My theme today is denial, specifically as it involves the Arab revolutions: the failure of American media figures and Jewish leaders to recognize the huge spiritual-political effect of the Arab spring and the inevitability of that spirit coming to bear on the dire human-rights situation in Palestine.
As Issandr El Amrani said the other night at the 92d Street Y, this revolution has the promise of the French revolution, and to seek to diminish it or to caricature it (the Muslim Brotherhood is going to take over Jordan, Yossi Klein Halevi warned at the American Jewish Committee today) is a terrible mistake.
And this denial is most profound inside American liberal Jewish life, in the failure of liberals to understand, Of course Palestinians will also want their spring. And they must have it.
I will give you two instances of this denial. The first was Terry Gross interviewing Ryan Lizza of the New Yorker on Fresh Air the other day, all about the Arab revolutions and Egypt and Obama’s foreign policy. And you will see from the transcript that Israel was mentioned only once, and tangentially. The conceit of this nearly-hour-long exchange was the idea, Well these Arab countries are finally going to try to be democratic, harrumph, and Obama must lend his hand. With no awareness at all that a, American support for Israel has militated against Arab democracy and the idea of Arab self-determination forever, and b, that the thirst for democracy in the Middle East portends revolutionary change in one of the most repressive societies in the world, the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
For journalists not to reckon with this likelihood is a dereliction of the liberal values that I can only explain in Terry Gross’s case by saying that she must regard Israel’s creation as a great and necessary liberal historical advance, and therefore regard any threat to the status quo as concerning and to regard the call for multicultural democracy as so much irredentist, revolutionary murderous claptrap.
Now the second instance of denial was at the 92d Street Y the other night, when my good friend Jake Weisberg moderated a PEN panel on the Arab spring and was generous and celebratory about the revolutions. But because we were in a Jewish space, the meaning of the revolutions was circumscribed: they are unhorsing the tyrants and allowing writers to express themselves at last in Arab countries. The Arab intellectuals went along with this limitation and practiced a self-censorship. They did not refer to Palestine, except glancingly, Weisberg had the tact not to bring up Israel, and when El Amrani spoke movingly about Islamists and Christians and women working side by side in Tahrir to make their revolution, he did not say, And Palestinians and Jews also can build a new polity together.
The Palestine issue was directly addressed only once, by the Palestinian writer Rula Jebreal. Weisberg had introduced her as an “Israeli,” and a half hour into the discussion, Jebreal at last corrected him, when she spoke of anti-Arab prejudice in the west.
The prejudice– it was very hard. It was very hard to talk about our countries after September 11. I am Palestinian. He said Israel but the truth is I am Palestinian. So I remember when I was hired in Italy, as an anchorwoman, the director said, can you please say that you are you Italo-Palestinian. Which I am. I said yes, but what is the problem? He said it will sound less harder on the ear.
And I’m saying this in the 92d Street Y because I know how delicate this subject matter and this issue is. But the truth– the prejudice against us–we have to fight our regimes, but abroad we have to fight the prejudice, the discrimination, and we have to fight something stronger, the idea that is in the head of the majority of the people in this room and in this country before Tahrir square, this idea that most of us, we are not liberal. We beat our women, that we marry more than once, whatever, and we are terrorists. If we are not terrorists, then we are potential terrorists. This idea started changing in Tahrir Square. So I really would like to thank these women and men who stood for three weeks asking for freedom and dignity and asking for a better life. They convinced all of us that we have a right to that, but I ithink they changed somehow the opinion in the western world.
Now this is a very moving statement, and Jebreal was applauded. But I would just like to note how much is under the surface. This prejudice is most strongly directed at Palestinians specifically. As Cecilie Surasky said at a Jewish Voice for Peace function in the city last night, nine years ago when JVP was formed, for many Jews “it was terrifying just to say the word Palestinian.”
And now in the context of the Arab spring, American media are experiencing that same prohibition, and so they are denying the power of this revolution to transform Israel and Palestine, and missing the story.