Dissenting at Your Own Risk
Friday October 05, 2007
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
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
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?
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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'
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
policy. 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