Boston University’s Irene Gendzier on Oil, Israel, and ‘Palestine’

Is the U.S.-Israel alliance really all about oil?

There is a certain class of academic for whom historical references to oil become a clarion call to rise up, denounce, and publish. A recent book talk proved the point. Rashid Khalidi, Columbia University’s Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies, pronounced himself “lucky” to have previewed the work of the speaker, Irene Gendzier, professor emerita in the department of political science at Boston University:

She has … discovered things that those of us who thought we knew something about Palestine often found a revelation.

High praise from the former PLO spokesman for Gendzier’s new book, Dying to Forget, Oil, Power, Palestine and the Foundations of U.S. Policy in the Middle East. A mix of students, colleagues, friends of the author, and the public totaling about forty-five squeezed into a tight space on the second floor of a bookstore near Columbia.

Gendzier began by lamenting the recent ISIS attack on Paris, only to pivot to the upheaval currently overwhelming the Middle East:

[W]hat about all the other events taking place? What about Beirut? What about Yemen? What about Iraq? What about Syria? Why are we selective? The selectivity of the mourning comes with something more… . A kind of indifference about … “the deaths of others.”… [T]he terrible despair that comes from those that are permanently uprooted and displaced, and exist nowhere as a result of wars. We seem not to think about them.

This welling of empathy for ongoing conflicts, confined to countries where the Arab world is battling itself and creating new refugees, allowed her to invoke the manufactured refugee crisis of the post-WWII Palestinians. Tellingly, she made no mention at this point to the Jews of the Middle East or Europe, notoriously uprooted and displaced following WWII. It was an early predictor for the lack of objectivity she displayed throughout the talk.   

From 1945-1948, Gendzier contended, there was a stable policy in place among the “very, very few people who constituted the special experts” in the U.S. State Department regarding the evolving situation in Palestine. The underlying question was how the U.S. moved from what she viewed as a favorable approach to the nascent Arab-Israeli conflict, with strong, repeated support for the Palestinians, to the beginning of a relationship between the U.S. and Israel that ostensibly left the Palestinians behind. What tipped the status quo?

To answer, Gendzier turned to Saudi oil and its significance for the region. “Oil is a weapon of war,” she announced in stentorian tones, recounting its importance in implementing successful U.S. foreign policy, including both the Marshall plan and the Far East. Because of its key role, the CIA feared that U.S. support for Partition would “alienate Arab [oil] producers.”  Eventually, however, the Americans realized they “had the whole thing reversed”:  

If the dependence was reversed … then what was the basis of the fear?  There was none.  It was fear based on misunderstanding.  The correct understanding was that … Arab oil-producing regions were dependent on U.S. companies for the production, transport, and sale of their oil.

In other words, instead of deferring to Saudi interests to maintain American regional dominance, as U.S. policy makers had initially done, they were free to pursue their own interests. Left unspoken—and it would certainly weaken her argument—was the corollary: the aforementioned pro-Palestinian policy positions were constructed with a view to pleasing the Saudis so as to strengthen U.S. oil interests. Was she afraid that oil would taint the Palestinian position?

Gendzier recounted that Truman ended by supporting Israeli independence, despite tremendous opposition from his secretaries of state, defense and his Joint Chiefs of Staff.  However, it was only in 1949, the year following Israel’s victory against her Arab adversaries, that the U.S. formulated a policy to ally with Israel. The rapidity of this complete turnaround initially “shocked her,” she admitted.

During the question and answer period, when Gendzier was speaking more loosely, she revealed that Israel’s military prowess had an impact on U.S. administrators:

So even though the disparity in numbers [between opposing sides] was extraordinary, let’s face it, [the Israelis were] the only ones with discipline, with training, with the sense of a goal.

Her withering tones rendered nefarious a simple fact: Israeli competence drew the attention of U.S. policy makers, who saw it as extremely useful for American positioning in the Middle East. Thus, at this time of strong realpolitik, a closer relationship between the U.S. and Israel was initiated. 

No discussion of this period by today’s academic apologists for Arab terror would be complete without mention of “Jewish terrorists,” and Gendzier was no exception:

U.S. officials were very impressed by the fact that the different Jewish militias, that identified as terrorist groups, the Irgun and Lehi, that they were capable of committing all kinds of acts that were tentatively disavowed by the Haganah, but then, in point of fact, were accepted; that they violated various truce agreements without any repercussions. They seemed, in some rude way, to get away with it.

By implication, she viewed both Israel and America, which she described as remaining “in the shadow of Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” as terrorist states. Meanwhile, she omitted any malfeasance on the Arab side.

Despite the veil of historical objectivity, Gendzier’s prejudices were evident. Throughout the talk, she distanced herself from the Israelis, while expressing unequivocal empathy for the Palestinians. She referred to Jews in Israel as “Zionists”—a term that has taken on a demeaning connotation among her academic cohort—or as outsiders, in contrast to the ostensibly indigenous Palestinians. For instance, “The discussion is of a political conflict among incompatible groups: one, the people who live in the land, the other is the Zionist Movement.”

This hardly painted a balanced picture, but it was clear she was not interested in balance, but in redressing what Middle East studies practitioners view as a primordial sin committed against Palestinians by the alliance between the U.S. and Israel. Be it oil or Zionism, for such scholars, a hidden, immoral reason for the strong U.S.-Israeli alliance must be uncovered and condemned. Under such an academic regime, objective scholarship is an impediment to the further politicization of the discipline.

Mara Schiffren, who has a Ph.D. from Harvard University in the Study of Religion, is currently working on a book about historical Israel. She wrote this essay for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.