Several events of the past few weeks point to our frightening reality when it comes to freedom of speech regarding Israel/Palestine. We are on precarious ground.
Clearly, public opinion has shifted in a more pro-Palestinian direction, especially among younger Americans and people of colour. Up until now, this fact has registered mainly in polling data. But with the past six weeks of Israel’s brutal assault on Gaza, there’s been an outpouring of statements of support for Palestinian rights and opposition to Israel’s unrelenting war against the Palestinian people.
It was expected that pro-Palestinian support would be countered by groups supportive of Israel. But the virulence of the pro-Israeli counter-attacks has been worrisome.
A major American Jewish organisation purporting to defend civil rights called on universities to ban Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), calling it anti-semitic, and, in an extraordinary move, called on the US government to investigate whether the students could be charged with “providing material support for terrorism”.
While incautious language may have been used by some students expressing support for Palestinians, there’s nothing to substantiate the dangerous charge of terrorism. Some universities have responded by banning the SJP, together with Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), a national organisation of young progressive American Jews supportive of Palestinian rights. Despite its Jewish membership, JVP has also been termed anti-semitic by the same pro-Israel advocates.
A week ago, a Midwestern state’s Democratic Party chair sent a Press release denouncing officers of the Young Democrats on one of the state’s college campuses. The student Democrats’ letter ended with a nuanced version of what pro-Israel groups have come to insist is a controversial statement. Instead of saying “From the river to the sea, Palestine shall be free,” they wrote “May every Palestinian be free, from the river to the sea.”
Despite the student’s best efforts, the state party chair accused them of using anti-semitic language, making Jewish students feel unsafe on campus, and supporting genocide against the Jewish people, and called on them to resign from their elected positions in the Democratic group. In justifying this harsh response, the chair cited the definition of the original phrase, provided by a pro-Israel group.
Last week, a respected community-based organisation in Maryland that advocates and provides services for immigrants issued a statement in support of the Palestinian people. They denounced the massacres perpetrated by Hamas on October 7 and the Israeli bombing campaign that had taken the lives of thousands of Palestinians. A statement by the Central American Solidarity Association (CASA), an immigrants’ rights group, continued that as people of colour they identified with the struggle for justice and freedom because, “the Palestinian struggle mirrors our won”.
CASA’s solidarity was met by a letter from a group of Maryland legislators and elected officials demanding that CASA rescind its statement, declaring it “anti-semitic”. As state legislators who decide the state’s budget, they more pointedly stated: “This might be an appropriate time to re-evaluate the state’s mechanism for providing financial aid and support to our immigrant community.” Subtle, this was not. Since thousands of immigrants depend on CASA for critical services and advocacy, they felt compelled to apologise and take down the statement. The legislators have not yet relented in their threat to eliminate the group’s funding.
Finally, an op-ed published in the New York Daily News this week calling for the re-establishment of the notorious Jewish Defence League (JDL) should cause concern and outrage. Instead, it passed without comment from elected officials concerned about the spread of hate.
The column’s author, a prominent New York philanthropist, praised JDL founder Meir Kahane and extolled the group’s virtues, claiming it represented strong Jews and a firm response to treats against their safety. He ignored the facts that for decades the JDL was on the FBI terrorism list, was a major perpetrator of terrorist violence during the 1970s and 1980s, and was banned in Israel as a racist terror group that spawned the likes of the individual who massacred Muslim worshippers in Hebron’s Ibrahim Mosque and the individual who assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. That a major US paper would publish such a piece without comment indicates just how dangerous the situation has become.
From these examples, it would seem the wrong discourse is being scrutinised.