Demonstration began, did not squelch Middle East discussion
Free speech is precious. The right to express ideas without fear of reprisal is at the core of democratic society. None of us should take it for granted; history offers too many examples of the cost of its loss.
Benyamin Netanyahu is not, it's worth pointing out, a friend of freedom of expression. And Israeli suppression of free speech in occupied Palestine has been severe. In occupied Palestine when I visited in 1989, it was illegal to own a Palestinian flag; displaying one would have brought troops into your home. It was illegal to own a map that showed The West Bank divided by a border from Israel, trade unions were prevented from holding elections, and political parties and political meetings were banned. Under Netanyahu Palestinians who demonstrated to oppose Israel's brutal and illegal occupation were shot at and beaten and jailed and tortured.
Still, despite Netanyahu's own contempt for freedom of speech, if the protest against his appearance at the Berkeley Community Theater had threatened his ability to take part in the public debate it would have deserved our principled opposition. If the protest against Netanyahu really kept those who came to attend the Berkeley Community Theater event from having access to his thoughts and opinions it would have raised real questions about everyone's right to hear all sides of an important issue. But that is not nearly the case.
U.S. media is open to Netanyahu
Netanyahu has easy access to a shamefully uncritical American media. He has appeared hundreds of times on CNN and The News Hour and Nightline. And his perspective is everywhere in American media coverage. For years Americans rarely heard the term 'Palestinian' without hearing the word 'terrorist' follow it. Israeli soldiers occupy Palestinian cities and villages and our major news organizations use pro-Israeli spin terms to describe the reality; they speak of Israeli troops defending themselves as if it were the Palestinians who had invaded someone else's neighborhood.
Occupying soldiers fire missiles from helicopter gunships into homes in Palestine while Palestinians fight using slingshots and rifles and our media speaks of Palestinian violence and Israeli "retaliation". Hundreds of Palestinians have been killed by Israeli soldiers and we hear of them mostly as numbers added to a running tally. It is the Israeli's tragedies that find their way into human interest stories in the American press.
Given this imbalance in the press, does it really serve the cause of free speech to invite a criminal like Netanyahu (or Henry Kissinger who Netanyahu replaced as a speaker in this lecture series when Kissinger suffered a heart attack) to appear in a format that doesn't provide a chance for rebuttal? Does freedom of speech really require that Netanyahu or Kissinger be rewarded for what they've done with the hefty speaking fees that usually attend such engagements? And all without a protest?
Demonstrators expressed outrage
It is Netanyahu's critics whose perspective is ignored, misrepresented, and censored not only in Israel but here in the land of the free. It is very rare indeed to see the perspective of Palestinians or any non-Zionists represented in the reporting on the Middle East. In an effort to break out of this media blackout those of us who want peace and justice for all in Israel and Palestine demonstrated against Netanyahu. Our purpose was not to prevent him from taking part in the public debate. That would be neither remotely possible nor desirable. We sought to express our outrage at what he has done, to remind the public that there is another, largely unheard, perspective, and to encourage a movement for a change in American policy. Our demonstration against Netanyahu was non-violent and if the police had intervened we would have dispersed or allowed ourselves to be arrested peacefully. That is called civil disobedience. It has an honorable history.
American progressives don't often condemn acts of non-violent civil disobedience. And civil disobedience not infrequently infringes in some way on free speech. Didn't the Free Speech Movement disrupt classes in 1964 with its massive demonstrations? I know that we did when we closed Columbia University during the anti-war demonstrations of 1968 and 1969. We chanted "on strike-shut it down." Wasn't that a violation of the free speech rights of the professors or of the students who wanted to deliver their lectures and pursue their careers unbothered by our demand that they notice the struggles for peace and justice that surrounded them? Would we call early 1960s civil rights heroes in the deep South violators of the right of freedom of speech if they sat-in at a segregated library and prevented it from functioning until it was open to all? How about the newspaper unions in Seattle which are on strike as I write: are they violating the publisher's right of free speech? The reader's right to read? Do we condemn those who try to close the School of the Americas?
What if their picket lines block scab workers from entering the plant? Do we see a threat to free speech when rebels take a radio station from a state that has held power by brutal repression?
I doubt that any of these actions would precipitate condemnation from progressives although each has aspects that could be characterized as infringing upon free speech. But the recent demonstration against Benyamin Netanyahu has been condemned as if it represented a betrayal of our common principles.
I cannot know the feelings of each individual who has expressed concern over our demonstration. But it is time that we as a community notice and talk about the fact that there is a consistent pattern to the way those who oppose what Israel does are treated in our press and in our culture. For many Americans Israel evokes tremendous emotional loyalty. For all of us Nazi crimes have left an abiding sense of horror and a determination to prevent such atrocities in the future. Seeing Israel challenged makes some people deeply uncomfortable and angry. Our demonstration demanded that Israel's immunity from criticism must end. And it condemned not only Netanyahu but Israeli policy under both Labor and Likud governments. That often makes people upset. But is not easy for those who are troubled by such demands to engage Israel's critics in a discussion of the issues. No one wants to defend torture, illegal occupation, ethnic cleansing, institutionalized racial and religious discrimination, the shooting of young people who throw stones, the closure of schools, the destruction of homes, shooting at ambulances, the theft of land and water rights, the application of collective punishment, and the denial of fundamental human rights.
Need to face Israel’s wrongs
In fact many people don't even want to hear that such things might be real. So it is easier to oppose us with an accusation. In this case it is that we represent a threat to freedom of speech. At least this is a change from the usual accusations. For years we have been called anti-Semites if we are not ourselves Jewish, or self-hating Jews if we are. Those who take prominent roles in defending the rights of Palestinians regularly receive hate mail and anonymous threats.
We should speak truthfully about freedom of speech. There is a clear difference between the threats to freedom of speech that come from repressive actions taken by a government or by the institutions of established power or even a threatening mob or letter writer on the one hand and the momentary and superficial interference with speech that may result from a peaceful protest against repression on the other. There is a difference between an effort to exclude a person or an idea from the public debate and a demonstration that happens to inconvenience a powerful political figure.
The fact that so many Americans will protect Israel and Israeli policy from significant challenge has important and dismal consequences. Israeli policy makers take advantage of Israel's immunity from criticism to maintain their occupation of Palestine by brutal and illegal force. The purpose of our demonstration was to begin the discussions that may move us toward change. Misrepresenting the true impact of the demonstration does not further the cause of free speech.
Netanyahu's access to a sympathetic media will not be diminished by the demonstration against him. His ideas are in no danger of being silenced. And those of us who condemn what Israel has done and is doing in Palestine will in all probability continue to be shut out of the national dialog on Middle East policy.
That is the real threat to free speech.
Robbie Osman hosts the program “Across the Great Divide” on KPFA and is on the board of the Middle East Children’s Alliance. His email is email@example.com.