When Free Speech Doesn’t Come
Free: US Taboo on Criticizing Israel
By Remi Kanazi
ccun.org, May 21, 2008
Free speech is not without consequence. In the United States, for
example, criticism of Israel is tantamount to heresy. Former US
President Jimmy Carter felt a societal backlash last year after the
release of his book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, which condemned
Israel’s apartheid-style policies in the occupied Palestinian
territories. Consequently, and without foundation, Carter was branded by
many in the American press as a one-sided, anti-Semitic propagandist.
Similarly, Harvard professor Stephen Walt and University of Chicago
professor John Mearsheimer were lambasted for a paper the two
co-authored that discussed the power of the Israel lobby and its adverse
effect on American policy. Additionally, Norman Finkelstein, an
esteemed professor at Depaul University and author of the bestselling
book, The Holocaust Industry, witnessed a McCarthyite-style campaign
mounted against him when he came up for tenure. Finkelstein, the son of
Holocaust survivors, has been an outspoken critic of Israel’s human
rights abuses and of pro-Israel apologist and Harvard professor, Alan
Dershowitz. Predictably, it was Dershowitz who led the anti-tenure
campaign against him; ultimately, Finkelstein was not only denied
tenure, but he lost his job at Depaul.
The attacks against Carter, Finkelstein, Walt and Mearsheimer serve as a
few well-known examples of the consequences writers and intellectuals
face when they breach the line and criticize Israel. Furthermore, the
condemnation writers and intellectuals of Arab descent face are
invariably higher than Jews of conscience, former presidents, and highly
regarded academics. As a result, many writers often acquiesce to the
demands of the mainstream. Their self-censorship usually appears in the
form of “toning down the message,” be it to please editors or
critics—essentially to conform to the reality of purported pragmatism.
Yet, this “pragmatism” is a euphemism for acceptance of a repressive
status quo and is analogous to the “necessary” practical thinking that
silenced a multitude of commentators during the Oslo years—the supposed
time of peace. Unsurprisingly, untold Palestinian suffering followed as
a result of increased settlement expansion, land confiscation,
checkpoints and seizures, and the ultimate failure of Camp David 2000.
Shying away from perceived controversial matters may help to protect a
mainstream career, but the intent of a political analyst should not be
to produce works of fiction. The vast majority of Americans weren’t open
to criticism of US policy during the run-up to the war on Iraq, mainly
due to the media’s complicity in promoting the war, but criticism was
still the appropriate course of action based on the facts, and Americans
would have been better off for it today.
A man who combined principle, activism, and human appeal quite
masterfully was distinguished educator and commentator, Edward Said. In
the realm of academia and Middle East analysis, Said was by no means
viewed as the quintessential radical. Nonetheless, his positions were
radical when juxtaposed with “conventional wisdom”: he was a proponent
of the one-state solution, an unwavering critic of the Israeli
government, and an ardent supporter of the ostensibly controversial
right of return. Said was still heavily criticized throughout his career
and endured incessant attacks by his detractors, yet his accessible
personality and articulate message kept him relevant.
Sadly, Said’s relative acceptance has been the exception rather than the
rule. In recent years, there has been increased emphasis on putative
pragmatic dialogue. However, this accentuation on so-called rational and
balanced thinking has proven to be little more than a sinister means to
pressure the oppressed to accept the position of the oppressor. The
greatest leaders of the last hundred years didn’t shy away from
controversy; they remained persistent, and saw their visions brought to
fruition; be they Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, or Mahatma Gandhi.
Nevertheless, one cannot overlook that even paramount figures have been
castigated for “overstepping” their boundaries, namely Martin Luther
King who was chided for speaking out against the war in Vietnam,
imperialism, and social injustices that plagued the US.
This week, Palestinians across the US commemorated 60 years of
displacement. Yet, the lens the Palestinian people are expected to look
through under the pragmatist vision is one that sees a dispossessed
people as necessary victims for a righteous state to take form.
Unfortunately, waves of writers and commentators continue to adopt this
line in fear of retribution, in exchange for nicer houses and
comfortable livings, or a combination of both. That is their free will.
Free speech is not without consequence. Nonetheless, losing piece of
mind is the only repercussion a writer should fear.
Remi Kanazi is the editor of the forthcoming anthology
of poetry, Poets For Palestine, which can be pre-ordered at
Remi can be contacted at