Since the night of October 11, 2015, when Israeli soldiers burst in and arrested Dareen Tatour from her home after she posted a poem on social media prosecutors later claimed encouraged violence, the Palestinian poet has been enmeshed in the absurdity of Israel’s selectively guaranteed right to free speech.
Tatour was indicted on two counts, supporting a terror organization and incitement–the latter is an increasingly common charge against Palestinians in Israeli courts in the social media age. After an initial three months in jail, Tatour was moved to home arrest for the duration of her trial where she remains to date.
The case has drawn international attention from writers and artists, in particular. The poet’s fellow creatives are outraged by Israel’s severe threats to free speech yet are inspired by Tatour’s conviction. When offered a plea deal on the condition she admits her poetry incited violence, Tatour refused outright.
At the Brooklyn headquarters for the publishing house Verso Books at a September 18 standing-room-only panel on free speech and Palestine solidarity sponsored by Adalah-NY and Jewish Voice for Peace, panelist Susan Abulhawa, the acclaimed author of Mornings in Jenin, disclosed a little-known additional fact of Tatour’s case: After Israeli soldiers arrested Tatour on the charge of incitement, one piece of evidence prosecutors presented in court was the fact that Tatour recited a commemoration of the 1956 massacre of Palestinians at Kafr Qasim.
The massacre occurred almost 59 years to the day before Tatour’s arrest, when three Israeli soldiers shot and killed 49 Palestinian civilians at close range—among them women and children—for breaking a curfew they were completely unaware of.
“Nothing happened to the soldiers, really, who murdered those people but Dareen,” Abulhawa said, was implicated for “commemorating their memory.”
Israel’s excruciating violation of the right of Palestinians like Tatour to free expression may at first glance usurp Abulhawa’s seemingly small ripple in the overall story. But as the panelists each spoke to, narrative is perhaps the most powerful tool to fighting oppression.
The talk was moderated by professor and novelist Sarah Schulman and the other panelists were poet Aja Monet and Palestine Legal attorney Radhika Sainath.
The conversation varied from the pro-Israel camp’s tactical silencing of Palestine activists to the question of what shapes true solidarity and the efficacy of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign.
Riham Barghouti, founder of Adalah-NY: the New York Campaign for the Boycott of Israel, introduced the panelists and began the discussion on the dilemmas of Palestine activists face from pro-Israel groups.
“Palestine solidarity organizations and individuals are increasingly being subjected to legislation, executive orders, and campus restrictions that selectively repress our rights to organize, to conduct public forums and to debate,” Barghouti said.
“Ironically, one of the terms of this repression is the manipulation of laws and rules…of what is called hate speech,” Barghouti explained, noting that protections against hate speech were originally created to protect society’s most marginalized.
Though presently, she added, “hate speech restrictions are increasingly manipulated by supporters of the Israeli state falsely conflating criticism of Israeli apartheid with anti-semitic hate speech.”
On this very point, Radhika Sainath introduced staggering statistics compiled over two years by Palestine Legal, the legal aid organization dedicated to protecting the constitutional rights of Palestine activists.
Detailed in a report titled “The Palestine Exception to Free Speech,” Palestine Legal documented 650 incidents of speech suppression between 2014 and 2016.
“We found that the main method to silence Palestine solidarity activists is through false accusations of anti-Semitism,” Sainath stated. “In other words, criticizing the state of Israel or standing up for Palestinian human rights.” Three hundred fifty of the 650 total incidents stem from false accusations of anti-Semitism.
These attacks have a chilling effect on speech, Sainath said, elaborating on a recent and highly publicized incident at her alma mater the University of California, Berkeley.
In 2016, the university suspended a student-led class called Palestine: A Settler Colonial Analysis after capitulating to complaints of anti-Semitism and political indoctrination from campus Israel advocacy groups. In a letter, Berkeley’s Chancellor at the time Nicholas Dirks claimed the class espoused a single viewpoint and was a possible platform for political organizing.
To demonstrate this selectivity—or Palestine exception—Sainath offered a list of simultaneous classes not deemed political or one-sided.
“Marxism and its Discontents,” she said to laughter from the crowd. On another called “Human Trafficking Prevention,” Sainath joked that there were “no pro-trafficking viewpoints on that syllabus.”
Just as the Palestinian struggle intersects with liberation struggles worldwide, so do the free speech double standards show up across borders and states.
As a black woman growing up in the U.S. under the realities of state violence, poet and author Aja Monet said she learned that the foundation of resistance is through counter-narrative.
“One of the ways we assert our humanity is to tell new, profound stories,” Monet stated.
“Art and culture has been the way that has always elevated spiritual meaning of people and we need to be sharing and telling.”
It wasn’t until her first trip to Palestine with a delegation of Dream Defenders in 2015 that Monet considered how specious the official narrative of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is about its depictions of Palestinians.
Monet has since made repeated trips to Palestine and focuses on actively sharing the stories of Palestinians—narratives relayed to her by Palestinian women in Ramallah, for example. Monet said when back home in the U.S., she seeks out conversations with individuals who are either ill-informed or base their understanding of reality for Palestinians on an official, but skewed narrative.
“How do we shift the stories that are told and ways in which the Palestinian people have been silenced? How do we counter the narratives that most people hear about Palestine?”
One way is to express true solidarity, Monet said she learned from the culmination of her trips to Palestine and her experiences as a black woman in America: solidarity cannot be transactional nor can it fit neatly into the framework of capitalism.
“Solidarity means risks and saying things that people don’t want to hear and then being yelled at and having things thrown at you,” she said. “Everything we know as black people in this country resistance stands for.”
Abulhawa added that Israel tries hardest to control the narrative—both internally and externally—particularly within the U.S. She said narrative is just as much “an integral part of oppression as it is an integral part of resistance.”
“But there’s another equally important layer that allows colonial projects to subsist and even to flourish,” Abulhawa said, “This happens by creating an explicit narrative that positions the colonizer as a force of good, a force of enlightenment, and positions the colonized or the chained as savage, cruel, irrational.”
And once this narrative is internalized by the occupied population, it reinforces colonial projects like Israel, because such projects rely on the colonized to believe they are powerless, Abulhawa explained.
“Anything that upsets the prevailing narrative becomes an existential threat to a colonial project” Abulhawa added.
Next the conversation turned to BDS. Abulhawa responded to doubts about its overall effectiveness.
“BDS is often seen as a tactic or a movement,” Abulhawa said, “I see it as something bigger—I see it as a landscape. I see it as a corrective story that allows people from all over the world to engage in a national liberation struggle of an oppressed, indigenous and colonized society.”
In response to a question from an Israeli audience member, Karin Loevy, Abulhawa provided an answer in real-time to the question of the night on reshaping narrative.
“I realized that as an Israeli I can’t really be part of anti-occupation work and I think the reason I feel that is that there is a problem with ongoing complicity,” Loevy said, struggling to formulate a question. She was helped along by the audience, and eventually asked: “how do people handle the ongoing condition of complicity—being Israeli—and still be active and involved?”
It wasn’t until a few other questions passed before Susan Abulhawa responded to Loevy. Abulhawa prefaced her response saying she didn’t intend to hurt anyone’s feelings and she thought it was courageous of Loevy to ask such a question.
“I want you to notice how you prefaced your question with a narrative about your own turmoil, your own inner turmoil and how it’s affecting you” responded Abulhawa. “I think a good place to start is to recognize that this is not about you.”
“It’s about an entire society quite literally being erased; a very ancient society with history and traditions, dance, song, food, stories and trees that are slowly going away.” At this, the audience cheered in agreement.
Before the panel ended, organizers reminded audience members of the conversation’s backdrop: an urgent call of support for Dareen Tatour as her October 17 verdict date approaches.
Everyone in the room—including Abulhawa, Monet, Schulman and Sainath—crowded into a video frame and in harmony, or rather, solidarity, yelled a message to Tatour, which organizers said will be used to promote more support for the persecuted poet.
All at once the room shouted: “Poetry is not a crime! Free Dareen Tatour!”
Sainatee Suárez is an artist in New York City.