Controlling The Debate On Palestine, Israel
The last time I spoke publicly in the United States before my current tour was nearly four years ago. During this time I had travelled the world, passing my message to people in nearly 20 countries. Wherever I went, my calls for justice for the Palestinian people and for global alternatives to racism and war were well-received. However, my latest talks in the US have made me realize that the witch hunt on intellectuals that escalated rapidly since September 11, 2001 is nowhere near over.
Doubtless, the US has long served as a focal site for intellectual freedom, from which ground-breaking ideas have developed and spread throughout the world. And despite incessant attempts to circumvent this historic reality, most Americans still remain committed to their country's founding principles. It is this commitment that causes those interested in stifling undesirable viewpoints to resort to the most disingenuous tactics, half-truths and downright fabrication.
Norfolk, Virginia was the first leg of the tour for my last book, The Second Palestinian Intifada. Co-existing with the town's fourteen military bases is an energetic and hugely inspiring antiwar community. To now be able to stand among and share my views on peace and justice with these activists was a truly heartening experience for me.
At Virginia Wesleyan University, I spoke about a myriad of topics, including Palestine, Iraq, Venezuela, Nicaragua. I tend towards a cross-cultural perspective to help my audience assess their relationship to issues beyond geopolitical limitations, national arrogances and ethnocentricities.
On Palestine, I preached co-existence without prescribing any easy recipes. Instead I outlined basic prerequisites. To achieve co-existence, justice is a must, and to achieve justice, Israel needs to acknowledge its historic injustices against the Palestinian people and make a commitment to redressing them. Palestine cannot be single handedly expected to extract peace from a belligerent Israeli government that has done its utmost to undermine it.
I discussed suicide bombings in a context usually missing from mainstream discourse, trying to delineate that such heinous acts are not a lifestyle choice. One must be courageous enough to examine the roots of violence in order to eliminate it; for Palestinian violence to end, the much more costly, systematic and state-initiated Israeli violence and illegal occupation must also stop. Palestinian suffering cannot be expected to magically vanish for the sake of Israel's security. To base one nation's security on depravation of another is nothing short of illegal, irrational, and inhumane.
In my talk, I praised Palestinians for their courage in living up to the diktats of democracy, and chastised those who ensured the demise of the once promising Palestinian democratic experience, which could have served as a model for democracies in the entire region. Palestinians should not be starved and a civil war should not have been provoked to punish the Palestinian people for electing a government that insists on the respect of their people's rights. I contested that Hamas' Islamic ideas were hardly the reason behind the US-Israeli violent response to their advent, and that 'extremism' and 'moderation' are not defined based on liberal ideals, but are used to distinguish between those who are willing to serve as client regimes and those who opt otherwise. I tried to imagine a future in which Palestinians and Israelis can work together to escape the dark abyss brought about by the Israeli and US governments, stressing that such a future cannot be guaranteed with the hallow lip service to 'peace'; it requires real justice and equality.
Apparently my words did not move local Rabbi Israel Zoberman and his comrades. They attended the talk after a local Jewish newspaper highlighted the upcoming event on their front page: a 'Pro Palestinian' Journalist to speak at Virginia Wesleyan. They came armed and ready to attack my integrity before even hearing me speak. One after the other, they hijacked the questions; one alleged that in 1880 there were more Jews than Christians and Muslims in Palestine. How does one respond to such a falsehood? Another claimed that Israel has never ethnically cleansed one Palestinian. Not one? A third claimed that by trying to contextualize suicide bombings, no matter how well my intentions may be, I am justifying the horrific terrorism of 9/11. This accusation was by far the most devious. Zoberman himself accused me of being a 'Hamas sympathizer', and since Hamas is on the US State Department list of terrorist groups, well, you can do the math.
Infuriated by the fact that I refused compromise at a following event, Zoberman began a campaign of letter-writing and phoning the University and a local newspaper, describing my message as 'poisonous.' He also chastised the university for hosting my talk and demanded a change of course. The campaign of defamation is yet to end.
Although this is not my first experience of such unfair and dishonest smearing, the last few years have witnessed an increase in the Zionist attempts to curb free debate on the Middle East in this country, from such respected figures and intellectuals as Jimmy Carter and Desmond Tutu, Norman Finkelstein, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt. In short, anyone who dares question the US government's Middle East policy or even recognize the rights of the Palestinian people is a candidate for senseless attacks and (often) of accusations of anti-Semitism. Fortunately this time, I was spared of the latter.
The truth is, the greater the intimidation campaign, the more determined many US intellectuals become in exposing the destructive role that Israel has played in shaping US foreign policy. What Zionists in the US wish to overlook is the fact that some of the most ardent supporters of Palestinian rights are themselves Jewish, and that is simply because the question of justice and peace is not hostage to ethnic or religious identities. That intimidation may break the well of the weak, but the human spirit is too strong to be shattered by smearing and arm-twisting. The truth will always manage to find its way out to the people; in fact, in many respects, it already has.
Ramzy Baroud is a Palestinian-American author and editor of PalestineChronicle.com; his latest book is The Second Palestinian Intifada: A Chronicle of a People's Struggle (Pluto Press, London).