Freedom of “Kosher” Speech

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Mohamed Khodr’s Column

As an Arab American and a Muslim I was ashamed that for years I had avoided any involvement on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict whether locally or by contacting my Congressmen or the media.  I was afraid that if I spoke up that I would somehow face retaliation by some Jewish or Zionist person or organization.  I was afraid of losing my job, having someone hurt my family or home, or of being shunned in my community as an “Anti-Semite.”  I’ve heard of horror stories of these people calling your home with threats, sending insulting or threatening emails, calling people’s bosses and intimidating them by involving the fearsome Anti-Defamation League.   I mean, if Americans are afraid to speak out against Israel why should I, right?  Even the President, Congress, Law Enforcement and the media are afraid of them.  I also heard that they even killed an Arab American Professor in California and that the Anti-Defamation League was allegedly involved in stealing files on any American who dares speak out against Israel.  I’ve always understood that Americans no matter who they are truly fear the Jewish lobby and don’t want to be labeled as “Anti-Semites.” Even American Jews are afraid of the zealot Zionist Jews.  For God’s sake if the entire world won’t speak out against Israel’s killing of civilians with F-16’s who am I to tread into such dangerous waters.  Even 1.3 Billion Muslims worldwide and 7 Million American Muslims are afraid to do anything so why should I, right..  Why should I get involved?  I mean, Arabs and Muslims don’t trust each other, they are jealous and envious of each other and don’t want anything good to happen for each other.  The Arab/Muslim leaders are a bunch of crooks who are afraid to even sit in their own chair (do you notice that all of them have a soldier standing behind them in meetings), in their own palaces, in their own capital because they are afraid of their own military, their own government, and their own people.  Most Muslim countries are busy spending their wealth on weapons to kill their own people or fight border wars.  I don’t even see them pray except on holidays in front of the cameras.  Even Muslim businesses treat Muslims with poor customer service and disrespect unlike the respect they show other Americans.   So why bother.  If no one cares, why should I care.  I left my own country to find peace, security, and a job.  I wanted to be in a country where the individual is worth something, where freedoms of religion and speech are guaranteed, where all citizens are treated equally under the law.

But then something happened to me one night while watching the news. I saw a man my age shouting and motioning his arm to Israeli soldiers to stop shooting while his other arm was fiercely protecting his 12 year old son.  Awesome fear was on their faces as they tried hiding behind some kind of barrel.  Within seconds I saw bullets strike the boys legs and the fathers shoulder.  The father desperately pulling his son to his side shielding him with his wounded thin body.  More bullets into the boy. The boy’s face was screaming and crying with pain.  More bullets.  This time blood gushed out of the boy’s abdomen and he slumped onto his father’s right lap–dead. The father was also shot repeatedly in the chest.  His head swirled while his right hand still laid on the boy’s shoulder.  He lost consciousness.  An ambulance driver rushed to help them but he too was cut down in the middle of the road.  Another driver tried to help but was severely wounded.  As I stared in shock I couldn’t help but wonder how many times the little boy had put his head on his father’s lap and slept.  How comforting for him to feel his father’s hand before he slept forever.   Sleep, Muhammad, sleep sweet prince, sweet son, sweet child of Palestine.  You are in peace while your parents, siblings, neighbors, and country still live in the hell called the “territories.”

My wife snapped me out of my daze crying.  “You know”, she says, “you and I and every Muslim, Arab, Christian, or Jew who wants peace paid for those American made bullets and rifles that killed the little boy. I don’t know what to do or how to help.  Please, God, help us do something.”

I couldn’t sleep that night reliving the murder of a little boy and hearing my wife’s words over and over.  The next morning I turned on the TV to see what they would say about the boy’s death.  Only CNN mentioned it. They had a Middle East “expert” who said the boy’s death was tragic but that the Israeli forces are reporting that the boy died in a “crossfire” and most probably was killed by mistake by Palestinians.  He also mentioned that the boy was involved in stone throwing and endangering the lives of Israeli soldiers prior to his death.  I went to the internet to see the editorials and columns and they pretty much said the same thing.  No one bothered interviewing eyewitnesses, the man who shot the video, the family or any of the journalists present.   The State Department spokesman said this tragic incident is another indication that the Palestinians must stop the “violence” and that both sides need to exercise restraint. It’s good Muhammad died.  Even when my eyes saw the entire episode the powerful lobby lips are lying to my ears.

In an insane moment I decided to exercise my free speech for the first time in this country.  I wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Times in response to the editorial that whitewashed the death of a little boy. I signed my name, address, and phone number.  I didn’t know what to expect but I felt good I did something.

Suddenly three hours later the phone rings.

“Oh, great.  I didn’t think you would ever consider it.  Thanks. What did you need.”

“Well, first I’m sending it back because it’s too long for our space. Could you cut it down to 150 words?  We do want to use it but our space is limited and we do get hundreds of letters a day.  Is that agreeable with you.”

“Okay, but I was careful to keep it to 200 words and I’ve seen you print much longer letters.  But if that’s the only way, sure I’ll cut it down and resend it.  Thank you.”  I cut it down to 150 and resent it.   I look for it the next three days, but no letter.  So far in two days ten letters have appeared on the editorial.  All of them were from Israeli’s or American Jews like Abe Foxman of the A.D.L. or Mort Klein of the Zionist Organization of America.   They all blame the Palestinians for the Intifadah for the boy’s death and blame his parents for encouraging him to throw stones at armed soldiers.

So I call Ms. Smith after a week to follow up on the letter. She was pleasant on the phone as usual but explained that they’re inundated with letters on the issue and mine is still being considered.  But, she says, her editor wants me to tone down the words and attitude of my letter.  She explains that strong words of criticism only serve to confuse the reader leading to the message of the letter being lost.  So she sends it back, again.

It now takes me longer, about another week or so, to come up with acceptable uncritical words of the shooting.  In the meantime, Friedman and Safire write insulting and dehumanizing columns of the Palestinian Intifadah but more outrageously questioning the humanity of Palestinian parents who would send children to their death fighting soldiers.   I’m getting angrier as I read the columns but calmly I send my letter, now only 100 bland words simply questioning the use of live ammunition against stone throwing children.

A week later I get a call from Ms. Smith.

“Mr. Khodr, I’m glad to see you edited your letter.  It’s looking better but do you have any factual information or interviews of people who were there that can corroborate your statement that weapons were being used against children only throwing stones?  We have reports that this was a “crossfire” and that Palestinians were shooting as well.  Once you find that information do send me the letter because I think its important to publish your viewpoint.”

How on earth am I going to conduct interviews or get factual information?  That same night, Bob Simon of CBS’s 60 minutes has a segment on the incident.  He interviews the IDF General who explains to him in a diagram that only Palestinian fire could have killed the boy. Mr. Simon doesn’t interview any eyewitnesses, journalists, soldiers, or Palestinians for the report.  Thus 60 minutes true to its character became the defense team for Israel, absolving it of responsibility, casting doubt on the issue and confusing the American public even further.  I’m now frustrated.  So I do a search on the Internet and find an interview on ABCNEWS.com with the Agence France Press photographer who shot the video.   I was ecstatic. So I used the interview in my letter and resend as an 80 word letter.

Two weeks later Ms. Smith calls.  “Mr. Khodr, I’m glad you could find this valuable information but unfortunately that interview is copyrighted and we can’t use it.  Do you have other information you could use?”

I thought the only way to get such an interview was to fly to Israel myself and interview the father.  After one year of saving money I left for Israel.  After much interrogation and physical humiliation at the Tel Aviv airport I was allowed a one week visa, despite my American passport.  I immediately went to the “territories” to find Muhammad’s parents. During my journey nothing prepared me for the hell the Palestinians endure under Israeli occupation.  Even as an American I was subjected to repeated checkpoints, interrogation, delays, and much shoving.   America means nothing here although our  taxes are paying for this military occupation and illegal settlements.  I understood why young men wanted to blow themselves up. The peace in the grave was better than the hell on the land.

I finally located the parents, did my interview, and returned to Tel Aviv for my departure home. Shockingly this time I was arrested in the airport, beaten, thrown in hand and leg cuffs into a dark van and taken to prison.  I was given one call to make.  I couldn’t decide to call my wife or the American Embassy.  The other two dozen Arab Americans who’ve been in prison for years, some tortured, guessed my predicament and told me to forget the American Embassy and call my wife.  Apparently the Embassy is scared and impotent to do anything with Israel even if Americans are imprisoned.

I called my wife and told her not to worry.  I had written the letter of 50 words for the Times with the actual interview of Muhammad’s father.  He’s still recovering from his bullet wounds and the murder of his son.  I asked her to email my letter to the Times.  She did.

A week later Ms. Smith called to say that unfortunately the issue is old and irrelevant and that they won’t be using the letter.

My wife called me to tell me that the issue now is “irrelevant”. Indeed, the death of a 12 year old boy is “irrelevant.”  With a lump in my throat I told Muhammad not to worry, he’s not alone, for now I too am “irrelevant” to my country.

In the years I spent rotting in an Israeli prison while my wife sold everything to hire lawyers and lobby “my” government to no avail all I could do to keep my sanity was to etch on the cell walls:  NO ONE CARES, WHY SHOULD I.

One especially cold night I was awakened by a powerful sound that threw me to the floor.  A strong yellow and red light was coming through my small window and I could smell gunpowder.  I called out for my guard screaming “what’s happened, what’s happening.  Someone, please tell me.”

The prison guard I knew only too well came to my door and pulled the window screen aside and said to me with a wide smirk:  “It’s over you stupid Muslim.  The Temple Mount Warriors and Rabbis just blew up the Al-Aqsa Mosque.  No more “dome of the stone” on our holy temple ground. Tomorrow we lay the stone for the Third Temple Mount.  No one cares about you, Muslim. Today Al-Aqsa tomorrow Mecca.”  His words pierced and tore the flesh between my ribs as he walked away laughing and spitting.

I felt a strong hand choking my chest.  I couldn’t breathe.  I fell to my knees weak and sweating.

I could hear my ghost like whisper:  “I bear witness that there is no God but Allah (SWT), and I bear witness that Muhammad is His Prophet.”  A sense of serenity overcame me as I realized that Allah (SWT) does care for me and cares for all his children.  If only those who surrender to Him cared enough to care for one another.

Mr. Mohamed Khodr is an American Muslim physician and a native from the Middle East. He has worked in Academic Medicine and Public health with national and international health experience. He is a freelance writer who often writes columns on the Palestinian cause, Islam and on America’s Foreign Policy in the Middle East. He lives in the Washington DC area.

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