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If Americans Knew in the News

Speech on the Mideast
Brings Opinions to a Boil

More on this incident

Peter Applebome
The New York Times
February 17, 2008

Alison Weir speaking in Greenwich, CT
Alison Weir gave two presentations at the Greenwich Library in Connecticut. (Photo: Janet Durrans for The New York Times)

Greenwich, Conn.—When people learn that she speaks on the never-ending conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, Alison Weir said at the beginning of her speech at the Greenwich Library on Thursday night, they want to know which side she’s on. And, she said, she found that question off-putting because it’s not a football game and it’s not a matter of being on one side or the other but of being true to the facts and sensitive to injustice in whatever form.

That said, it didn’t take someone trained in linguistics to figure out which side she was on.

She began with a short film depicting what were characterized as the malignant effects of Israel and the Israeli lobby on the Middle East and the United States, which included a quote from an American law professor (a former adviser to the Palestine Liberation Organization, it turned out), who, invoking the Nuremberg trials, said that Israel was inflicting on Palestinians “exactly what the Nazis did to the Jews.” There was a heart-rending tour of Palestinian communities, each suffering child portrayed as a testament to Israeli aggression.

“Come to Palestine,” she read from a letter she wrote from Gaza. It continued: “Come with me and visit mothers of dead, injured, gone children – thousands of them – and tell them how you didn’t know we supplied the weapons that ripped flesh, broke bones, destroyed lives, destroyed lives.”

It was your usual Valentine’s Day evening at the library in this citadel of wealth and power – three police cars parked outside and a simmering controversy over free speech. It was, without doubt, a moment in Greenwich, a place with its own complicated fault lines. But by the end of the evening, it was hard not to think it was a moment beyond Greenwich as well.

Ms. Weir, head of a group she founded called If Americans Knew, has given perhaps 300 speeches since 2001. She made two of her appearances at homes in Greenwich last year – speaking once to a group of about 30 people and then to 15.

Chances are she would have made no more of a splash at two planned gatherings at a meeting room at the local library last week had the appearances not generated a flood of furious e-mail messages from critics. The talks became a cause célèbre when the library board canceled them, claiming they were “offensive to public sensitivity.”

But there were immediate assertions that it was a violation of the First Amendment for the library to censor some speakers and not others. The meetings were rescheduled, moved from a conference room to an auditorium that held a crowd of 300 on Thursday night and about that number on Saturday morning.

“When the speech ended, Ms. Weir was met with thunderous applause, and across the room there was a widespread sense of satisfaction that someone was saying what needed to be said.”

What they heard was a skilled presentation by Ms. Weir, a former journalist from Northern California, that mixed fact, purported fact and advocacy to argue not just that the United States was to blame for arming Israeli aggression, but that the war in Iraq was largely the result of neocons with strong ties to Israel supporting Israeli interests. Much was heartbreaking, as documentation of torn Israeli bodies would have been had that been the subject matter. Some was persuasive – documentation of the relative attention given to Israeli deaths and casualties in the American media compared with Palestinian losses – or undeniable, like the billions of dollars in American financial support for Israel.

Some was enough to lead one audience member to grumble, “I’ve heard enough of your propaganda,” and stalk out. There were evocations of Uzi-toting Israeli soldiers keeping Palestinians from going to a hospital for chemotherapy or threatening to shoot out the eyes of people who displeased them. There were no evocations of, say, Hamas terrorists or the notion that the travel restrictions might have some relationship to Palestinians celebrated and revered for turning themselves into bombs meant to detonate on buses, in hotels, cafes, universities.

Still, if the discussion was about Israelis and Palestinians, it was hard to miss the atmospherics in the room as well, the palpable split between Ms. Weir’s supporters, who seemed to hang on every word, and her critics, overwhelmingly Jewish, seething in their seats.

“The lady with the diamonds,” Ms. Weir said oddly, taking a question from one of the critics, and you had the feeling of one of those Fairfield County novels from the 1950s jarringly transmuted.

When the speech ended, Ms. Weir was met with thunderous applause, and across the room there was a widespread sense of satisfaction that someone was saying what needed to be said.

“It’s true that our money is going there to kill little kids,” said one well-dressed woman, who spent the speech nodding in agreement and gave only her first name, Jean. “It’s the side we don’t hear, that doesn’t get on the news.”

You can’t read too much into one speech, but you might draw two conclusions.

First, the best favor people can do for a speaker they disapprove of is to try to censor that person’s speech.

Second, race isn’t the only subject in which there are really painful arguments, in Greenwich and beyond, usually left bubbling just below the placid surface of daily life.

E-mail: peappl@nytimes.com

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Alison Weir

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