The Erosion of Free Speech


You’ve got to fight. It’s the only conclusion I can draw as I see the renewed erosion of our freedom to discuss the Middle East. The most recent example and the most shameful is the cowardly decision of the New York Theatre Workshop to cancel the Royal Court’s splendid production of My Name Is Rachel Corrie.

It’s the story in her own words and emails of the brave young American woman who travelled to Gaza to protect innocent Palestinians and who stood in front of an Israeli bulldozer in an attempt to prevent the driver from destroying a Palestinian home. The bulldozer drove over her and then reversed and crushed her a second time. ‘My back is broken,’ she said before she died.

An American heroine, Rachel earned no brownie points from the Bush Administration which bangs on about courage and freedom from oppression every few minutes. Rachel’s was the wrong sort of courage and she was defending the freedom of the wrong people. But when I read that James Nicola, the New York Theatre Workshop’s ‘artistic director’ his title really should be in quotation marks had decided to ‘postpone’ the play ‘indefinitely’ because (reader, hold your breath) ‘in our pre-production planning and our talking around and listening in our communities (sic) in New York, what we heard was that after Ariel Sharon’s illness and the election of HAMAS … we had a very edgy situation,’ I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

So let’s confront this tomfoolery.

Down in Australia, my old mate Antony Loewenstein, a journalist and academic, is having an equally vile time. He has completed a critical book on the Israel/Palestine conflict for Melbourne University Publishing, and Jewish communities in Australia are trying to have it censored out of existence before it appears in August. Last year, Federal Labor MP Michael Danby, who like Loewenstein is Jewish, wrote a letter to the Australian Jewish News demanding that Loewenstein’s publishers should ‘drop this whole disgusting project.’ The book, he said, would be ‘an attack on the mainstream Australian Jewish community.’ Now the powerful New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies has weighed in against Loewenstein, and efforts are under way to deprive him of his place on the board of Macquarie University’s Centre for Middle East and North African Studies.

A one-off bit of skulduggery on Israel’s behalf? Alas, no. A letter arrived for me last week from Israeli-American Barbara Goldscheider whose novel Al-Naqba, The Catastrophe (North Atlantic Books) has just been published. She has been attacked, she told me,

merely because I chose an Arabic title to my novel on the [Palestinian-Israeli] conflict … My brother-in-law has broken his relationship with me before he even read the book … From members of my ‘Orthodox’ Jewish congregation in Bangor (Maine), I received a phone call from an irate ‘friend’ sputtering … out: ‘Don’t you know the Arabs want to destroy Israel?’

A talk on her new novel scheduled to take place last month at a conservative synagogue was cancelled ‘due to the uproar about my novel.’ A Boston professor has mercifully written to Goldscheider with what I regard as bloody good advice: ‘There’s a vicious campaign out there,’ he said. ‘Don’t cave in.’

But what do you do when a publisher or an ‘artistic director’ caves in? I found out for myself not long ago when the Military History Society of Ireland asked permission to reprint a paper I had published some years ago on a battle between the Irish Army’s UN battalion in southern Lebanon and Israel’s proxy and brutal Lebanese militia, the so called ‘South Lebanon Army,’ whose psychotic commander was a cashiered Lebanese army Major called Saad Haddad.

In the paper, I mentioned how an Israeli Major called Haim extorted money from the inhabitants of the south Lebanese village of Haris and I gave the code name of an Israeli agent ‘Abu Shawki’ who was present at the murder of two Irish soldiers.

I had published these details many times, both in my own newspaper and in my previous book on the Lebanon war, Pity the Nation. Major Haddad died of cancer more than 10 years ago. I actually met Haim in the early 1980s as he emerged from a meeting with the mayor of Haris from whom he demanded money to pay Israel’s cruel militiamen the UN was also present and recorded his threats while ‘Abu Shawki,’ whom the Irish police would like to interview, later tried to arrest me in Tyre and immediately freed me when I told him I knew that he was a witness to the murder of the two Irish soldiers.

So what was I supposed to do when I received the following letter from ex-Brigadier General Patrick Purcell of the Irish Army?:

Unfortunately we have been forced to withdraw (your) article in view of a letter from our publisher Irish Academic Press. It is clear from our contract that (our) Society would be responsible in the event of a libel action.

The enclosed letter from publisher Frank Cass advised that his lawyer had ‘cautioned’ him because I had described Haddad as ‘psychotic,’ named the blackmailing Israeli Major and named the Israeli agent present at the two murders. It’s interesting that Mr Cass’s lawyer believes it is possible to libel a man (Haddad) who has been dead for more than a decade, even more so that he should think that publishing a military code name would prompt this rascal to expose his real identity in a court of law.

As for Major Haim, he remains on UN files as the man who tried and apparently succeeded in forcing the people of southern Lebanon to cough up the cash to pay for their own oppressors.

And the moral of all this? Well obviously, don’t contribute articles to the Military History Society of Ireland. But more to the point, I better remember what I wrote in The Independent (UK) just over six years ago, that ‘the degree of abuse and outright threats now being directed at anyone … who dares to criticise Israel … is fast reaching McCarthyite proportions. The attempt to force the media to obey Israel’s rules is … international.’

And growing, I should now add.

This article first appeared in The Independent (UK) on 11 March 2006.

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