Posted by Thomas Nephew on December 19th, 2010
Children with “We March for Hope not Hate” sign
at 10/2/10 “One Nation” demonstration
( Click for “One Nation” slide show).
The “One Nation” event — already unimaginably long ago, more than two months! — at least succeeded in discomfiting one fellow who needed it. John Avlon — the smug author of the unbearable “Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Taking Over America” — was unaccountably assigned to the rally by the Daily Beast to confirm his superiority over attendees. He reported:
The signs started off badly as I approached the Washington Mall. “Yes We Can… Bomb Civilians!” read the first sign I saw, held aloft by a 2008 Ralph Nader supporter from Providence, Rhode Island, named Adrian. Behind him, representatives from “The World Can’t Wait” positioned a black-hooded orange-jumpsuited effigy to protest Guantanamo next to signs that read “Stop Occupation and Torture for Empire!”
A pre-game rally south of the Washington Monument featured drum circles and papier maché puppets. President Obama was called an “imperialist president” who was insensitive to the “African community” and “the 2.5 million people in concentration camps called prisons.”
I’ve never been sure what’s wrong with drum circles and paper mache puppets, and I’m pretty sure nothing’s wrong with confronting a supercilious prig or his readers with the facts of mass imprisonment in the U.S., bombing civilians, occupation, torture, or an assertion of empire that matches facts and is actually embraced by leading thinkers on the right. But if there is something wrong with it, I guess we’ll all just have to live with ourselves.
Next, though, Avlon noticed some more debatable signs — but just as debatably classified them all as anti-Semitic, un-American and beyond the pale:
The curious migration of anti-Semitism to the left was evident in signs that read “End All U.S. Aid to the Racist State of Israel” and “Fund Jobs, Not Israel.” I cringed as these marchers crowded past a group of World War II vets from Columbus, Ohio, being wheeled to their war memorial as part of the excellent “Honor Flight” program.
Why those vets would necessarily care one way or the other — either about Israel or about what protesters think of it — is presumably clear to Mr. Avlon, but was left unexplained for the rest of us. It’s one thing to say these demonstration participants were somewhat off the main message of the day — jobs, employment, economic help for those needing it rather than for those not needing it. (Though their signs did arguably match the One Nation principle of providing “greater national investment in new jobs, improved infrastructure, and public education instead of escalating military spending.”)
But Avlon’s objection was broader: these people had no valid point whatever, and their failings indicted the demonstration as a whole. To me, that’s an insidious sentiment of its own.
Americans for Peace Now video about interactive settlements map
“Facts on the Ground” (http://map.peacenow.org)
It’s admittedly a serious matter to classify a state as a racist one — but if the yardstick is systematic, unequal treatment of minorities within its jurisdictions and territories, then sadly the United States qualifies, and Israel arguably qualifies as well. When a country’s policies result in such disparities, it isn’t attacking the race of its citizens to take issue with that country or another country’s relationship to it. With all due (and I can only assert real) sympathy for Jewish and Israeli history, looking at the map of the West Bank introduced to the right begs the question: if not racism, if not apartheid, then what is it? Whatever the most exquisitely appropriate word turns out to be, is this not a similar thing that we ought to oppose as well?
Criticism of Israeli policies and actions must be judged on its content. It is both true and deeply troubling that anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiment may be cloaked in criticism of specific Israeli government policies and actions. At the same time, it is both true and deeply troubling that some Israeli policies and actions merit legitimate and harsh criticism. The notion that Israel’s best defense is a good offense — that supporters of Israel are better off attacking Israel’s critics and blindly defending Israeli behavior, rather than taking an honest look at Israel’s policies and actions — should trouble anyone who cares about the character of Israel’s society and Israel’s democracy.
All that said, I didn’t take a “Racist State” sign from a pile, but a different one about ending wars next to it. While it isn’t necessarily anti-Semitic, I confess it looks enough like it — it discomfits me enough — that I didn’t want to go there. Maybe it’s inconsistent of me, but I do want to keep faith and ties with friends — even ex-friends — who would be terribly offended about calling Israel a racist state, even as I share the protesters’ skepticism about Israeli policies and the wisdom of unstintingly supporting those policies. To be sure, the point of protests is to protest injustice and demand change. The question becomes whether your protests accurately describe the injustice, and effectively facilitate that change.
Yet I do go to rallies, and I go knowing there will be signs discomfiting not just the easily startled, pearl clutching John Avlons of the world, but my own fairly conventional self as well. I go because my point and those of the overwhelming majority of protesters are ones I support. I go despite suspecting that some small fraction of the demonstrators may, on close inspection, prove to be anti-Semitic, or racist towards other minorities, or supporters of violence.
This is all occasioned, well after the fact, by the bitter condemnations of a former Jewish friend — call him X — about the “One Nation” demonstration, and it would appear about me. For all that this is personal, small scale stuff, it’s been one of the main negative events of the year for me, and it’s only now that I can think about it a little objectively again.
When I posted the photograph above to Facebook, the innocuous sign and the children holding it must have seemed a lie to him, because he wrote “Tell your friends to stop hating Jews” beneath it. If I knew I had friends who hated Jews, they wouldn’t be my friends any more, I replied; some friends replied saying they *are* Jewish and don’t support current Israeli settlement and Palestinian policies; X, if I remember correctly, said those are the worst kind of anti-Jewish people, with their “heads so far up their a**es they’re looking out their mouth again.” (He subsequently deleted his comments, so there’s no record to refer to.) I was really shocked; I don’t exaggerate when I say I felt the blood drain from my face when I read his comments.
There had been previous exchanges on X’s Facebook page; while I was sometimes pointed I was never impolite, let alone anti-Semitic. He had initiated these exchanges, but in retrospect it’s clear he wanted concurrence, not discussion; some were about the Muslim community center near the former World Trade Center, one was about a September TIME Magazine article he considered defamatory. (On reading Karl Vick’s “Why Israel Doesn’t Care About Peace,” I thought it mostly anecdotal, though supported by some survey data — i.e., the kind of zeitgeist article that has always been TIME’s stock in trade.)
At any rate, I asked other friends to not weigh in with additional comments, explained that I valued X’s friendship, and wrote X an email suggesting we work things out in private, if possible. He answered briefly, confirming that our earlier disagreements had left him seething, and promising a longer reply. It never came. A while later, I saw X had ‘defriended’ me on Facebook (i.e., I wouldn’t be able to read his occasional posts to the world there and he wouldn’t be able to read mine).
This seems like a minor thing, and I guess in the bigger scheme of things it is. But it’s fairly painful to me, both because I really had valued X’s friendship, and because given the fairly wide circle of shared friends, I felt somewhat defamed myself. I explained my version of events to my brother and a couple of other friends who remain friends with X, at least in the Facebook sense of the word. And I left it at that — until now, I suppose, though I don’t have much to add that is new.
Free speech isn’t free.
I don’t mean this in the “because soldiers died for it” way (the last time that was true was World War II, it seems to me). I just mean that it comes with consequences. There’s nothing I would change about anything I said or the demonstrations I attend, but this seems like one of the clearest examples of those things costing me more than I had anticipated. What happened was also a re-evaluation — a revaluation as it were — of something I considered a friendship or something like one. Whatever it was, it was less than I thought; however illusory the friendship, though, the cost was real to me, and the realization remained painful. As does the accusation. One of the earliest political attitudes I remember forming was basically “never, ever be a part of anything like what was done to the Jews in Europe.” I’m not the most objective judge of whether I’ve lived up to that, but to hear something like “Tell your friends to stop hating Jews” was like asking them to stop beating their wives. How can I? Why would I? They don’t.
What X and John Avlon have in common is that they seem to want me and my friends to simply stop saying what we’re saying — at least when it calls their favored nations into question. That’s their free speech and that’s their right. But I think it’s an insidious, quashing, lesser form of debate to declare viewpoints beyond the pale or ridiculous the way they do, rather than take up those viewpoints on their merits or demerits.
Genuinely free, sometimes dissenting, sometimes annoying speech is all too rare as it is. Yet it’s a feature of a functioning democracy, not a bug. It’s why we can at least hope we’re not all agreeing to do the wrong thing just because we never heard of a better one. The one nation I belong to engages with dissent — it doesn’t penalize or quash it.