Friday, June 20, 2008

Banned in the USA (Almost)

Banned in the U.S.A. (Almost)

[A shorter version of this piece was originally published 8 June 2008 in The Washington Post]

I didn't think America was a place where bookstores barred people for their viewpoints, until it happened to me last month, right here in Washington, D.C., the city of my birth.

I had been scheduled to appear at Politics & Prose, one of the city's best known bookstores, to talk about my latest book, Palestine Inside Out: An Everyday Occupation.

Then, at the last minute, the bookstore owners realized that my book questions the viability of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (mostly because, after 40 years of intensive Israeli settlement, there's no land left for a Palestinian state in the West Bank, almost half of which is now taken up by Israeli infrastructure)—and that it concludes with an argument in favor of a single democratic, secular and multicultural state in which Israelis and Palestinians could live peacefully as citizens with equal rights.

My appearance at the bookstore was immediately cancelled.

"I do not believe that your book will further constructive debate in the United States," one of the owners wrote, seeking to justify the sudden cancellation. "A single state is not a solution."

Needless to say, I was dismayed to have had my invitation to speak on an urgent issue abruptly rescinded just because I express a different point of view from the one sanctioned not just by the White House and State Department but also, apparently, by a supposedly independent bookstore.

My own cancellation fits into a larger pattern, however.

The Irish poet Tom Paulin, of Oxford University, had been invited to speak at Harvard University a few years ago; apparently with the blessings of Harvard's president, his appearance was cancelled because of his views about Israel/Palestine.

Professor Joel Beinin of Stanford University had been invited to speak about Israel/Palestine at a school in the Silicon Valley early last year; his appearance was cancelled when the school came under outside pressure.

Professor Tony Judt of NYU had been invited to speak about Israel/Palestine at the Polish Consulate in New York the previous fall; his talk was cancelled after the consulate came under pressure from the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee.

Both Judt and Beinin are Jewish, incidentally; but both believe that Palestinians are entitled to the same rights as Israelis. Apparently that point of view has no place in American discussions of the conflict.

Neither, it seems, does President Carter's assertion that—by creating two different road networks, maintaining two different legal systems, and granting rights to one population that it forcibly denies to another living in the same territory—Israel is practicing a kind of Apartheid.

Nor does the assertion, by Professors Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, that a powerful but informal lobby stifles the free discussion of Israel and Palestine in the United States: Mearsheimer too has had at least one long-standing invitation to speak abruptly rescinded—ironically confirming his and Walt's argument for them.

The fact that senior scholars from the nation's major universities (and even elder statesmen) are prevented from speaking—or are drowned out by emotional invective—simply because they do not toe an official line suggests that the civic culture on which our country was founded has broken down, at least when it comes to the question of Palestine and Israel.

However, the fact that more and more people are encountering silence, intimidation or censorship when they question the conventional wisdom, or official policy, on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is a sign that more and more people are starting to ask questions in the first place. So the attempt to deny alternative points of view a forum (or to angrily shout them down if they succeed in reaching a public) is a sign not of the strength but of the weakness of those who adhere to the official line. As the great English poet John Milton pointed out three centuries ago, only those who worry that their own position is faulty have something to fear from letting other points of view be heard.

Today that fear has reached new levels.

But can we as a nation really afford not to hear each other out as we evaluate our policies in the Middle East?

And should Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular not be allowed to speak? Or should they be allowed to speak only if their erstwhile audience gets to tell them what they should say? What then is the point of a conversation? What is the alternative to conversation? Does foreclosing conversation not simply empower those who say that it's a waste of time?

Anyway, what is so unspeakably wrong with saying that justice, secularism, tolerance and equality of citizens—rather than privileges granted on the basis of religion—should be among the founding values of a state?

And what does it mean that one can be barred from expressing such a sentiment at a liberal bookstore in the capital city of the United States of America?

[Postscript: After receiving letters of protest and eloquent entreaties by bloggers, Politics & Prose decided to reissue my invitation.]