International Affairs

Palestinians deserve justice too

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President Trump and his team have taken hard-right positions – and now executive action – on issue after issue, and a cross-movement resistance is emerging.

Activists are rising up against the Muslim ban, anti-black and anti-immigrant policies, attacks on women’s rights and trans rights, the Dakota Access and Keystone pipelines, efforts to privatize education and deregulate Wall Street, climate change denial, and more. Resistors view these not as distinct movements but as interconnected struggles.

The power to resist relies on our right to dissent. We must safeguard that right and vigorously oppose any effort to censor or suppress it.

{mosads}Those who organize for Palestinian freedom are well-versed in the suppression of dissent, and will tell you that free speech is often squashed when government officials are united with powerful interest groups in their disdain for certain political views.


In recent years, for example, as support for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaigns for Palestinian rights has grown, Israeli advocacy groups have turned to politicians to shut down dissent and to suppress any activism critical of Israel.

Lawmakers at all levels of government have introduced dozens of anti-boycott bills aimed at punishing those who support BDS, even though BDS campaigns utilize the same constitutionally protected speech activities that helped end segregation in the U.S. and Apartheid in South Africa.  

Despite outcry from social justice activists and lawyers, 16 states have enacted anti-boycott laws in the past 18 months, all with bipartisan support. Reminiscent of the McCarthy era, several of these laws establish government-sponsored political blacklists of companies and organizations that support Palestinian rights. A bill introduced this month in Maryland would even blacklist individuals. Anti-boycott measures have already been introduced in 12 states and Congress so far this year.

One of the most egregious attempts to crush dissent is the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act, which passed the U.S. Senate in December without debate and is expected to be reintroduced in Congress soon. The Anti-Semitism Awareness Act endorsed a widely discredited, overly broad definition of anti-Semitism that classifies virtually all political speech supportive of Palestinian rights as anti-Semitic. It directs the U.S. Department of Education to rely on that definition when investigating complaints of anti-Semitism on campuses.

The Anti-Semitism Awareness Act adds no new legal protections for Jewish students; the Department of Education already interprets federal civil rights law to protect Jewish students from discrimination on campus. Instead, it is intentionally drafted – by Israel advocacy groups – to censor Palestine advocacy on campuses, making it particularly destructive to universities where academic freedom and inquiry are critical.

Importantly, the bill was opposed by numerous civil rights and free speech organizations, including the lead author of the anti-Semitism definition the bill endorses.

The bill’s supporters argue that it is a response to the troubling uptick in anti-Semitic incidents reported across the country in the wake of Trump’s election, which correspond with a rise in attacks against other racial, ethnic and religious minority groups. But instead of going after the white nationalist elements largely responsible for this uptick – including those working in and allied with the Trump White House – the bill targets advocates for Palestinian rights.

Bills recently introduced in Virginia, South Carolina and Tennessee endorse the same discredited definition of anti-Semitism. Each one is an attempt to justify censorship of Palestine advocacy in their respective states, in violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. After pushback from activists and lawyers, the Virginia bill died in committee this week. The South Carolina and Tennessee bills must be similarly defeated.

Efforts to enact laws aimed at censoring Palestine solidarity enjoy broad support from both major political parties.

Democrats, struggling to find their dissenting voice in the Trump era, are in many cases leading the charge to crush Palestine advocacy, alienating significant segments of the emerging resistance that value justice and free speech. When an anti-boycott bill failed to pass the New York legislature after public outcry, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an anti-boycott executive order, denouncing human rights activists as “extremists.” During the presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton wrote a letter to billionaire mega-donor Haim Saban promising to “make countering BDS a priority.”

We must challenge both the high-level censorship efforts as well as the daily intimidation and targeting that activists face. If activists are too afraid to speak out, we lose our full potential to reject a status quo that favors discrimination and apartheid over justice, freedom and equality. 

The Palestine exception to free speech – and the bipartisan support it enjoys – should concern all of us who are eager to build a cross-movement social justice resistance. The powers that be are watching the Palestine exception unfold, taking diligent notes, ready to deploy the same tactics to shut down other forms of dissent.

Only with a collective will and collective action to protect our right to dissent will we prevail against the reactionary forces that are intent on crushing what could be the most powerful progressive movement yet.


Rahul Saksena is a staff attorney at Palestine Legal and cooperating counsel with the Center for Constitutional Rights. His work focuses on legislative advocacy and legal support for activists whose rights are under attack. Saksena holds a JD from American University Washington College of Law and is admitted to the New York state bar.

The views of contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

Tags anti-semitism Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Hillary Clinton Human rights Israeli–Palestinian conflict

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