Mondoweiss / October 5, 2022
The growing awareness of Israeli apartheid is leading Israel and its supporters to double down on draconian tactics to silence the truth.
Several seemingly disparate events in the past week come together to once again demonstrate the use of raw power by Israel and its supporters to force silence about their oppression of Palestinians from the river to the sea.
The first of these events was the travel website, Booking.com caving in to massive Israeli pressure to rescind a travel warning they were intending to place on Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Next, The Hill terminated their association with a presenter, Katie Halper, for attempting to air a monologue which defended Rep. Rashida Tlaib and made the self-evident case that Israel is an apartheid state. Finally, a small group of on-campus clubs at the UC Berkeley School of Law came under intense fire, complete with bogus charges of antisemitism, for their decision to adopt bylaws that support BDS and bar the appearance of “Zionist speakers” at their clubs’ events.
Looking at each of these incidents and then putting them together, it becomes evident that the growing awareness of the apartheid nature of the Israeli regime is leading the Israeli propaganda machine to double down on draconian tactics that endanger the principle of free speech and even public safety. They’re doing it because the facts, which have never been on their side, are becoming more widely understood, so they have no other tactics to turn to.
Misinforming the public
Booking.com has an obvious interest in informing their customers about conditions at their travel destinations. Politics and even questions of human rights aside, a traveler who thinks she is booking a stay in the “Israeli” city of Efrat and who may be ignorant of world affairs, might be responding to advertising for “a resort city in Israel” with numerous tourist attractions. Such people, and others who may have been told that Efrat is a city in Israel, have a right to know that they are going to a settlement in occupied Palestinian territory.
Booking.com had planned to note, in their English language website, that the settlements were in occupied territory, and that going there “may be accompanied by an increased risk to safety and human rights, or other risks to the local community and visitors.” There are obvious risks both to physical safety and to the traveler’s conscience when the reality is exposed. Some may not mind those risks, but how can anyone contend that they should not be made aware of it?
But Israel doesn’t see it that way. Israeli Tourism Minister Yoel Razvozov responded by calling an emergency meeting with representatives of Booking.com, contending that “a business will not dictate to us what area is Israel and what area isn’t. We intend to act with all the means at our disposal to reverse this decision.”
Efrat’s mayor Oded Ravivi chimed in, invoking the tired and patently false argument that Palestinians would not want such warnings issued: “Booking.com is the one violating human rights, particularly the right of Palestinians to earn a living with dignity and their right to participate in the reality of normal life on the ground. Hundreds of Palestinians work at various tourist sites and in the many guest accommodations. Unfortunately, they will be the first to lose their livelihood.”
Ravivi’s argument, of course, is belied by the Palestinian call for BDS, echoing that of South Africa. In both cases, the effects of boycotts on the livelihoods of the oppressed people were understood and accepted as a necessary sacrifice for freedom, but supporters of apartheid disingenuously claimed that they were just trying to help the poor victims of apartheid.
But Israel is not content to allow consumers to decide for themselves whether they want to patronize businesses in occupied territory, obviously understanding that, while some would still happily come to their settlements, many would not. That’s why BDS activists have focused on these travel firms, which often list rental sites in the West Bank as being in Israel. For Israel, this has been a key component of their campaign to erase the Green Line, render a two-state solution impossible, and assert its sovereignty over the whole of the West Bank.
Israel pushed back, with that pushback implying a stronger attack on the company, and Booking.com relented. They removed the word “occupied” from their English web site and changed their warning on both English and Hebrew sites to read that going there posed “may be accompanied by an increased risk to safety and human rights, or other risks to the local community and visitors.”
That hardly conveys the same message, and even the initial one was insufficient to communicate the damage to Palestinians living in the West Bank that is done by every dollar settlements bring in.
When my friend and co-author Marc Lamont Hill was fired from his role as a pundit on CNN for speaking in defense of Palestinian rights at the United Nations, people were outraged, but hardly surprised. It was a high-profile example, but only one more example of the Palestine exception to principles of free debate.
The latest example is the firing of Katie Halper from The Hill’s online commentary program, Rising. That show has long billed itself, with some merit, as a place for the kinds of populist and outside-the-box debates that are unthinkable for outlets like CNN, MSNBC, FOX, and other mainstream networks.
But Halper put together a monologue defending Rashida Tlaib against the vicious, and mostly baseless, attacks she was enduring for pointing out the obvious truth that one cannot be simultaneously progressive and supportive of apartheid. In response, she was told her services were no longer required.
Halper insists that her producers tried to defend her, but the executives brought down the hammer. This is a matter of real concern, because The Hill was purchased in August by the giant media conglomerate, Nexstar Media Group.
Branko Marcetic at Jacobin points out that “in late August, Nexstar filled the position of deputy managing editor of NewsNation, its cable channel, with Jake Novak, a journalist who spent the preceding year and a half as the media director of the Israeli consulate general in New York.”
Novak, who has spoken approvingly of Donald Trump’s approach to Palestine and Israel, recently delivered an address at Bar-Ilan University in Israel titled, “Defending Israel Against Media Bias — How to fight news media and social media bias against Israel: The best defense is a good offense.” Apparently Nexstar is now practicing what he preaches.
The response to Halper has been particularly noteworthy given that Rising features, among its numerous hosts, Batya Ungar-Sargon, a notorious pro-Israel propagandist who repeatedly stirred up controversy against Ilhan Omar and once even made up a false incident of antisemitism at Bard College to promote herself as a crusader against antisemitism and against Palestinian rights. But she is perfectly acceptable at Rising, apparently, while her fellow, albeit anti-Zionist, Jew, Halper, is not.
Attacking free speech on campus
In late August, a small handful of groups at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law adopted a new bylaw which supported BDS and committed not to bring any Zionist speakers to their groups’ events. The notorious anti-Palestinian crusader Kenneth Marcus then published an op-ed in the right-wing Jewish Journal titled “Berkeley Develops Jewish-Free Zones.”
There’s a reasonable argument to be made that silencing objectionable speakers is neither wise nor desirable. Like many people, hearing pro-apartheid speakers justify Israeli repression, human rights violations, and even ethnic cleansing served to clarify my views in my college days. I believe in letting my opponents be heard.
But that’s not the argument being made by Marcus and his ilk. They claim that Jews are being discriminated against. This despite the fact that critics of Israeli policy, including many anti-Zionists, are Jewish while many of Zionism’s most passionate, and bigoted, supporters are Christians (including the current and many past Presidents of the United States and countless members of Congress, past and present).
These clubs are making a commitment, however, not to give a platform to defenders of apartheid. One can debate that stance, but it is hardly illegitimate. Indeed, the double standard at work here is particularly glaring. The group that initiated the bylaw change, Berkeley Law Students for Justice in Palestine, made the case that pro-Israel speakers created an unsafe environment for Palestinian students. Given how often pro-apartheid groups say the same about how Zionist students respond to pro-Palestine speakers, the hypocrisy is immeasurable.
All these incidents are examples of top-down and heavy-handed tactics meant not only to silence advocacy for Palestinian rights, but to avoid any need to defend Israeli policies and, more and more often, the apartheid and discriminatory nature of the Israeli state itself.
These actions reflect a recognition that the debate is unwinnable on its merits. Until recently, the false, and anti-Arab, narrative around Israel—that it only wants to find a just peace with the Palestinian people who refuse to follow suit because of their irrational antisemitism—has worked well enough when Israel’s supporters found themselves having to defend Israeli actions and policies.
But now, it’s become much harder to make that case. That’s why the recognition of Israeli apartheid is so crucial. And it’s why the harshest tactics, though in the long run less effective, are all Israel and its supporters have left.
Mitchell Plitnick is the president of ReThinking Foreign Policy; he is the co-author, with Marc Lamont Hill, of Except for Palestine: The Limits of Progressive Politics