Politics

With War in Israel, the Cancel Culture Debate Comes Full Circle

Nathan Thrall’s searing new book, “A Day in the Life of Abed Salama,” struck me as important even before the obscene massacres and mass kidnappings committed by Hamas this month lit the Middle East on fire. Today, with people still struggling to understand the contours of this deeply complicated conflict, the book seems essential.

An expanded version of Thrall’s widely praised 2021 New York Review of Books article of the same name, the book follows a Palestinian man named Abed Salama as he searches for his 5-year-old son after a deadly school bus crash in the West Bank, a search hindered by Israel’s restrictions on Palestinian movement. Thrall, the former director of the Arab-Israeli project at the International Crisis Group, uses his reported account of the Salama family’s tragedy to offer a panoramic look at life under Israel’s occupation. He is deeply concerned with Palestinian grief, but also writes rich portraits of Israelis, including Beber Vanunu, founder of a settlement in the West Bank, and Dany Tirza, architect of the separation wall that cuts through the territory.

The day before Hamas’s attack on Israel, DAWN, an organization founded by the slain Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi to promote democracy in the Middle East, published an interview with Thrall. In it, Thrall was asked about his depictions of Israelis, and whether he had qualms about “humanizing the occupation.”

“I was very glad to be asked that question,” Thrall told me. “Because that was absolutely the ambition of the book, to depict real people” rather than villains and saints.

Because I admire “A Day in the Life of Abed Salama” so much, I agreed to moderate a talk with Thrall this Thursday in Brooklyn. But I’ve been shocked to learn that several of his other events, both in the United States and in Britain, have been canceled, either because of security fears or because it’s considered insensitive, right after the killings and abductions in Israel, to dwell on the plight of Palestinians.

“How does one promote a program on this subject to a largely Jewish audience when people on all sides are being bombed, killed and buried?” Andrea Grossman, whose Los Angeles nonprofit called off an event with Thrall, said in The Guardian. American Public Media, which distributes content for public radio stations nationwide, even pulled ads for the book. “We aim to avoid any perception of endorsing a specific perspective,” an APM spokesman said in an email, insisting that airing sponsorship spots for Thrall’s book would be “insensitive in light of the human tragedies unfolding.”

Thrall is not alone; in recent weeks several literary and cultural events by pro-Palestinian speakers or groups have been either scrapped or relocated. On Friday, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen was supposed to speak at 92NY, a major literary venue in Manhattan formerly known as the 92nd Street Y. That afternoon, however, the talk was abruptly called off, apparently because of an open letter Nguyen had signed about the “violence and destruction in Palestine,” as well as because of his past support for the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel. (The talk ended up happening instead at a downtown bookstore.) The Boston Palestine Film Festival moved online, nixing its live screenings. A Hilton hotel in Houston canceled a conference of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights, citing “security concerns.”

Part of me shudders to view the unfolding catastrophe in Israel and Gaza through the provincial lens of America’s cancel culture debate. In some ways, that debate has now come full circle, because pro-Palestinian voices were being censored long before the phrase “cancel culture” existed, one reason the left was unwise in recent years to prevaricate about the value of free speech. But if someone as evenhanded as Thrall now finds his talks being dropped, we’re in an especially repressive period. And in a time of war, particularly a war shrouded in fiercely competing narratives, free speech is more important than ever.

I don’t like the fact that the statement Nguyen signed gestured only vaguely at Hamas’s slaughter of Israeli civilians. In calling off his Friday evening appearance, 92NY, a Jewish organization, was playing by rules much of the left established, privileging sensitivity to traumatized communities ahead of the robust exchange of ideas. And supporters of Israel are hardly alone in creating a censorious atmosphere; particularly on college campuses, it is Zionists who feel silenced and intimidated. A professor at the University of California, Davis, is facing investigation by the university for a social media post calling for the targeting of “Zionist journalists,” which said, “They have houses with addresses, kids in school,” and included emojis of a knife, an ax and three drops of blood.

Nevertheless, a commitment to free speech, like a commitment to human rights, shouldn’t depend on others reciprocating; such commitments are worth trying to maintain even in the face of unfairness. “Art is one of the things that can keep our minds and hearts open, that can help us see beyond the hatred of war, that can make us understand that we cannot be divided into the human versus the inhuman because we are, all of us, human and inhuman at the same time,” Nguyen wrote on Instagram.

If the statement he signed didn’t live up to his own words’ generous spirit, 92NY would have been a good place to ask him why. The moments when dialogue is most fraught and bitter is when leaders most need to model it.

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