Posted on January 19, 1998 in Washington Watch
In a tough-worded editorial entitled “The New McCarthyism”, The New York Times’ Anthony Lewis decried the decision of Washington’s Smithsonian Institution to bend to pressure from right-wing Jewish groups and change their planned lecture series on Israel’s 50-year anniversary.
The Smithsonian’s program was to have been called “Israel at 50: Yesterday’s Dreams, Today’s Realities” and was to have been cosponsored by the New Israel Fund (NIF), which had initiated the idea for the lecture series. The NIF is a liberal Jewish group that promotes democracy within Israel, supports several projects that serve Israel’s Palestinian Arab community and refuses to engage in any activity in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
What raised the ire of the far right was the fact that the NIF-Smithsonian program was to have attempted, from a “post-Zionist” perspective, the present a more or less balanced view of Israel’s current reality. The program was to feature speakers critical of Israeli policy, such as journalist Thomas Friedman of The New York Times; Israeli professor Ehud Spriznak, who has been critical of Israel’s right wing; and Azmi Bishara, an Arab member of Israel’s Knesset. The program was to have provided discussions of: the impact of the occupation of Arab land on Israeli society, Israel’s treatment of its Arab minority and the growing gulf between the Orthodox Jews and other elements of Israeli society.
The response from pro-Likud Jewish groups was predictable. They condemned the Smithsonian for presenting a “one-sided negative view” of Israel. They enlisted right-wing newspapers like the Washington Times and the New York Post to help make their case. Furthermore, they received support from right-wing members of Congress like Republican Mike Forbes of New York who wrote to the Smithsonian threatening hearings on the matter. Since the Smithsonian relies on Congressional funding, this amounted to a significant threat.
In the end, the Smithsonian bowed to the pressure campaign, withdrew their cosponsorship with the NIF and decided to redesign the entire program.
It was the NIF that first used the term “Jewish McCarthyism” to describe the pressure campaign against their program. It was an appropriate term. McCarthyism, of course, refers to the infamous campaign begun by the Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy who terrorized Washington in the 1950s. In his overzealous pursuit of Communists, the Senator launched a wave of fear and intimidation that caused thousands of innocent people to be blacklisted and persecuted.
This same tactic of smearing one’s opponents and seeking to isolate and intimidate those who hold differing points of view has long been a tool used by some pro-Israel groups. They have used it to repress debate within the Jewish community, and they have used it with varying degrees of success against Arab Americans as well.
In 1985, following the murder of Arab American activist Alex Odeh, I wrote to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission complaining of this tactic used by some U.S. Jewish groups against Arab Americans.
“… These acts of violence and threats of violence against Arab American organizations are but part of a larger picture of discrimination, harassment and intimidation. We can document numerous instances of active political discrimination against Arab Americans, ‘blacklisting’ of Arab American political activists and spokespersons, and efforts to ‘bait’ or taint Arab American leaders and organizations as ‘terrorists’ or ‘terrorist supporters.’
“All of these actions and practices create a climate in which Arab Americans b3ecome fearful of speaking freely and participating in legitimate political activity. Further, these practices serve to embolden the political opponents of Arab Americans to the point where, as we have seen, some have escalated their opposition to include acts of violence against Arab Americans and their organizations. …”
I described this effort as a political agenda that had as its focus “nothing less than the total silencing of the Arab American community, its organizations and its leaders.”
Negative campaigns of this sort continued unabated through the early 1990’s. Following the September 13, 1993, signing on the White House lawn, these attacks subsided and, for a while, only fringe groups from the far right continued to smear Arab American organizations and their leaders.
Now it appears the anti-Arab campaign may be starting over again.
In a recent syndicated column, the former Executive Director of AIPAC (the pro-Israel lobby) Neal Sher wrote the article “Why Zogby’s actions don’t match his rhetoric.”
While the article pretends to be a criticism of my views (selectively excerpted from this weekly column), Sher’s real target is the White House which he condemns for having included me as a participant in a recent conference on Hate Crimes. Sher’s point is crystal clear – the White House should not invite Arab American leaders like me who criticize Israeli policy.
This is the old tactic of attempting to smear and isolate Arab Americans, thereby denying us full rights as citizens.
Sher’s article was followed by another longer piece entitled “Israel’s Arab Detractors – Back Again”, written by AIPAC’s Director of Policy Analysis Michael Lewis.
Lewis began his article “James Zogby, President of the Arab American Institute (AAI), and over the years, one of Israel’s foremost detractors in the United States….”
Included in the nine-page piece is the author’s highly biased description of 15 Arab American and Middle East-related organizations, to which Lewis refuses to grant any legitimacy. They are, for him, merely anti-Israel vehicles. They should not be recognized or accepted, he argues, until they cease their criticism of the Jewish State’s policies.
The old game is back. It is McCarthyism to be sure, and its targets are both Arab American institutions and some Jewish organizations that criticize Israeli policy.
The good news is that this effort, though burdensome, will not succeed. The Sher article, for example, was criticized in writing by a number of Jewish leaders and one prominent State Department official. The debate over Israeli policy is too crucial and too vigorous to shut down because of threats and intimidation. Moreover, the divisions in the Jewish community are too deeply rooted to be silenced. What is also true is that Arab Americans have succeeded in establishing their presence in U.S. politics, and while still vulnerable to attack, will not be isolated and silenced as they were in the past.
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