I don’t usually write about events that happen locally in Washington, D.C. But Helena Cobban informed me of a controversy brewing there that involved such a betrayal of Jewish liberal values that I thought it would be worthwhile covering it.
Saree Makdisi, is a professor of English at UCLA (where I completed my M.A.). He has just written a powerful and heart-rending story in Palestine Inside Out: An Everyday Occupation, of the impossibility of anything resembling “normal” Palestinian life under Israeli Occupation. He just happens to be the nephew of Edward Said.
Politics and Prose is a D.C. independent bookstore which agreed to an author appearance by Makdisi to promote his book. About the store, Helena writes, “in DC’s policy-intellectual circles and amongst all my liberal friends here, P&P is a HUGE deal.” So we’re not just talking about a mom and pop bookstore in a small town somewhere. We’re talking restricting the very policymakers who you’d want to hear Makdisi’s message from hearing it at the town’s pre-eminent literary showcase.
Apparently, Carla Cohen, the owner got cold feet about the event and cancelled it. But it’s her explanation provided to a local Palestinian-American who protested that boggles the mind. There is a class of intelligent American Jewish liberal who understands most of the issues involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yet for some strange almost atavistic reason, they can’t bring themselves to have the courage of their convictions. When forthrightness is called for they waffle. When intestinal fortitude is needed, they cave. Here is Cohen’s response to the initial letter of protest:
Thank you so much for your thoughtful letter. I understand how you feel. I was very sad to cancel Saree Makdisi.
I have been very active — and my husband even more so — in trying to have the U.S. intervene with Israel to end the occupation of the West Bank. I was recently in Israel and saw and heard about the heartbreaking effects of Israel’s policies vis-à-vis travel, employment, and so on. I came back very discouraged about Israel’s political ability to break through the impasse. The way to end the occupation lies with the U.S. I want to make the case with American Jews and with American politicians to press Israel to end the occupation.
I guarantee that nobody will listen to me if I am seen as promoting a book whose only way out of the present situation is a one-state solution. One state means the end of Israel as a democratic and Jewish state. I do not believe that should happen. I am placing all of my energies on promoting within the American Jewish community a practical solution that involves respecting the legitimate needs of Israelis and Palestinians and treating with empathy those on both sides.
I read recently — and I cannot remember whether it was in the Post or Times — about the idea of having Israel recognize publicly the forced dispersion of Palestinians and offer a financial settlement for the families that lost their property. This is something that we can get behind. Somehow, we must work together to end the standoff.
You are very good to take the time to write to me about how you feel. I respect your thoughts. I hope that you understand and respect my position.
To call this mealy-mouthed is giving it too much credit. She expects the protester to “respect her position” when there isn’t a single element in it that deserves respect. It is shot-full of moral equivocation and fear of some unspecified outcome that might occur should she have the courage of her convictions and do what independent bookstore owners are supposed to do: champion authors for the important ideas they espouse. A good bookstore doesn’t care whether someone supports a one-state, two-state or 20-state solution. It looks for good books that will provoke thought and debate and gain an audience.
The most troubling statement is that no one would “listen” to Cohen should she promote a book advocating a one-state solution. I have to say that I have not read this book. But I have read reviews of it and know the reputation of the author. In none of the reviews have I seen mention of the author’s advocacy of a particular solution to the conflict. And even if he had done so, why is Cohen’s audience incapable of hearing such an argument without running for the hills in disgust?
Are we so frightened of discussion that we must close our ears and eyes to ideas outside some vaguely defined consensus? This is self-censorship of the worst sort. I don’t just mean censorship of the author, but rather censorship imposed by Cohen on herself and her customers. And for what purpose? To protect them from dangerous ideas? To prevent her from going out of business due to the furor such an appearance might generate?
I have to tell you that while I despise much of the political argument advanced by the Israeli right, thinking like Cohen’s is at least as pernicious. Perhaps even more so. Because she fully believes she is an enlightened liberal, anti-Occupation and supporter of Palestinians. This in turn gives her the right to act as an Israeli rightist would in stifling the free exchange of ideas about the conflict. You remember the old witticism: “I love the human race. It’s people I can’t stand?” Well, Cohen opposes the Occupation. It’s just Palestinian ideas she can’t stand.
Oh and should you live in D.C. and want to buy a copy of Saree Makdisi’s book, don’t buy it (or anything else for that matter) at P&P. It’s probably banned anyway. Buy it here instead.
To register your own views:
Politics and Prose (202) 364-1919
books (at) politics-prose.com
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.