The new year is starting off fast, the forces of censorship are waxing. This makes sense as there is a well-financed, coherent, state, NGO and private political campaign that is, as predicted, unrelenting. At this writing, 28 US states now have some version of anti-BDS and/or explicitly pro-Israel laws on their books and these are not idle, toothless resolutions. Often these laws prohibit the state from entering into contracts with any entity or person that supports BDS. These laws have the explicit goal of suppressing any kind of free speech and courts throughout the U.S. agree. At the federal level, Trump’s executive order on anti-Semitism empowers attempts, as we’ll be discussing below, to, the maximum extent possible, suppress any US efforts to present a Palestinian perspective.
Here is a selected listing of some of the most egregious muzzling activities in this week alone:
From Palestine Legal: Weeks after Trump signed an executive order defining antisemitic language in interesting new ways, the Department of Education’s office of civil rights has opened two investigations at UCLA targeting groups involved in Palestinian advocacy and academic discussions of the Middle East deemed “unfriendly” to Israel and Jewish students. The eighth annual Students for Justice in Palestine national conference in 2018 spurred a lawsuit being filed against UCLA by the Zachor Legal Institute, an explicitly anti-Palestinian group that frequently pushes for criminal investigation of human rights activists. The breathtakingly disingenuous claim was that discussing Palestinian rights was an attack on Jewish students. This complaint has now been accepted, a year later, by the Department of Justice.
The second complaint was for a lecture by Professor Rabab Abdulhadi on Islamophobia and its interplay with concepts such as settler colonialism and imperial feminism. A right-wing group with strong Israeli governmental ties claimed that a student at the lecture was shocked that a lecture on Islamophobia would address Zionism and its impact on Palestinians. Apparently, the really awful thing was that Professor Abdulhadi brought the student to tears after refusing to affirm support for Israel. A UCLA investigation concluded that there had been no wrongdoing yet here we are, now the Justice Department is weighing in. The attack on free speech cannot be overstated – if the new executive order is followed – it would require UCLA to intervene when professors do not support Israel. To be clear, this would act as a kind of loyalty oath, and sadly, the UC system has an unfortunate history with such oaths stemming from the McCarthy era although a 1943 Supreme Court ruling explicitly said there can be no such law because “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics.”
Thus, we are back in an attempt to re-McCarthy-ize the US body politic with blundering but constant attempts to criminalize speech for the express purpose of stopping criticism of Israeli policies.
Beyond trying to squelch free speech, already bad enough, people are losing their jobs because they are speaking out and/or lecturing on issues considered to be critical of Israel and Zionism.
This has been recently reported by our own Philip Weiss, the headline says it all: “NY private school fires Jewish teacher for anti-Zionist statements.” A history teacher at the Fieldston prep school in NY City, J.B. Brager, was fired after they tweeted: “I refuse to ‘reaffirm the value’ of ethno-nationalist settler colonialism” in response to school uproar over a lecture by Kayum Ahmed, a lecturer at Columbia University Law School and the director of the Open Society Foundations. He is a deeply thoughtful and respected intellectual and human rights advocate throughout the world. In his lecture he said something almost all people working in violence prevention take as axiomatic, that the Holocaust and Israel are examples of “victims becoming perpetrators.” (this is my substantive area in spatial and social epidemiology). After a school assembly was called Brager tweeted again: “for a school assembly on anti-Semitism, SURE GO AHEAD and invite two white men who run Reform congregations, both of whom are Zionists, one [Davidson] that wrote that the ‘most insidious strain [of American anti-Semitism] is that of anti-Zionist intersectionality [on the far-left].’”
One of these rabbis has likened groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace to Osama bin Laden, the equivalent of Godwin’s law for our times. These vicious and truly incoherent mutterings of these sober men of learning, Ammiel Hirsch and Joshua Davidson, are considered well within the bounds of appropriate speech, another surprise to no one. Indeed, the New York Times saw fit to allow, without any counterpoint, a fact free, first amendment denying Op-Ed by these rabbis in the January 16, 2020 edition. In a petition/letter signed by 150 people, to the Fieldston administrators, Jessica Bagby and Nigel Furlonge, the reasonable claim was made that more interested in keeping conservative Jewish donor feathers unruffled than in addressing actual antisemitism or protecting Jewish community members. The term “weaponization of anti-Semitism” was raised in this letter. Indeed, as Tony Greenstein said of efforts to smear Jeremy Corbyn as anti-Semitic, “The one thing that the Campaign Against Antisemitism doesn’t do is to campaign against anti-Semitism.”
This needs to be emphasized, actual antisemitism is increasing in the U.S., in no small part because of the bull horn given to the misanthropist-in-Chief who coddles the most atavistic racist behavior in the US. Yet, the myopic U.S. mainstream Zionist supporting communities see fit to go after those who criticize Israeli state behavior. This criticism is non-denominational and scurrilous in it’s claims, effectively even trying to smear the Sanders campaign because he has the temerity to say that Palestinians deserve to have a voice and a vote. These attacks will only increase, no matter that Trump voiced, not so subtly in December, all manner of antisemitic bloviations. There was one antisemitic trope after another, avarice, not being authentically American, or “enough” American, etc. Yet, this was just another Monday for Trump while Sanders having a campaign staffer that may or may not have uttered something possibly antisemitic, is a mic drop moment.
And yes, it’s a truism that antisemitic statements and beliefs can be held by those critical of Israeli policies towards Palestinians as well as those ostensibly supporting Israeli policies also holding antisemitic beliefs. Painting all criticism of Israel as antisemitic vitiates and obscures actual antisemitic language and racist crimes. We are left with a very strange situation where actual antisemitic attacks and behavior are being used as an excuse to go after legitimate discussion and criticism of Zionism and Israeli state behavior. Foundational values for a functioning society are now being threatened, free speech and protection against racist attacks and so far, we’re, for the most part, taking all the wrong lessons from this. More soon!