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Content: The Middle East

Mr. Zimmerman standing in front of a map of the Middle East.Geography and History
The Middle East is the region where the continents of Africa, Asia, and Europe come together. The term Middle East was first widely used by the British after World War I to refer to Turkey and the Arab portions of the region formerly known as the Near East. Today the Middle East consists of Turkey, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, Israel, Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Yemen, the United Arab Emirates, and North Africa (Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco).

The Middle East is actually a Western construct based on colonial influence during the twentieth century. Many countries in the Middle East did not exist as states before they were carved out by Western imperialism in the twentieth century. Most of the Arab world was part of the Ottoman Empire.

After World War I, many Arabs hoped that the areas in which they lived would become independent states. Instead, the region was carved into areas controlled by the British and French. The French were given control of Lebanon and Syria, and the British controlled Iraq, Egypt, Transjordan (later Jordan), and Palestine.

Palestine became a British mandate (similar to a colony), with Jews and Arabs living side by side. British authorities tried to balance Jewish immigration to the region (considered by Jews to be their historic homeland) with the interests of the indigenous Palestinian population. But as more and more Jews moved there, particularly during and after the Nazi Holocaust in Europe, opposition among Arabs grew.

In 1948, the United Nations supported a British plan for the partition of Palestine west of the Jordan River into separate areas occupied by the Arabs and the Jews. As soon as British troops left Palestine, the state of Israel was declared. In response, neighboring Arab states sent troops to crush Israel. During the ensuing war, about 650,000 Palestinians were displaced and moved to refugee camps in Gaza, the West Bank, and neighboring Arab states. Political tensions over Palestine have continued in the region, including the Six Day War in 1967, the Yom Kippur War in 1973, and two intifadas (uprisings) by Palestinians.

About two-thirds of the world's known reserves of oil are located in the Middle East. This geological discovery became a vital economic and political asset to countries in the region only after World War II, when the consumption of petroleum in the U.S. and Europe increased dramatically. In short, rival claims to disputed territory, religious and ethnic differences, and competition over petroleum, water, and other resources continue to fuel conflict in the Middle East.

Major Religions of the Middle East
The Middle East is the birthplace of three major religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, all of which have ties to the city of Jerusalem. The following is a brief description of each religion, in chronological order.

Student standing in front of student work on a wall.Judaism is the faith of the ancient Hebrews and their descendants, the Jews. The Hebrews were a nomadic Semite people; that is, Hebrew is a member of the Semitic language family, which also includes Arabic and Aramaic. Judaism was the first major religion to teach monotheism, the belief that there is only one God. The story of the Hebrews is written in the first five books of the Bible, called the Torah. According to the Torah, Abraham and his sons Isaac and Jacob received a revelation of the one true God. Also found in the Torah is the account of God's promise to Abraham that if the Hebrews worshipped and obeyed God, they and their descendants would always live in Canaan (part of Syria and Palestine).

Zionism is the Jewish nationalist movement that began in Europe as a reaction to European anti-Semitism. The goal of Zionism was the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. Persecution of Jews in Europe -- from the medieval period through nineteenth-century pogroms, from the Holocaust (which claimed the lives of six million Jews during World War II) to Soviet oppression -- led many Jews to emigrate to Palestine from the late nineteenth century on. Many Jews also came from non-European lands, including Iraq, Egypt, Morocco, Yemen, Ethiopia, and other countries. Some radical Zionists also believe that the West Bank (the land between Israel and Jordan and occupied by Israel during the 1967 war) is part of the land promised by God to the Jews.

Christianity is the monotheistic religion of the followers of Jesus Christ and began as an offshoot of Judaism in the first century C.E. Christians believe that Jesus is the messiah that has been promised to them in the Old Testament. The teachings of Christianity are found in the New Testament of the Bible. The Middle East is significant for Christians not only because of its Jewish heritage, but also because Jesus was born in Palestine and preached throughout the region.

The Bible includes an account of the visit of Jesus and his disciples to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover, the holiday associated with the exodus of the Jews from Egypt. The account details Jesus' arrest and execution in Jerusalem. After Jesus' death, his followers formed the first Christian community in Jerusalem. Christianity spread in the first century from Palestine into countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea and is now practiced by peoples throughout the world.

Islam continues the monotheistic tradition of Judaism and Christianity. The revelation of the Koran (Quran) by God (Allah) to the prophet Muhammad in the seventh century confirmed the monotheistic message of earlier prophets, including Abraham, Moses, Solomon, David, and Jesus. A poor member of a powerful tribe, Muhammad was a merchant who traveled from Mecca to Syria on caravans. He married his employer, a widow named Khadija, and began to receive revelations in 610 A.D. However, the ruling elite felt threatened by his reformist, monotheistic message, and Muhammad and his followers were forced to move to Yathrib, later called Medina.

Jerusalem is sacred to Muslims (followers of Islam) because, according to Islamic tradition, that was the last place on earth Muhammad touched on his mysterious night journey into heaven.. Muhammad was able to unite the tribes of Arabia under the banner of Islam before his death, and the new Islamic state expanded very rapidly in the century after his death, reaching all the way from Spain to Central Asia. Rich, multi-cultural, classic Islamic civilization made contributions in science, mathematics, medicine, philosophy, literature, art, and architecture.

Teaching Strategy: Using Hypothetical Situations and Analogies
Students discussing their work.Political and religious conflicts can be difficult concepts for middle school students to grasp. One way to help them understand complex subjects is to use hypothetical situations and analogies that they can relate to. For example, asking students to explain why one academic subject is more important than another, or why one sibling should receive a larger inheritance than another, gives them insight into the problems facing the people living in the Middle East, namely, which religion is the "right" one and who deserves to live in and control Palestine.

Hypothetical situations and analogies are not meant to be used as a direct representation or an oversimplification of a larger, more complex issue. Rather, they are a way to get students to identify competing claims, consider the validity of different points of view, and practice the fine art of conflict resolution.

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