FREE SPEECH AMERICAN STYLE
DOMESTIC CENSORSHIP: ALIVE AND WELL?
While the world’s attention is focused on Paris’ Charlie Hebdo massacres, the subsequent terrorist roundup across Europe’s and all things free speech, I’ve pointed out on Politico and the Huffington Post that we too here in the U.S. do practice censorship. I’ve used to example of not having seen cartoons that depict Blacks with big red lips chomping down on watermelon or cartoons that depict hooked nosed and horned Jews. Sure you can find these affronts to civility and decency on obscure web sites and blogs but you won’t find them on mainstream media.
But there was a recent event here in DC that illustrates an aspect of censorship that we practice but don’t often hear about, since local news rarely becomes Breaking News. There are exceptions, of course, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice and Eric Garner being three such examples of local events that did become national stories. But so far I haven’t seen any “Breaking News” about the dismissal of Ari Roth from the D.C. Jewish Community Center’s (DCJCC) Theater J. Roth, an eighteen year veteran of producing Theater J’s annual play series as Artistic Director, had a penchant for producing plays that were deemed (and, indeed, were) controversial. Why? Because many of the plays he shepherded though Theater J were less than laudatory towards Israel and Israel’s actions and interactions with Palestinians.
His dismissal by the JCC’s Board of Directors caused an uproar in Washington’s artistic community and rightly so. The Board’s reason for the abrupt firing, “insubordination,” is at least partly correct. Roth refused to bend to the wishes of the JCC’s board and COPMA (Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art) who are self-described as a “group of concerned citizens who believe there is no place in our Jewish community centers and institutions for anti-Israel propaganda.”
Even on its face this statement of purpose is troubling, invoking, as it does, a narrowness of view that somehow any words (thoughts?) that are anti-Israel are propaganda. Yes, that’s an unsupported conclusion on my part, but one that has been borne out by the actions taken against Ari Roth for producing so-called “anti-Israel propaganda” in the form of plays and workshops that were critical of Israel and exhibiting a different view of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Roth’s “Still Waiting,” “Return To Haifa,” “The Voices From the Changing Middle East” festival and workshops could all be described as anti-Israel and as propaganda. But only if you believe that every action that Israel has taken over the past 70 years since the Jewish State’s founding in 1947 have been totally without fault. And this view could only be called an extreme fantasy.
Such protests against any view that is not pro-Israeli have not been limited to Washington’s Theater J and the DC Jewish Community Center. Similar protests have occurred in New York, San Francisco and other artistic organizations around the country. Elsie Bernhardt, president and CEO of the now defunct Foundation for Jewish Culture, encountered the same pressures over the funding of an Israeli documentary, “The Law In These Parts,” which discussed the legal aspects of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, which led to harsh criticism from some donors and board members. “It caused such a firestorm. People who were otherwise rational just lost their minds.”
Just as I find Holocaust deniers reprehensible, I find France’s laws against denying the Holocaust equally reprehensible. Denying the Holocaust might be offensive but how can it be termed a crime? Stupid, maybe. Idiotic, sure. But a crime? By the same token I find the censorships of Ari Roth and Theater J – I would point out that this is indeed censorship since Ari Roth has committed no crime in producing plays and workshops that are less than praiseworthy of Israel – equally reprehensible and equally wrong. If some members of the Jewish community cannot even consider that there might be different views of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict other than that promoted by the American Israel Pubic Affairs committee (AIPAC), that Israel is not always right in its actions towards and interactions with the Palestinian community, and when the expression of a different view is heresy and that view is punished, then we have a problem. This is censorship pure and simple. And there can be no justification for it.
We here in the U.S. do practice censorship, a form I call “voluntary censorship.” You won’t hear the terms “nigger” or “kyke” on any mainstream media. Why? Because in recognition of America’s cultural pluralism we acknowledge that certain terms, certain depictions are offensive and hurtful to the ethnic groups they describe. Is the name of my hometown football team, the Washington Redskins, offensive to Native Americans? Of course it is and the team’s name should be changed. Now the theoretical "Free Speechers," those folks who've never been the object of offensive words and pictures, disagree believing that nothing should be censored no matter how offensive. But our Free Speech is not limited by laws as it is in many European countries. And that's as it should be. Our voluntary self-censorship is pretty much a cooperative effort – for example, not using the terms “nigger” and “kyke” - one that by mutual acquiescence we deem inappropriate in normal discourse and the normal exercise of Free Speech. Now I have no problem with the use of such terms in the name of free speech, so long as the users are willing to suffer the consequences of their use should there be any. And as the situation in France shows, they can and do have consequences on occasion. Words and pictures when used as denigrating political weapons can have consequences as unintended as they might be.
In the case of Theater J and Ari Roth, however, the consequences of offering a different view of a political situation resulted in a different "unintended consequence" for which there is no justification.