Arab forum tackles a Washington taboo
The Doha Debates dared to discuss the US relationship with Israel in Washington – and got away with it.
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Few observers felt we would survive Washington. Media colleagues and PR experts told us well before we arrived that they scented blood – ours – and that after our debate March 25 at Georgetown University, we would be hammered by lobbyists, pundits, and hostile hacks.Skip to next paragraph
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Whichever way it went, they said, our reputation was finished.
The direct cause of our predicted demise was nothing more than my insistence on debating Israel's relationship with the US in a city that quakes at the slightest prospect of upsetting Jerusalem or criticizing its actions in public.
We didn't set out to upset anyone. But we did debate the robust motion "that this house believes it's time for the US administration to get tough on Israel," in the belief that it would air opinions, not often heard in the US, and provoke a timely discussion of the Obama administration's approach to the region.
As it happened, we came, we debated – and lo and behold – not a single dog even snarled at us! No sign, either, of the much-vaunted Jewish lobby, apparently poised to strike at anyone who dared question Israel's peace-loving credentials.
I won't pretend that all our participants enjoyed the event. The motion's opponents, Harvard law Prof. Alan Dershowitz and former Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Dore Gold, lost graciously enough to the other side, Michael Scheuer, who had hunted Osama bin Laden for the Central Intelligence Agency, and Avraham Burg, former speaker of the Israeli Knesset. But at times the evening must have seemed to them a like a rough session at the dentist: a lot of painful scraping, probing, and drilling.
We do that eight times a year in that roughest of neighborhoods, the Middle East, without any threat of being savaged by anyone. And now we have done it in a highly charged Washington – and got away with it.
I was surprised to learn that freedom of this kind is considered such a risky proposition – or "blank check" in the US. But unlike most other checks these days, this one really does pay dividends. Keep writing them, America.
Tim Sebastian, an author and award-winning television journalist, is the chairman of the Doha Debates.