What do you do if you are a committed American supporter of Israel and find that everywhere you look campaigns for Palestinian rights are gaining ground? You could, as a number have done, use whatever resources and platforms you possess to try to persuade Israel to change course and negotiate a settlement with the Palestinians that is at least relatively just and practical. Along these lines you could vigorously encourage American efforts to impose on Israel a two state solution. Alternatively you could double down on repeating various Israeli talking points—villa in the jungle, children as human shields, America’s best friend, what about Tibet and Darfur? Or you could escalate your financing of American politicians who will do Israel’s bidding automatically, and pray that Palestinian activism somehow runs its course like a bad fever.
But there is fourth, more innovative and indeed daring alternative, which was analyzed at a fascinating Institute for Palestine Studies forum held last Friday at the SEIU conference center near Washington’s Du Pont Circle: initiate active measures to suppress Palestinian activism. This tactic is bold because it seems obvious that in most respects, it comes into direct conflict with the First Amendment, and thus is based on the premise that forced to choose between Israel and the American Constitution, Americans will choose Israel.
I believe this premise is almost certainly incorrect, and that the activism suppression movement will eventually be seen as a wild and desperate overreach. But before that, there will be a long and grinding political fight: the suppression movement has had some successes, and Palestine activists need lawyers to defend themselves and journalists to expose these activities for what they are.
For me the heart of Friday’s event was the elucidation—by Dima Khalidi of Palestine Solidarity Legal Support— of the numerous avenues pro-Israel groups have opened up in attempts to hinder, entangle or actually suppress activists who advocate for Palestinian rights on American college campuses. It is here of course, in the battle for the sympathies of educated young Americans, where Israel has lost the most ground in the past fifteen years. Khalidi’s group provides legal advice to activists, and finds attorneys for individuals and student groups which need them. In the past year her organization fielded a staggering 215 requests for legal assistance – from matters as relatively minor as a student group being barred from holding an event and as grave as activists facing criminal prosecution. While most cases fall in the harassment category, their volume points to a coordinated effort to target and harass pro-Palestinian young people. Khalidi provided several examples: pro-Palestinian campus groups being unable to reserve spaces to hold meetings, or being forbidden to publicize an event until it receives official approval, (which is not forthcoming until the last minute) or being told that because the views presented at their events are controversial, they have to pay fees for additional “security”. Occasionally widely-ignored campus regulations – such as one prohibiting distribution of flyers in dormitories –are resurrected and treated as terribly important when they can be used as a basis to punish pro-Palestinian students. One such case involved students who leafleted dorm rooms with mock eviction notices – representative of the very real evictions that Israel regularly gives Palestinian homeowners whose property Israel desires or finds inconvenient. Palestinian students are regularly accused by Zionist ones of supporting or raising money for Hamas—and though of course such charges are typically baseless, they serve their purpose if they catalyze formal federal investigations, chilling to anyone, much less a college student.
Then there is the unintentionally comic tactic: an eruption of complaints by pro-Israel students that pro-Palestine banners and street theater make them feel “unsafe.” Thus a banner at Barnard College, calling for an end to the occupation and portraying a map of whole Palestine, implying support of a non-religious state—was removed by administrators because some Barnard women allegedly felt menaced. More amusing still was the complaint of a young pro-Israel woman from the University of California at Berkeley who claimed in a lawsuit that she felt threatened and intimidated by a mock checkpoint, the kind of thing where students go through the motions of asking passers their religion and demanding to search them. It was of course transparently obvious that the “soldiers” manning the checkpoint were students playacting as Israelis. Was this young woman who filed the suit, a Berkeley alumna no less, genuinely, as she claimed, “terrified for weeks” by the experience? What a delicate flower she must be! Other Zionists have likened make-believe checkpoints to passion plays of medieval Europe. One can contemplate that if a make believe checkpoint on a University quad has such an impact, what must it be like for Palestinians who are subjected to the real thing, manned by young Israelis with real guns, every day of their lives.
Another case was the Hillel complaint at Berkeley when pro-Palestinian students signed up to register at its Birthright Table. Of course a campus regulation was found to accommodate Hillel—the Students for Justice in Palestine had failed to register their demonstration fourteen days in advance. (And the nerve of kids whose parents or grandparents were, in many cases, ethnically cleansed from Palestine, trying to claim that they have as much right to a Birthright trip as American Jews.)
Yet after all this, one gets the impression that the wave of campus activism is essentially irrepressible. Yes, groups like Students for Justice in Palestine constantly face petty harassment, and in many cases college administrators, scared themselves, will bend campus regulations to favor Zionist groups. But in many cases they won’t. And on campus the activism has reached a critical mass, and thus has passed the point where Israel’s insistence on no equal rights for Palestinians in what used to be Palestine has begun to sound kind of un-American. There are now thousands of politicized Palestinian American kids on American campuses, and perhaps nearly equal number of American Jews who find Israel a racist embarrassment. Beyond these two core groups, are more students going to empathize with the side that is bombing and bulldozing houses and enforcing the checkpoints, or the victims? Twenty years ago, before there were a significant number of organized, visible and thoroughly-Americanized Palestinian kids on campuses, the Zionist narrative pushed aggressively by a relatively small number of students was unchallenged and could prevail by default. That era is gone forever. The new means used to suppress Palestinian campus activism surely makes things more difficult, but my sense is that these difficulties might be viewed by many young men and women as a worthwhile challenge. The petty regulations administrators used to harass pro-Palestinian groups have an echo: perhaps not so obvious as the regulations deployed by the storied racist voting registrar of Missisippi in 1960’s, but they nonetheless convey the sense of a tilted playing field. Meanwhile the torrent of complaints by Zionist students that campus protests make them “feel unsafe” may arouse some college administrators with nanny state attitudes or extreme readiness to cater to the desires of some major university donors. But won’t these claims simply be laughed out of court? You don’t need to have gone to college in the sixties (though many did) to realize that campus politicking can be tough and challenging. Former Mayor Bloomberg (actually a major supporter of Israel) brought an instant halt to New York politicians whining about a pro-BDS event at Brooklyn College by saying, look, we don’t live in North Korea here. I would wager that the “this makes me feel unsafe” tactic will get enough well-deserved derision that its proponents will be forced to drop it.
The above is my opinion, but at the forum Dima Khalidi was similarly, if more guardedly, optimistic. After cataloging instance after instance of efforts to suppress pro-Palestinian activism, she came to this conclusion: “While the effect of all this is damaging and chilling, it is not working that well. A lot of these efforts are failing, because of the First Amendment, and because people refuse to be intimidated.”
I think she’s right, and I also think that to the degree pro-Zionist organizations resort to tactics transparently opposed to the spirit of the First Amendment, they will embarrass and eventually marginalize themselves. None of this to say that the burdens and stress these tactics put on Palestinian groups are not considerable. The various legal groups working to defend political speech desperately need more attorneys, more resources. But in the American context, they hold the winning cards.
I’ve given short shrift to other important parts of the forum, including efforts to target Mideast studies departments which receive Title VI funding, using the argument that the departments are not “balanced” because their course offerings are too critical of Israel; legislative efforts are afoot to compel the Department of Education to defund academic departments which don’t toe the line. Yet at a moment when the United States shows no sign of not being inextricably involved with the Mideast for years to come, it’s hard to believe that that even the Congress will agree to sever America from its main sources of academic and linguistic and cultural knowledge about the region on Israel’s say so.
There was also a presentation on the selective prosecution of individuals—especially the case of Rasmea Odeh, a Palestinian woman now being prosecuted on a visa violation which is at once revelatory and mysterious. The mystery to me, and to the panelists, is who decided to prosecute this case and why. The case’s pettiness (Odeh failed to state her past imprisonment in Israel forty years on a visa application) is breathtaking.
But so long as Palestinian activists –on campus and outside—know their rights and can access attorneys to advise and defend them, their ascent will continue. As Columbia professor Rashid Khalidi stated in his introduction to the forum, those who oppose Palestinian equal rights do not have an easy time making their case in America when the story is fully debated. Few want to identify as advocates of colonization, or supporters of the house demolitions and checkpoints and unequal rights which are the foundation of the Israeli occupation. Defenders of the status quo have run out of persuasive arguments; their resort to debate suppression can mean nothing else. America has many flaws, but respect for the First Amendment is deeply embedded in its political culture. The Israel lobby has chosen a tactic which will profoundly discredit it.