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It's better not to shut down the debate on collaboration between Zionists and anti-Semites

January 24, 2014 at 10:20 am

In the age of the internet, it’s impossible to delete anything – as Al Jazeera discovered this week. Last Tuesday, Al Jazeera English published a long comment piece on its website. It was written by Joseph Massad, a Middle East scholar at Columbia University, who has written for the media giant’s website for the last two years.

The piece was entitled “The Last of the Semites” and was, undoubtedly, controversial. Massad’s piece looked at the early Zionist movement and its shared goal with anti-Semitic bigots: the removal of Jews from Europe. He also examined disagreements between Jews in Europe about the principle of Zionism, writing that many did not want to uproot to a new homeland.

Unsurprisingly, the article was met with outrage. Prominent figures such as the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg took to Twitter: “Congratulations, Al Jazeera: You’ve just posted one of the most anti-Jewish screeds in recent memory,” he wrote. Meanwhile, a Jerusalem Post blogger said that “Massad’s writing on Israel can easily be confused with material from the neo-Nazi ‘White Pride World Wide’ hate site Stormfront.”

Robust and violent debate and criticism is to be expected when writing on the subject of Israel, Palestine, and Zionism, particularly if the argument is as contentious as this one. However, rather than stand by its decision to publish Massad’s piece, Al Jazeera removed the piece from its website without comment on Saturday.

In turn, this drew a whole wave of new criticism. Over at the Guardian, Glenn Greenwald attacked Al-Jazeera’s actions as “behaviour that journalists should be condemning, not emulating.” He wrote that “no media outlet can possibly do something like this without publicly accounting for what happened and expect to retain credibility. How can you demand transparency and accountability from others when you refuse to provide any yourself?”

Eventually, the piece was reinstated on Al Jazeera’s website, along with a statement from Imad Musa, head of online. Musa denies allegations that “Al Jazeera succumbed to various pressures, and censored its own pages”, but concedes “we should have handled this better”.

The incident raises several issues, and it’s important to separate them. On the one hand is the merit of Massad’s argument, and on the other, is Al Jazeera’s course of action. Massad is known to be a provocative and controversial academic, so Al Jazeera could reasonably have predicted that the piece would cause some shockwaves. It had previously published a piece by Masssad which explored similar arguments. He is not the first person to put forward this perspective; the links between early Zionists and Nazis has also been referred to by Mahmoud Abbas (who has also been criticised for these statements) and other academics. That is not to say it is not highly controversial. That conversations between Zionists and anti-Semites took place is not disputed, but the extent of this collaboration certainly is. UCLA academic David Myers has written that “to extrapolate from these few episodes an ongoing collaboration between Nazis and Jews is an historiographical sin of commission that rests on a faulty grasp of context and a distorted reading of the sources at hand”. It’s a heavily disputed area around which there is robust academic debate. As Greenwald writes, for those who find these views offensive, “the solution is to debunk them, not suppress them, since they’re not going anywhere.”

This brings us to the second issue here: Al Jazeera’s conduct. Essentially, the merits of Massad’s arguments aren’t really the point. The fact is that Al Jazeera decided to publish the article in the first place, and then rather than deal with the ensuing criticism and debate, withdrew it without comment. If an article causes particular upset or offence, it is justifiable to remove it – Julie Burchill’s Observer piece on transgender people earlier this year springs to mind – but it should not be done silently.

There has been a lot of speculation about Al Jazeera’s reasons for doing so, with many pointing to its forthcoming launch in America. Massad himself has said he was “heartened” by the outcry, from the public and Al Jazeera employees, and has criticised “the peremptory power of the profit-seeking executives”. The company has previously had problems getting it’ English language channels carried by US distributors. It has purchased an existing cable network, Current TV, and will soon launch in America, but the channel still faces criticism from conservatives, who claim it expounds anti-Israel propaganda and promotes terrorism. Executive director for international operations of Al Jazeera America, Ehab Al Shihabi, has been actively promoting the company’s mainstream credentials, so this controversy was poorly timed from a business perspective. It has been alleged that it was because Al Jazeera did not want to jeopardise its US launch that it withdrew the article. The Electronic Intifada looks at this in some detail.

There is no evidence for allegations of direct “Zionist pressure”; it is entirely possible that executives panicked and self-censored in the face of intense criticism. They would not be the first to do so. The reinstatement of the article is a positive move; whether or not the views expressed are abhorrent or unpleasant, it is better to have an open debate than to shut down the conversation altogether.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.