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In the ‘liberal’ West of North America and Europe the value of free speech and open discussion is often touted as a lynch-pin of liberal democracies. These values are scarcely to be found however if the topic of discussion is Israel. Criticism of Israeli policies, such as describing it as a system of apartheid or supporting movements such as BDS (Boycotts, Divestments and Sanctions) are repressed and censored in a fashion that is antithetical to freedom and openness. These tactics were previously hailed as heroic when used against South African apartheid, but the rules are different when it comes to Israel.
Occurrences of these double standards are all around but very rarely known or reported. Here are some examples.
David Shorter, a UCLA professor primarily interested in indigenous Mexican tribes, was accused of promoting anti-Semitic resources on his reading list for his course on ‘Tribal Worldviews’. What these links actually consisted of were links to the United States Academic and Cultural Boycott Initiative (USACBI) and the website Electronic Intifada, both on the non-required reading list. The accusations were launched by the AMCHA initiative, ‘a non-profit organisation dedicated to … combatting anti-Semitism at institutions of higher education in America’. Their campaign against Shorter led to an internal investigation. Despite no evidence of anti-Semitism or bias being found Shorter received hate-mail and phone calls due to his name having essentially been slandered. Shorter explained, ‘I teach about how the United States disregards its own treaties with Native Americans all the time and no-one ever complains. But the moment I provide a link to a website that is critical of Israel’s policies, I cross the line’. The AMCHA Initiative is just one of many pressure groups, following a trend of equating criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism.
York University, Toronto, has shown similar failure to protect free speech. Recently it revoked the official club status of the student group Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA), a group instrumental in passing BDS resolutions in student associations and in the wider Ontario area between 2008-2013. However the group lost their funding and their official club status was revoked because of the use of a megaphone in a demonstration calling for divestment from companies that sell weapons and technologies to the Israeli military. York University has also given alumnus Hamman Farah a trespassing order. This clamp down comes after a coalition group of 22 Canadian members of Parliament known as the Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Anti-Semitism (CPCCA) claimed anti-Semitism was on the rise in Canada, referring to incidents of what is referred to as ‘new anti-Semitism’, which equates to criticism of Israel.
The problem is present throughout the West. Last month in France 10 activists were brought to trial following action calling for the boycott in supermarkets. The group are charged with ‘incitement, provocation to discrimination, hatred or violence against a person or group of persons due to their ethnicity, race, religion or nation’. Governments across Europe often show uncertainty when faced with a decision on whether calling for boycott is incitement to discrimination or is sacred under the principle of free speech. But when it comes to Israel, free speech often loses out. In the UK only last week it was reported that the BBC chose to censor an interview with renowned violinist Nigel Kennedy because of his use of the word ‘apartheid’ to describe Israel. This comes despite nearly all aspects of Apartheid, as defined by the UN, apply to Israel in all four of its guises: domestically, its military occupation of the West Bank, its military ‘annexation’ of East Jerusalem, and its siege of Gaza.
A pattern is starting to emerge. If you criticise Israel, you can be called anti-Semitic. People therefore self-censor to avoid being tarred with this brush. This conflation allows Israel to violate international law and deny Palestinian rights with impunity.
Am I racist if I criticise Israel?
The cases detailed above, and many more that you find online or may have heard through the grapevine seem shocking. How is it that something as simple as criticising the regime of a country can lead to people calling you racist, xenophobic or bigoted? The problem lies in the conflation of anti-Israel sentiment with anti-Semitism. This conflation is no accident and has arrived in our psyche as part of the broader ‘hasbara’, read propaganda, campaign.
The University of California’s recent history of pro-Palestinian repression stems from pro-Zionist bodies, funding organisations and Israel’s fear of the de-legitimisation BDS may bring. After a Student Union vote to divest at Berkley and protests in UC Irvine against Israeli ambassador Michael Oren, UC President Mark Yudof initiated a ‘Campus Climate’ study. This study focussed on non-violent protests and speeches critical of Israel, with 50% of the report centered on the impact of anti-Zionism and anti-Israeli debate. After the protests at UC Irvine, the 11 students who interrupted Michael Oren were arrested and threatened with expulsion. Yudof claimed, ‘The constitution does not protect the right to suppress the speech of others’. However the recommendations of the Campus Climate report prohibit ‘hate-speech’, including criticism of Israel suppressing the legitimate free speech Yudof apparently valued.
In the summer of 2012 a bipartisan resolution, H.R 35, was passed by the Californian State Assembly. It demands that what it calls ‘anti-Semitic activity’ should ‘not be tolerated in the classroom or on campus, and that no public resources be allowed to be used for anti-Semitic or intolerant agitation.’ By including activities that criticise Israel the resolution denies 1st amendment rights to students and faculty. Giving erroneous examples of anti-Semitism has furthered the censorship of legitimate criticism of Israel. The erroneous examples of anti-Semitism seriously inhibit free speech for example the resolution rejects any discourse referring to apartheid or racism in Israel, which means Nobel Peace Prize Laureates Jimmy Carter, Desmond Tutu, and Mairead Maguire, all of whom have used the term ‘apartheid’ in their descriptions of Israel or its policies, would be barred from speaking on campus. In other situations the rejection of any speech charging Israel with crimes against humanity would involve rejecting evidence provided by Israeli academics such as Avi Schlaim or Ilan Pappe or renowned NGOs such as Human Rights Watch or Amnesty.
Blurring the lines of politics and religion stifles political debate. As the ‘Open Letter from California Scholars for Academic Freedom’ concerning H.R 35 explains, ‘it would be unthinkable to equate criticism of the government of China or the Free Tibet movement with anti-Chinese racism, despite the identification that many Chinese students feel with China and Chinese culture. Similarly, it would be absurd to equate criticism of governments in Africa with racism against African Americans. It is almost inconceivable to imagine an Assembly resolution that would conflate criticism of Egypt’s government with anti-Arab racism.’
Censorship is not the appropriate response to counter speech one doesn’t agree with. Instead open debate and a discourse is necessary. Individuals must realise that it is absurd to associate political criticism with racism.
Keep up the pressure!
Why is the Israel lobby so keen to silence international voices supporting Palestine? International Solidarity is a vehicle to raise the profile of the Palestinian struggle for their homeland, their rights and self-determination. It must be understood, as Ilan Pappe tells us, that International Solidarity ‘cannot replace the liberation movement – the Palestinians have to liberate themselves… but we can and must show solidarity with their liberation’. Internationals should be an echo for the call for liberation and justice. This echo should reverberate around all people of conscience, to stand up and speak out against Israel’s violations of international law and call for Palestinian rights.
My involvement with the ‘Right 2 Education campaign’ has focussed my understanding of the importance of international solidarity. A main focus of the campaign is to build connections with international student and advocacy groups; increasing international awareness of the ways that the illegal Occupation systematically denies Palestinian’s rights to achieve an education through movement restrictions, the closure of academic institutions, student detention and harassment and the stifling of political life. These issues resonate closely with individuals since education is an experience we all experience lives, a driving factor in the direction our lives take. Palestinians deserve to exercise their right to education; parallel to this the international community deserves to understand the truth about the Palestine-Israel context and learn about it in an open and free manner. BDS aims to put economic, political and social pressure on Israel in order to undermine its legitimacy. By isolating Israel in the international community and presenting it as a ‘pariah’ state, the platform for justice can be laid. The fact that Israel and the pro-Zionist lobby are so concerned with BDS and the rising international awareness of the realities of the Israel-Palestine conflict does bode well. Israel has invested huge amounts of time and money into ‘hasbara’ campaigns and legal initiatives to repress anti-Israeli sentiment. It was recently reported that Jewish Agency for Israel plans to spend up to $300 million a year on a new PR campaign for Israel, principally in the United States, essentially because the current efforts aren’t working. Israeli foreign minister, Amir Sagie called for ‘legal warfare’ against BDS in France and other European nations, whilst covert units to post on social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter on Israel’s behalf have been announced to take on the ‘online battle’.
I must reiterate that criticism of Israel on the grounds of ethnicity, religion or nation is not acceptable and leads to nothing but bigotry. However criticising a state on account of its systematic abuse of human rights and violation of international law is an important aspect of any democratic system. In our ever more interconnected globalised world, we must speak out. Keep up the pressure, join local BDS initiatives, protest or petition to keep pressure on the international regime to stop its impunity towards Israel.