Yesterday, I posted about a D.C. independent bookstore owner, Carla Cohen, who disinvited Palestinian-American author, Saree Makdisi from an author appearance. She claimed she could never be “taken seriously” if she allowed an advocate of a one-state solution to speak at her store. Besides my blog post objecting to her rejection, I wrote her an e mail in which among other things I called her a “wimp” (and believe me that was the strongest language I used). Unfortunately, the information I was provided and on which I based my post was out of date.
Ms. Cohen wrote back today that she had reconsidered her decision. Since she wrote vaguely I called the store to confirm that Makdisi has been reinvited and they are waiting for his confirmation. This is all to the good and Cohen deserves credit for recognizing her mistake and correcting it.
But I was troubled by her reply to me:
Your letter is so rude that it makes me wish that I had not reconsidered my position. If you are the kind of “enlightened liberal” I am supposed to emulate, spare me. I was wrong, but your email is beyond insulting.
I want to tell you that the letters from Palestinians were polite and well thought out (unlike your ephitets and name calling). I have made an effort to answer them as they deserve.
How sincere is a person in acknowledging a mistake when they express a wish they hadn’t done so? And all because I took her to task for her error? And for her to feel specially aggrieved because she was treated better by Palestinians than by a fellow Jew seems, well, silly.
Cohen seems to think that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one that must be discussed over cups of demitasse. She doesn’t realize how deep the emotions are over this. She doesn’t realize that injustices like the one she thought to perpetrate generate real hurt among the victims. She doesn’t realize that we are called upon to be witnesses to this conflict and to help end it to the best of our abilities. Her commitment clearly flags. She did the right thing though I fear possibly for the wrong reasons (fear of being ostracized for her intolerant decision).
Had there not been a controversy, I probably would not have gone to hear him. Now, if he does indeed accept the reinvitation, you can be sure i’ll be there, if only to hear what scandalous and heretic opinions the professor holds on to that almost got him banned from a liberal bookstore. So there is a silverlining in this whole episode. Maybe Ms. Cohen manufactured this whole thing in order to do a favor to Makdisi and get him some publicity? Maybe she planned this ban and cancellation of the ban in order to get him a a bigger turnout than he would have gotten without it? Let’s give her the benefit of the doubt… In any case, we’re all in this for the long run, and we need to strive to make coalitions with other people and groups, not create strife and bad feelings. So I wish to thank Carla for having the courage to reconsider her original position, and reinvite Makdisi in the true spirit of freedom of thought and expression.
Just a short linguistic note:
Carla Cohen to Silverstein: “I want to tell you that the letters from Palestinians were polite and well thought out (unlike your ephitets and name calling).”
I personally don’t think you went anywhere near overboard. But, then again, you are a lion fighting in a lion’s den, and she is — I must admit I had a good laugh when I read it — “drinking cups of demitasse.”
And she doesn’t get another obvious fact of life: the things you say to your family members who piss you off are quite different than what you would say to neighbors across the street. Your writing style to her (contrary to how she perceives it) is indicative of intra-familial caring and love. Indeed, when Palestinians start writing and talking like you do, Richard – that’d be a great sign: it will mean they’re becoming family!
in fairness to carla cohen, why don’t you show us your entire email to her so that we might decide for ourselves whether you went over the line richard? you know im completely on your side here and yes she is worse than a wimp, but you quote her and not yurself
Richard Silverstein says
Here’s my note:
I thought by mentioning that I used the word “wimp” that I’d revealed the strongest terms I used in the email. But you can be the judge now.
Mary Hughes-Thompson says
Here’s the first part of Saree Makdisi’s letter in the Washington Post today, followed by the link to the entire piece:
Banned in the U.S.A. (Almost)
Sunday, June 8, 2008; Page B08
I didn’t think America was a place where bookstores barred people for their viewpoints, until it happened to me, right here in Washington, D.C., the city of my birth.
I was scheduled to speak at Politics & Prose Bookstore and Coffeehouse last month about my latest book, “Palestine Inside Out: An Everyday Occupation.” My appearance was canceled when the bookstore owners realized that my book concludes by questioning the viability of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Instead it proposes a single democratic, secular and multicultural state in which Israelis and Palestinians live peacefully as citizens with equal rights.
For Makdisi’s complete letter go to: