We may never know the true back story behind the beloved Politics and Prose DC-based bookstore owner Carla Cohen’s decision to invite Palestinian-American professor Dr. Sari Makdisi, then disinvite him because of his political positions, and then invite him again.
To be fair, there may be no back story, which makes Carla Cohen’s ultimate decision to admit she made a mistake and embrace him all the more laudable. But it is apparently a fact that the independent bookstore already had to endure hate mail from some members of Cohen’s (and our) Jewish community for, well, acting like an independent bookstore and welcoming a free exchange of ideas on Israel-Palestine.
It is almost certain that she will get many more because of her reversal on Makdisi. Do make sure to let her know she did the right thing. Email: email@example.com
Grace Said, the late Edward Said’s sister, and aunt of UCLA English professor Dr. Makdisi, had this to say to Cohen:
It is with sadness that I write to inform you that I have decided to
cancel my membership at Politics and Prose, effective immediately. I
have always been a supporter of independent bookstores. Politics and
Prose, in particular, seemed to be the place for me. Visiting your
store was always pleasant; the atmosphere, choice of books, the
friendliness and knowledge of the staff, and the coffee shop have
always made it a plus for me, and I am sure, for many others.
However, I was quite appalled to hear that you chose not to follow
through with your invitation to Dr. Saree Makdisi, whose book,
Palestine Inside Out: An Everyday Occupation describes the effect of
the Israeli occupation on the lives of ordinary Palestinians. It is
precisely this kind of book that needs to be promoted in the US, where
the mainstream media and political pundits have deliberately avoided
any discussion of the hardships endured by the Palestinians under
I know Makdisi’s writing from the LA Times where he is a frequent contributor, writing hard-hitting and incisive commentary about the conflict, and most recently, the idea that a two-state solution is no longer possible. It’s the kind of analysis one typically doesn’t find in US papers, but which is increasingly finding a home in corporate-owned publications, making Cohen’s cold feet all the more surprising.
Cohen responded to Grace Said’s note by explaining:
I have been very active — and my husband even more so — in trying to
have the U.S. intervene with Israel to end the occupation of the West
Bank. I was recently in Israel and saw and heard about the
heartbreaking effects of Israel’s policies vis-à-vis travel,
employment, and so on. I came back very discouraged about Israel’s
political ability to break through the impasse. The way to end the
occupation lies with the U.S. I want to make the case with American
Jews and with American politicians to press Israel to end the
I guarantee that nobody will listen to me if I am seen as promoting a
book whose only way out of the present situation is a one-state
solution. One state means the end of Israel as a democratic and Jewish
state. I do not believe that should happen. I am placing all of my
energies on promoting within the American Jewish community a practical
solution that involves respecting the legitimate needs of Israelis and
Palestinians and treating with empathy those on both sides.
It’s hard to fathom how offering a space for independent political thought would threaten the possibility of Middle East peace. In fact, the topic of Makdisi’s book is life under occupation, not, the one-state solution. But his most recent op-ed in the LA Times is worth reading because he puts forth a view increasingly held by many people (and rejected by many as well, including Norman Finkelstein) that the one-state solution is the only option left. Because of the actions of people who want to see Israel destroyed? No, but rather, due to Israel’s own actions. He argues that the ceaseless project of appropriating Palestinian land and building Jewish-only houses on it has made a contiguous Palestinian state simply impossible. Is this an analysis that would isolate Politics and Prose from the liberal, anti-occupation Jewish community? It’s sad to think it could.
After probably more than a few letters like Said’s, a Politics and Prose friend told us late yesterday: “Carla Cohen reinvited the author back to Politics and Prose, and admitted that she was wrong. She does want to make sure that there is open dialogue/debate at the bookstore. She reaffirmed that she wants the bookstore to continue to be a place where people hear diverse opinions and people make their own decisions.”
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