The below post was written in response to Mike Merryman-Lotze's piece Palestine Activism in an Anti-Racist Frame. While the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) is a member of the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, Mike Merryman-Lotze serves on its steering committee in an individual capacity, not as a representative of AFSC. AFSC takes no position on the action of the US Campaign to End to the Israeli Occupation to break off its relationship with If Americans Knew.
I am saddened that Mike Merryman-Lotze has decided that If Americans Knew must be purged from the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation.
In his statement, Mr. Merryman-Lotze acknowledges that our over fifteen years of “good work” for justice in Palestine has often been “excellent” and “impressive.” He also acknowledges that we ourselves have not committed any anti-Semitic or racist actions.
So why did he work to expel If Americans Knew and its small, dedicated, hardworking staff?
Because out of the hundreds of radio and television interviews I’ve been asked to give over the years, a handful were on programs hosted by individuals that he deems untouchables (programs, by the way, that other peace activists have also been on).
Despite the fact that Mr. Merryman-Lotze himself specifically acknowledges that “to bring change we must make speaking to people with whom we disagree and in places where our opinions are not popular a core part of our work,” he demands that we not go on programs that he decrees are unacceptable.
Many people, including myself, disagree with this exclusionist viewpoint. I believe that we should go on programs from across the political and ideological spectrum, including those hosted by individuals with whom we may have severe disagreement. Most authors and activists do this.
My reasons are based on both moral and practical imperatives.
While Mr. Merryman-Lotze would prohibit everyone from talking to hosts he believes are noxious, I share the Quaker belief that "there is that of God in everyone." It is my view that everyone is potentially reachable and that all people have the right to learn truths that have been withheld from them.
When I began If Americans Knew, my goal was to give the facts about Palestine to every single American, without exception. On our site, we state:
“We believe all people are endowed with inalienable human rights regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, sexuality, or nationality. We believe in justice, fairness, and compassion and in treating all human beings with respect, empathy, and in the manner in which we would wish to be treated.”
“Our materials and information are available to all. We feel it is essential that these facts be learned by every possible person.”
When Rev. Stephen Sizer was attacked for attending an Iranian conference that some decreed taboo and that Mr. Merryman-Lotze wold no doubt pohibit, Rev. Sizer explained: "Jesus called his followers to be ambassadors of reconciliation – and ambassadors work on foreign soil.”
When Green Party Vice Presidential nominee Ajamu Baraka was similarly attacked for going on a radio program deemed off-limits, he responded: “I look at my work as belonging to the public.”
When University of California Berkeley Sociology Professor Arlie Hochschild traveled to Louisiana to understand people who strongly oppose many of the ideas she champions, she saw herself as scaling the “empathy wall” and was pleased to find complex human beings and areas of common ground.
I believe it is critical that we speak on the programs that Mr. Merryman-Lotze would specifically prohibit.
Many Americans listen to shows that give them false information about Palestinians, Muslims, and others. As a result, some of these listeners attack women wearing veils or men in turbans – as has just happened again in New York.
While Mr. Merryman-Lotze and I are not at risk from such attacks, many of our fellow human beings are. It is our responsibility to try to reach misled listeners and work to diminish the fear and hatred that media falsehoods are sometimes engendering in them.
I believe that refusing to appear on fora that may reach such people, as Mr. Merryman-Lotze and his associates command, would be intolerably selfish and an abdication of our obligation to work to end the hatred, violence, and racism against some of the most vulnerable members of our communities.
I have always adopted a policy of accepting all opportunities whenever possible and focusing on finding ways to use my airtime to get my message out. This means focusing on my message and on the audience, not on engaging in personal debate with a host.
During the interviews in question, I informed listeners in detail about Palestine, spoke against racism, reminded the host that many Jewish Americans and Israelis oppose Zionism, conveyed my belief that all people should be treated with compassion and respect, and opposed violence, eliciting my host’s agreement with many of these views. I regret if I didn’t say everything I should have in the limited time available. I did my best and am only human. (Fortunately, others who listened carefully to the interviews in question disagree with the U.S. Campaign’s allegations against me regarding these.)
A detailed analysis of these very few interviews from half a decade ago is on the If Americans Knew website, as I wanted to respond in good faith to any good faith concerns.
Mr. Merryman-Lotze says he is “not motivated by either personal or organizational animus” and that he does not “want to take away from the good work that If Americans Knew and Alison have done over the years.”
It is therefore perplexing that he exaggerates my alleged transgressions and omits much relevant information. I wonder if whoever provided his information did not fully inform him of the facts.
Mr. Merryman-Lotze suggests, several times, that I frequently go on programs that he disapproves of. In reality, my “repeated” appearances consist of a few telephone interviews on two small Internet radio programs (the last time over six years ago); in other words, they constitute about one percent, perhaps less, of all the programs on which I’ve been interviewed. Yet somehow this was enough to condemn and expel If Americans Knew.
He fails to report that during my time on these programs working to give listeners a multitude of facts about Palestinians and Muslims, I also spoke against violence and racism, as described above, at times succeeding in eliciting agreement from hosts that Mr. Merryman-Lotze would have me treat as lepers.
He also fails to mention the other guests who have gone on these programs, including peace activists Ray McGovern, Jennifer Lowenstein, and Charles Carlson; writers Dilip Hiro and Stephen Lendman; and Israeli author Ilan Pappe – not to mention the numerous other highly regarded individuals who have gone on similar programs.
He omits the fact that I also consented to be interviewed on a right-wing Israeli show and, despite the radio host’s harangues against me, responded to him in a civil, respectful manner and worked to give these right-wing Israeli listeners, too, the chance to learn facts about Palestinians.
Mr. Merryman-Lotze also fails to tell readers that one of my very first essays on Palestine was against anti-Semitism, and that over the last 15 years If Americans Knew has disseminated many thousands of flyers containing this piece.
Fortunately, I’ve been pleased to find that the large majority of activists working for justice in Palestine oppose the attacks on me and others. Such attacks not only work to harm and attempt to shame individuals working strenuously for peace, sometimes at considerable personal pain and risk, they also cause profoundly destructive division in our movement.
I’m honored that over 2,000 deeply committed individuals in the US, Palestine, and elsewhere – including some of the movement’s most highly respected and courageous individuals – have signed a petition opposing “the recent unfounded attacks on one of the top organizations working on this issue, If Americans Knew, and its dedicated leader, Alison Weir.”
Some Quaker meetings and individuals around the country have supported If Americans Knew against the attacks and invited me to speak. The Friends group in Ann Arbor, Michigan that originated the powerful map cards on Palestine has published a detailed statement disagreeing with Mr. Merryman-Lotze’s views. Among their many powerful statements is one decrying the result of the purging of If Americans Knew:
“We have seen the effects of that removal: fear and silencing (“Who among us will be next?”), discord and schism, and a loss of focus on Palestinian freedom. Unfortunately, as we have come to understand, righteous zeal creates its own oppression.”
An article in CounterPunch by longtime peace activist Jack Dresser discussed the timing of the attacks, which came five years and more after my alleged transgressions:
“The timing of the excommunication is not random. I suspect that it is publication and Alison’s promotion of her book, Against Our Better Judgment, that has released long-stockpiled ammo against her, however flimsy.”
Mr. Dresser, who is co-chair of the Veterans for Peace Palestine Working Group, went on to write:
“These attacks are serious and malevolent, threatening both Alison’s influence and her livelihood, intended to reduce or extinguish her book sales and speaking engagements.”
After Mr. Merryman-Lotze began his public criticism of me in May 2015, we had a short email exchange. My final email to him concluded:
“I'd just like to leave you with one thought to contemplate: If you had a chance to educate and change the minds of people who had deep misconceptions about other ethnicities, races, nationalities, etc., and that were being manipulated into fearing and hating an entire population – so much so that they might commit an act of violence against such people – would you turn such an opportunity down?
“If your answer indicates that we may simply have to agree to disagree, so be it. I hope we can both move forward with our desperately important work as friends and allies who don't agree on everything but whose goal is the same: a better, more compassionate world in which Palestinians and others are no longer being killed and oppressed.”
I am saddened that Mr. Merryman-Lotze chose a very different path of public censure and expulsion. I hope he will reconsider.