Controlling the Debate on Palestine, Israel

Controlling the Debate on Palestine, Israel

By Ramzy Baroud

The last time I spoke publicly in the United States before my current tour
was nearly four years ago. During this time I had travelled the world,
passing my message to people in nearly 20 countries. Wherever I went, my
calls for justice for the Palestinian people and for global alternatives to
racism and war were well-received. However, my latest talks in the US have
made me realize that the witch hunt on intellectuals that escalated rapidly
since September 11, 2001 is nowhere near over.

Doubtless, the US has long served as a focal site for intellectual freedom,
from which ground-breaking ideas have developed and spread throughout the
world. And despite incessant attempts to circumvent this historic reality,
most Americans still remain committed to their country’s founding
principles. It is this commitment that causes those interested in stifling
undesirable viewpoints to resort to the most disingenuous tactics,
half-truths and downright fabrication.

Norfolk, Virginia was the first leg of the tour for my last book, The Second
Palestinian Intifada. Co-existing with the town’s fourteen military bases is
an energetic and hugely inspiring antiwar community. To now be able to stand
among and share my views on peace and justice with these activists was a
truly heartening experience for me.

At Virginia Wesleyan University, I spoke about a myriad of topics, including
Palestine, Iraq, Venezuela, Nicaragua. I tend towards a cross-cultural
perspective to help my audience assess their relationship to issues beyond
geopolitical limitations, national arrogances and ethnocentricities.

On Palestine, I preached co-existence without prescribing any easy recipes.
Instead I outlined basic prerequisites. To achieve co-existence, justice is
a must, and to achieve justice, Israel needs to acknowledge its historic
injustices against the Palestinian people and make a commitment to
redressing them. Palestine cannot be single handedly expected to extract
peace from a belligerent Israeli government that has done its utmost to
undermine it.

I discussed suicide bombings in a context usually missing from mainstream
discourse, trying to delineate that such heinous acts are not a lifestyle
choice. One must be courageous enough to examine the roots of violence in
order to eliminate it; for Palestinian violence to end, the much more
costly, systematic and state-initiated Israeli violence and illegal
occupation must also stop. Palestinian suffering cannot be expected to
magically vanish for the sake of Israel’s security. To base one nation’s
security on depravation of another is nothing short of illegal, irrational,
and inhumane.

In my talk, I praised Palestinians for their courage in living up to the
diktats of democracy, and chastised those who ensured the demise of the once
promising Palestinian democratic experience, which could have served as a
model for democracies in the entire region. Palestinians should not be
starved and a civil war should not have been provoked to punish the
Palestinian people for electing a government that insists on the respect of
their people’s rights. I contested that Hamas’ Islamic ideas were hardly the
reason behind the US-Israeli violent response to their advent, and that
‘extremism’ and ‘moderation’ are not defined based on liberal ideals, but
are used to distinguish between those who are willing to serve as client
regimes and those who opt otherwise. I tried to imagine a future in which
Palestinians and Israelis can work together to escape the dark abyss brought
about by the Israeli and US governments, stressing that such a future cannot
be guaranteed with the hallow lip service to ‘peace’; it requires real
justice and equality.

Apparently my words did not move local Rabbi Israel Zoberman and his
comrades. They attended the talk after a local Jewish newspaper highlighted
the upcoming event on their front page: a ‘Pro Palestinian’ Journalist to
speak at Virginia Wesleyan. They came armed and ready to attack my integrity
before even hearing me speak. One after the other,  they hijacked the
questions; one alleged that in 1880 there were more Jews than Christians and
Muslims in Palestine. How does one respond to such a falsehood? Another
claimed that Israel has never ethnically cleansed one Palestinian. Not one?
A third claimed that by trying to contextualize suicide bombings, no matter
how well my intentions may be, I am justifying the horrific terrorism of
9/11. This accusation was by far the most devious. Zoberman himself accused
me of being a ‘Hamas sympathizer’, and since Hamas is on the US State
Department list of terrorist groups, well, you can do the math.

Infuriated by the fact that I refused compromise at a following event,
Zoberman began a campaign of letter-writing and phoning the University and
local newspaper, describing my message as ‘poisonous.’ He also chastised the
university for hosting my talk and demanded a change of course. The campaign
of defamation is yet to end.

Although this is not my first experience of such unfair and dishonest
smearing, the last few years have witnessed an increase in the Zionist
attempts to curb free debate on the Middle East in this country, from such
respected figures and intellectuals as Jimmy Carter and Desmond Tutu, Norman
Finkelstein, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt. In short, anyone who dares
question the US government’s Middle East policy or even recognize the rights
of the Palestinian people is a candidate for senseless attacks and (often)
of accusations of anti-Semitism. Fortunately this time, I was spared of the

The truth is, the greater the intimidation campaign, the more determined
many US intellectuals become in exposing the destructive role that Israel
has played in shaping US foreign policy. What Zionists in the US wish to
overlook is the fact that some of the most ardent supporters of Palestinian
rights are themselves Jewish, and that is simply because the question of
justice and peace is not hostage to ethnic or religious identities. That
intimidation may break the well of the weak, but the human spirit is too
strong to be shattered by smearing and arm-twisting. The truth will always
manage to find its way out to the people; in fact, in many respects, it
already has.

-Ramzy Baroud ( is an author and editor of His work has been published in many newspapers and
journals worldwide. His latest book is The Second Palestinian Intifada: A
Chronicle of a People’s Struggle (Pluto Press, London)