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Saudi influence lurks in educational materials

By JTA Staff report

October 28th, 2005

New York (JTA) — In thousands of public school districts across the United States, taxpayers pay to disseminate pro-Islamic materials that are anti-American, anti-Israel and anti-Jewish.

Often bypassing school boards and nudging aside approved curricula, teaching programs funded by Saudi Arabia are making their way into elementary and secondary school classrooms.

These teachings enter school systems with the help of a federal program, Title VI of the Higher Education Act, which is now up for renewal.

Expert analyses of these materials have found them to be full of inaccuracies, bias and proselytizing. They also have found that many history and social studies textbooks used in schools across the country are highly critical of democratic institutions and forgiving of repressive ones.

These materials praise and sometimes promote Islam, but criticize Judaism and Christianity and are filled with false assertions.

Most taxpayers don’t know they’re paying — at the federal, state and local levels — for the public schools to use these materials.

A year-long investigation by JTA reveals for the first time how Saudi influence is penetrating the American classrooms of young children. The investigation uncovers the complex path by which biased textbooks and supplementary teaching materials creep into U.S. public schools.

Saudi influence enters the classrooms in three ways. The first is through teacher-training seminars that provide teachers with graduate or continuing-education credits.

The second is through the dissemination of supplementary teaching materials designed and distributed with Saudi support. Such materials flood the educational system and are available online.

The third is through textbooks paid for by taxpayers, some of them vetted by activists with Saudi ties who advise major textbook companies about the books’ Islamic, Arab, Palestinian, Israeli and Middle Eastern content.

Ironically, what gives credibility to the dissemination of these materials is Title VI of the Higher Education Act, a federal program enacted in 1958 in part to train international experts to meet the nation’s security needs.

Under Title VI, select universities get federal funding and prestigious designation as national resource centers for the study of places and languages the government deems vital for meeting global challenges.

Eighteen of these centers are for the study of the Middle East. Each receives an average of about $500,000 per year.

The taxpayer-supported grants are worth at least 10 times that amount in their ability to garner university support and attract outside funding, proponents of Title VI say.

As part of its federal mandate, each center assigns an outreach coordinator to extend its expertise to the community and to school-age children in kindergarten through 12th grade.

Outreach usually includes workshops, guest speakers, books, pamphlets and whole syllabuses and curricula broken down into teaching modules, with instruction booklets for teachers, and sometimes visual aids such as films.

While some school district officials are unaware of the material reaching their teachers and classrooms, others welcome it.

Subtle references

The “Arab World Studies Notebook” is one example. First published in 1990 as the “Arab World Notebook,” the manual was updated to its current form in 1998. The newer publication was created as the joint project of two organizations, both of which receive Saudi funding.

Some of its references are subtle, critics say, making them all the more harmful. For example, the manual:

• Denigrates the Jews’ historical connection to Jerusalem. One passage, on the Old City, says: “the Jerusalem that most people envisage when they think of the ancient city, is Arab. Surrounding it are ubiquitous high-rises built for Israeli settlers to strengthen Israeli control over the holy city.”

• Suggests that Jews have undue influence on U.S. foreign policy. Referring to President Harry Truman’s support of the 1947 United Nations resolution to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, it says: “The questions of Jewish lobbying and its impact on Truman’s decision with regard to American recognition — and indeed, the whole question of defining American interests and concerns — is well worth exploring.”

• Suggests that the Koran “synthesizes and perfects earlier revelations,” meaning those ascribed to by Christians and Jews.

• Leaves out any facts and figures about the State of Israel in its country-by-country section, but refers only to Palestine.

One of the groups involved in the publication is the Berkeley, Calif.- based Arab World and Islamic Resources (www.awairon line.org). It was founded in 1990 with funding from organizations that include Saudi Aramco, a Saudi government-owned oil company.

The editor of the notebook is Audrey Shabbas, AWAIR’s founder. Saudi Aramco World, the publication of Saudi Aramco, features pieces praising Shabbas and her teacher-training materials.

The second organization involved is the Middle East Policy Council of Washington, which helps print and disseminate the 500-page manual of essays, lesson plans and primary sources.

The MEPC lists the manual as the primary resource material for its teacher-training program. It employs Shabbas to conduct training and seminars.

According to the group’s Web site (www.mepc.org), more than 16,000 educators have attended its workshops in 175 cities in 43 states. The manual itself claims to have reached 25 million students.

The council is headed by Charles Freeman Jr., a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia; and it gets direct funding from Saudi Arabia.

In an interview, the council’s acting director, Jon Roth, declined to specify how much money his group gets from Riyadh, but made clear that he is seeking much more.
In September, Roth visited Saudi Arabia to meet with Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz al Saud, a member of the royal family who owns Kingdom Holding Company, one of the world’s wealthiest companies.

“Our hope and expectation is millions” from the Saudi prince, who initiated the meeting after hearing about the teaching program, Roth said. He said his group’s annual budget is $750,000.

The council’s board of directors includes executives from companies with huge financial stakes in Saudi Arabia, including Boeing, ExxonMobil Saudi Arabia, the Carlyle Group and the Saudi Binladin Group.

Sandra Stotsky, a former senior associate commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Education, is one of a growing number of critics of the “Arab World Studies Notebook.”

It is one of the examples she cites in a study, “The Stealth Curriculum: Manipulating America’s History Teachers,” about supplemental teaching materials.

The problem with many of those materials, which are most often distributed through teacher training workshops, “is the ideological mission of the organizations that create them,” she said in her study, published last year by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a Washington-based think tank on education.

In an interview with JTA, Stotsky called the notebook “a piece of propaganda.”

The American Jewish Committee issued a report on the manual earlier this year, called “Propaganda, Proselytizing, and Public Education: A Critique of the Arab World Studies Notebook.”

The report said the publication “is a text that appears largely designed to advance the anti-Israel and propagandistic views of the Notebook’s sponsors … to an audience of teachers who may not have the resources and knowledge to assess this text critically.”

Shabbas, in the introduction to the manual, says AWAIR’s mission is to counter the “rampant negative stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims held by most Americans.”

In an interview with JTA, Shabbas said the goal of the notebook is “to establish a basis for understanding the Middle East” by examining the largest of the groups that live there — the Arabs.

Responding to criticism about the Truman and Jewish lobbying passage, she said everything in the manual comes from the Arab and Muslim point of view: “If you go out anywhere in the Arab world, you’re likely to hear that view” of the U.N. partition and Jewish influence.

“Most textbooks merely tell people the U.N. voted for partition and the Arabs rejected it,” she said. She added that American students need to “delve into why people do what they do; what are their values.”

She also noted that the publication directs students to solicit other perspectives from various groups, including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the American Jewish Committee.

Roth of the Middle East Policy Council dismissed the critics of the notebook as “cranks.”

In an interview, Roth said Israel is “a big topic” for the council, but added, “The council does not take a position on Israel’s existence. The council does not take positions at all.”

Criticism also has come lately from parents offended by what their children are learning. Parental pressure led to the manual being banned in school districts in Tulsa, Okla., and Anchorage.

The AJCommittee issued a public warning “urging school districts across the nation” not to use the manual.

JTA Editor Lisa Hostein and correspondent Sue Fishkoff in California were among the contributors to this report.