By JOHN LESLIE
In the weeks since Oct. 7, there has been an unprecedented outpouring of solidarity with the people of Palestine in response to Israel’s ongoing genocide. This has been most clearly expressed in student activism on college and university campuses across the United States and around the world.
In the U.S., federal and state officials, university administrations, and the media have tried to cut across this wave of activism by vilifying students as being antisemitic or “pro-Hamas.” Actions include the suspension or banning of pro-Palestine student groups, particularly Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), at Columbia University, which suspended both SJP and the campus Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), Brandeis University, and George Washington University. The governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, has directed the banning of SJPs at all university campuses, which is being challenged in court.
The Intercept describes the Columbia University situation: “Columbia students gathered last Thursday for a ‘peaceful protest art installation’ and demonstration organized by the campus chapters of Jewish Voice for Peace and Students for Justice in Palestine. Hundreds of students demanded that Columbia publicly call for a ceasefire in Gaza, divest its endowment from corporations complicit in Israeli apartheid, and end its academic programs in Tel Aviv.”
The article continues: “The next day, Gerald Rosberg, chair of the Special Committee on Campus Safety, announced Columbia had suspended its chapters of JVP and SJP through the end of the semester, citing an ‘unauthorized event’ that ‘included threatening rhetoric and intimidation.’”
In contrast, Occidental College SJP in Los Angeles stated, “Unlike other higher education institutions such as Columbia, Barnard, and Brandeis, Occidental College commits in writing to not pursue retaliation or discipline for students and employees protesting the administration’s investment holdings in military contractors and manufacturers of banned and nuclear weapons, and its historic failure to address the needs of systemically oppressed MENA students.”
Activists have been doxed by right-wing groups. Harvard students who signed a pro-Palestine letter were doxed and harassed. There have been threats to careers. A member of the Temple University Muslim Students Association told Workers Voice that a fellow law student informed them that “his father would make sure that I’m blacklisted” from local law firms for their solidarity with Palestine.
The crackdown on free speech has weaponized Islamophobia, making use of the false charge of antisemitism in order to demobilize activism in support of Palestinian rights.
Brandeis Center reinvigorates McCarthyism
A statement from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) says, “In recent weeks, we’ve seen a surge in efforts to punish and silence students for their speech. The Anti-Defamation League and The Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law issued an open letter last week calling on university leaders to investigate pro-Palestinian student groups, alleging their speech constitutes ‘material support for terrorism,’ punishable under federal and state law, despite no evidence to support such claims.”
The ACLU statement continues, “Blanket calls to investigate every chapter of a pro-Palestinian student group for ‘material support to terrorists’—without even an attempt to cite evidence—are unwarranted and dangerous. They harken back to America’s mistakes during the McCarthy era, and in the months and years after 9/11.”
Soon after sending its letter to some 200 colleges and universities, the Brandeis Center filed a lawsuit against the University of Pennsylvania alleging that Penn had “failed to address harassment and discrimination against its students.”
The Brandeis Center complaint cites the Palestine Writes conference that took place on the Penn campus in late September. Critics allege that the conference included antisemitic speakers. As we reported previously, “Palestine Writes executive director and organizer Susan Abulhawa responded to [university President Liz] Magill via Twitter (X), stating, ‘It will stand in history as a testament to the grotesque privileged elite who stood behind a genocidal settler colonial state & cheered on the bombs obliterating the indigenous population. … We are not afraid, nor are we intimidated by craven statements of individuals who genuflect before powerful billionaire donors to attack the weak and marginalized.’”
Like the ADL, the Brandeis Center supports the definition of antisemitism put forward by the International Holocaust Remembrance Allaince (IHRA), which includes criticism of Zionism and Israel as acts of antisemitism. A 2020 statement by 122 Palestinian and Arab academics, journalists and intellectuals pushed back against the IHRA definition, saying, “In recent years, the fight against antisemitism has been increasingly instrumentalized by the Israeli government and its supporters in an effort to delegitimize the Palestinian cause and silence defenders of Palestinian rights. Diverting the necessary struggle against antisemitism to serve such an agenda threatens to debase this struggle and hence to discredit and weaken it. … Antisemitism must be debunked and combated. Regardless of pretense, no expression of hatred for Jews as Jews should be tolerated anywhere in the world.”
University of Pennsylvania
Recently, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights announced that it has initiated an investigation of “allegations of antisemitism and Islamophobia on campus” at Penn and at Lafayette College. At the latter campus, students have been charged with antisemitic acts for carrying signs at a protest stating, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”
The University of Pennsylvania has been under enormous pressure from wealthy donors and alumni to crack down on pro-Palestinian speech. Since the Oct. 7 attack, pressure on the university has intensified with calls for President Magill and Chairman Scott L. Bok to resign for their “mishandling” of the Palestine Writes conference.
In early November, Magill announced the formation of a task force and a student advisory group to combat antisemitism. Magill also expressed concern about Islamophobia on campus, but the clear target of the measure was students who are organizing in solidarity with Palestine.
Following the Oct. 16 student walkout, Zionists claimed that Penn Against the Occupation (PAO) activists had chanted, “We want Jewish genocide.” PAO stated in an Instagram post that this was a lie: “PAO would like to explicitly state that this claim is false and did not happen whatsoever. The chant was, ‘Israel, Israel, you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide.’ Members of the press, including the Daily Pennsylvanian, can testify to this information as false. This post is spreading blatant disinformation and it is dangerous to spread false narratives about the protest.”
In the lead-up to the Oct. 16 student walkout, Penn Against the Occupation hosted a teach-in on campus, Freedom School for Palestine. PAO posted on Instagram “Join us as we create community to continue fighting for Palestinian Liberation. @uofpenn harasses and suppresses Palestinian activism, so we must build our own spaces.”
Admittedly, there have been instances of vandalism and antisemitic speech on campuses and elsewhere. In one case, a young man was arrested and charged with federal crimes after making violent threats against Jewish students at Cornell University. But such incidents in no way negate the right to political speech.
In the meantime, organizations providing public defender services in New York City have moved to quash attempts by members of the public defenders’ union, the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys–UAW Local 2325, to issue a statement in solidarity with Gaza by claiming that the statement was “antisemitic.” According to the Intercept, “Pro-Israel activists launched a petition to defund the Bronx Defenders after its union issued a statement opposing Israel’s ‘genocidal intent in Gaza.’” Additionally, an injunction was sought to stop a union vote on a statement.
The Association of Legal Aid Attorneys statement actually denounces antisemitism and Islamophobia. What is really at issue is the fact that the statement accurately calls out Israel’s crimes against humanity in the West Bank and Gaza. The statement denounces U.S. aid to Israel and the targeting of civilians in Gaza.
Additionally, the statement defends the right of workers to speak out against genocide: “We reject all attempts to intimidate workers for their political speech, and we will organize against any attempts by our employers to procure funds denied to other legal services providers due to their union’s political activism in support of Palestinians and in opposition to the Israeli apartheid regime and occupation.”
In another, unrelated case, an assistant public defender in New Britain, Conn., Joshua Perldeiner, was placed on paid leave for leaving anti-Zionist issues of the socialist newspaper, The Red Clarion, in the public defender’s office waiting room.
The Palestine exception
While there seems to be a Palestine exception for free speech, anti-Muslim and anti-Arab hate speech and harassment are on the rise in the U.S. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) reports: “In the four weeks covering 10/7 to 11/4, CAIR’s national headquarters and chapters received a total of 1,283 requests for help and reports of bias, which is a 216 percent increase over the previous year.”
CAIR Research and Advocacy Director Corey Saylor stated: “Both Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism are out of control in ways we have not seen in almost ten years. The 1,283 complaints we have received over the past month represent a 216 percent increase in requests for help and reports of bias.
“The Islamophobic and anti-Palestinian rhetoric that have been used to both justify violence against Palestinians in Gaza and silence supporters of Palestinian human rights here in America has contributed to this unprecedented surge in bigotry.
“American Muslims are facing the largest wave of Islamophobic bias that we have documented since then-candidate Donald Trump’s Muslim Ban announcement in December 2015. Political leaders, corporations, media outlets, civic organizations and others all have a role to play in ending this surge in bigotry.”
Violations of free speech rights were the top reported incidents. CAIR reports attacks on protests, guns pulled on protesters and shots fired, harassment of students, and the threat of blacklisting. Palestinian and Muslim students and staff in elementary, middle, and high schools are reporting an increase in harassment and bullying.
The justifications for violations of the free speech rights of Palestine solidarity activists often hinge on false accusations of antisemitism leveled at the movement. This has been a common charge leveled at Palestine solidarity activists for years, with anti-Zionist Jews additionally labeled as “self-hating.”
As the genocidal attack on Gaza becomes more widely known, and the pressure to stop U.S. support of Israel increases, pro-Zionist forces are stepping up the suppression of free speech. Dylan Saba, a staff attorney at Palestine Legal, stated, “That’s what’s motivating the strategy to try to raise the stakes of Palestinian expression and organizing by getting universities to try to crack down on it. … If you can’t win the debate because the facts aren’t in your favor, it’s pretty sensible to try to stop it altogether.”
The nonviolent Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement exposed the connections between apartheid Israel and government entities, educational institutions, and corporations. The BDS movement undermined support for Israeli policy in U.S. society and internationally, threatening the base of financial support for the occupation, including settlement building.
This challenge to the legitimacy of the Israeli state spurred attempts to discredit the BDS movement. Zionist organizations and bourgeois politicians in both parties accused BDS of antisemitism for their legitimate criticisms of the human rights violations committed by the Zionist entity. Those who conflate Judaism, a religion with a long history of fighting for justice for the oppressed, and the Zionist state reinforce the growth of anti-Jewish thinking by blurring the lines between the legitimate criticism of Israeli policy and actual hate speech.
Thirty-five states have either passed anti-BDS laws or issued executive orders aimed at marginalizing BDS activists. In 2017, a bipartisan bill in Congress would have made advocating a boycott of Israel a felony.
From the river to the sea?
The chant, “From the River to the sea, Palestine will be free,” which is a staple of pro-Palestine demonstrations, has been cited by Zionists and their supporters as “hate speech” and a call for the elimination or killing of Jewish people. On the contrary, the slogan reflects the long-held position of the liberation movement for a democratic secular Palestine with equal rights for all.
In 1969, the largest component of the liberation movement, Fateh, declared, “We are fighting today to create the new Palestine of tomorrow; a progressive, democratic and nonsectarian Palestine in which Christian, Muslim and Jew will worship, work, live peacefully and enjoy equal rights.”
The pamphlet published by the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1970, Towards a Democratic State in Palestine, explains, “The call for an open, new, tolerant Palestine for Jews and non-jews is a dramatic change in the Palestinian struggle, but it is hardly a new idea. Palestinians suggested the creation of such a state to the Peel Commission in 1937. As for the idea of Jew, Muslim and Christian living peacefully and harmoniously in one country, it is also a very old one. The Fateh Declaration stated, ‘This is no utopian dream or false promise, for we have always lived in peace, Muslims, Christians and Jews and the Holy Land.’”
Nimer Sultany, a Palestinian citizen of Israel and lecturer in law at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, told Al Jazeera that the chant’s reference to freedom emphasizes “the need for equality for all inhabitants of historic Palestine” and that “those who support apartheid and Jewish supremacy will find the egalitarian chant objectionable…” Demonizing the use of this chant, Sultany argues, is “an attempt by Zionists and pro-Israeli propagandists to collapse the distinction between the existence of Israel as a state and the ideological apparatus of Jewish supremacy… [and] a call for egalitarianism and for the dismantlement of the system of apartheid becomes an existential threat.”
For revolution and liberation
Socialists reject prejudice against Jewish people, Islamophobia, and the suppression of freedom of speech. We reject the false notion that criticism of the Israeli apartheid state, or the colonial-settler ideology of Zionism, makes supporters of Palestinian rights and self-determination anti-Jewish. In fact, many of the activists in the pro-Palestine movement are anti-Zionist Jews.
Why do the Zionists and their supporters in the U.S. fear the freedom and equality of Palestinians? In part, it is because of their desire to preserve Israel as a base of Western imperialism in the Middle East. Israel has served as a willing instrument of U.S. imperialism in the region. Additionally, the repressive regimes that are clients of the U.S. empire are threatened by the dynamics that are sure to be set in motion by a revolutionary upsurge in Palestine. The oligarchs in these countries play a double game of cooperation with Israel and rhetorical support for Palestinian rights. A revolutionary upsurge in the region will be a direct challenge to imperialist domination of the region and its resources.
In a 2008 essay, Suzanne Weiss, from Socialist Voice in Canada, explained the need to focus on the “real enemy.” She wrote, “The Zionist state of Israel carries out its crimes in the name of the Jewish people, and conscripts Israeli Jews to enforce this oppression. This state uses many of the methods of Nazism to oppress the Palestinians, including confining them in walled ghettos. It is understandable that many victims of Zionism feel resentment against Jews, but we cannot blame all Jews for the crimes Israel commits in their name, any more than we blame all Americans for Bush’s crimes in Iraq or all Canadians for Stephen Harper’s crimes in Afghanistan. We must focus on our real enemy: Zionism and imperialism.”
Our tasks in the coming months are to deepen the mass mobilizations while organizing meaningful campaigns for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel, which include working to end military and economic aid to Israel by the U.S. government. This effort includes building ties of solidarity in the trade unions as well as on campus with the Palestinian people. Additionally, links can be made with the movement against police brutality to demand a break in the ties between the repressive apparatus of Israel and U.S. police forces. Israeli training of U.S. police must end! Defense of the right to speak freely and to organize is critically urgent!
Socialists support the right of self-determination of the Palestinian people, and we see the Palestinian struggle as inextricably linked to the struggles of workers and farmers in the entire MENA region. As people undertake a renewed Arab Spring revolution to gain freedom from repressive regimes and to shake off the imperialist boot from their necks, the possibility of socialist revolution and a new, democratic Palestine as part of a socialist Middle East will quickly approach.