There is nothing to be done about the fact that sometimes benevolent intentions could lead to malevolent results, except to acknowledge the incongruity.
I wrote a column on this page several weeks ago where, without any credible evidentiary support for my claim, I egregiously accused a respected Israeli academic of being an Islamophobe. The accusation was all the more egregious because it was levelled by a senior columnist on the op-ed page of the Arab world’s leading English language daily.
The piece was titled “Balancing the Accounts Between Israel and Palestine”. It appeared on October 2. And the sitting target of the charge I made was Ze’ev Maghen, currently Chair of the Department of Middle Eastern History at Bar-Ilan University, Israel’s second largest academic institution.
First, a brief preamble. When I set out to write my piece, it was not my intention to bring Professor Maghen into it. Truth be told, I had not heard of the name before. My intention rather was to show how liberal Israelis have, since the late 1970s, become ineffectual at making their voices resonate in the public discourse in an increasingly illiberal Israel, a polity whose right wing government has formalised, and its civil society has embraced what could only be described as racist laws against the Arab minority.
Consider, as a case in point, the Jewish Nation-State Law, passed by the Israeli parliament in July last year, a law whose aim, as the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, declared at the time was there to ensure that Israel would be “the nation-state of the Jewish people, and the Jewish people alone.”
The essay in question
Harmed my own name
I was looking for a hook to explain the socio-political compulsions that had driven Jews in Israel so disastrously to the xenophobic right — those successors of Jews in Europe, who had been in the vanguard of the continent’s moral, literary and artistic high noon, say, from the 1830s on, and without whose contribution we would have today a diminished, less nuanced Western intellectual tradition.
Was it Islamophobia, a phenomenon long in the making and today rampant in the Euramerican world?
I happened that week to be talking to a friend who taught at the Centre for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University in Washington and he mentioned Professor Maghen, suggesting I read his work. I went online and, instead of reading enough of this Israeli scholar’s oeuvre to acquaint myself with his line of thought, I read one, and only one, of his papers — about Islam in Iran — and convinced myself then and there that he was an Islamophobe. He also became my sought-after hook.
Well, Ze’ev is no Islamophobe, not by a stretch. After he took me to task, via email, for my sloppy work, and after I went back online and read more of his writings, I discovered that he was not only a researcher imbued with an astute understanding of Islam but a compassionate analyst of it as well. Thus by saddling the man with a racist label, I harmed, however peripherally, his name and reputation.
As the late Helen Thomas, the celebrated Lebanese-American doyenne of the Washington press corps (d. 2013 at 93) once told young, aspiring H.L. Mencken and Bob Woodward wannabes, “if your mother says she loves you, check it out”. That is, double down on facts, get it right, never take anything for granted
Guess what? I also harmed my own name and reputation. As commentators engaged in the journalistic enterprise, we should know better. It is incumbent upon us as journalists to check, double-check and, where needed, even triple-check our facts.
When the media, which is a major building block of democracy, subverts facts, it does not only cheat the public of its right to be informed — its “right to know”, in constitutional lingo — but subverts democracy itself, democracy both as a political system and a social ethos. In short, our engagement in that enterprise demands not just response (to current events) but responsibility (to unvarnished truths).
Never take anything for granted
As the late Helen Thomas, the celebrated Lebanese-American doyenne of the Washington press corps (d. 2013 at 93) once told young, aspiring H.L. Mencken and Bob Woodward wannabes, “if your mother says she loves you, check it out”. That is, double down on facts, get it right, never take anything for granted.
But, I repeat, I did harm when I besmirched the good name of a good scholar, and did it in a piece that effectively betrayed my professional obligations to journalistic norms. The comforting thought that the harm was not irreparable does not make it allowable. Sorry, Ze’ev. I stand corrected.
Fawaz Turki is a writer and lecturer who lives in Washington and the author of several books, including the Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.