By George Bisharat
31 January, 2007
One day in 1981, my late father,
Maurice Hanna Bisharat, returned from a long day at his Sacramento,
Calif., medical office with an extra bounce in his step, his eyes dancing
with excitement. His friend, Michael Himovitz, the young owner of a
local art gallery, had called, offering to hold a one-person show of
my father's paintings - mostly California landscapes.
My father had taken up painting
after immigrating to this country from Palestine in the late 1940s,
and although an amateur, had won a national art award within two years.
But the demands of medical practice, raising a large family, and other
avocations took their toll. It had been many years since my father's
art had been publicly exhibited, and he was tickled.
My father was not a politician,
but like any Palestinian living in the United States, he felt obligated
to relate his people's experience to American friends. Educated and
articulate, he spoke publicly in defense of Palestinian rights, and
was a frequent commentator on Middle East events in the local media.
Michael, a Jew, was perfectly aware of this side of my father's life.
It did nothing to diminish his appreciation of my father's art, nor
to inhibit their friendship.
Some weeks later I saw my
father sitting, stony faced. He turned to me and whispered: "I
just got a call from Michael. My show has been canceled." Michael,
it transpired, had been visited by a group from the Sacramento Jewish
community. Their message: "If you show Bisharat's art, we will
boycott your gallery and close you down."
Michael may have been as
crushed as my father, apologizing: "I just can't risk it - it's
my livelihood." The indirect message to my father, of course, was:
"If you speak critically of Israel, you will suffer pain."
Fortunately, art was not my father's livelihood, and he survived this
incident. But a deep sense of outrage never left him.
So when former New York Mayor
Edward Koch and Rafael Medoff ask incredulously in a recent commentary
critical of President Jimmy Carter's recent book Palestine: Peace not
Apartheid "Are Jews suppressing speech?" - or when 14 Carter
Center advisory board members resign in protest of the president's positions
- the answer, for me, is not so straightforward.
The fact is that "Jews"
are not suppressing speech. Michael Himovitz certainly didn't suppress
my father's attempts to explain the Palestinian perspective to his fellow
citizens. Many American Jews hold views not dissimilar to my father's
- supporting peace, reconciliation and equal rights for Palestinians
Yet, a minority of Jews,
backed by some non-Jewish supporters, stridently protests any unflattering
portrayal of Israel, often with unfounded accusations of anti-Semitism.
Indeed, insinuations of anti-Jewish bias are now being unfairly raised
against Carter. And some supporters of Israel, apparently, are willing
to exploit economic clout to punish those who, like my father, buck
the trend and defend Palestinian rights.
Nor is the example of my
father isolated. Numerous variations are documented in former Illinois
Republican Rep. Paul Findley's book, They Dare to Speak Out. More chilling,
these efforts at intimidation are not always the spontaneous responses
of individuals, as in my father's case, or likely in the resignations
of the Carter Center advisory board members.
On the contrary, the pro-Israel
lobby, joined by the Israeli government, sustains a systematic campaign
to shape American public opinion. For example, the Committee on Accuracy
in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) harangues journalists over
alleged "mistakes." In 2002, CAMERA attacked National Public
Radio, claiming anti-Israel bias, including failure to report Israeli
deaths. Two Boston area businessmen associated with CAMERA organized
a boycott of local NPR affiliate WBUR that significantly reduced revenue.
Meanwhile, a scrupulous study of NPR's coverage by Fairness and Accuracy
In Reporting (FAIR) showed that, in fact, NPR had disproportionately
reported Israeli deaths.
Honest Reporting is a media
organization that mobilizes 140,000 subscribers worldwide. Its Web site
once touted "major editorial changes at CNN which greatly shifted
public perception of the Arab-Israel conflict." The impetus, according
to The Jerusalem Post, was "up to 6,000 e-mails per day to CNN
executives, effectively paralyzing their internal e-mail system."
The Israeli government also
applied pressure to CNN, according to verbatim notes of a conference
call in 2000 obtained by advocate/researcher Phyllis Bennis. In the
call, Israeli government spokesman Nachman Shai outlined Israel's media
strategy with 30 to 60 U.S. Jewish leaders, focusing concern on CNN,
and especially two Palestinian reporters. "We are putting real
pressure on the heads of CNN to have them replaced with more objective
pro-Israel reporters that are willing to tell our side of the story."
Monitoring media to ensure
accuracy is a public service. Yet, as besieged journalists have concluded,
the goal of this campaign is not truth, but pro-Israeli advocacy, and
silencing dissent. WBUR's general manager, Jane Christo, described CAMERA's
message as: "Report our point of view, or we'll shut you down."
Dissenting American Jews
are not spared. Jilian Redford, head of the Hillel Jewish student group
at the University of Richmond was dismissed in 2004 after protesting
the Israeli Embassy's repeated e-mail propaganda directives. Redford
saw Hillel's mission as facilitating Jewish religious life on campus,
not doing hasbara (Hebrew for "propaganda") for the Israeli
government. To reiterate: This is not a "Jewish" campaign.
In fact, hasbara, coordinated with, if not directed by right-wing Israeli
governments, is unrepresentative of largely liberal American Jews. Many,
like Michael, would no doubt be horrified by the actions of these self-appointed
guardians of thought. Nor does the Israel lobby "control"
the media, as publication of Carter's book and this article attest.
But the price of our still
mostly one-sided exposure to Middle East affairs is high, and it is
much greater than the hurt inflicted on my father and others like him.
Americans are shielded from diverse perspectives about a pivotal conflict,
and are thus hampered in critically evaluating U.S. policies. Our unconditional
support for Israel is a principal cause of global anger against us.
Last summer our government
ran diplomatic cover for Israel's invasion of Lebanon, prolonging the
attack for weeks. Israel killed more than a thousand Lebanese, mostly
civilians, heavily damaged the country's civilian infrastructure, and
displaced a quarter of the population. The consequence: National Intelligence
Director John Negroponte, delivering the annual U.S. threat estimate
in mid-January, moved the Lebanese group Hezbollah - which has not targeted
Americans for decades - up to second. Meanwhile, UPI editor Arnaud de
Borchgrave reports that former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
and other prominent Israelis are urging a public relations blitz to
instigate a U.S. strike on Iran.
It is one thing to match
ideas with ideas, facts with facts, perspectives with perspectives.
It is different to threaten, bully, discredit and harass opponents of
one's views - whether they are writers, artists, Jewish dissidents,
ex-presidents or anyone else. And in this case, our resulting ignorance
is not bliss. It is downright dangerous.
is a professor of law at Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco,
and writes frequently on the Middle East.
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