Banned in the U.S.A. (Almost)

Sunday, June 8, 2008

I didn't think America was a place where bookstores barred people for their viewpoints, until it happened to me, right here in Washington, D.C., the city of my birth.

I was scheduled to speak at Politics & Prose Bookstore and Coffeehouse last month about my latest book, "Palestine Inside Out: An Everyday Occupation." My appearance was canceled when the bookstore owners realized that my book concludes by questioning the viability of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Instead it proposes a single democratic, secular and multicultural state in which Israelis and Palestinians live peacefully as citizens with equal rights.

"I do not believe that your book will further constructive debate in the United States," one of the owners wrote to me in an e-mail. "A single state is not a solution." I was dismayed that my invitation was rescinded because I express a different point of view from the one sanctioned by a supposedly independent bookstore. Yet the cancellation seems to fit into a larger pattern of nationwide censorship about this issue.

Stanford professor Joel Beinin had been invited to speak about Israel and Palestine at a Silicon Valley school last year; his appearance was canceled when the school was criticized for booking the event. Tony Judt of New York University was invited to speak about Israel and Palestine at the Polish Consulate in New York last fall; his talk was canceled after the consulate came under pressure from the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee.

The fact that senior scholars are prevented from speaking in well-known forums because they do not toe an official line suggests that the civic culture on which our country was founded has broken down, at least when it comes to Palestine and Israel.

Yet citizens can object to the muzzling of ideas. After receiving letters of protest and eloquent entreaties by bloggers, Politics and Prose decided last week to reissue my invitation. This reversal is an important step forward but questions still linger. Can we afford not to hear each other out as we evaluate our Middle East policies? Should Palestinians not be allowed to speak unless their erstwhile audience gets to tell them what to say? What, then, is the point of a conversation? What is the alternative to conversation?

What is so unspeakably wrong with saying that justice, secularism, tolerance and equality of citizens -- rather than privileges granted on the basis of religion -- should be among the values of a state?

-- Saree Makdisi

Los Angeles

The writer is a professor of English literature at UCLA.

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