[NOTE: Almost 30 years ago I wrote this letter to the student newspaper at the U of M that amounted to my first public expression on Palestine. It was in defence of a (then-unknown) grad student named Nahlah Ayed, who had written a fairly mild but critical review of Sandra Bernhard’s show in Winnipeg (partly for anti-Arab jokes and racism). The vitriol that was directed Nahlah’s way for a) being Palestinian and b) having the audacity to criticize a well-known Jewish comedian for racist stereotyping and jokes, was hardly surprising. It’s not a great letter. I would word things differently today. (For example, the term “Arab-Israeli conflict” is not one that I would actually employ today — it is a misleading and homogenizing framing – and frankly, there has also been a lot of mythologizing about Mesoamerican indigenous human sacrifice that owes more to colonizer representations than historical reality.) But the original spirit of the letter still stands, in my opinion. And Nahlah, obviously, continued writing.]
Letter to the Editor: The “Balancing” Act
Published in The Manitoban (June 23, 1993)
Pamela Reiss has a low opinion of the intellectual capacities of U of M students. In her June 2nd response to Nahlah Ayed’s article “If you think Arabs are nuts, read this” (April 7), she raised concerns about editorial balance – arguing that because Ayed’s piece appeared in the last regular session issue of the Manitoban, no opportunity existed for “the other side” to make its case. Many people, she claims, “will not know that there is a completely different opinion concerning the issues about which [Ayed] wrote” – namely, concerning Israel and the Palestinians. Reiss goes on to caution readers against blind acceptance: we shouldn’t take everything at “face value,” she writes, “not every issue is black and white,” “we have to question what we read,” and so on. The implication is that students are in danger of being swayed by Ayed’s article because it reached some 15,000 readers, whereas opposing responses might only reach 7,000 during the Manitoban’s summer months.
Reiss seems to believe that students need to be guided through difficult political issues (such as the Middle East) because they are incapable of reading between the lines and questioning the underlying assumptions of an argument. In short, they lack the necessary critical faculties which she (apparently) possesses. One craftily-placed article sympathetic to the Palestinians is all it takes to disrupt the liberal balance which Reiss claims to uphold.
But what kind of “balance” does Reiss believe in? She implies that Ayed’s editorial is racist because it “slammed people of a specific religion and of a specific country” – that is, Israeli Jews. First, it is simply untrue that the article attacked Jewish religion or culture. Second, the notion that religious or cultural practices are above criticism is extremely dangerous. Following this logic, criticism of Aztec human sacrifice, the Spanish Inquisition or the subordination of women in contemporary societies (including our own), could be suppressed in the name of religious or cultural “toleration”. Third, the notion that criticism of a country’s foreign or domestic policy implies anything about the inherent attributes of its people (i.e., has anything to do with racism) is absurd. It was not racist to “slam” the Nazis for the gas chambers and concentration camps. It is not racist to “slam” the Guatemalan government today for its death squads and campaign of state terror.
Not only is it not racist to censure the Israeli government for its systematic violation of Palestinian human rights, its invasions of Lebanon (in 1978 and 1982), its continued violation of international law and its military support for dictatorships in Central America and Africa, but it is ethically required that we do so – whether we are an Israeli citizen or a Canadian, whether we are Jewish, Muslim, Christian or atheist.
Marla Altman’s letter (in the same issue) raises similar objections about “balance,” but goes one step further by casting doubt on Ayed’s commitment to openness, and ultimately, peace itself. This kind of ad hominem attack is a common recourse for defenders of the indefensible. Without an argument (not one of Ayed’s points is addressed), Altman throws mud.
Finally, in the context of a discussion about Israel, Reiss and Altman’s objections about balance are nonsense. There has almost never been balanced coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict in the Canadian and U.S. media. Prior to, and during the Gulf War, Israel was invariably portrayed as the helpless victim – under siege from all quarters by Arab and/or Islamic “terrorists.” Palestinians and other Arab peoples have invariably been portrayed as religious zealots – intransigent, violent, full of hate. In essence, the media has presented the issues from the Israeli government’s perspective about 95 percent of the time and fostered racist stereotypes against Arabs and Muslims. Judging from their attacks on Ayed’s character, Reiss and Altman both want the kind of “balance” which maintains this hegemonic disparity – a “balance” which equates political and ethical criticism of Israeli atrocities with racism or close-minded opposition to peace.