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Why you can’t ut­ter a word against Is­rael in the US

Any crit­i­cism of the Jewish na­tion’s poli­cies could se­ri­ously jeop­ar­dise ca­reers of pun­dits and me­di­a­per­sons alike

- By Fawaz Turki

Yes, it is true, we live in dan­ger­ous times. At least those in the United States, a na­tion where free speech, even of the venomous va­ri­ety, spouted off, say, by racist groups such as the Aryan Na­tion and the Klan, is pro­tected by the First Amend­ment — but not when it comes to Is­rael. In the US these days, crit­i­cise Is­rael and you lose your job. As sim­ple as that. This is a fact of life wor­thy of Ri­p­ley’s Be­lieve It or Not, you say, but it’s a fact nev­er­the­less, creepy though it may be.

Last week, CNN fired its lib­eral pun­dit Marc La­mont Hill, pro­fes­sor of Me­dia Stud­ies and Ur­ban Ed­u­ca­tion at Tem­ple Univer­sity in Philadel­phia, af­ter he de­liv­ered a speech at the United Na­tions where he ex­pressed his frank views about the Pales­tine con­flict.

Hill, who hap­pens to be African-Amer­i­can, de­liv­ered the speech as part of the UN’s In­ter­na­tional Day of Sol­i­dar­ity with the Pales­tinian Peo­ple. In it, he ac­cused Is­rael of unchecked dis­crim­i­na­tion, but his re­marks caused a furore be­cause of his use of one sen­tence, the last in the ad­dress, where he called for a “free Pales­tine from the river to the sea”.

Be­yond CNN, Patrick O’Con­nor, chair­man of the univer­sity’s board, came out with guns blaz­ing, telling re­porters that Hill’s re­mark “black­ened our name ... we wanted to fire him right away”. Leonard Bar­rack, a Tem­ple trustee, said that Hill “called for the de­struc­tion of Is­rael in coded words”, and Mor­ton A. Klein, Pres­i­dent of the Zion­ist Or­gan­i­sa­tion of Amer­ica, in a lu­natic re­sort to hy­per­bole, said the pro­fes­sor’s ob­ser­va­tions amounted to an en­dorse­ment of “vi­o­lent geno­cide against Jews”, and called for the pro­fes­sor’s im­me­di­ate dis­missal. Though the ter­mi­na­tion of Hill’s con­tract with CNN was easy, his ca­reer as an aca­demic is not in im­me­di­ate jeop­ardy, since he has ten­ure, mak­ing it dif­fi­cult to dis­miss him. But clearly the man’s ca­reer as a tele­vi­sion per­son­al­ity, au­thor and re­searcher have been com­pro­mised.

Those are the facts of life in the US to­day — creepy. You don’t crit­i­cise Is­rael and hope to get away with it in Amer­ica.

There has never been any­thing like it in the whole his­tory of that coun­try’s po­lit­i­cal cul­ture.

A pu­ta­tive smok­ing gun

Con­sider the case of the late Alexan­der Cock­burn. Cock­burn, a sharp-wit­ted jour­nal­ist who wrote hard-nosed columns in the Vil­lage Voice, the hip New York City Newsweekly, and who was a long-run­ning critic of Is­rael, was dis­missed by his ed­i­tors in 1984 af­ter it was re­ported that he had ac­cepted a $10,000 (Dh36,780) grant from the Arab-Amer­i­can Univer­sity Grad­u­ates As­so­ci­a­tion. That was all that Is­rael’s sup­port­ers, who had been gun­ning for him for a while, need — a pu­ta­tive smok­ing gun. The Voice de­ter­mined at the time that the grant rep­re­sented a “con­flict of in­ter­est” and Cock­burn was fired.

Then, in their most no­to­ri­ous dis­play of prow­ess, these same sup­port­ers went af­ter the late He­len Thomas, the Le­bane­seAmer­i­can doyenne of the White House press corps, who had cov­ered the ad­min­is­tra­tions of sev­eral US pres­i­dents — from John F. Kennedy to the sec­ond year of Barack Obama’s ten­ure in of­fice, and was the first fe­male di­rec­tor of the Na­tional Press Club in Wash­ing­ton. Yet, even Thomas’s stature in the me­dia world was no de­fence against the pathol­ogy of these de­mented pres­sure groups.

When, on the White House lawn, in May 2010, an ac­tivist rabbi, one David Me­senoff, ques­tioned Thomas on whether she “had any­thing to say to Is­raelis”, she re­sponded with a few blunt ob­ser­va­tions, in­clud­ing this one: “Tell them to get the hell out of Pales­tine.” When this caused a brouhaha and she was ac­cused of anti-Semitism, she shot back that she her­self was a Semite, be­ing of Arab de­scent. In a later in­ter­view on CNN, Thomas de­fended her com­ments, adding: “We have [in the US] or­gan­ised lob­by­ists in favour of Is­rael. You can’t open your mouth. I can call the pres­i­dent of the US any­thing in the book, but you say one thing about Is­rael and you’re off lim­its.”

It didn’t take long for the gates to open. Thomas’s agency, Nine Speak­ers, that had syn­di­cated her col­umn, dropped her. A sched­uled de­liv­ery of a com­mence­ment speech was can­celled. The White House Cor­re­spon­dents As­so­ci­a­tion, over which she had once presided, is­sued a state­ment call­ing her re­marks “in­de­fen­si­ble”. Even the then pres­i­dent Obama put in his five cents worth, call­ing those re­marks “of­fen­sive” and “out of line”.

In Oc­to­ber that year, dur­ing a ra­dio in­ter­view with Scott Spears on WMRN, Thomas, re­flect­ing on her or­deal, sim­ply said: “I hit the third rail. You can’t crit­i­cise Is­rael in this coun­try and sur­vive.”

You can’t. Be­lieve it or not.

Though the ter­mi­na­tion of Hill’s con­tract with CNN was easy, his ca­reer as an aca­demic is not in im­me­di­ate jeop­ardy, ... But clearly the man’s ca­reer as a tele­vi­sion per­son­al­ity, au­thor and re­searcher has been com­pro­mised.

■ Fawaz Turki is a jour­nal­ist, lec­turer and au­thor based in Wash­ing­ton. He is the au­thor of The Dis­in­her­ited: Jour­nal of a Pales­tinian Ex­ile

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