Today’s Washington Post brings dueling statements by DC bookstore owner Carla Cohen and Saree Makdisi about the controversy she initiated when she invited him to speak and then disinvited him. In doing so, she claimed that hosting him would mean she could never be taken seriously again the DC community. In his statement, Makdisi further discloses that Cohen wrote to him:
“I do not believe that your book will further constructive debate in the United States. A single state is not a solution.”
Cohen is dead wrong on both counts. First, Makdisi is not only a respected English professor at UCLA. He is a respected Palestinian-American analyst of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His book has been favorably reviewed by distinguished individuals like Desmond Tutu and Tony Judt. Cohen may disagree with Makdisi’s views (as I do), but how can she possibly claim it “will not further constructive debate?” This is patently untrue. Second, a one-state solution IS a solution. It may not be the one she or I or most Israelis or American Jews would advocate. But it’s certainly a legitimate approach to resolving the conflict and deserves being debated as such.
In her own Washington Post statement, she made some questionable and dubious claims:
When I finally got a chance to read his book, especially its conclusion, I was very disturbed. As an American Jew, I support Israel, but I disapprove of its policies in the West Bank. I have been active in organizations and in programs expressing my opposition to the occupation by Israel and its policies toward the Palestinians.
I’m sorry, but anyone can make such claims. The fact that says nothing about what she specifically has done on this score does not confirm her bona fides as a critic of the Occupation.
Makdisi’s critique of Israel was not what bothered me; it was his solution. He advocates one state in the place of the partition that was established by the United Nations in 1947. His solution would result in the elimination of the state of Israel.
Not quite. It would result in the elimination of a JEWISH state called Israel and replace it with a state closer to the U.S. model in which no religion dominates; but all are guaranteed the right of worship. Again, I want to make clear that I am not in favor of a one-state solution. But calling a one-state solution eliminationist as Cohen does, is overheated rhetoric.
What is more, there is no guarantee that such a state would be democratic since, except for Israel, there is no history of democracy in the Middle East.
I’m starting to believe that Cohen got her talking points from the ADL or American Jewish Committee. It is informed by their erroneous characterizations of Arab societies in the Middle East. There IS a guarantee that such a state would be democratic since the Palestinians actually held a democratic election in 2006 which chose Hamas to run the PA. Neither Carla Cohen, the ADL or AJC like the choice the Palestinians made so it’s as if no election was held at all. But one WAS held and presumably more will be held in future.
Further, Lebanon is a democratic society. It is not a terribly successful democracy presently. But it IS a democracy. And has she forgotten Turkey, another Middle Eastern democracy? Isn’t it interesting how selective Jews can be when they wish to present Israel as perfectly virtuous and the Arabs as the opposite?
I feel that we in America, both Jews and Palestinians, have an obligation to lean on the United States to be a mediator to promote a peaceful conclusion to hostilities. My opposition to Makdisi’s book is that I found no such commitment. He is highly critical of Israel but not of the Palestinians or the Arab nations.
This statement is simply a jumbled mess. She feels that Jews and Palestinians have an obligation to pressure the U.S. to mediate the conflict. But Makdisi doesn’t feel the same way? While I don’t know his precise views on this I would highly doubt that he opposes the idea that the U.S. should play an honest broker role in the conflict.
Finally, I didn’t know that an author writing a book about the I-P conflict had to write a book which blames each side equally. Since when is that, or should that be a criteria for judging a book’s worth? Since when should that even be a criteria for judging whether an author is worthy of appearing at a bookstore to promote a book?
Cohen spends almost her entire statement defending and explaining why she cancelled Makdisi’s appearance and tosses off this startling one sentence:
Nevertheless, I now believe that I was mistaken to cancel Saree Makdisi’s presentation at Politics and Prose.
She never explains why she changed her mind. By not doing so, she leaves herself open to the suspicion that she is doing so not for the right reasons (i.e. principle) but rather for the wrong reasons (fear of falling out of favor with DC’s liberal cultural community). In fact, I suspect that she wishes she’d never agreed to have Makdisi at the bookstore to begin with.
How firm can someone be in their conviction that they made a mistake if, when someone criticizes them as I did her in a private e mail, she writes to me that she wishes she could now take back her re-invitation (because she found my criticism “beyond insulting”)?
My impression, not knowing Cohen or her bookstore, is that she is a confused and frightened individual when it comes to the I-P conflict (a characteristic of many American Jews). She seemingly hasn’t done enough serious thinking on the subject to have strong convictions and the strength of those convictions.
I have lived in many American cities with wonderful independent bookstores like Politics and Prose. I’ve shopped in many of them too. But I’ve never heard an instance in which such a store invited an author and then disinvited him or her because his or her political views were seen as unacceptable to the owner. This is an astonishing phenomenon and one that Cohen’s customers should consider in making their future purchasing choices.
But do go hear Saree Makdisi at Politics and Prose and buy his book there or elsewhere (or here). Show Carla Cohen that if her heart isn’t in supporting a diverse range of debate about the I-P conflict, her community doesn’t feel the same way.
I have just written this letter to the Post editor about the controversy:
Dear Editor: I am a progressive American Jewish Zionist who has written the Tikun Olam blog since 2003, advocating Israeli-Palestinian peace. I have been following closely the controversy over Carla Cohen’s cancellation of Saree Makdisi’s appearance at her bookstore. What happened here is unfortunately a fairly common occurrence in the American Jewish community. People like Carla Cohen are frightened of ideas, like a one-state solution, that stray beyond the Jewish consensus. That’s why Saree Makdisi’s book threatened her Jewish world view. That’s why she cancelled him. That’s why talks about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by Stanford professor Joel Beinin, NYU professor Tony Judt, and Steven Walt and John Mearsheimer, have also been cancelled in other communities. People, especially Jews, are afraid of what Israel skeptics have to say.
I have lived in many communities with wonderful independent bookstores like Politics and Prose and I’ve never heard of any which invited an author and then disinvited him or her because his or her politics was deemed too contentious. That is why I believe Carla Cohen wildly overreacted in this case.
I am pleased that she has reconsidered her ill-considered original decision. But I am concerned based on what she’s written in the Post and to me privately that she has done so for the wrong reasons. When I criticized her original decision in an e mail, she replied that after reading my criticism she wished she would not have re-invited Makdisi. If someone genuinely believes they made a mistake, why should criticism make them want to revert to their original supposedly mistaken view?
My sense is that Carla Cohen values her good reputation in the Washington DC liberal community. She changed her mind because she feared that she would lose its approbation. In other words, she changed her mind out of fear, rather than because she saw the light and decided to do the right thing.
Carla Cohen claims Makdisi supports a one-state solution. I support a two-state solution. But unlike Cohen, Makdisi’s views do not threaten me and they should not threaten her nor anyone else. The more open discussion there is of this conflict the more likely we will be able to solve it.