Mondoweiss / January 23, 2023
The fight over Ken Roth at Harvard shows that efforts to suppress free speech will only enhance the cause of Palestinian human rights.
The broad effort to silence Palestinians and to protect Israel from criticism has been underway for some time. Lawfare, as it’s termed by the people who wage it, is a sibling to hasbara, which is the squat cousin to plain old lobbying. The fight is unfolding around the first amendment in state legislatures and courts around the country and it’s ever-present at institutions of higher learning. It’s a contest which is simultaneously classically American – speech versus speech – and un-American: the defense of apartheid among free people. And it’s one that will likely only grow in intensity as a new, radical government in Israel amplifies its abuses of Palestinians. People here should take note: American values are on the line. American institutions are the battlefield.
This country is a special place. I write that as a Palestinian refugee who arrived here as a child and became a citizen. In the country of my birth, I don’t count for much: I am a Palestinian in the Jewish State. As Human Rights Watch and many others have documented, Israel has adopted an apartheid form of government. Not unlike South Africa before it, Israel grants some indigenous people (Palestinians) limited self-rule while Jews exercise total sovereignty. Separate roads, separate rights, separate legal systems governing separate races to keep them apart – it’s a textbook case of an Afrikaner innovation.
While Israel’s apartheid is well-documented and apparent for all to see, saying so is still controversial. It’s a reality that supporters of Israel work hard to suppress knowledge of for good reason: we subsidize that country with about $4 billion a year. Texas, perhaps unsurprisingly, even sought to make it illegal (lawfare) after much focused effort by pro-Israel lobbyists. The state is one of 22 that aimed to condition private enterprise on a commitment to not boycott Israel, an effort which was overturned by a federal judge for obvious reasons. Nor is the effort to silence critics of Israel restricted to the traditional centers of power: An athletic trainer employed by a school in the Philadelphia area was fired for writing critically about Israel on Twitter.
A more recent example (lobbying) came from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, where I earned a Master’s degree ten years ago. The school’s Dean, Douglas Elmendorf, rescinded the appointment of Kenneth Roth, the former executive director of Human Rights Watch, to a fellowship (the fellowship has since been restored after a pressure campaign waged by me and other activists).
Human Rights Watch is notorious among the leaders of China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Israel for pointing out their general indifference to, or even contempt for, human rights. The Dean’s inelegant efforts appeared designed to satisfy pro-Israel lobbyists, a legitimate response in a political campaign. But a university is not a campaign and donors don’t exercise shareholder prerogatives, at least that’s the way it’s supposed to work.
Nor is Dean Elmendorf’s head-on collision with academic principles unique. His decision reflects a bigger, somewhat paranoid, effort to avoid the sanction of, or curry favor with, pro-Israel groups, a phenomenon described at length in a superbly researched book by political scientists Stephen Walt of Harvard and John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago.
Living in a free society requires that one have a certain tolerance for outside interference in our civic life. Russian propaganda infamously contributed to the ascendance of a nutty rightwing fringe in 2016. And the United Arab Emirates routinely channels millions of dollars into our nation’s capital to protect its interests. As the world’s most powerful state – we have the largest economy and can project military power anywhere on the planet – it’s natural that others will want to influence policy here. But to what end?
In the case of Israel/Palestine the ongoing effort to suppress speech is in direct service of Israeli policies that contravene American values. The concern by some supporters of Israel is that as the reality of separate-and-unequal becomes apparent to Americans, support for Israel in America will drop. That in turn, may result in a reduction of the foreign aid that we provide Israel with. The fact that our legislative and academic institutions may be diminished through law-fare, or hasbara or whatever, is incidental.
The tumult of political life in our country makes it easy to be a cynic. Dark money is the main currency in our post-truth era. Still, we live in a free society. America, for all its failings and challenges, is a place where well-intentioned people can act in good faith, as individuals or together, to make a difference. That’s not true in China, or Russia, or Saudi Arabia, Iran or Israel.
And I believe that even the most well-resourced effort to suppress speech will only produce more speech, which will in turn enhance the cause of human rights for Palestinians. Ultimately, American values, rendered through our institutions, will prevail. To me, that’s the promise of a free society. And it’s a promise we hope to extend to Palestine as well.
Ahmed Moor is a Palestinian-American writer based in West Philadelphia