Azmi Bishara, a prominent Arab member of the Israeli Knesset, criticized the U.S. policy of exporting democracy to the Middle East before a packed Dodds Auditorium on Thursday evening. The question-and-answer session following the speech degenerated into a shouting match across the room several times, pitting the apparent minority siding with Israel against the pro-Palestinian majority.
In the Third Annual Edward W. Said '57 Memorial Lecture, Bishara addressed the topic of democracy in different historical and political contexts but was consistent throughout in his skepticism of U.S. efforts to export it.
"Germany and Japan are the exception, not the rule," he said, referring to the triumph of democracy in those two countries. "Start with the Spanish-American War and Cuba, the Philippines and Panama and Korea and Vietnam and now Iraq and the Gulf Region, and countries whose regimes are being helped in Central Asia with military bases."
The Princeton Committee for Palestine, which organized the event, invited controversial Columbia University Professor of Iranian Studies Hamid Dabashi to introduce Bishara. "He's both an intellectual and a statesman," Dabahi said, adding that very few Palestinians are as well versed in liberal democracy as Bishara.
Though Bishara seemed to draw on his scholarly background for the speech, he is best known for founding the National Democratic Assembly to promote the independence of the Palestinian territories and fight for the civil rights of Israeli Arabs. With this platform, he ran for prime minister in 1999, becoming the first Arab to do so.
In 2001, he also became the first member of the Knesset to have his immunity revoked, which paved the way for charges of sedition. Bishara allegedly voiced support for Hizbollah and asked for neighboring Arab countries to advocate an armed Palestinian uprising.
When one attendee brought up these allegations in the question-and-answer period, asking Bishara to tell his terrorist friends to stop bombings, Bishara jokingly said he'd make a call doing just that, drawing applause and laughter from the audience.
A subsequent question alleged that Bishara characterized Israel as a racist state. This prompted some in the heavily pro-Palestinian audience to come to Bishara's defense by loudly interrupting the question and contesting the allegation.
In the speech, Bishara explored the relationship between nationalism and democracy, saying the two can go hand-in-hand. "Democracy is one of the outcomes of nationalism," he said. "I don't know where it comes from if it doesn't come from national aspirations and representative democracy as a representation of national sovereignty."
He went on to contest the Bush administration's belief that democracy prevents terrorism. "There were 204 terrorist actions last year in India but not one in China," he said. "When did terrorism start in Iraq — before or after totalitarianism?"
Again taking aim at the administration, Bishara faulted Paul Bremer, former administrator of the U.S.-led occupation in Iraq, for disbanding the Iraqi army, attributing the move to the United States' very short history of involvement in the Middle East.
He concluded his speech with a discussion of his home country of Palestine, emphasizing its role in mobilizing the Arab community. "Palestine is the only remaining colonial wound," he said.