The First Amendment protects us against government interference in speech, somewhat effectively. What we often forget when we cultivate a warm, rosy feeling about our constitutional rights is that they grant no protection against private punishment for unpopular speech. It is an ancient sport in this country for newspapers,pundits and powerful individuals to hound people out of their jobs and into destitution for holding unpopular beliefs--or even just for being different from us--and the Constitution grants no protection whatever.
The purpose of this essay is to focus a little attention on two people to whom this is happening right now: Debbie Almontasar and Norman Finkelstein. Ms. Almontasar is a New York City schoolteacher who was appointed principal of an Arabic-speaking charter public school, and Norman Finkelstein is the professor who had the temerity to write a book on the proposition that some Jews have exploited the memory of the Holocaust for political gain. Both have taken hits to their careers as a result of campaigns by the powerful to demonize them.
While rhetoric in the US tends to be free and colorful, and often lobbed without much of a commitment to truth, there is of course a profound moral difference between throwing mud at Hilary Clinton or George Bush and publicly reviling a New York City schoolteacher. Powerful people can take a lot of hits and remain standing; they have money and a power infrastructure of their own to protect them. People like Debbie Almontasar and Norman Finkelstein have no-one, and unlike the rich and powerful, can lose their jobs, their peace of mind, their health and even their lives in a way that will never happen to Ms. Clinton. Someone taking shots at the powerful, even when protected by an infrastructure of great power itself such as the Republican party, must at four a.m. sometimes feel at least a little tremor of concern, followed by the knowledge that it takes at least a little courage to attack the powerful (what if Ms. Clinton's people came after you and your own party decided not to protect you? It has happened). But those who delight in crushing the powerless are egotists and sadists to an even greater degree than most other people who try to kill with words.
Ms. Almontaser came here at age 3. In a lifetime of considerable achievement, she became a schoolteacher in the New York City system while maintaining a commitment both to multiculturalism and to her own Islamic religion. Among the most difficult decisions she made was to honor and follow her religion by wearing the hijab, the headscarf. She has participated in organizations which bridge the gap between Islam and Jews and other cultures in New York City and she has many Jewish friends and defenders. She has an adult son who joined the US military and was deployed to Ground Zero after September 11, 2001.
When New York decided to permit the establishment of a charter school, the Khalil Gibran International Academy, Debbie Almontasar was the logical choice to head it. It would have been the culmination of a respected career, the way things are supposed to work when you are good at what you do.
Almost immediately, two New York City newspapers, the Post and the Sun decided to put an end to the Khalil Gibran Academy by any means necessary, including destroying the career of the proposed principal. The campaign against the school appears to be based on two overlapping propositions,hatred of multiculturalism and hatred of Arabs. You go far enough to the political right and you will find the people who don't believe in diversity or multiculturalism, those who support the idea that"the big tent is for clowns". These people don't believe that public schools should exist which focus on any foreign culture, or where another language, even Spanish, occupies a position of equal importance with English. Overlapping them are the people who hate Arabs and anyone who professes Islam, lumping them all together with Al Qaeda and the September 11 suicide terrorists.
Debbie Almontasar allowed herself to be tricked or baited into making a statement which was used to force her to resign. This showed at best a certain political naivete, but no dishonesty on her part and certainly no belief in violence. She was a board member of an organization, the Saba Association of American Yemenis, which shared office space with another organization with which she had no affiliation, Arab Women Active in Art and Media. The latter group was selling t-shirts which said, "Intifada NYC". When asked about the t-shirts, Ms. Almontaser correctly defined the word "intifada" as meaning a "shaking off" and said she did not believe the intention was to promote violence in New York, as opposed to pride in Arab identity and a "shaking off" of oppression. This directly resulted in her resigning from the Khalil Gibran Academy after several days of the ensuing firestorm.
Debbie Almontaser simply did not play the game as well as the reporter who asked the question. She could simply have said accurately that she wasn't involved with the t-shirts and didn't know anything about them. Or she could have said she was opposed to anything which promotes violence--which is true; everything in the public record of her life, and the statements of her supporters, including the Jewish ones, testify that she does not advocate violence against anybody. The fact that her attackers had to seek out something as trivial as a t-shirt distributed by a group which shares space with another group illustrates very effectively that there was nothing more immediate, nothing muddier, to be found.
Advancing one's own beliefs by trying to cause other people to lose their jobs is a particularly mean, petty and reprehensible form of political combat. Many, probably most of the people who try to hound others out of employment are much wealthier or safer than the people they are trying to destroy. Either they have substantial resources of their own, like Rush Limbaugh or Karl Rove, or they feel pretty secure that they will not be fired from their own organization (Fox News or the New York Post) for their campaign. Losing employment in America means a serious risk of not being able to find another equivalent job or any work at all (if one has become controversial); not having work means losing your home, your health, sometimes your spouse and family. There is no moral difference between getting someone fired and putting a bullet in their head, except the latter approach is cleaner and faster.
Shame on Mayor Bloomberg. He accepted Ms. Almontaser's resignation with a milk and water response, a weak defense in which he reaffirmed that she is a good person but that her departure was nonetheless for the best. He should have stood up for her, pointed out that her words, while not an exercise of political common sense, did not champion violence, and let her get on with her job.
Norman Finkelstein, a professor at DePaul University, wrote a book a few years ago called "The Holocaust Industry". As the son of death camp survivors, he was appalled by Israel's tendency (and that of its US supporters) to use the crimes of the Nazis as a limitless credit card to charge up misdeeds of their own. There is no other country on Earth which has the same immunity from public criticism here as Israel; you can jawbone Italy, Ireland, England and the former Soviet Union all you want, each the source of millions of US citizens. But criticize Israel and powerful journalists and public figures surge up shouting "Anti-Semitism!" and reminding you how the Jews suffered in the Holocaust. Being Jewish, like Professor Finkelstein or me, provides no defense, for then you are accused of being a "self-hating Jew."
Professor Finkelstein has since published two more books on Israeli policy towards Palestinians and on the misuse of the accusation of anti-semitism to advance political goals. A respected teacher well-liked by students, he came up for tenure this year and was recommended by his own political science department at DePaul University. This recommendation was overruled at the university level. More recently, DePaul announced that Professor Finkelstein will not even be permitted to teach for his final year at the university, even though it is traditional to allow professors who have been denied tenure to stay one more year. His courses for this year were listed in the catalog and the assigned texts were available at the bookstore when the decision was made. A vage explanation was given that the professor did not show a sufficient grasp of the DePaul philosophy of tolerance.
This is highly ironic. Along the way, Professor Finkelstein had offended an extremely intolerant man, one of the leading proponents of the "Israel can do no wrong" philosophy, Professor Alan Dershowitz of Harvard Law School. Dershowitz took the unprecedented step of sending a letter to the members of the tenure commitee at DePaul asking them to reject Professor Finkelstein. I do them the grace of believing that they did so, not specifically because Dershowitz asked, but because Dershowitz and other members of the officially nonexistent Israel lobby made the noise level too high for the people at DePaul to feel safe supporting their professor.
Like Debbie Almontaser, Professor Finkelstein had a tragic flaw of not being political enough. Unlike her, he enjoys a good fight, and he had antagonized Dershowitz by criticizing his scholarship in a very polemical book Dershowitz authored called "The Case for Israel". There is some truth to the proposition that you shouldn't summon ogres you don't know how to kill.
I went to Harvard Law School in 1976-1980 and Alan Dershowitz taught my first year criminal law course. We knew even then what he has confirmed in the years since. He is not a scholar in the same sense as other Harvard Law professors, who delight in burrowing into a topic and publishing the definitive, highly footnoted tome on it. Dershowitz instead only cares about showmanship and advocacy. An intellectual lightweight compared to most of the other Harvard professors whose classes I took, Dershowitz has spent his career blindly defending Israel and involving himself in high profile criminal cases. He is a genius of the soundbite, not of the analysis of precedent and philosophical underpinning which is the law. Dershowitz's attacks on people who disagree with him have always been intemperate and without boundaries (witness his thirty year long campaign against Noam Chomsky).
Nothing so perfectly illustrates who Dershowitz is than his 2003 call for "torture warrants" to be issued by the Supreme Court or the President in cases where torture is "necessary": "If torture is going to be administered as a last resort in the ticking-bomb case, to save enormous numbers of lives, it ought to be done openly, with accountability, with approval by the president of the United States or by a Supreme Court justice."
Dershowitz has tenure, even though I cannot see how he has lived up to Harvard's standards of scholarship or improved the standing of the university in any way. His successful campaign to deny tenure to Norman Finkelstein is shameful and really quite childish and sadistic.
A more recent campaign of Dershowitz's has been against two Kennedy School professors who wrote about the existence of a powerful pro-Israel lobby in the United States. It is amusing but disgusting that powerful people like Dershowitz-- leading representative of the powerful pro-Israel contingent--try to take down those who merely say that they exist. It is the moral equivalent of the Mafia hitting people for claiming there is a Mafia.
Almontaser and Finkelstein are examples of people whose careers have been destroyed by intemperate, malicious nongovernmental speech. If we tolerate this, don't fight to defend the marginal and unpopular, then the First Amendment itself becomes meaningless. There is no comfort for those hounded out of their livelihoods in thinking, "Well, at least it wasn't the government."