Two sides

The stories of antisemitism grow—and the waves of anti-Palestinian, anti-Arab, anti-Moslem speech are so serious that President Biden is forming a working group to address “Islamophobia.” College campuses, social media, and arguments over free speech are at the heart of it.

Is there a way out?

This morning on NPR two professors from Dartmouth College talked about it, and they had an idea. One headed up Jewish Studies on campus; the other Middle Eastern Studies. “Why,” they asked, “do we make these disciplines separate?”

Yes, I thought, the serious scholarship in so many areas of American history—in slavery and African-American history, Indigenous history, environmental history, in gender and Latino studies—is good and necessary, but we often forget to tie the strings back to our common history.

And the easy way to teach it all is to find two sides to any event or movement. The Revolutionary War pitted colonists against the English, Native tribes and foreign “helpers” getting only bit parts in the story. David McCullough scarcely mentions Tecumseh and his attempt to unite tribes from Florida to the Great Lakes and ally them with the British in the War of 1812. A recent book on John Jacob Astor and the Astorians reminds us that the fur trade was as important as were Jefferson’s yeoman farmers in the westward movement. In his Civil War in the West, Alvin Josephy tells us that the sides fought to enlist Indian allies—and that the impact on Tribes in the war years was devastating across the Plains. More recently, Daniel Sharfstein, claims that the Nez Perce War—and General O. O. Howard’s role in it, were all part of the fading days and failure of post-Civil War Reconstruction.

All of this nuance—and the opening of a broader teaching of American history has some states up in arms, and the power that some large states have in approving textbooks tempers the stories that get told. In American history, the cat is out of the bag, and serious scholars will no longer be able to ignore Indians, freed slaves, and the waves of colonists and immigrants who’ve shaped the nation. But it will, especially in Florida and Texas, be a messy business.

Teaching Jewish history and Middle Eastern history together, or side by side, would be messy too. But how liberating to watch the religions of Abraham rise in the Fertile Crescent, and to follow the roles of the Zoroastrians and Manicheans as they work the same soil and come up with different answers.

I took an upper division college course in the History of Modern Europe years ago, but did not learn much about the Eastern Front of WW I until Lawrence of Arabia came to the screen. And it wasn’t until I spent years in Turkey that I learned that there are Arab Christians, that Zoroastrianism influences the modern Yezidis; learned that Persian is an Indo-European language, Hebrew and Arabic are both Semitic languages, that Syriac is Aramaic, and that Turkish has its roots in Central Asia.

When I listened to the two professors from Dartmouth, I thought about my own limited knowledge of the “Holy Land,” of the Arabs, Jews, Druze, Yezidis, Turkic Peoples, of Shiite and Sunni Moslems, Syrian Orthodox, Roman and Chaldean Catholic Christians that share that small hunk of land. I remembered meeting Jews in Iran and in Turkey, where I also met the Dönmeh, Jews who had converted to Islam over 300 years ago.

And then I thought about the Nez Perce. I could print Chief Young Joseph’s entire Washington D. C. speech of 1879—made after the Nez Perce War, after a year of captivity in Kansas and Oklahoma Indian Territory—or I could choose a few of the fine words from that day. They all seem to apply to the hopeless situation Israel, Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon and, increasingly, peoples in neighboring countries and in our own find ourselves in. Can we all forget for a moment our differences, our words of hate and vengeance; Can we take a step back and listen to his simple plea?

“Let me be a free man—free to travel, free to stop, free to work, free to trade where I choose, free to choose my own teachers, free to follow the religion of my fathers, free to think and talk and act for myself—and I will obey every law or submit to the penalty. Whenever the white man treats the Indian as they treat each other, then we will have no more wars. We shall all be alike—brothers of one father and one mother, with one sky above us and one country around us, and one government for all. Then the Great Spirit Chief who rules above will smile upon this land, and send rain to wash out the bloody spots made by brothers’ hands from the face of the earth. For this time the Indian race is waiting and praying.”

# # #


  1. Thank you, Rich, for sharing your thoughts. Wise words will guide us toward healing in a troubling world…

  2. Thank you all for commenting, and for trying to think through these difficult times. I believe that there are always answers to current problems hidden in the past–if we would just pay more attention.

Leave a Reply