I was very pleased to read Michelle Alexander's piece in the New York Times. While in radical circles it has become increasingly impossible to reconcile a leftist politics with support to actually existing Zionism, the well-known ability of politically softer left liberals to create a comfort zone where they can be progressive about everything except Israel has continued unperturbed for far too long. This article seriously signals the coming to an end of this comfort zone. I think liberals will increasingly have to choose what in their own language will be something like: are we for justice or are we for Zionist Israel? To be sure this is hardly the first time a liberal expresses these views (let alone Palestinians themselves and radical academics and activists). There has been some major mainstream White American liberals, such as ex-President Jimmy Carter, who have long joined in the condemnation of the various forms of injustices and oppressions that Israel has meted on Palestinians. Still, the ability of zionists to wield symbolic power and marginalise such views in the mainstream media has remained considerable. I think what the Alexander piece signifies more than anything else is the erosion of this zionist symbolic power in one of the spaces that used to be saturated with it. Thus its importance. It signals to many people who are liberals, and who are ready to take a stand regarding injustice in Palestine, but have been scared to speak for fear of professional marginalisation, that it is finally ok to do so.
As is often the case regarding zionist symbolic power, the Australian scene shows similar tendencies. And there is no doubt that speaking strongly about justice in Palestine is liable to marginalise you in mainstream newspapers and television. My own experience in Australia has been that it is much easier to speak in strong terms about racism towards immigrants and indigenous people than it is to speak about Israel/Palestine. And those who stop you from speaking are not hard core zionists. They are soft liberals who think they have a finely tuned sense of 'balance' and a 'reasonable' and 'just' view of 'what both sides need to do'. These conservatives (in the sense that their views have been crucial for 'conserving' things as they are) do so while arrogantly thinking of themselves as morally superior. They know much less than they think they do and yet they feel entitled to lecture people who try to disrupt their comfortable conservative moral space.
My experience with Geraldine Doogue has been exemplary in this respect. Here was a exceptionally nice person and an as liberal as they come journalist with whom I had a really good professional relation. I liked what she did and she liked the way I spoke about issues of racism and migration in Australia. It is something that happened almost ten years ago now and I have never talked about it privately or publicly. But I think that there is some value in talking about it, for academics who want to speak publicly in mainstream media about Palestine, and for journalists who are covering such public speaking.
As I said, Geraldine interviewed me many times and even referred to me as a regular on her program at one point. And I think we had a good personal rapport. I felt that she liked me personally and I liked her. So the vibes during these interviews were good. Still, the moment we moved to talk about Israel everything changed. We had one single interview that went disastrously badly and never went to air. We corresponded following the interview but there was clearly no actual communication in that correspondence.
I wrote to her saying that I didn't enjoy the interview and that: "I also wanted to share with you the fact that aside from the general nature of the interview, I was particularly upset with your ‘do you believe in Israel’s right to exist’ question. It is a racialising question. Suddenly, it seemed that you had stopped seeing me as an Australian and as an academic, and your question foregrounded me as some kind of ‘representative of ‘the Arabs’. Why else would you direct this ridiculous question to me?"
To this she replied as if she did not even note what I said or that I what I said meant nothing to her at all:
"To this moment, I don’t understand why (what was in my view) a perfectly reasonable request for a statement about Israel’s inherent right to exist, elicited such emotion in you. I simply listened to the list you were making of what might have to change for some forward-movement and assumed that, any moment now, you’d make a statement about Israel. I took it as a given and so, said it out loud...almost as an afterthought. Because surely it needs to be said out-loud, along with some other things too I concede, for any momentum to be even imagined. Yet it prompted an incredible reaction from you, which confounded me, to be honest!"
I tried to explain to her, and I am still quoting from the email exchange here, that "starting with a question of stereotypes and the language of ‘both sides do this or that’ is for a seasoned ear like mine the question of those who see things from an Israeli perspective to begin with. I am not saying you are or are not pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian. I am saying that your kind of questions demand that one begins from an Israeli perspective. I tried to rectify this is in my answer"
It was clear that she did not see in me a seasoned academic who has researched the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for many years and who has something different to tell her audience. Instead, because what I was putting was unorthodox to her ears and put forcefully, the key problem was my 'emotions'. For as is well known we Arabs tend to get too emotional when speaking about Israel. As she put it: "I did anticipate that you could be more dispassionate than you obviously are about the incredible dilemmas confronting anyone trying to discuss this vexed region effectively. For an Australian audience especially, it’s very demanding trying to bring new perspectives to it, as you know." Unfortunately, this is how my presence on Geraldine Doogue's program ended: with her drowning me in such patronisingly delivered liberal platitudes about 'incredible dilemmas' and 'vexed region'.
So this is how my attempt to deliver something different about Palestine ended. Today, I am very pleased when I hear some very capable people getting away with saying a lot more than what I wanted to say but the 'morally reasonable' censorship of liberal journalism remains strong, not least on the ABC. Let me say clearly, in case anyone misunderstands what I am trying to achieve here, that I am not saying at all that Geraldine Doogue conspired to stop me from being on air after this interview. Although she did finish her email to me by saying "Anyway, let’s move on, to use the popular phrase. I would hate to think it dominated our stories of each other, publicly or privately, because we have collaborated very well in the past. We’ll both have to decide whether that continues into the future, I suppose." But I think it was more a case of the liberal order of things on Palestine deciding in the end.