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Karen Armstrong's Unscholarly Prejudices

Among the stable of extreme pro-Palestinian advocates, count a new media favorite. Karen Armstrong, author of articles and books, including a strikingly anti-Jewish volume entitled Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths, is a British ex-nun who defines herself as a "freelance monotheist." Her Op-Eds are published widely, including in the New York Times, and she is a frequent guest on National Public Radio.

While her writings on Jerusalem reflect detailed knowledge of religious history, they also underscore the potent effects of personal bias on scholarship. Armstrong is both an unwavering advocate for the Arab view of the political contest underway in the Middle East and an effusive promoter of Islam and its peoples' historical conduct.

Pervasive negative characterizations of Judaism - and Christianity to a lesser extent - also color much of her argument and narrative. For example, while she warmly describes what she calls the "inclusive notion of holiness" in Islam, the humane attitudes of the Qur'an and the benign expansion of the religion, she deplores the so-called "separations and exclusions" of Judaism, as exemplified by dietary laws, Shabbat and regulations regarding who could and could not enter the ancient Temple.

Armstrong routinely omits or obscures contradictory information, such as the total "exclusion" of all non-Muslims from Islam's holiest city of Mecca.

Similarly, she omits or obscures information that points to unique Jewish attachment to Jerusalem. Thus the millennia-old daily expressions of devotion to Jerusalem by religious Jews, the holidays revering Jerusalem and the more than 600 references to the city in the Bible are unmentioned.

Yet evidently seeking to rebut such unassailable measures of attachment she writes in an article in the Journal of Palestine Studies that, "The city is not mentioned explicitly in the Torah, the first five most sacred books of the Bible. The first time the city is specifically mentioned in the Bible, it appears as enemy territory. Jerusalem did not figure in Israelite religion until King David conquered it from the Jebusites some three thousand years ago."

Armstrong is particularly popular with Arab-American groups promoting harshly anti-Israel agendas. The Muslim Public Affairs Council of Los Angeles gave her an award for "fairness." Typical of the assertions that endear her to such groups is her criticism of Israel in the same Journal essay, in which she wrote:

A city cannot be holy if it is not ruled with justice. Expropriating land, torturing, destroying property, threatening other people's holy places, ejecting people from their ancestral homes, and depriving them of essential human rights cannot be justified...

No, this is not a characterization of the Arab occupation of East Jerusalem from 1948 to 1967, its dispossession of the Jews and destruction of their property and holy places. It is an Orwellian gloss on the Israeli presence in the city as a reign of inequity which "cannot be justified in Jewish tradition by the overriding sanctity of Jerusalem, because holiness is also and inescapably a moral imperative to justice."

Armstrong's Jerusalem book too is filled with such manipulative, biased and inaccurate claims, its chapters on the founding of modern Israel being especially strident. The early years of Zionism are described almost entirely from the vantage of the Arabs, with a constant defense of Arab actions and a minimizing of Arab violence against the Jews. Thus the Arab riots of 1929 include a cryptic line about Jewish casualties without any specifics about the slaughter of Jews in their homes and the widespread burning and looting of Jewish property in the city and suburbs. Armstrong omits entirely the Arab massacre of Hebron's Jews.

In her account of the late 1930's, the author is openly sympathetic to the Arabs wanting to keep Jews fleeing Hitler's death camps out of Palestine. She writes: "[The Arabs] asked why they should suffer the loss of their country because of the anti-Semitic crimes of Europe. It was an entirely valid and unanswerable question."

Errors litter the account. Armstrong writes that, "On 13 April the Arabs attacked a convoy carrying Irgun terrorists, who had been wounded at Deir Yassin, to the Mount Scopus Medical Center, killing forty innocent Jewish medical staff." In fact, the convoy included just one man from the Irgun injured at Deir Yassin, and seventy-eight Jewish medical staff were killed.

Later she writes that "On 16 March 1949, Israel and Jordan signed a formal agreement accepting the armistice lines as the legitimate borders between their two states." On the contrary, Jordan, like all the Arab states, refused to recognize any cease-fire lines with Israel as legitimate borders.

The author writes that UN Resolution 242 required Israel to "withdraw from the territories it had occupied during the Six Day War...But most of the Israelis and many Jews in the Diaspora had been caught up in their new passion for sacred space and could not recognize the validity of these resolutions."

Resolution 242 does not, of course, require Israel to withdraw from "the" territories. The extent of withdrawal was undetermined, and to be settled in negotiation.

In contrast to Armstrong's omitting entirely any sympathetic reference to the 1948 Arab siege of Jerusalem in which the Jews fought heroically, she writes that in 1967 the Jordanians - then occupying the eastern portion of the city - "did their best [against Israel] - two hundred died in defense of the Holy City..."

The author's hostility toward Israel and Jews is unabashed in innumerable pejorative statements. She asserts that "Israel's claim to [Jerusalem] is dubious." She repeatedly refers to Jewish attachment to Jerusalem resting on "myths and legends" and "cult." She reiterates throughout her writings the theme that the Jews, victims of European bigotry, had, "in their desperate quest for survival, fatally injured another people."

Of Moshe Dayan's extraordinary move after the Six Day War of 1967 in permitting Muslim control to continue on the Temple Mount, the Islamic Haram al-Sharif, Armstrong writes: "The Israeli government has never retreated from this policy, which shows that the Zionist conquerors were not entirely without respect for the sacred rights of their predecessors in Jerusalem."

Needless to say, Armstrong does not contrast Israel's action to Palestinian officials and clerics, who disparage entirely the sacred rights of the Jews in Jerusalem.

It is impossible to know whether Armstrong's animus against Judaism led to her pro-Palestinian sympathies or her enthusiasm for Islam led to her anti-Jewish and anti-Israel biases. In any case, the virulence of her writing clearly demonstrates Martin Luther King's equation of anti-Zionism and anti-Jewish bias. It is a sad commentary that her work is given a respect withheld from purveyors of other prejudices.

Andrea Levin is President of CAMERA - PO Box 428, Boston, MA, 02456-0428.

Copyright 2001 by the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America. All rights reserved. This column may be reprinted without prior permission.