Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did something yesterday that neither President Bush nor Vice-President Cheney have the courage to do: stand up and speak in front of an unfriendly college audience. How can America’s leaders claim that they are defending freedom when they are so clearly afraid of it?
In the Bush-Cheney lexicon, “free speech” is something that can be confined to a zone out of earshot and out of sight; it is something whose value is cathartic rather than political. They regard free speech as a form of free expression that serves the psychological needs of the individual rather than the political needs of a healthy democracy.
America has over the last six years become infected by this impoverished view of free speech. It is a right that seemingly only benefits those who exercise it, while society merely tolerates its performance. Thus, as he introduced President Ahmadinejad, Columbia president Lee Bollinger wanted to assure the nation that no one in his illustrious university was in jeopardy of being influenced by anything that Iran’s president might say.
It should never be thought that merely to listen to ideas we deplore in any way implies our endorsement of those ideas, or the weakness of our resolve to resist those ideas or our naiveté about the very real dangers inherent in such ideas.
If the speech that Bollinger and Columbia’s students and faculty were about to hear could so easily and absolutely be prejudged, what was there to listen to? Bollinger’s notion of free speech appeared to extend no further than the mere fact that Ahmadinejad had been allowed to step onto the stage and open his mouth. Indeed, Bollinger’s denunciation of a speech that had yet to be delivered, looked more like a crude and ill-conceived exercise in damage control — an effort to protect Columbia’s brand value and placate a few disgruntled wealthy donors — than a genuine enunciation of academic and democratic values.
While Ahmadinjed’s address can be understood in terms of its domestic political focus and likewise his masterful use of the media, as an exercise in free speech it deserves consideration in terms of its substance.
One issue stands out above all others and the reason it stands out is that in America, a campaign aimed at stifling free speech wants to keep this subject sealed outside the domain of acceptable political discourse. The subject is the political legitimacy of the Zionist state of Israel.
Ahmadinejad himself has muddied this issue by calling into question the reality of The Holocaust. In doing so, he exposes a vein of anti-Semitism that pollutes much of Middle Eastern discourse on the subject of Israel. Indeed, by questioning the reality of the Holocaust he turns attention away from a second question — one which is perfectly legitimate to ask and to discuss.
This is how he presented that question at Columbia:
…we need to still question whether the Palestinian people should be paying for [the Holocaust] or not. After all, it happened in Europe. The Palestinian people had no role to play in it. So why is it that the Palestinian people are paying the price of an event they had nothing to do with?
The Palestinian people didn’t commit any crime. They had no role to play in World War II. They were living with the Jewish communities and the Christian communities in peace at the time. They didn’t have any problems.
And today, too, Jews, Christians and Muslims live in brotherhood all over the world in many parts of the world. They don’t have any serious problems.
But why is it that the Palestinians should pay a price, innocent Palestinians, for 5 million people to remain displaced or refugees abroad for 60 years. Is this not a crime? Is asking about these crimes a crime by itself?
Why should an academic myself face insults when asking questions like this? Is this what you call freedom and upholding the freedom of thought?
Ahmadinejad is far from alone in questioning an idea — implicit but never clearly articulated — that the Holocaust provided a moral justification for whatever it would take to create a Zionist state. Just as 800,000 Palestinians could be swept aside in the process of creating the modern state of Israel, likewise any questions about the means being used to create that state could also be suspended.
As the Israeli historian, Avi Shlaim, writes:
…the tragedy of European Jewry became a source of strength for Zionism. The moral case for a home for the Jewish people in Palestine was widely accepted from the beginning; after the Holocaust it became unassailable. The poet Robert Frost defined a home as the place where, if you have to go there, they have to let you in. Few people disputed the right of the Jews to a home after the trauma to which they had been subjected in Central Europe. (The Iron Wall, pp.23-24)
But even while its easy to understand that the trauma of the Holocaust would lead many Jews to seek a safe haven outside Europe, the creation of Israel did not absolve Europe and the United States of the need to examine why so many Jews could not regard as home, countries in which their ancestral roots went back centuries. In as much as few gentiles disputed the right of Jews to a home, the implication was that they could find no such home outside Israel. By the end of World War II, Nazism had been defeated but the swamp of anti-Semitism out of which it had arisen had not been drained. And in as much as an effort to accomplish that goal was not regarded as an integral element in the reconstruction of Europe, a new state of Israel became a convenient necessity. While the Holocaust provided Jews with an unassailable right to a homeland, it simultaneously provided a rhetorical shield for obscuring the fact that this right had been secured by denying the Palestinians’ own right to remain in their own homes.