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Though Abunimah's booking at the library was first canceled and then rescheduled, in the end Evanston rose to the occasion. Civilization had one of its occasional good days.
The debate over Abunimah's off-again on-again appearance at this time of turmoil in the Middle East puzzled me. Among commentators on the Arab-Israeli conflict, Abunimah is, in my experience, one of the most lucid and temperate we've got. A little windy, perhaps, but otherwise hard to fault.
Abunimah, an author and blogger, is someone I first wrote about in 1999 when he was a young gadfly with a website that announced, "ali abunimah's bitter pill, uncovering media myths about the middle east." The son of a Jordanian diplomat who came to Chicago to study at the U of C., he described himself to me as "just a lonely little guy in Chicago." I'd get about 80 e-mails from him every month. So did 200 to 300 other people. "Most of my critiques, I do two things," he told me then. "One is reading things and commenting on them. The other is writing directly to the media and putting that up on the Internet."
A diplomatic correspondent for NPR told me he read everything Abunimah sent him, even though the e-mails tended to run on a bit. "He's definitely not a nuisance. He is persistent, and he comments on nearly everything we do regarding the Middle East. But I find his criticisms to be well reasoned and well argued, even if many people would disagree with his conclusions. What I find helpful is that he distills into very useful short commentaries the point of view of the Palestinians and Arabs."
In 2002 I was back in touch with Abunimah. A Tribune columnist had quoted Ariel Sharon, prime minister of Israel, as telling his cabinet, "I control America." But had he? A similar quote—"We the Jewish people control America, and the Americans know it"—had been circulating for months but could not be pinned down. Nevertheless, the Palestinian press and anti-Semitic websites had jumped on it, while pro-Israeli factions denounced the story as a preposterous lie and evidence of an anti-Israel bias in the media. (The Tribune carried a note that said the quote "cannot be confirmed.")
I wondered what Abunimah thought. He said he hadn't touched the quote. "I have not seen a source that has convinced me that quote is legitimate," he told me. But if it wasn't accurate, it also wasn't important: quotes had been mangled before and would be again. "I don't think these things are worth debating," he said. "Do you make a mistake with a quote? You correct it and move on."