Pamela Olson’s book tour for Fast Times in Palestine took her all over the US, including to California, Oklahoma, Washington, Colorado, and many major cities on the east coast. She wrote this blogpost describing her reception.
I resolved at the beginning not to sugarcoat anything or promote false equivalencies. In presentations and interviews, I was clear about the Wall stealing land, the horrors of “administrative detention,” and many other injustices. If people asked tough questions that required speaking about racism, oppression, and American support of a de facto apartheid situation, I answered forthrightly. (For an example, you can view my talk at the Palestine Center in DC here.)
I braced myself every time, waiting for the backlash.
To my shock, it never came.
People were receptive, interested, thoughtful, and sometimes skeptical, but almost never hostile or disbelieving. Some crowds were self-selected, but others were more mainstream, including a banquet in eastern Washington attended mostly by retirement-age pillars of the community.
At the banquet, one man asked a leading question that blamed the Palestinians for their plight, and another asked about Hamas’ charter. I answered calmly, offering historical and political context and analogies about Sinn Fein and Apartheid. The audience seemed to be nodding along with me, as if my answers made sense to them.
At the Upper West Side Barnes & Noble, a woman angrily accused me of not saying the Wall was built solely for security reasons. I thanked her for bringing it up and read the part of my book that talks about the Israeli army admitting parts of the Wall were routed based on settlement expansion plans, and the Shin Bet admitting the Wall wasn’t a very good security system anyway. Hundreds of Palestinians cross every day to work in Israel without a permit. According to the Shin Bet, the reason suicide bombings stopped in 2005 was because Hamas decided to end them and pursue a democratic political course.
And that was it. Those were the two most hostile encounters in nearly 50 venues in a dozen states and two dozen cities. I didn’t encounter anything like the anger, heckling, and censorship I would have expected had I done this ten or even five years ago.
It’s hard to over-state how much the climate has changed in the past decade. A filmmaker friend summed it up: You used to need extra security to bring a pro-Palestine speaker to campus. Now you need extra security to bring a pro-Israel speaker.
At Oklahoma University, when I spoke to students in the flagship Middle East studies program, I felt utterly redundant. They already knew everything I was saying. The argument in class wasn’t whether Israelis or Palestinians were to blame, but whether Israel had totally destroyed the two-state solution. (Some of the students thanked me for being straightforward and not dancing around the issues like most “experts” did. I told them that was one benefit of not having a mainstream career to lose.)
In the most remote place I spoke — Seminole State College in a small town in Oklahoma — the faculty were fascinated and expressed gratitude that I was bringing them “the other side of the story.” The students asked not whether my stories were true but how it felt to be in the middle of them. That was as big a surprise to me as any.
That’s not to say everything is perfect. Some journalists and professors thanked me for saying things they were still too afraid to say. I can’t say who or why because I don’t want to betray any confidences. But let’s just say people with buildings named after them tend to have more sway than people who don’t.
But those in power seem to be falling behind the grassroots surge in interest and knowledge about this conflict. People seem genuinely hungry for this information, told in a way they can digest and relate to, from a non-intimidating source.
Speaking as someone who used to be incredibly intimidated by anything having to do with the Middle East (because I was terrified of stepping on sensitivities and otherwise showing myself to be an ignorant jackass, or alternatively being duped by flowery language), I have a lot of empathy for these Americans. And I believe they can be reached.
Several people asked, “Are you giving these talks in right-wing pro-Israel venues as well?” I told them I doubt I would be invited, and in any case I tend not to put my energy there. I mentioned the polls that say 65% of Americans (or whatever) support Israel while 15% (or whatever) support Palestinians, and the rest don’t know. These look like hopelessly skewed statistics.
But in fact, probably less than 20% of Americans strongly support Israel. The rest just kind of blow in the prevailing winds. My theory is that if they can be told a fuller story in a way that respects their intelligence and speaks to their sensibilities, roughly half of Americans can likely be convinced to switch sides — not against Israel, but for peace and justice based on international law and respect for human rights for all. That’s where I’m putting my efforts.
And I’m finding, based on limited anecdotal evidence, that folks are more ripe for it than I dared hope.
One last incredibly encouraging sign: Most of you probably remember Bob Simon’s ground-breaking piece on 60 Minutes last year about Palestinian Christians (and Michael Oren’s hilarious “rebuttal”).
Someone who works at CBS told me they’re still dealing with the fallout. After the Israel lobby failed to kill the piece, the station received 32,000 angry emails (mostly form letters mobilized by various lobby organizations such as CAMERA). And that was just the beginning. One of the worst attacks was a slanderous ad in the Wall Street Journal that potentially endangered Bob Simon’s safety. My contact said it was the biggest “sh**storm” of Simon’s long career.
The chairman of CBS was brave enough to stand behind the piece, but he did request that they stay away from the topic for a while. Busy people get sick of dealing with this kind of nonsense, and there’s still a real fear among powerful folks of the taint of being accused of anti-Semitism. It’s like being accused of spousal abuse. Even if it’s not remotely true, it can stick to you like a bad rash.
But here’s the good news: The station also received 35,000 emails thanking them for showing what life is like for Palestinian Christians. And most of the appreciative emails were from individuals, not partisan listservs.
It made me feel more hope than I had in a long time.