When I started writing political commentaries, I swore I would never touch one subject—Israel. Because if I had said anything that was not in line with official foreign policy, I would probably have gotten blacklisted and no one would have ever published me again. This was when I was writing regularly for the Oakland Tribune, the San Jose Mercury News, and New America Media, not to mention KQED radio.
Don’t get me wrong; unlike some writers, I wasn’t paranoid about the FBI or the government coming after me. I was afraid of the American media which, let’s face it, is very Jewish and Israel-leaning.
During my early years in America, it was blasphemous to suggest that our media and politics had a pro-Israeli stance. But it was also heresy to even hint that Israel could be doing anything wrong or that the Palestinians and the Lebanese might have a just cause for being angry.
Things are not as biased now. Some brave souls have recently pointed out that the New York Times was blindly in favor of W’s war on Iraq; that it printed falsehoods about uranium from Niger without doing any fact checking. Some even went so far as to question the paper’s leanings, in light of its Jewish owners.
Still, the media outlets that dare to present the Arab point of view, like Pacifica Radio, have largely been marginalized. We decry constraints on freedom of expression in places like China and Iran and Bolivia but do we have the utter freedom in the United States to say what we believe?
I think not.
Take the instant downfall of Helen Thomas, member of the White House Press Corps. She was brought down for saying what billions of people around the world believe. More importantly, she was stripped of her job, her hard-won journalistic standing, her very dignity, for expressing an opinion contrary to what the Brahmins believe.
Oh, yes, in case you have not noticed, we do have censorship in the United States. It is not state-imposed,; worse still, it is self-imposed. It is censorship through ostracism by your peers. It might be better to be put in a jail as a martyr. To be ignored and humiliated like Helen Thomas is, perhaps, a worse fate.
It so happens that what she said about Israel needed to be said. I have always wondered why or how the allied powers decided to give someone else’s land to Jews who were driven out of Germany, not Palestine.
Of course the Jews argue that they originally came from Palestine; but that was thousands of years ago. By that logic, white Americans should return to Europe where most of them came from and all Muslims should leave India because they are relatively fresh arrivals on the Indian subcontinent.
So why did the Europeans not create a Jewish state in Germany?
Whenever you make such arguments, the specter of Jewish exceptionalism hovers over your head. It is OK for an American writer or journalist to question any country’s policy on anything except Israel. We must treat the nation of Israel with kid gloves or else we will be accused of anti-Semitism.
Israel is not the only sacred cow in America.
Recently, in my Spanish class, a student gave a presentation blasting current immigration laws. During the question and answer portion, I asked, “What do you think is the solution to the immigration problem?” I was genuinely curious because I have often had trouble figuring out what reform would exactly look like.
She said, “Complete amnesty.”
I asked, “But what about the new entrants who are arriving every day? Would they get amnesty too?”
After the class, she took me aside and asked, “You are mad at me, aren’t you?”
I was flabbergasted. “No,” I said.
It turned out that she had interpreted my line of questioning as indicating my leanings to the Republican side of the political spectrum or worse still, toward right wing extremism.
Immigration is a topic on which, at least in places like Berkeley, it is impossible to be analytical without invoking anger and accusations of racism.
Gay marriage is a similar topic. If someone expresses anything but the most wholehearted support for the idea, they are accused of homophobia. But the truth is that some of the most caring people with close gay friends still are not totally sold on gay marriage for reasons they themselves cannot very well explain. More importantly, many liberals believe that making an issue of gay marriage the way Gavin Newsom did in 2008 cost the democrats politically.
To be very clear, I am not opposed to gay marriage or immigration.
I also regret that Helen Thomas made those outrageous comments about Israel. She should have known better. She should have realized that realistically speaking, the nation of Israel cannot be undone. She should have instead attacked Israel’s violation of human rights and pointed out that Israel has made thousands of Arabs homeless; that Israel is at the crux of the current volatile politics and bloodshed in the Middle East. I myself may not have said the things she did. But I do not find her remarks as sacrilegious as some people do.
I think that we should be able to analyze topics, whether gay marriage, or immigration, or Israel, without being put into partisan camps or being accused of phobia, racism, or worse. And we should be able to have a nuanced conversation on social and political issues without fear of retribution.
So will I be punished for this column? Maybe. But I don’t have as much to lose as Helen Thomas.
Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED. Visit www.saritasarvate.com