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By Mitchell Bard

The classic definition of Arabists recognized them as people who were fluent in Arabic and had spent a great deal of time living and working in the Arab world. Many had missionary parents and grew up in the region, or had family connections to the American universities in Beirut and Cairo. Others became enthralled by the region and took an academic interest. Over the years, however, the term took on a pejorative meaning, becoming associated with diplomats who “are assumed to be politically naïve, elitist and too deferential to exotic cultures” (Robert D. Kaplan, The Arabists: The Romance of an American Elite, New York: Free Press, 1995, p. 7). Unlike the classic Arabists, those who became part of the Arab lobby often could not speak Arabic, and some had spent little or no time in the region. The quintessential Arabist, for example, was Loy Henderson, who headed the Near East Division of the State Department but spoke no Arabic and had spent only two years in the region.

As America was asked to support the Zionists in Palestine, and later the State of Israel, the Arabists became vocal opponents. Some did so because of their own anti-Semitic views, while others believed they were making politically rational calculations of America’s national interest, which sometimes appeared to outsiders as anti-Semitic because the diplomats’ views were highly critical of Zionists or Israel and solicitous of the Arabs. These Arabists are often responsible professionals who have come to the conclusion that U.S. interests are best served by distancing the United States from Israel and working closely with Arab governments, often without regard for the internal affairs of those regimes. Others, however, are motivated by a self-righteous belief that they know what is best for America, and some maintain they also have Israel’s interests at heart.

Some of the Arabists also held a view that they knew what was best for the Jews and were actually trying to help them. One of the earliest manifestations of this attitude was undersecretary of state A. A. Berle’s warning to American Zionist leader Emanuel Neumann that the Jews would suffer a horrible fate in Palestine if the Nazis conquered the area. He advised Neumann to cut a deal with ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia, renounce their claim to Palestine, and move most of the Jews to Kenya until the war ended. After the war, they would get a Vatican-like territory somewhere in Africa (Melvin Urofsky, We Are One, New York: Anchor, 1978, p. 54).

Arabists ofte argue it is important for the United States make concessions to the Arabs to win their support or prevent them from siding with our enemies. During World War II, for example, the minister in Cairo, Alexander Kirk, became concerned that the Arabs were becoming too sympathetic to the Nazis and proposed that they could be won over to the Allies by a renunciation of support for Jewish statehood. Later the Arabists warned that the Arabs would join the Soviet camp if the United States did not oppose the Zionists. Even after the United States became recognized as a superpower, it never occurred to them that America should insist that the Arab states back American interests to earn U.S. support (Peter Grose, Israel in the Mind of America, NY: Schocken Books, 1984, p. 137).

The Arabists have historically been fearful the United States would lose access to Middle Eastern oil if America supported partition and, later, strengthened ties to Israel. They have been solicitous of the oil-producing nations, especially Saudi Arabia. As early as 1945, the tone was set for the U.S.-Saudi relationship, which would contradict the dire warnings of the Arabists that America’s policy toward Zionism and Israel threatened ties with the Saudis. King Saud told Parker Hart that his disagreement with U.S. policy toward Palestine would have “no influence on his friendship with President Truman.” In fact, when Saud sent his son, Crown Prince Saud (who succeeded his father in 1953), to Washington two years later to oppose Zionism and communism and to “liberate US policy from the influence of local Jewish elements and Zionist propaganda,” Saud’s principal concern, besides a request for a $50 million loan for development, was to get reassurance that the U.S. would protect Saudi Arabia from not the Zionists but the Hashemites (Parker T. Hart, Saudi Arabia and the United States, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998, p. 42).

The establishment of Israel, its victory in the 1948 War of Independence, and U.S. recognition did little to dampen the hostility of the Arabists, who persistently tried to undo what they viewed as the mistakes of the Truman administration. In fact, career diplomat William Stoltzfus Jr. relates that “to a man, the American community in Syria and Lebanon remained opposed to the State of Israel, and some even crossed the line into anti-Semitism.”

  • The Arabists subsequently pursued a number of common themes:
  • Support for Israel weakens America’s ties with the Arab world.
  • Israel, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and/or the Palestinian issue is the root of all problems in the Middle East.
  • The United States should pursue an “evenhanded” policy; that is, shift away from support for Israel and give greater support to the Palestinians and Arab states.
  • U.S. pressure can change Israeli policy, and such leverage should be used to force Israel to capitulate to Arab demands.
  • The most important U.S. policy objective is to secure the supply of oil, and to do so, the Arabs must be placated.
  • Support for Israel allows the Soviet Union (and, later, Muslim extremists) to gain influence in the region to the detriment of U.S. interests.
  • Support for Israel provokes anti-U.S. sentiment among the peoples of the Middle East and is a cause of terror directed at Americans.
  • Israelis don’t know what is best for them, and the United States needs to save them from themselves by imposing policies that are really aimed at satisfying American interests in the Arab world.

Source: Mitchell Bard, The Arab Lobby: The Invisible Alliance That Undermines America's Interests in the Middle East, HarperCollins: 2010.