Over the years, I have experienced a barrage of attacks from a virtual who’s who of pro-Israel activists and intellectuals. Yet none of my assailants have ever accepted an invitation to engage with me in a public conversation. The most notable example of the phenomenon was provided in recent months by Eric Alterman, who attacked me in nine separate posts on the Nation website but vehemently refused to debate me, though he solicited a $10,000 fee to do so under the table.
Alterman was not alone. The Nation Institute invited Peter Beinart to engage with me in a moderated discussion in October in New York City at the opening event of my book tour, but Beinart refused without explanation. Gershom Gorenberg, the liberal Zionist author and journalist who has scathingly attacked my work, refused an invitation from the journalist Robert Wright to engage with me in a discussion on the online debating site, Bloggingheads. So did Eli Lake, the passionately neoconservative correspondent who busies himself during lunch breaks and throughout the workday by lobbying insults at me on Twitter. They were cowed, and understandably so.
It is increasingly clear that the struggle over the future of Israel-Palestine will be decided through a conflict between Zionists and anti-Zionists, with Jews and Arabs aligned on both sides of the divide. However, American Zionists have stringently avoided sharing any intellectual space with their real adversaries. Beinart was eager to debate Alan Dershowitz; Jeremy Ben Ami has jousted with Bill Kristol; and Daniel Gordis argued the merits of boycotting settlements with Lara Friedman. But few of these figures have ever dared to expose their ideas to the interrogation of a Palestinian or an anti-Zionist Jew. Instead, liberal and Likudnik Zionists stage one mock debate after another, aiming to conceal their fundamentally anti-Palestinian ideological alignment behind a smokescreen of rancorous dispute.
When Zionists debate, they do so over the only issue over which they disagree: Which size cage should Palestinians inhabit?
Last week, I announced plans to appear at an Israel Apartheid Week event at Boston University alongside Sa’ed Atshan, a Palestinian-American Postdoctoral Fellow in International Studies at Brown University. Hours after the announcement, I received an message on Twitter from Richard Landes that offered a unique opportunity: he wanted to debate me.
Landes is a professor of history at Boston University with a specialization in millennialism. Despite his lack of academic credentials on Israel-Palestine and the Middle East, he has made a name for himself on the rightward edge of the pro-Israel advocacy world by denying Israeli human rights crimes – he has branded images of Palestinian victimhood as examples of “Pallywood.” Through his involvement in front groups like Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, Landes has received substantial support from big pro-Israel donors like the Fairbrook Foundation and from the right-wing Koch Brothers.
I accepted Landes’ invitation primarily because I reasoned that exposing his reactionary line of thinking would be productive for a university audience. Since Atshan was to join me as a debating partner, Landes invited a former South Sudanese refugee named Simon Deng to round out the field. Deng is trained as a lifeguard, not an academic or journalist, and works on the beaches of Coney Island, not the Middle East. But his sectarian views on Arabs and Muslims attracted the attention and support of Charles Jacobs, the David Project founder who has called Europeans “neopagans” and described mosques as “victory markers.” Thanks to Jacobs and his allies, Deng has been junketed around the world to counter Palestine solidarity events, denigrating Muslims and “so-called Palestinian refugees” while arguing that accusations that Israel practices of apartheid are insulting to Africans like him.
The debate proceeded almost exactly as I expected it would. With the discussion framed around the topic of Palestinian resistance, Landes spent much of his time blaming Palestinians for their own suffering, accusing children of faking injuries and arguing that their resistance to Zionism was a ploy designed to distract from the cultural failings of the Arab world. His rhetoric echoed an op-ed he published in the Wall Street Journal in which he argued that Palestinians enjoyed higher standards of living in areas settled by Jews like Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank than in areas like Gaza that were exclusively Palestinian. As devoid of context and nakedly colonialist as the claim might have been, it mirrored Beinart’s argument in his book, The Crisis of Zionism, that the advancement of Zionism in historic Palestine had cured Palestinians of their illiteracy (p. 15). Indeed, right-wing Israel advocates like Landes were not unique in their celebration of Zionism as a mission civilisatrise.
Atshan and I spent much of our time outlining the myriad obstacles Palestinians faced in their struggle for basic rights, from military occupation to a regime of legal apartheid to the crusade of intellectual suppression and intimidation guided by Israel advocates like Charles Jacobs, who was seated in the audience. With Washington closed off to anyone to the left of AIPAC, I argued, the only available recourse was a campaign of massive external pressure against Israel organized among global civil society, with BDS as its central tactic.
Deng did not attempt to counter any of our points. Instead, he spent much of his time rambling about the misdeeds and devious machinations of Muslims and Arabs. As soon as his turn for a rebuttal arrived, Landes reverted to type, branding me a “Jewish supremacist” because I held “the Jews” to unfairly high standards. Landes later turned to the crowd and proclaimed, “The Palestinians are ginned up on jihad.” The audience was practically rolling in the aisles, but they were not laughing with him.
Next, Landes homed in on Atshan, who happens to be gay, opening up a line of homophobic bullying. Landes told Atshan that because of his “gender choices” he could not safely travel to the Islamist-ruled Gaza Strip. Not only had Landes suggested that homosexuality was a choice, recycling a myth more familiar to the tongue talking bigots of the Christian Right than the obsessively pinkwashing Israel lobby, he had inadvertently invoked the specter of anti-gay violence against Atshan. On a college campus in a cosmopolitan urban center, this was not exactly a winning argument.
During the debate’s question and answer session, a gay pro-Israel student activist named Raphael Fils picked up where Landes left off. Fils, a founder of the Safe Hillel movement, recounted a tour he took to Hebron, an occupied city in the West Bank plagued by a suffocating regime of settler terror and army repression, and complained to Atshan about the greatest horror he witnessed there: When he logged onto Grindr, a popular geosocial hook-up application for gay and bisexual men, he could not find any available men.
“What’s up with that?” Fils asked Atshan in a deadly serious tone.
Atshan was stunned. He asked Fils why the only thing that outraged him during his visit to Hebron was the absence of Grindr dates. Then he launched into a devastating explanation of how sexual colonialism had been deployed to silence and denigrate Palestinians, branding them as culturally inferior in order to justify their continued occupation. Though words can hardly convey the power of Atshan’s response, unfortunately, I have not been able secure permission from the event’s planners to release video of the debate.
At this point in the debate, Landes, Deng, and their supporters in the audience seemed utterly demoralized. With the event drawing to a close, one of Landes’ supporters rose from the crowd to deliver a barely coherent tirade about Hajj Al-Amin Husseini, the long-dead Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, and his ties to Nazi Germany during World War Two. Minutes later, as Atshan and I left the stage, we found ourselves momentarily surrounded by a cast of geriatric Zionists demanding to know how we could overlook the Palestinians’ direct involvement in the Holocaust.
“They Palestinians aren’t the new Nazis,” one of them barked at me, “they’re the old Nazis!”
The rhetoric from the other side had rapidly degenerated from ahistorical to bigoted to bizarre to downright beserk. It had become painfully clear that this was all Zionists had left. No wonder events like our debate were so rare, and why they will become increasingly so.