The Middle East-Studies Ban

In 1983, another ethnic-studies program was in TUSD's crosshairs

When Republican Gabriela Saucedo Mercer's now-infamous comments describing "Middle Easterners" as "those people" whose "only goal in life is to cause harm to the United States" were revealed, her opponent, Rep. Raul Grijalva, spared no indignation in his response.

"This is reckless hate speech," he said in an Aug. 28 statement, "and I call on everyone who has endorsed Gabriela Mercer to withdraw their support immediately."

Ironically enough, Grijalva once targeted Middle Eastern cultures himself.

In 1983, he sat on the Tucson Unified School District board, which in effect sanctioned the termination of a Middle East-studies outreach program (and the banning of its books), designed for district teachers by the University of Arizona's Near Eastern Center, due to allegations of "anti-Israel, pro-Arab" bias.

In a report to the district, the TUSD compliance officer, Sylvia Campoy, recommended the program's elimination and book-banning. In remarks published by the Arizona Daily Star on Sept. 16, 1983, Campoy justified the move by saying that "the Israeli government apparently was not contacted for materials." Since the Near Eastern Center failed to consult a foreign government, the program therefore promoted a "significant bias ... of a decisively anti-Israel and pro-Arab character," in the words of Campoy's report.

The Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona, which led the local campaign against the program, was supported nationally by the Anti-Defamation League and American Jewish Committee. The federation pointed to a so-called conspiracy of "Arabists" allegedly in control of U.S.-based oil companies Mobil and Exxon, accused of influencing Middle East centers on university campuses across the country.

"I call it the buying of America," said TUSD board member Eva Bacal at the Oct. 18, 1983, board meeting.

The program materials that TUSD barred from district classrooms included a series of books, bibliographies, pamphlets, resource guides and teacher handbooks covering Middle East history and cultures, as well as maps, videos and a novel entitled My Enemy, My Brother.

One area of materials that critics found among the most objectionable were maps of the Middle East used in TUSD classrooms, and in a history course for TUSD teachers. "Israel was notably absent" on one map, wrote Carol Karsch in a 1985 report submitted to a U.S. Congressional committee on behalf of the Jewish Federation. A TUSD parent told the school board in October 1983 that in class, her son "was shown a map that eliminated the presence of Israel in the Middle East."

"Of course the map didn't have Israel on it," social-studies teacher Eileen Scott told the Arizona Daily Star, "because the map was of the Ottoman Empire, and Israel wasn't part of the Ottoman Empire."

Scott was "mystified by the charges" of anti-Israel bias against the program: "I keep thinking maybe we're talking about completely different programs. I haven't seen anything like what they're complaining about."

Scott described a short video presentation during the course on the newly declared Israeli state in 1948 that "was very fair and very balanced." In fact, after the course was over, "I had the same pro-Israeli feelings I had before I took the course," which "raised no questions in my mind on Israel's right to exist," she said.

In July and August, 1983, UA President Henry Koffler launched two independent inquiries of the Near Eastern Center to investigate the charges of bias. The first phase was conducted by a blue-ribbon panel of Middle East-studies experts chosen equally by the Jewish Federation and the Near Eastern Center. UA law professor Charles Ares handled the second phase.

The results were released days after TUSD announced its ban. The panel of experts declared there was "no systematic pattern of bias" in the program materials.

The ban strikingly resembles TUSD's cancelation of Mexican-American studies 29 years later. The Middle East-studies program was stigmatized by its alleged "highly political nature," in Campoy's words.

I spoke to Grijalva about the matter, and the first thing he mentioned was the outlawed Mexican-American studies program. "It reminded me that this isn't the first time the district has dealt with book-banning or the elimination of courses," he said.

"The issue was difficult in many ways," Grijalva remembered. "Some of us who instinctively felt that (canceling the program) was a complete overreach (were) grasping for information to counterweigh the arguments we were hearing."

Today, Grijalva recognizes an atmosphere of "timidity" in the face of forces organized against the program. Those forces, he said, proved to be too overwhelming. Since TUSD officials, including those in the compliance office, had all "labeled the program anti-Semitic, stereotyping Israel and questioning its existence," he said, the claims won considerable credibility.

While Grijalva and his colleagues won a battle to save the teachers' salary increments (and possibly their jobs), which had been threatened in an earlier proposal, the banning of the program remained.

Campoy and Bacal did not return requests for comment.

Unlike Mercer, whose prejudice was confined to words, Grijalva's part in the 1983 policy decision had actual repercussions, including the resignations of the Near Eastern Center's director and outreach coordinator.

Longtime Tucson resident and representative of the Tucson chapter of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee, Mohyeddin Abdulaziz, vividly remembers the TUSD ban. However, Abdulaziz doesn't begrudge Grijalva for his part in the decision.

"Grijalva is much more progressive now," Abdulaziz said. "At that time, there was not much information available about the Middle East or Arabs." He said that Grijalva fell victim to the Jewish Federation, which led the charge that assailed the program. Grijalva's voting record in Congress over the past decade supports Abdulaziz's defense of him.

What is important now, Abdulaziz said, is learning from the mistake. "I think Raul has learned that lesson. I think he is the kind of leader that we need at this critical stage in our history."

Nearly 30 years later, Grijalva regrets the matter. "It's the ignorance of history that gets us in trouble," Grijalva said. "If I had the argument to present again, it would have been much different. But that's hindsight, and my own maturation, and time—and me getting smarter," he said.

"It was a good program," Grijalva says now. "It was presenting a history and a contemporary look at a region of the world that is now at the point of a spear."

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