Last Tuesday, Al Jazeera English published a lengthy Op-Ed by Columbia professor and Middle East scholar Joseph Massad entitled “The Last of the Semites”. Massad’s argument was obviously controversial: he highlighted the shared goal between the early Zionist movement and Europe’s anti-Jewish bigots (namely, the removal of Jews from the continent), detailed the cooperation between German Nazis and Zionists to facilitate the departure of Jews out of Europe (the existence of that cooperation is not in dispute, though the extent of it very much is), and highlighted the extensive disagreements among Jews themselves over the wisdom and justness of Zionism (large numbers of European Jews were insistent that they did not want to, and should not have to, leave their homelands for a distant land that was not theirs).
Predictably, numerous commentators - largely the ones who have spent years casually smearing as anti-semites those who criticize Israel - instantly and vehemently denounced Massad’s arguments. The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg sarcastically tweeted: “Congratulations, al Jazeera: You’ve just posted one of the most anti-Jewish screeds in recent memory,” while the editor of the neocon journal Commentary, John Podhoretz, wrote: “Congratulations, donors to Columbia University, for paying this monstrous head’s salary!” A blogger for the Jerusalem Post claimed that “Massad’s writings on Israel can easily be confused with material from the neo-Nazi ‘White Pride World Wide’ hate site Stormfront.”
All of that is par for the course when it comes to debates over Israel and Palestine: as any writer who ever ventures into that topic well knows, nothing triggers greater venom and personalized attacks (and a greater risk of losing one’s job) than opining on any of these matters. And the critics of Massad’s Op-Ed were doing nothing wrong per se: it’s perfectly appropriate to harshly criticize controversial arguments that are published in a major media outlet. An intense debate was triggered about Massad’s thesis, just as Massad and his Al Jazeera editors undoubtedly anticipated, and that is what opinion journalism often does and should do.
But all of that changed on Saturday. Without issuing any comment or explanation of any kind, unknown officials at Al Jazeera ordered Massad’s Op-Ed to be deleted - in essence, silently retracted. I actually discovered this deletion because, aware of the controversy that had erupted, I attempted on Saturday to read Massad’s Op-Ed. But none of the specific Al Jazeera links I found would work: they all went to Al Jazeera’s home page, which said nothing about Massad’s Op-Ed. I finally was able to read the Op-Ed only by finding it on blogs which had re-printed the Op-Ed in full (a .pdf version of how it appeared on Al Jazeera’s site can be found here).