When Palestinian Italian author Rula Jebreal appeared (video below- obviously) on Bill Maher's "Real Time" on Friday, she knew what she was getting into and understandably welcomed the opportunity. In an interview posted Monday on Salon, she told Luke Brinker
I was told, actually, that he wanted to discuss the Berkeley thing, and I was told that he wanted to discuss the connection between torture applied by the CIA in prisons like Camp Bucca and the rise of extremism, and also the fact that ISIS is utilizing the same techniques. So I knew that he wanted to discuss that.
The argument started out strongly, with Jebreal stating "I don't think this is about free speech." And so it isn't, given that there is no constitutional right to give a college commencement address.
Unfortunately, both Jebreal's argument and the tone of the discussion deteriorated steadily from that point. She really stepped into it when she noted (at approximately 5:45 of the video below) "some of the things you said, about African Americans, about Jews, you would be fired." Maher adroitly responded "but African Americans and Jews don't belong to a religion that wanted to kill Salman Rushdie for writing a book, if we wanted to get back to free speech. So, I'm sorry,that's called false equivalency."
And so it is. Additionally, Maher knows a little about getting fired, having been sacked by ABC when on Politically Incorrect he merely observed in mid-September 2011 that the U.S. government was cowardly while "staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it's not cowardly." Fortunately, there is greater acceptance on HBO for stating simple truths than there was (or probably is) on ABC.
Despite the heated exchange Jebreal, to her credit, evidently will return sometime to "Real Time," for she assured Brinker if she is "invited, then I'm happy to go back. It would be good for both of us and for the American community, actually."
Hopefully, when she does return to the program, she will be a little more honest than she was with the Salon writer. She claimed
The whole point for me was that nobody is banning him. Actually the students asked to invite him for a debate, where they can have real dialogue. And a commencement speech does not offer that opportunity – and saying it’s a free speech thing and it’s about the principles of liberalism, I don’t think that’s a correct reporting of events.
That nobody is banning the comedian is only because the university rejected the students' proposal. The petition, submitted on change.org by Khwaja Ahmed (apparently a University of California, Berkeley student), read in part
...we cannot invite an individual who himself perpetuates a dangerous learning environment. Bill Maher's public statements on various religions and cultures are offensive and his dangerous rhetoric has found its way into our campus communities. Too many students are marginalized by his remarks and if the University were to bring this individual as a commencement speaker they would not be supporting these historically marginalized communities. It is the responsibility of the University of California to protect all students and uphold a standard of civility. Sign this petition to boycott the decision to invite Bill Maher as a commencement speaker at the UC Berkeley Fall 2014 Commencement Ceremony.
"We cannot invite an individual" because "if the university were to bring this individual as a commencement speaker..." sounds an awful lot like an attempt to ban the person, especially when there is no offer of a debate, notwithstanding Jebreal's claim. The encouragement to "sign this petition to boycott the decision to invite Bill Maher as a commencement speaker" is unaccompanied by any alternative to withdrawal of the offer to be commencement speaker. No option- such as sitting in silence, standing and turning one's back, or staying away from the ceremony altogether- is offered.
At conclusion, we are asked to "stop Bill Maher from speaking at UC Berkeley's December graduation." Coupled with an accusation its target "has made comments that are blatantly bigoted and racist," it is quite an invitation to dialogue.
While there is no issue of free speech, there is one of free expression. Still, the protesting students would be justified if Maher clearly were a bigot. (David Duke would not be a good choice.) But he is not clearly one and is probably not one all. Whether his selection is wise would turn on considerations of both his entertainment value and ability to offer some insight, political or of the more conventional sort, at graduation ceremonies. Evidently, the University thought Maher, in that over-used cliche, would bring something to the table, as he obviously would.
Jebreal's disingenuosness in the Salon interview is not limited to her suggestion that all the students wanted was a debate. Silently pining for the Muslim Brotherhood, Jebreal takes special umbrage at the government in Egypt, composed of "dictators and tyrants who are terrorizing their own peoples," which, she neglected to mention, replaced the dictatorial regime of Mohammed al Morsi.
The new government, admittedly, has hardly been one of peace and tranquility. Probably, however, the real sin to Jebreal is that President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi's "negative view of Hamas represents a dramatic-and welcome- shift from his immediate predecessor, Mohamed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood leader," as Egyptian politics is described by Eric Trager.
Not surprising is her opprobrium for Egypt, given her complaints to Brinker about the USA's "support for Israel" and its "backing for Israel." Criticism is absent of Prime Minister Netanyahu's fairly aggressive settlement policy, his evidently ambivalent view of a two-state solution, or his somewhat antagonistic approach to President Obama. Rather, it is the USA's support for a Jewish state in the region which seems to rankle her. She even strategically upgrades Gaza to a "nation," in a brief reference which would be an extraordinary error for such a scholar, were it unintentional. It represents a curious position for an individual who, posing as a reasonable moderate, implores Bill Maher not to view one Muslim as another.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan is endlessly quoted as maintaining “You are entitled to your opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.” Fortunately, we will continue hearing Rula Jebreal's own opinions; unfortunately, probably her own facts, too.