Monday, May 26, 2008

Ban Your Critics

In all the debate about Israel in this country—all that is allowed by the self-censoring U.S. media, that is—we are constantly told that Israel is the only nation in the Middle East with a democratic government; that it is western civilization’s outpost in an otherwise dictatorial region. Yesterday’s action by the Israeli government—it apprehended American historian Norman Finkelstein at Ben Gurion airport on Friday, May 23, interrogated him for 24 hours, and then banned him from the Jewish state for 10 years—gives the lie to that notion. What this action demonstrated, instead, is that Israel is much like other dictatorial governments, including our own: it simply will not tolerate criticism of its actions, no matter how brutal or illegal they may be. Of course, those who follow the doings of the Jewish state already knew this: the great Israeli historian Ilan Pappe was also forced to leave his post at the University of Haifa last year. Like Finkelstein, he had sharply criticized Israel in several books, and even endorsed an academic boycott of Israeli institutions. He now lives in London, where he continues his criticism.

Finkelstein has been hit hard for his critiques of Israel before. Last year, after his book “Beyond Chutzpah,” detailed a case of massive plagiarism against Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, in the latter’s book, “The Case for Israel,” Dershowitz, in retaliation, demanded that DePaul University of Chicago deny Finkelstein tenure. DePaul’s dean caved in to the massive pressure organized by Dershowitz (even though Finkelstein’s department had voted to grant him tenure), and denied the distinguished scholar his permanent position. The lesson to American academics and all who dare to criticize Israel was once again made crystal clear: any attempt to point out the historical truth about Israel’s continuing campaign to expel, ethnically cleanse, imprison and, if necessary, exterminate the Palestinian people will be met with the harshest measures available (among them, restricted access to the U.S. press; the story about Finkelstein’s apprehension and deportation was covered by London’s “Guardian” newspaper.)

Fortunately, not everyone in Israel agrees with its right-wing leaders. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel, via its lawyer Oded Peler, called Finkelstein’s deportation an assault on free speech “typical of a totalitarian regime.” Peler added that “A democratic state, where freedom of expression is the highest principle, does not shut out criticism or ideas just because they are uncomfortable for its authorities to hear.” Exactly. Perhaps we in the United States should invite Oded Peler here as well—to convey his sentiments about free speech to the Bush administration and its many Israel-right-or-wrong supporters. Given the frontal assaults on the Bill of Rights in the last 7 years, it—and most citizens of what used to be a Republic as well—could use the reminder.

Lawrence DiStasi

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