Public Comment

The Real Issue is Freedom of Speech

By Joanna Graham
Thursday July 16, 2009 - 10:47:00 AM

Although I am delighted and grateful that some person or persons took the time and trouble to produce the full page ad which appeared in the July 9 issue of the Berkeley Daily Planet and even more so that 138 members of the Bay Area Jewish community were moved to sign it, I am also relieved not to be one of the signatories, as I have some deep reservations about what the ad does and doesn’t say. 

Herewith, then, is my separate concurring statement, including an explanation of my reservations. To my mind, there is only one issue which needs to be addressed at this time and in this place, namely, the freedom of all persons to write what they wish about any subject, including but not restricted to the State of Israel, and the freedom of the editors of the Berkeley Daily Planet to publish these writings without fear of harassment, intimidation, or reprisal. Nevertheless, the people who published the ad decided to include among five separate items three which are off this subject, using the space to condemn three specific actions of the government of Israel. 

The decision to do so leads to several unfortunate consequences. First, it reduces an issue of broad and urgent importance to still another argument among Jews on a subject of which most people are tired. By doing so, it also leaves an opening for the “other side” to gather up “their” signatures (probably twice as many) and affix them to an opposing statement, such as “We are Jews and we support Israel’s right to defend itself by blah blah blah and we refuse to stand by ever again while blah blah blah.” A clear statement such as “We are Jews of many different opinions who often disagree with each other about Israel and other topics, but on this we are all agreed: we support free speech and therefore we support the Daily Planet” would have forestalled any such response. 

Furthermore, focusing on the one issue would have made it possible for some unknown but potentially large number of Jews to sign who might well have been willing to affirm free speech but who cannot agree with, or at least tolerate, these particular three items.Why should not a Jew, for instance, who believes that God has given the Jewish people Judea and Samaria forever, or even that all Arabs are cockroaches who should be drowned in the sea, not be given the opportunity to express his or her support for the Daily Planet’s commitment to air all views and to condemn the actions of a few who, while possibly sharing their opinions, are resorting to tactics which most must find abhorrent? 

In my view, as Norman Finkelstein says (look, John Gertz, I quoted him), we must leave aside the political opinions of Sinkinson, Spitzer, and Gertz as irrelevant. The issue is a simple one. These men are using Mafia-style tactics in an attempt to control what may or may not be said about Israel. Although they are (presumably) staying just this side of the law, they are harassing, intimidating, and deliberately causing people to fear that their livelihoods and possibly even their well-being is threatened. It is these tactics which we must oppose, not the political beliefs of the perpetrators, and we must never confuse the two issues. 

Finally, three cheers for Becky O’Malley who, without a dog in this fight and simply and purely because of her commitment to free speech, has helped to bring the longstanding and widespread practice of Zionist intimidation into the light of day. Because, despite O’Malley’s belief to the contrary, the current campaign is not an isolated incident perpetrated by a few crazies. It is business as usual which has been going on now for at least 61 years. Therefore, I hope we will all pitch in to insure that she wins (shop the Planet’s advertisers and tell them why!) because if she doesn’t, she’ll lose her paper, which would be sad for us all, but also because others—frightened off—will shun the battle, and still more time will elapse before public debate will ensue, not so much about Israel as about America’s extraordinary and almost unexamined entanglement with Israel with all its implications for our own lives and our country’s future. It is this latter, of course, which Messrs. Sinkinson, Spitzer, and Gertz et al. do not wish us to examine, because if we did, we might decide to sever it. They are protecting a “special relationship,” not for the sake of America, nor even for the sake of the Jews (although that’s what they claim), but for Israel’s sake. Why should any of us surrender our civil liberties to forward their agenda? 


Joanna Graham is a Berkeley resident and frequent contributor to the Planet’s opinion pages.