[sixties-l] Re: Netanyahu Protest in Berkeley

From: Jeffrey Blankfort (jab@tucradio.org)
Date: 12/11/00

  • Next message: radman: "[sixties-l] Infringing on Free Speech (Berkeley)"

    Introduction to an Op-Ed: On November 28, as I reported on this list,
    there was a protest against the appearance of Benjamin Netanyahu in
    Berkeley which resulted in the cancellation of his speaking engagement
    when the Berkeley police, miffed because they were not given any prior
    notice of Netanyahu's appearance by the event's sponsor, made no effort
    to clear the street entrance which was blocked by a mixture of
    demonstrators and Netanyahu's would-be audience (or what actually would
    have been the audience for the originally scheduled speaker, Henry
    Kissinger who bowed out because of a heart attack). In view of the
    chaotic situation, the sponsor called off the event and the speeches
    that Netanyahu was scheduled to give in two other Bay Area locations on
    subsequent evenings.
    Although it was not our intention to prevent Netanyahu from speaking,
    most of those protesting, including myself, were not disappointed in the
    cancellation.  Quite the opposite in fact. In the subsequent days and
    weeks, we have been assailed as violators of "free speech" by everyone
    from the Anti-Defamation League, which makes a practice of suppressing
    pro-Palestinian speech, to veterans of Berkeley Free Speech Movement
    (FSM) including one member of this list.
    If the accusations were not meant seriously, they would be laughable,
    since persons like Netanyahu, like Kissinger, like Gen. Wesley Clark who
    was the previous speaker in the series, have no problem getting their
    speech heard in any media venue that they choose, whether it be any one
    of the major networks or CNN, or the op-ed pages of the NY Times, LA
    Times, Washington Post, etc., whereas those with an opposing point of
    view are conspicuous by their absence. I am not aware that any of our
    critics have made any efforts to express themselves on this much more
    obvious denial of free speech. 
    But these words are only meant as an introduction to this eloquent op-ed
    piece that appeared in this weekend's Berkeley Daily Planet in response
    to the criticisms I have mentioned.  It's author Robbie Osman, is a long
    time programmer at Berkeley's KPFA and was a civil rights volunteer in
    the South in the Sixties. He prefaced his piece with this song:
    Jeff Blankfort
    It isn't nice to block the hallway.
    It isn't nice to block the door.
    Or to shout our cry of 'freedom'
    at the hotel or the store.
    It isn't nice.
    It isn't nice.
    You told us once, you told us twice.
    But if that's freedom's price
    We don't mind.
    Now we tried negotiations and the token picket line.
    Mr. Charlie didn't see us and he might as well be blind.
    When you deal with men of ice
    You can't deal in ways so nice.
    So thank you buddy for your advice.
    But if that's freedom's price
    We don't mind.
    It Isn't Nice, a Malvina Reynolds song
    Free speech is precious. The right to express ideas without fear of
    reprisal is at the core of democratic society. None of us should take it
    for granted; history offers too many examples of the cost of its loss.
    Benyamin Netanyahu is not, it's worth pointing out, a friend of freedom of
    expression.  And Israeli suppression of free speech in occupied Palestine
    has been severe.  In occupied Palestine when I visited in 1989, it was
    illegal to own a Palestinian flag; displaying one would have brought troops
    into your home.  It was illegal to own a map that showed The West Bank
    divided by a border from Israel, trade unions were prevented from holding
    elections, and political parties and political meetings were banned.  Under
    Netanyahu Palestinians who demonstrated to oppose Israel's brutal and
    illegal occupation were shot at and beaten and jailed and tortured.
    Still, despite Netanyahu's own contempt for freedom of speech, if the
    protest against his appearance at the Berkeley Community Theater had
    threatened his ability to take part in the public debate it would have
    deserved our principled opposition.  If the protest against Netanyahu
    really kept those who came to attend the Berkeley Community Theater event
    from having access to his thoughts and opinions it would have raised real
    questions about everyone's right to hear all sides of an important issue.
    But that is not nearly the case.
    Netanyahu has easy access to a shamefully uncritical American media. He has
    appeared hundreds of times on CNN and The News Hour and Nightline.  And his
    perspective is everywhere in American media coverage.  For years Americans
    rarely heard the term 'Palestinian' without hearing the word 'terrorist'
    follow it.  Israeli soldiers occupy Palestinian cities and villages and our
    major news organizations use pro-Israeli spin terms to describe the
    reality; they speak of Israeli troops defending themselves as if it were
    the Palestinians who had invaded someone else's neighborhood. Occupying
    soldiers fire missiles from helicopter gunships into homes in Palestine
    while Palestinians fight using slingshots and rifles and our media speaks
    of Palestinian violence and Israeli "retaliation". Hundreds of Palestinians
    have been killed by Israeli soldiers and we hear of them mostly as numbers
    added to a running tally. It is the Israeli's tragedies that find their way
    into human interest stories in the American press.
    Given this imbalance in the press, does it really serve the cause of free
    speech to invite a criminal like Netanyahu (or Henry Kissinger who
    Netanyahu replaced as a speaker in this lecture series when Kissinger
    suffered a heart attack) to appear in a format that doesn't provide a
    chance for rebuttal?  Does freedom of speech really require that Netanyahu
    or Kissinger be rewarded for what they've done with the hefty speaking fees
    that usually attend such engagements?  And all without a protest?
    It is Netanyahu's critics whose perspective is ignored, misrepresented, and
    censored not only in Israel but here in the land of the free. It is very
    rare indeed to see the perspective of Palestinians or any non-Zionists
    represented in the reporting on the Middle East.  In an effort to break out
    of this media blackout those of us who want peace and justice for all in
    Israel and Palestine demonstrated against Netanyahu.  Our purpose was not
    to prevent him from taking part in the public debate.  That would be
    neither remotely possible nor desirable.  We sought to express our outrage
    at what he has done, to remind the public that there is another, largely
    unheard, perspective, and to encourage a movement for a change in American
    policy.  Our demonstration against Netanyahu was non-violent and if the
    police had intervened we would have dispersed or allowed ourselves to be
    arrested peacefully.  That is called civil disobedience.  It has an
    honorable history.
    American progressives don't often condemn acts of non-violent civil
    disobedience.  And civil disobedience not infrequently infringes in some
    way on free speech.  Didn't the Free Speech Movement disrupt classes in
    1964 with its massive demonstrations?  I know that we did when we closed
    Columbia University during the anti-war demonstrations of 1968 and 1969. We
    chanted "on strike-shut it down".  Wasn't that a violation of the free
    speech rights of the professors or of the students who wanted to deliver
    their lectures and pursue their careers unbothered by our demand that they
    notice the struggles for peace and justice that surrounded them.  Would we
    call early 1960s civil rights heroes in the deep South violators of the
    right of freedom of speech if they sat-in at a segregated library and
    prevented it from functioning until it was open to all?  How about the
    newspaper unions in Seattle which are on strike as I write: are they
    violating the publisher's right of free speech? The reader's right to read?
    What if their picket lines block scab workers from entering the plant?  Do
    we see a threat to free speech when rebels take a radio station from a
    state that has held power by brutal repression? Do we condemn those who try
    to close The School of the Americas?
    I doubt that any of these actions would precipitate condemnation from
    progressives although each has aspects that could be characterized as
    infringing upon free speech.  But the recent demonstration against Benyamin
    Netanyahu has been condemned as if it represented a betrayal of our common
    I cannot know the feelings of each individual who has expressed concern
    over our demonstration.  But it is time that we as a community notice and
    talk about the fact that there is a consistent pattern to the way those who
    oppose what Israel does are treated in our press and in our culture.  For
    many Americans Israel evokes tremendous emotional loyalty.  For all of us
    Nazi crimes have left an abiding sense of horror and a determination to
    prevent such atrocities in the future.  Seeing Israel challenged makes some
    people deeply uncomfortable and angry. Our demonstration demanded that
    Israel's immunity from criticism must end.  And it condemned not only
    Netanyahu but Israeli policy under both Labor and Likud governments.  That
    often makes people upset.  But is not easy for those who are troubled by
    such demands to engage Israel's critics in a discussion of the issues.  No
    one wants to defend torture, illegal occupation, ethnic cleansing,
    institutionalized racial and religious discrimination, the shooting of
    young people who throw stones, the closure of schools, the destruction of
    homes, shooting at ambulances, the theft of land and water rights, the
    application of collective punishment, and the denial of fundamental human
    rights.  In fact many people don't even want to hear that such things might
    be real.  So it is easier to oppose us with an accusation.   In this case
    it is that we represent a threat to freedom of speech.  At least this is a
    change from the usual accusations.   For years we have been called
    anti-Semites if we are not ourselves Jewish, or self-hating Jews if we are.
    Those who take prominent roles in defending the rights of Palestinians
    regularly receive hate mail and anonymous threats.
    We should speak truthfully about freedom of speech.  There is a clear
    difference between the threats to freedom of speech that come from
    repressive actions taken by a government or by the institutions of
    established power or even a threatening mob or letter writer on the one
    hand and the momentary and superficial interference with speech that may
    result from a peaceful protest against repression on the other. There is a
    difference between an effort to exclude a person or an idea from the public
    debate and a demonstration that happens to inconvenience a powerful
    political figure.
    The fact that so many Americans will protect Israel and Israeli policy from
    significant challenge has important and dismal consequences.  Israeli
    policy makers take advantage of Israel's immunity from criticism to
    maintain their occupation of Palestine by brutal and illegal force. The
    purpose of our demonstration was to begin the discussions that may move us
    toward change.  Misrepresenting the true impact of the demonstration does
    not further the cause of free speech.
    Netanyahu's access to a sympathetic media will not be diminished by the
    demonstration against him.  His ideas are in no danger of being silenced.
    And those of us who condemn what Israel has done and is doing in Palestine
    will in all probability continue to be shut out of the national dialog on
    Middle East policy.
    That is the real threat to free speech.
    Robbie Osman
    Robbie Osman hosts the program Across the Great Divide on KPFA and is on
    the board of the Middle East Children's Alliance.  His email address is

    This archive was generated by hypermail 2b30 : 12/11/00 EST