The California Aggie was the subject of intense and vocal criticism last week after it ran a divisive half-page advertisement titled “The Palestinians’ Case Against Israel is Based on a Genocidal Lie.” The advertisement blamed Palestinians for their suffering in the occupied territories and identified “Arab aggressors” as the reason peace has not been achieved between Arabs and Israel.
The $650 ad was paid for by the David Horowitz Freedom Center, a conservative, pro-Israel advocacy organization. According to the group, the ad has appeared in The New York Times and at least 15 other college newspapers; it was rejected by at least 50 other college newspapers. The David Horowitz Freedom Center’s apparent strategy is to place the inflammatory advertisement in college newspapers during Palestine Awareness Weeks and Apartheid Weeks held at college campuses in the U.S., as it did at UC Davis.
A group of about 15 Aggie readers gathered Friday to express their anger with the advertisement, which they said is racist, inaccurate and discriminatory. They spoke with Editor-in-Chief Mark Ling and respectfully demanded that The Aggie voluntarily apologize and modify its advertising policy. (I commend them for not making more draconian demands, such as asking the university to discipline the editors or revoke campus support for the paper, which would have been stifling to the paper’s freedom of speech.)
I usually try to avoid discussing political issues on my blog, primarily because I don’t want people to draw conclusions about me based on my political views. I am especially loath to say much about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because I am poorly informed on the issue.
However, this advertisement controversy is one of the more important issues The California Aggie has faced in the nearly four years that I’ve been around, and I think it’s important to discuss whether The Aggie acted appropriately in publishing the advertisement. I believe it is possible for me to do that without taking sides or making any moral judgments in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Is the ad inaccurate?
There are some statements in this advertisement that seem plainly false.
- For example, the ad states that “there has never been a political entity, state or country called Palestine in the Middle East.” As a matter of fact, dozens of countries have recognized a state of Palestine since 1988. And as historian Moshe Sharon writes, “the name Palestine became the official name of the country under the British Mandate,” in 1923.
- Another example: “The derivation of the name “Palestine” is Roman not Arabic.” Actually, according to both Sharon and the Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, the name Palestine can be traced back to the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, who referred to the area as Palaistinê in the 5th century BCE.
- Another: “The goal of the PLO, as expressed in its charter, was not to liberate Palestinian Arabs from foreign rule but to destroy the Jewish state.” The Palestine Liberation Organization’s charter certainly does make clear the group’s goal to “destroy the Zionist and imperialist presence,” but it also makes abundantly clear the desire for self-determination and sovereignty on the part of Palestinian Arabs over the borders set in the British Mandate.
The real question, however, is whether inaccuracy should be grounds for rejecting an advertisement. My inclination is that it shouldn’t. If someone wants to buy a full-page ad that says the capital of California is Los Angeles and the first president of the U.S. was John Jay, I don’t see any good reason not to take the money and run the ad. I think it’s safe to say that most readers don’t expect their newspapers and magazines to verify the accuracy of their ad copy — I certainly don’t.
The difficulties of discussing the Arab-Israeli conflict
Before evaluating the other problems with the Horowitz advertisement, I think it’s worth reflecting on the inherent difficulties of talking about this extremely complex and contentious issue. Neil Caplan has some insightful things to say about it in his 2009 book, The Israel-Palestine Conflict: Contested Histories. All of the following excerpts come from Chapter 1, “Problems in Defining the Conflict.”
The “Arab-Israeli” conflict – perhaps the most commonly used of all the various titles – is in many ways an apt name for the territorial and political dispute since 1948 between the state of Israel, on the one hand, and the twenty or so states that consider themselves to be Arab, on the other…
Still, even this preferred designation carries with it a number of drawbacks… [It’s a misleading] notion that the Arab world is a single entity that displays uniform attitudes and policies vis-à-vis Jews, Zionism, and/or Israel. In effect, historical experiences, policies, and attitudes vary among individual Arab peoples and states, with the result that it is misleading to suggest that the Arabs, as a single unit, constitute one of the two antagonists in the Arab-Israeli conflict…
As with discussions of other conflicts, terminology can deliberately or unintentionally favor one side over the other, and betray the biased perspective or partisan support of the writer or speaker… The commitments and feelings of the writer or observer are reflected in the choice to be made between terms with pejorative connotations (e.g., “terrorist”) and those that put the actor in a more favorable light (e.g., “freedom-fighter”). With both sides claiming virtue and nobility, observers end up taking sides by choosing when to speak of acts of “aggression” and when to refer to acts of “resistance” against that aggression…
Some readers who reject the legitimacy of the Jewish state may take offense from this book’s references to “Israel” and “Israelis,” preferring to designate the latter as “Zionist invaders” or “occupiers” and the former as “the Zionist entity” or “Occupied Palestine.” Likewise, other readers may have difficulty with my frequent references to “the Palestinians,” preferring instead to refer to these people as “Arabs,” consistent with their belief that there is no such thing as a separate Palestinian people who are entitled to a separate Palestinian political state.
Allegations of racism
Among the critics of the Horowitz advertisement that I spoke to, the main focus seemed to be on the ad’s depiction of Arabs as aggressive: “The Arabs of the West Bank and Gaza are suffering… because of sixty years of Arab aggression; sixty years of Arabs rejecting peace,” and “since 1948, the Arab aggressors have refused to live side by side with a non-Muslim, non-Arab, Jewish state.”
In my view, whether these statements are racist depends on how you interpret them. Is Horowitz making blanket statements about Arabs as a people, or is he merely characterizing the aggression toward Israel as coming exclusively from Arab actors? Here is where I think reasonable people can disagree. Considering that the conflict is commonly accepted to be between Israelis and Arabs, and considering that Horowitz obviously sees Israel as the protagonist, it doesn’t seem racist for him to describe the aggressors as Arab and to talk about how aggression on the part of Arabs has inhibited peace. Nonetheless, it also seems perfectly reasonable to interpret Horowitz’s statements as attributing negative characteristics to all Arabs, as a people, which fits the generally accepted definition of racism.
What I think is more egregious is the following statement: “But never in history has a people waged a calculated war on women and children, and honored the murderers as heroes and martyrs, as the Palestinians now do.” There is no question that violence committed by Palestinians has resulted in the deaths of women in children in Israel. The problem with this statement, though, is that it suggests that all Palestinians are involved in or support such violence. This kind of blanket statement, I think, rises to the level of the “blood libel” accusations that have historically been used to persecute Jews.
It’s a no-brainer that any respectable publication would reject an advertisement that claimed Jews, as a people, were engaged in a coordinated campaign to murder children and use their blood in rituals. Why, then, should it be acceptable to run an advertisement that says Palestinians, as a people, are engaged in a calculated campaign to murder women and children and then celebrate it?
Implications for student newspapers
I believe, unequivocally, that newspapers have the right to print whatever they want, no matter how vile, racist, bigoted or obscene it is. Freedom of expression is one of our most important values in this country, and any attempt at censorship will always be more heinous than whatever the censors are trying to silence. I also believe, however, that student newspapers such as The California Aggie have a moral obligation not to let their power and influence be used to perpetuate bigotry.
Sometimes, as in this case, bigotry is not readily apparent. That may be due to our existing beliefs and commitments, or perhaps we’re just not trained well enough to identify and reject subtle manifestations of racism. I will admit that even after hours of conversation and reflection, I didn’t see it in the Horowitz ad until I sat down and worked my way through this post.
One way to prevent the publication of ads like Horowitz’s would be to institute a policy of not printing political ads or ads that are made purely to advance an opinion. The main advantage of this is that it’s easy and doesn’t require much thinking. Advocates of this approach like it because it levels the playing field a bit by not privileging the political opinions of people with money. The main disadvantage of this sort of policy, though, is that it’s too imprecise. There are plenty of legitimate political ads that would be blocked with such a policy. It would also damage the newspaper’s ability to bring in the income it needs to survive.
Another possibility is to reject all ads that are potentially inflammatory or offensive. But just because something is offensive doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be published. Newspapers should be a forum for ideas, however unpopular those ideas may be. Horowitz could have written his ad in a way that, without denigrating Arabs or Palestinians as an entire people, made the point that it’s not Israel’s fault that peace hasn’t been achieved. That would still offend many people, but it would not be racist. An opinion like that has a place in the public discourse, regardless of whether you agree with it or not.
The best solution in terms of policy would simply be to have the Editor-in-Chief apply heavy scrutiny to any advertisement that has the potential to offend. The editor should have training in recognizing racism, classism, sexism and other forms of bigotry and intolerance, especially when they are not blatant. It would probably also be helpful to seek out other people’s opinions — for example, UC Davis has some fantastic expert scholars who may have been able to help identify the problems in this advertisement.
I went from being highly skeptical of the critics of the Horowitz advertisement to finally agreeing that it did include racist generalizations about Palestinians and Arabs and thus should not have been published.
This was a positive and enlightening experience for me, and I’m grateful to all the people who — faced with my skepticism — respectfully and patiently tried to help me to understand their viewpoint instead of mocking me or insulting me with condescending comments (which, unfortunately, was the approach of a couple people on Facebook.) While anger is understandable, it does not change anyone’s mind.
I hope this incident and my post about it will serve as an example to help guide future Aggie editors on advertising policy. I also hope this helps people recognize biases or gaps in awareness they didn’t know they had, as it did for me. The more we learn, the better, and that’s what being in a college environment is all about.
UPDATE (5/31/11): The Editor-in-Chief wrote an apology that appeared on the opinion page in today’s issue of the paper. Also on that page was a letter from four editors saying they do not apologize, and a letter from five professors denouncing the ad as “blatantly racist.”
UPDATE (6/6/11): The David Horowitz Freedom Center wrote a lengthy response to this post.