Dissenting at your own risk
By Cecilie Surasky
" --- - Last year, I agreed to speak to a Jewish
youth group about my organization, Jewish Voice for Peace, and
our opposition to Israel's occupation. My talk was to follow one
from a member of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee,
which calls itself "America's pro-Israel Lobby."
A week before, a shaken program leader said the AIPAC staffer
had threatened to get the entire youth program's funding
canceled if I was allowed in the door. The threat worked, and in
disgust, they canceled the whole talk.
Pundits will surely argue for years about professors Stephen
Walt and John Mearsheimer's explosive new book, The Israel
Lobby, which blames poor U.S. policy in the Middle East on a
loose network of individuals and pro-Israel advocacy groups.
But the book, and the response to it, opens up another
controversy: the stifling of debate about unconditional U.S.
support for Israeli policies.
Why is Israel's increasingly brutal 40-year occupation of
Palestinian land regularly debated in the mainstream media
abroad, including in Israel, but not here? And why is there an
almost total lack of discussion among presidential candidates
about the dollars that subsidize this occupation and the
American diplomatic support that makes it possible?
In a society built on the free exchange of ideas, as Walt and
Mearsheimer point out, one answer can be found by looking at the
many self-appointed gatekeepers, such as Abraham Foxman and the
Anti-Defamation League, or Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz,
who use their Jewish identity as both a shield and cudgel. They
work diligently to silence those who question ill-conceived
policies of the Israeli and U.S. governments.
Non-Jewish critics, even former President Carter, are denounced
as anti-Semites. Special ire is reserved for Jewish dissenters,
who are branded as "self-hating" or "marginal," while Muslim and
Arab-Americans are easily smeared and even criminalized with
charges of supporting terrorism.
Stunned by the stifling of dissent, we decided to start a Web
site, Muzzlewatch, to track the incidents. Just as we launched,
Stanford Middle East Studies Professor Joel Beinin was
disinvited from a speaking engagement at a high school with just
24 hours' notice.
After an unprecedented campaign of outside interference waged by
Dershowitz, Professor Norman Finkelstein was refused tenure by
DePaul University because of his criticism of U.S.-Israeli
Palestinian-American anthropologist Nadia Abu El-Haj is fighting
a political campaign to deny her tenure at Barnard.
Even Walt and Mearsheimer, who are getting plenty of exposure,
couldn't have asked for better proof of their point that the
lobby works to stifle dissent when an embarrassed head of the
Chicago Council on Global Affairs told them that their scheduled
speech was canceled. (They did speak before the World Affairs
Council of Dallas/Fort Worth on Sept. 17.) This was apparently
because Foxman was not available that day to "balance" their
(They had initially been booked by themselves. The talk was not
Many groups that started with the important work of fighting
real anti-Semitism now rely on anti-Semitism to insist that to
show one's love of Jews, one must offer uncritical support to
Israel. They are especially displeased by Jews who believe that
enabling Israeli violations of Palestinian human rights is not
good for anyone.
Unless this atmosphere of intimidation is confronted, Americans
will continue to lack access to information and perspectives
necessary to formulate effective Middle East policies, virtually
ensuring that Israel and the United States will be at war for
many years to come.
'The Israel Lobby'
A podcast of Walt and Mearsheimer's presentation is available at
Cecilie Surasky is communications director for the Oakland-based
Jewish Voice for Peace.
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