Sitting up here in Scandinavia reading the International Herald Tribune, I came upon yet another claim that American Jewry stifles debate on Israel. This time it was a piece by IHT columnist Roger Cohen, entitled “Time for U.S. boldness on Israel and Palestine,” in which he urges America to push Israel to negotiate with the Palestinians. Well, that’s a case I might support, although I am less sanguine about the role of Hamas than Cohen seems to be.
But what troubles me is Cohen’s quoting of an Israeli professor. “Since 2000, there has been no real interest on the Israeli side in settling with anyone,” says Professor Fred Lazin. (Maybe so, maybe not. The Gaza withdrawal could hardly be called a negotiation, but surely it was a huge positive step towards a settlement.) But then, relates Cohen, “Lazin…attended a meeting of the American Jewish Committee… and said that if he wrote a favorable review of Jimmy Carter’s recent book…he’d be ‘blackballed as a speaker in many American Jewish venues.’”
Say what? An Israeli professor critical of Israel’s policies, speaking to one of the pre-eminent American Jewish organizations, says that if he lauds the book of former President Carter, who just spoke to an SRO crowd at Brandeis, America’s pre-eminent Jewish university, he will be blackballed by American Jews? Hello Planet Earth.
But seriously folks, this is getting serious. Cohen in the same IHT article decries “post 9/11 American taboos that have lowered debate of Israel to the scurrilous (and paralyzing) if-you-back-Palestinians-you-back-terrorists level”; Professors Mearsheimer and Walt have a fat contract for their soon-to-be-published book claiming that they are being muzzled; hardly a day goes by without someone somewhere criticizing Israel, in print or blog read by millions, then moaning that he or she is being censored by “the powerful Israel lobby.” If it’s so powerful, how come it’s so ineffectual at shutting anyone up? (Indeed, one day after Cohen’s piece, the IHT ran op-eds by Henry Siegmann and H. D. S. Greenway, harshly critical of Israel.)
Should one dare to contradict the claim that debate on Israel is being suppressed, one is subjected to ad hominem attacks about one’s naivete. A proudly non-Zionist Jewish friend mouthing the suppression mantra, greeted my evidence to the contrary with the rejoinder, “Well you must be wearing rose-colored glasses…you only know about a self-selected part of the community.”
Are there thought-police among us? Sure. The right-wing Zionist Organization of America tries to quash any criticism of Israel. (Except of course its own, like its no-holds-barred attack on the government of Israel for the Gaza withdrawal.) Lazin will surely not be invited to any ZOA meetings. ZOA’s latest move was the attempted purge of the (Ameinu-supported) Union of Progressive Zionists from the national campus pro-Israel coalition. But the attempt was overwhelmingly defeated by the other member organizations. A subtler attempt by the Anti-Defamation League to muzzle Jewish “binational stater” Tony Judt was condemned– in a public petition, by many prominent Jews who find his views repugnant.
Malcolm Hoenlein, Executive Director of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations–and certainly no political bedfellow of mine–was spot on at the recent Herzliya conference, when he said that if Jews speak out, we are accused of stifling debate, but if we don’t, then lies go unchallenged.
Bret Stephens put it even more pungently in the New Republic:
“How does joining a debate become an effort to suppress it? I am not aware that Mearsheimer and Walt have been sent from the field to cower behind the bleachers. Indeed, nothing so perfectly gives the lie to their claims about the vast power of the Israel lobby as the fact that they have now been contracted–by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, no less–to turn their article into a book.
He then goes on:
“Still, were it up to me Judt, Mearsheimer, Carter et al would be run out of polite society. What’s wrong with that? … The plain fact is that some ideas simply foul our public discourse. Some ‘controversies’ open doors to scoundrels. Some small truths serve as vehicles for big lies.”
Judt, Mearsheimer, Carter et al will not be run out of polite society. They will continue to press their odious claims. But the attempt by polite society to suppress any counterclaims, by defining them as suppression, is a tribute to Orwell and Kafka.