December 18, 2009
Use the anti-Semitism test
There's a speaker on the Jewish circuit generating more heat than light. Brigitte Gabriel is a Lebanese Christian who survived the harrowing Lebanese civil war, and who now makes a living speaking and writing about the dangers of radical Islam. But that's not all.
In the introduction to her interview with Gabriel last year in the New York Times Magazine, columnist Deborah Solomon described Gabriel as a "radical Islamophobe." Gabriel was quoted in the piece as saying the Muslims are "taking over the West. They are doing it culturally inch by inch." Gabriel regularly describes the entire "Arabic world" as "barbaric."
Gabriel speaks widely in North America, including at Jewish venues. After an address to a Jewish Federation in Florida last year in which she called then-presidential hopeful Barack Obama an "anti-Semite," United Jewish Communities President Howard Rieger told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that he "condemned such expressions in the strongest possible manner."
Gabriel spoke at a Jewish Federation of Ottawa (JFO) women's campaign event last month. Many attendees, including me, registered protests following the talk. The controversy rightly led Mitchell Bellman, president and chief executive officer of the JFO, to write a letter distancing his organization from what he acknowledges are Gabriel's "unacceptable gross generalizations of Arabs and Muslims." His letter invited discussion about what constitutes hate speech, as well as input on policies regarding speaker-selection criteria. In that spirit, here are six points I think that Jewish communities across the country should keep in mind when we consider who to invite to enlighten and entertain us.
Remember that the deck is stacked. In a democracy, I believe we are morally obliged to tread carefully when we hold public events that are, by their nature, limited to members of one ethnic or religious group. At a Jewish event, our non-Jewish friends, colleagues and family members simply don't have a forum from which to respond. So, for example, while I admire Irshad Manji, who speaks widely, including at Jewish events, for encouraging her audience to challenge extremism wherever it exists, I still wonder whether a Jewish group should be inviting a speaker to talk about "the trouble with Islam." Let's leave the focus on other religions for multifaith forums where they can have their say, too.
Ethics before esthetics. Some speakers have valuable ideas to impart but less than impressive delivery. When word gets out that there is a more dynamic speaker on the circuit, we need to think carefully about their message before getting bowled over by a body microphone, fancy video presentations and clever choreography.
Shades of grey can be exciting. Many public figures rely on a sensational portrayal of the world as good-versus-evil and as us-versus-them. Let's invite speakers who challenge our black-and-white assumptions and allow for complexity. Along these lines is the consideration of our own role in explaining global outcomes. Things don't just happen out there. We are all part of it. This kind of stance can help build bridges with other communities and helps set us on the path of tikkun olam (repair of the world), rather than simply criticizing and tearing apart what is bad.
Context is key. When wading into difficult issues such as Middle East politics, a full picture is better than a skewed one. Gabriel spoke of the Muslims trying to "take over" her country, and Israel saving her life. But she neglected to mention the most basic premise of the Lebanese civil war: the Christians' refusal to readjust the delicate power-sharing arrangement in parliament once the demographics changed. Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 in part to instal a friendly Christian regime – a war that many Israelis protested, and which they continue to examine.
Keep the kishkes in check. Fear can breed intolerance. And there is much to fear in our broken world. Women worry whether we can walk safely after dark, Jews hope that our cemeteries don't get desecrated, North Americans pray that a terrorist attack isn't around the corner. But, as my rabbi says, we need to make sure that the decisions we make aren't guided by our kishkes: we need to keep our brains and hearts in the matter.
Say no to hate. I would like to think that it goes without saying that hate, racism and incitement are completely unacceptable, but somehow someone who makes a living by Muslim-bashing was still invited by our community. Therefore, I suggest that we look at the record of the speaker we're considering. Substitute the word Jew for every time she or he speaks about any other ethnic or religious group. If it fails the anti-Semitism test, take a pass. This is not about political-correctness. It is about decency, civility and humanity.
Mira Sucharov is an associate professor of political science at Carleton University. She is currently writing a book on nostalgia and political change. A version of this article was previously published in the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin.