harvard.
Pollak said that although few of his critics have tried to contest the factual assertions in his op-ed, he has been branded a "neo-con" and "anti-Muslim," which he termed "ridiculous."
Another Jewish student, Gabe Scheinmann, a 22-year-old from Boston, also studied Arabic at Harvard. "I was pretty annoyed by it," Scheinmann initially said in an interview, referring to a map of the Middle East in Al-Kittab, "and several other students agreed. But I didn't bring it up to my instructor."
The map - one of four in the 400-plus-page textbook - is designed to help students learn Arabic adjectives that describe nationalities (such as Italian or British).
Although the page 13 map covers a vast area - including North and Central Africa, parts of Europe and the Middle East - it designates only Arab countries for the nationalities' exercise (but not all Arab countries). Israel is shown, but without the West Bank or Gaza; the former is depicted as part of Jordan and the latter as part of Egypt.
In a subsequent interview, Scheinmann said that having re-examined the map, it doesn't appear to be overtly objectionable. "It doesn't annoy me as much now," said Scheinmann, who plans to pursue Middle Eastern studies in graduate school at Georgetown University this fall.
He emphasized that his experience in the Arabic-language class was generally positive. "As an American Jew and someone who is very pro-Israel, I never felt coerced or threatened in class," Scheinmann said. Regarding the material in the book (and the DVD), he added: "I think maybe Joel read a little bit too much into it."
A map on page 278 of Al-Kittab (part of an exercise in learning compass-point directions in Arabic) shows portions of North Africa and Southern Europe. It includes neither Israel - nor much of the Arab Middle East.
Page 389 features two historical maps of the Middle East: one pre-World War I, the other, post-World War I. Pollak said maps from that era are typically used to signal a "seminal moment in the post-colonial history of the Palestinian struggle and the Middle East. The agenda is not overt; it's very subtle."
The final map, on page 392, shows only Saudi Arabia, and no other areas of the Middle East, including Israel. Al-Kitaab was written by Kristen Brustad and Mahmoud Al-Batal, both associate professors of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, and Abbas Al-Tonsi, a professor of Arabic at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar. Attempts to reach Brustad and Al-Batal for comment were unsuccessful.
All three co-authors have made public statements critical of Israel, according to the Washington, D.C., office of the Anti-Defamation League, but the textbook itself "does not contain anti-Israel, anti-Semitic or anti-U.S. rhetoric, as some have suggested."
In a December 2001 letter to the editor that appeared in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, the ADL reported, Brustad claimed that Israel had violated international law with its "brutal, dehumanizing military occupation and confiscation of Palestinian land, home demolition and agricultural stranglehold."
In a January 2001 letter to the editor in the same publication, Al-Batal said that by "illegally occupying through military force land that belongs to others, the Israeli settlers and the politicians who support them are the ones that have no peace in their vocabulary." (In other writings, according to the ADL, "Al-Batal made it clear that he loves the United States and believes people in the Middle East understand the difference between the American government and its people.")
Al-Tonsi, meanwhile, wrote an article in the spring 2003 Transnational Broadcasting Studies Journal in which he accused Israel of "atrocities in the so-called Defensive Shield Operation and the Jenin Massacre."
In an extensive e-mail response to WJW, Al-Tonsi rejected the assertion that Al-Kitaab is a political work and argued that "... many Arabs believe in the co-existence of Israel & Palestine." Regarding "the Middle East issue," he added in part: "It seems now that some people in USA consider any ... criticism to Israel policy is anti-Israel, or even anti-Semitism. There is a tendency to reject any different views in controversial issues. That is to say frankly a new McCarthy Era. Meanwhile in Israel there are some Israeli scholars, journalists and organizations [that] have the courage to criticize oppressive policies."
Al-Tonsi said he and his co-authors "are against any war whatever the justifications are. We believe all peoples have the right to live in peace with dignity." Although Pollak criticized the approach taken by Al-Kitaab and its accompanying DVDs, he said his instructors were "not overtly political." One of those instructors, Nicola Carpentieri, said in an e-mail to WJW that "I have not felt any material contained in Al-Kitaab to be biased against Israel or the West."
He added: "Yes, there have been tensions in class on topics connected to religion and politics, but these episodes are extremely rare, and usually resolve in mutual understanding ... at least that is what I hope. I wish that learning about each other's culture and language would foster more understanding, friendship, peace."