An article of faith:

Though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do ingloriously, by licensing and prohibiting, to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple: who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?

Please note that John Milton, who wrote these words in his Areopagitica, was not on any side of the debate about Israel, Palestine, and the occupied territories, because he died in 1674. I say this because I’m about to step out on the thin ice of that conflict and I don’t want old JM to be accused of taking sides.

Here’s my Miltonian suggestion to anyone who thinks a presentation on the Middle East (or anything else) is one-sided: put on a presentation giving your point of view. Let truth grapple with falsehood. Have some faith that it will prevail.

Recently I’ve heard of two cases of people seeking to shut down an artistic event that expressed views of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict that they found disturbing. One was unsuccessful: the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, in Topanga, California, whose bottom-bruising benches I have had the privilege to sit on, came in for a lot of heat for showing a play that puts a spotlight on Israel behaving badly, but the production went forward.

Theatricum Opens a Controversy — and a New Space — With Rachel Corrie

The blame for Israel’s PR problem with the death of Rachel Corrie lies primarily with Israel’s killing of Rachel Corrie, but of course the play is political–it’s absurd to say it’s just “a portrait of a young woman,” as director Susan Angelo tries to spin it. However, it is just as absurd to accuse it of being a “decontextualized and one-sided portrayal,” as the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles protests. It’s a play about a controversial issue. Should Arthur Miller have shown McCarthy’s POV (or Judge Hathorne’s) as part of The Crucible? Should anyone stage Richard III without giving equal weight to the opinion that Richard was an innocent man demonized by Tudor propagandists? My church is about to host an exhibit of art about how awful the war in Afghanistan is; should we give equal space and time to art supporting the war? Should the Jewish Federation itself have made sure the Palestinian point of view was fully represented in the play it helped fund about an Israeli soldier, New Eyes?

The second case is more upsetting because those arguing “you must show both sides or none at all” have successfully shut down the event, and because the people they’re shutting down are children living in unthinkable conditions.

Oakland Museum Shuts Down Palestinian Children’s Art Exhibit

The exhibit was to show the art of children living in Gaza. Not surprisingly, it portrays destruction being wrought on their home by Israel and its allies, because that’s what these children live with. A group calling itself “Pro-Israel Bay Bloggers” complains, “This exhibit is without context and balance.” Well, if you want to provide a fuller context and more balance, stage another show. Solicit the art of Israeli children, if you want to show how this conflict affects them. I would like to know.

But don’t suppress what you see as falsehood because you think the truth can’t stand up for itself. If you think the truth isn’t being told completely enough, then don’t subtract from the account; add to it.

I’m sorry, this is not a balanced blog entry. It would be nice to show one case of pressure from the people who want to suppress criticism of Israel, and another from those who want to suppress criticism of the Palestinian Authority. Both my examples are of the former because this is the way all of the cases I’ve heard about have leaned. For that matter, I almost never hear this argument–“You have to present both sides”–in the context of any other political debate. But I hear it a lot when it comes to the issue of Israel and Palestine.

Of course both (or rather, all) sides should be out there to be heard, and they are out there to be heard. That’s why I’d like to hear what the children of Gaza have to say, rather than their voices, their experiences, being drowned out by people who have more power and money, which, as Bob Dylan reminds us, doesn’t talk, it screams. (I may still get the chance; the Middle East Children’s Alliance, which had been partnering with the Museum of Children’s Art, is looking for another Bay Area venue.)

I don’t quite have Milton’s faith that the truth will never be “put to the worse,” but I do agree that “licensing and prohibiting” opinions does more harm than good. The founders of our country, who knew their Milton (and also their John Peter Zenger), thought the same, which is why they considered freedom of speech and the press essential to self-government. We might reach the wrong conclusion (we often do), but the only antidote is more information, more opinions, more assertions of the truth as each person sees it. We each need to filter out the truth from competing claims. The goal is to choose the view upheld by reason and conscience, not by whoever shouts the loudest.

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