Banning Dissent in the Name of Civility
I had been invited to talk next April 3 at the University of Pennsylvania at a peace conference sponsored by the International Affairs Association, but last week after Truthdig published my column “ISIS—the New Israel” the lecture agency that set up the event received this email from Zachary Michael Belnavis, who is part of the student group:
We’re sorry to inform you that we don’t think that Chris Hedges would be a suitable fit for our upcoming peace conference. We’re saying this in light of a recent article he’s written in which he compares the organization ISIS to Israel (here’s the article in question). In light of this comparison we don’t believe he would be suitable to a co-existence speaker based on this stance he’s taken.
Being banned from speaking about the conflict between Israel and Palestine, especially at universities, is familiar to anyone who attempts to challenge the narrative of the Israel lobby. This is not the first time one of my speaking offers has been revoked and it will not be the last. However, the charge of Belnavis and the International Affairs Association that I do not believe in coexistence between the Palestinians and Israel is false. I oppose violence by either party. I have condemned Hamas rocket attacks as war crimes. And I support Israel’s right to exist within the pre-1967 borders. The charge that I oppose coexistence cannot be substantiated by anything I have said or written. And those of us who call on Israel to withdraw to the pre-1967 borders are, after all, only demanding what is required by international law and numerous U.N. resolutions.
But truth, along with an open and fair debate, is the last thing the Israel lobby and its lackeys seek. The goal is to silence students, faculty members and outside speakers who do not read from the approved script. The decades-long persecution of the courageous scholar Norman Finkelstein, which has included repeatedly successful campaigns by the Israel lobby to get him removed from university teaching positions, is accompanied by efforts to discredit fearless writers on Israel such as Max Blumenthal, the author of “Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel.” Finkelstein, the son of Holocaust survivors, and Blumenthal are Jews. And Jews who demand justice for the Palestinians—Jews often make up sizable parts of college groups such as Students for Justice in Palestine—are attacked with a particular vindictiveness by propagandists for Israel.
Our universities, like our corporate-controlled airwaves, are little more than echo chambers for the elites and the powerful. The bigger and more prestigious the university the more it seems determined to get its students and faculty to chant in unison to please its Zionist donors. Student groups that resist are often banned, as has happened to numerous chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine, including one at Northeastern University. Some are denied meeting spaces, and at times student activists are prohibited from participating in any campus student organizations—even those that have nothing to do with the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Many students have been made to attend re-education seminars run by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). Criticism of Israel is equated with anti-Semitism.
I spent seven years in the Middle East as a foreign correspondent, five of them as the Middle East bureau chief for The New York Times. I speak Arabic. I was frequently in Gaza and lived for two years in Jerusalem. What frightens the Israel lobby is not my critique, but my expertise. It is impossible to spew out the usual Israeli propaganda, half-truths, distortions and lies—as retired Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz once tried to do when he and I appeared at a Columbia University event—to someone who has spent years in the Middle East reporting on the conflict. What the Israel lobby fears most are facts.
The struggle by students, including some at the University of Pennsylvania, to bolster the nonviolent boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, which I support, has been met by fierce internal resistance on campuses across the country. A national BDS conference in 2012 at the University of Pennsylvania, which to the university’s credit the school administrators permitted, saw the usual outpouring of venom and character assassination. The attacks included a letter to The Daily Pennsylvanian newspaper from professor Ruben Gur of the departments of psychiatry, radiology and neurology. Gur called the BDS movement a “hateful genocidal organization” and accused it of being anti-Semitic. He said the student organizers were concealing “Hamas and Hizballah daggers” and referred to Omar Barghouti’s book “Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions: the Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights” as the organizers’ “version of ‘Mein Kampf.’ ” He said groups in the BDS movement were similar to those “organized by the Nazis in the 1930’s to boycott, divest and sanction Jews and their businesses.” He compared Jewish students who support the movement to “Capos in the extermination camps.”
The University of Pennsylvania’s Hillel chapter has hosted speakers such as Daniel Pipes and Nonie Darwish who peddle disturbing racist stereotypes of Muslims and justify indiscriminate violence against Muslims. The chapter once organized a university talk by the right-wing extremist Effi Eitam, a former Israeli military commander. Eitam, infamous for personally overseeing and taking part in brutal and sometimes deadly beatings of Palestinians in the occupied territories when he was in the military, declared in a 2004 article in The New Yorker that Palestinians were “creatures who came out of the depths of darkness” and he branded the Palestinian people as “collectively guilty.” “We will have to kill them all,” he said of those with “the evil in their heads.”
The political science department of the University of Pennsylvania, along with Hillel, invited Dershowitz to attack the BDS movement in a 2012 lecture titled “Why Israel Matters to You, Me, and Penn: A Conversation With Alan Dershowitz.”
Dershowitz has called on Israel to use bulldozers to demolish entire Palestinian villages, rather than individual houses, in retaliation for Palestinian terrorist attacks, although collective punishment violates international law. In another context he defends the use of torture and proposes methods that include shoving a “sterilized needle underneath the nail.” He lambastes as an anti-Semite nearly everyone who has criticized the Israeli state; he once said “there is a special place in hell” for former President Jimmy Carter and that South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu is “one of the most evil men in the world.”
When Dershowitz spoke at Penn in 2012, David Cohen, the chairman of the university board of trustees and executive vice president of Comcast Corp., read to the audience a letter written for the occasion by the school’s president, Amy Gutmann, who was in California at the time. In the letter Gutmann praised Dershowitz and castigated the BDS movement, saying “Penn is blessed to have one of the largest and most active Hillel chapters in the country. And we are unwavering in our support of the Jewish state. Let me say it in the clearest possible words: we do not support the goals of BDS.”
The code word that the Israel lobby and its facilitators at universities use to silence critics is “civility.” Israel supporters are permitted to spout hate and calls for indiscriminate violence against Palestinians. Critics of Israel, however, even if they are careful to denounce violence and not to demonize Jews, are banned in the name of “civility.” It is the height of academic duplicity.
It was Steven Salaita’s lack of “civility” that saw the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign “de-hire” him this year after the school invited him to join the faculty as a tenured professor. Salaita had sent tweets at the height of the Israeli bombing of Gaza last summer that left some 2,100 people dead, including 500 children. One reads: “Let’s cut to the chase: If you’re defending #Israel right now you’re an awful human being. 11:46 PM—8 Jul 2014.” Chancellor Phyllis Wise, in removing Salaita, said the university would not tolerate “disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them.” The board of trustees supported Wise’s decision, saying there is no place in a democracy for speech that does not promote “civility.” Afterward, 34 administrators at the school wrote a letter to the incoming president of the University of Illinois saying the treatment of Salaita had damaged the institution and their ability to attract top-level scholars to the Urbana-Champaign campus.
The crude attempts to suppress debate will backfire on Israel. It is a sign of Israel’s desperation. Israeli leaders, and their supporters in the United States, speak now with naked, unvarnished hatred and racism that are alienating all but the most demented religious fanatics and protofascist Zionists, those who seek to build a nation based on a uniformity of bloodline and religious faith. The old Israel, the one that strove, however imperfectly, to be liberal and democratic, is gone. The new Israel increasingly mirrors the religious extremism of fundamentalist Muslims. The Israeli Cabinet, which has supported a series of discriminatory laws against non-Jews, last month conditionally backed legislative proposals that emphasize Israel’s Jewish character and would damage the rights of 20 percent of Israel’s citizenry, the nation’s Arabs. The new Israel is run by zealots such as Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett and Housing Minister Uri Ariel. It is championed by retrograde billionaires such as the casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, an American who bought a newspaper in Israel to spread messages of intolerance, racism and hate.
Even Israeli Jews no longer have democratic rights. There is mounting state repression against human rights advocates, journalists and dissidents. Racist language against Arabs has poisoned public discourse—crowds chant “Death to Arabs” at Israeli soccer matches. Right-wing thugs belonging to groups such as Im Tirtzu beat up dissidents, Palestinians, Israeli Arabs and impoverished African immigrants who live in the slums around Tel Aviv. Israeli Jews who denounce the racist cant and condemn the indiscriminate violence the state routinely employs against Palestinians are labeled terrorists or collaborators with terrorists. The settlers, as the newspaper Haaretz pointed out, are the real government of Israel.
The late Amnon Dankner, a onetime editor of Maariv, denounced “neo-Nazi expressions in the Knesset [the Israeli parliament]” and “entire parties whose tenor and tone arouse feelings of horror and terrifying memories.” David Landau, a former editor-in-chief of Haaretz, called on Israelis to boycott the Knesset “to stand against the wave of fascism that has engulfed the Zionist project.” And Uri Avnery, a left-wing politician and journalist, argues that “Israel’s very existence is threatened by fascism.”
“Zionism as a force is dead,” the blogger Yossi Gurvitz told Philip Weiss, who co-edits Mondoweiss, in an interview in 2012. “The people who are actually speaking in the name of Zionism are speaking in religious and metaphysical and mystical truths. They are not speaking in the secular Zionist tradition. A poll two weeks ago—about 70 percent consider themselves to be the chosen people. American Jews think we as Jews are chosen to carry out tikkun olam [social justice]. Israeli Jews think something different—we are the chosen people of God, we are chosen to do anything we damn well please. To take people’s land. Take people’s lives.”