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L’Affaire Freeman, Boycott, and Jon Stewart

PUBLISHED: March 20, 2009

The torpedoing last week of veteran diplomat Charles Freeman’s appointment to head the National Intelligence Council was widely seen as a victory for hardline supporters of Israel, who contended that Freeman’s criticisms of Israeli policy were (in the words of Senator Charles Schumer) “way over the top and severely out of step with the administration.” While hardline supporters of Israel may have won the battle, the discourse surrounding L’Affaire Freeman shows evidence of a larger shift in public discussions about Israel, a tilting of the balance to include more voices critical of Israeli policies and actions. From Jimmy Carter to Jon Stewart and Naomi Klein, a number of prominent politicians, media personalities, and intellectuals have come out recently with harsh critiques of Israeli policy and/or support of boycott and divestment. As Andrew Sullivan puts it on his blog “having the kind of debate in America that they have in Israel, let alone Europe, on the way ahead in the Middle East is simply forbidden.” Still, there are signs that the scope of the discussion about Israel and the United States’ role in the Middle East is slowly changing.

As Glenn Greenwald observes on his blog “anyone who doubts that there has been a substantial—and very positive—change in the rules for discussing American policy towards Israel should consider two recent episodes.” The first of the episodes he cites is the discussion surrounding Freeman’s appointment. And this was before a bevy of somewhat sympathetic articles in the Washington Post, Freeman’s appearance on Fareed Zakaria’s CNN show “GPS,” and a regretful post-mortem in the New York Times. The second episode Greenwald points to is a series of columns Roger Cohen wrote for the Times, extolling the relative freedoms Jews enjoy in Iran and later critcizing Israel’s new right wing government. It’s worth reading both Cohen’s columns and Greenwald’s analysis of them.

But these two instances are only the tip of the iceberg. In the midst of the Gaza war, former President Jimmy Carter came out with a new book about the Middle East, entitled We Can Have Peace in the Holy Land. (Perhaps a less contentious title than his previous book Palestine: Peace or Apartheid?) And a number of prominent academics have recently engaged seriously with the idea of boycotting Israeli products and academic institutions. In the midst of the Gaza war, Naomi Klien wrote a column for the Guardian entitled “Enough. It’s Time for a Boycott.” And Stanley Fish engaged provacatively with the boycott debate in a New York Times column with the unfortunate title “To Boycott or Not to Boycott, That is the Question.” Hampshire College, the first school to support divestment from South Africa, recently voted to approve divestment from Israel. And while he may be a comedian, Jon Stewart’s piece on the Gaza war, “Strip Maul,” is one of the most trenchant takes on the Gaza war.

This small shift in public discourse in the United States has not escaped the Israeli government. As the Times reported on Thursday, the Israeli Foreign Affairs Ministry has begun a public relations campaign to recoup some of the standing they have lost since the Gaza war. But with a hardline right wing government in power and a leading canditate for foreign minister who wants Arab citizens of Israel to take a loyalty oath, it won’t be an easy job.

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