The New Alger Hiss

Is jailed Palestinian Islamic Jihad leader Sami Al-Arian the innocent victim of a government vendetta? That’s what the New York Times would have you believe: the Gray Lady reported Friday that the former University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian faces new charges, and stated that “the Justice Department and some independent terrorism investigators have long accused Mr. Al-Arian of being the main North America organizer for Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which has claimed responsibility for some of the more deadly suicide bombings against Israeli targets and which the United States has designated a terrorist organization.”

However, the Times will have none of it, and wants to make sure you don’t, either: “Mr. Al-Arian’s supporters, though, say that he is nothing more sinister than an outspoken Palestinian activist, and that the Justice Department has tried to exploit the post-Sept. 11 mood in the United States to punish him for that, using legal maneuvering to keep him behind bars.” Times reporter Neil MacFarquhar quotes Al-Arian’s defense attorney, Jonathan Turley, saying: “The government has shown a willingness to go to the most extreme lengths to prolong Mr. Al-Arian’s incarceration.”

Is Al-Arian really a modern-day martyr, a sacrifice to the war on terror? Well, the Times did not see fit to print the fact that in reality, Al-Arian pleaded guilty to a charge of “conspiracy to make or receive contributions of funds to or for the benefit of Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), a Specially Designated Terrorist” organization. His plea states that, “Defendant is pleading guilty because defendant is in fact guilty. The defendant certifies that the defendant does hereby admit that the facts set forth [in the plea agreement] are true, and were this case to go to trial, the United States would be able to prove those specific facts and others beyond a reasonable doubt.” What’s more, Al-Arian acknowledged that he was “pleading guilty freely and voluntarily…and without threats, force, intimidation, or coercion of any kind.”

What kind of work did Al-Arian do for the PIJ? The Investigative Project reports that “Alisa Flatow was a 20-year-old Brandeis student studying in Israel when a suicide bomber blew up a bus she was riding on in 1995. It was less than three months after Al-Arian wrote his letter praising the double suicide bombing and seeking support ‘so that operations such as these can continue.’”

Despite this, or perhaps because of it, for years now liberals have lionized Al-Arian as the victim of a right-wing witch hunt. The New York Times was among the leaders of those calling for his canonization early on.  In March 2002 Nicholas Kristof asserted in the Times that “the point is not whether one agrees with Professor Al-Arian, a rumpled academic with a salt-and-pepper beard who is harshly critical of Israel (and also of repressive Arab countries) — but who also denounces terrorism, promotes inter-faith services with Jews and Christians, and led students at his Islamic school to a memorial service after 9/11 where they all sang ‘God Bless America.’ No, the larger point is that a university, even a country, becomes sterile when people are too intimidated to say things out of the mainstream.”

Ah. How could a rumpled academic who denounces terrorism and promotes inter-faith services be bad? He’s just a free spirit repressed by vicious right-wingers! Oh, and by the way, what did Al-Arian say that was out of the mainstream? Nothing much — just a few bouts of exuberance like “Death to America, death to Israel, jihad, jihad, jihad!”

For this Phil Donahue fawned over Al-Arian on his TV interview show. “So, one more time, sir,” he fawned, “and I know that you’re probably getting tired of these same questions — ‘death to Israel’ did not mean you wanted to kill Jews, do I understand your position?” After Al-Arian assured him of his pacifistic intentions, the awesomely gullible Phil worried for Al-Arian’s safety: “You are swimming upstream, professor, and this must be quite a shock to you. I know that your life has been threatened. I assume you have security.”

According to whichever liberal you happen to hear, Bill O’Reilly kicked this right-wing witch hunt into high gear during a wild interview on The O’Reilly Factor on September 26, 2001. “If I was the CIA, I’d follow you wherever you went,” O’Reilly told his guest, refusing to let Al-Arian off the hook about evidence that the professor was involved with jihadist individuals and organizations.

Eric Boehlert of Salon magazine was eager to slay the dragons of hysteria and bigotry that were besmirching the reputation of this harmless rumpled academic. His January 19, 2002 article was entitled “The prime-time smearing of Sami Al-Arian” and carried this subhead: “By pandering to anti-Arab hysteria, NBC, Fox News, Media General and Clear Channel radio disgraced themselves — and ruined an innocent professor’s life.”

One might have thought that this kind of thing would end after Al-Arian pleaded guilty, but no such luck. Sami Al-Arian looks to be well on his way to becoming the new Alger Hiss. It didn’t matter to Hiss’s supporters how many people died miserable deaths in the Gulag their hero helped support, and it doesn’t seem to matter to Al-Arian’s friends at the New York Times how many innocent civilians the rumpled academic’s friends have blasted to bits on the streets of Tel Aviv.

Al-Arian has said: “Let us damn America, let us damn Israel, let us damn them and their allies until death.” These days, that’s the kind of talk that makes you a hero to the New York Times and the American Left.