Israel-Palestine: Cancel culture is now targeting the left

Protesters rally in support of Palestinians in New York City in May 2021 (AFP)

Faisal Hanif

Middle East Eye  /  May 27, 2021

The right aims to silence supporters of Palestinian liberation, hurling smears and allegations of antisemitism.

Western publics have broadly accepted the accusation that leftists among them engage in cancel culture. The libertarian right, neoconservatives and conservatives have campaigned on this point, and election results show that it has resonated with many, despite the dubious moral character of some of the leaders propelled to power. 

But cancel culture does not just belong to the left. The right has its own formula by which certain sections of society are silenced. This kind of cancelling starts in the minds of academics and pseudo-intellectuals, before filtering into newspaper columns, becoming the cause celèbre of politicians, and ultimately ending with ethnic cleansing.

Just ask the people of Afghanistan and Iraq, whose fate was sealed decades before the destruction of their countries by western forces. Think of a conveyor belt, with the notion taking shape in the minds of those who wanted to hit Arabs “between the eyes with a big stick”, finding voice in lecture halls with the message that “Afghanistan is being, if anything, bombed OUT of the Stone Age”, populating the pages of The New York Times and the airwaves of the BBC, and giving politicians their Churchillian moment as they faced off against Saddam Hussein and the Taliban. 

Ethnic cleansing is also underway in Palestine through Israel’s land grabs, demolition and murder, all while the Israeli state mocks Muslim beliefs. Even the one-fifth of their historic homeland where Palestinians now live has been suffocated with roadblocks, checkpoints and settlements that left even the administration of former US President Barack Obama aghast. This is not just physical occupation, but political humiliation. 

While the solidarity and spirit binding the pro-Palestinian movement in the West remains alive, metaphorical checkpoints aim to quash its efficacy. As throngs of people have poured onto the streets of western cities to defend Palestinians, Israel’s supporters in centres of power have worked to extinguish this uprising by using the tropes of Muslim “extremism” and antisemitism.

Replete with Islamophobes

In France, free-speech absolutists apparently decided that not all speech was equal, using tear gas and water cannons on pro-Palestinian demonstrators this month. Germany sent out a barely disguised memo to its “Muslim refugees and immigrants” that they had no right to question Israel’s right to exist.

In Britain, the government and the opposition have been competing to see who can condemn antisemitism the loudest, while their own ranks are replete with Islamophobes. Labour leader Keir Starmer recently cancelled an appearance with a Muslim organization because the Board of Deputies of British Jews identified one of the organizers as a boycotter of Israeli dates. Buoyed by its success in this cancellation, the board then targeted a Muslim footballer because he tweeted support for Palestinians.

Meanwhile, when a convoy of idiots entered North London and hijacked a pro-Palestine protest, shouting obscenities at Jewish residents, sections of the media found their hook to apply a scorched-earth policy across the entire Palestinian movement. Those who would prefer the conversation to start and end at antisemitism were quick to compare Palestinian sympathizers to the Islamic State. The US newspaper of record saw fit to publish a full-page advert by right-wing rabbi Shmuley Boteach, demanding that three pro-Palestinian celebrities condemn Hamas.

These and other examples cherry-picked from the massive surge of pro-Palestinian demonstrations show how the “why don’t Palestinians condemn antisemitism” trope is essentially a variation on the “why don’t Muslims condemn terrorism” smear used to tarnish entire an entire faith community. 

Fear of retaliation

Collective blame, followed by punishment, has always been at the heart of Israel’s war on Palestine. Schoolchildren and police officers are among those who have faced institutional admonishment, as Palestinians are deemed unworthy of the human dignity expected for all others. In the UK, teachers have shouted down students voicing pro-Palestinian sentiments, with some conflating support for Palestine with antisemitism.

Even journalists who have previously voiced support for Palestinians are finding themselves on the sharp end of right-wing cancel culture. The Associated Press fired a young Jewish news associate, Emily Wilder, without providing a specific example of her alleged missteps, after she was targeted by right-wing media for her past pro-Palestine activism. Just days earlier, the AP had its offices in Gaza blown to smithereens by Israeli warplanes.

Canadian journalists are also reportedly fearing “retaliation”, with more than 2,000 signing a letter expressing frustration at the lack of media coverage of Israel’s crimes against Palestinians. 

Meanwhile, a Jewish MP in the UK openly labelled protesters at Palestinian rallies as “primitive” – one of a handful of Islamophobic tropes identified by the Labour Muslim Network in the discourse against Palestine. There is a clear overlap between Zionism and Islamophobia, with researcher Hilary Aked showing how in the first decade of this century, seven major Islamophobia-industry donors gave nearly $11m to Israel-related causes. Academic Hatem Bazian has estimated that 70 percent of the funding for Islamophobia propaganda comes from pro-Israel or Zionist sources.

Witch hunters

Israel’s promotion of Islamophobia worldwide is beyond doubt. Its policy of ethnically cleansing Palestinians has been well documented, and its racist, apartheid policies that give Jews special privileges denied to Palestinian Arabs are enshrined in law.

Yet, challenging this abhorrent system by uttering the words “free Palestine” elicits accusations of a hatred of Jews. The controversial International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism, which has been denounced as a charter designed to muffle criticism of Israel, is central to this strategy.

Such is the audacity of the right wing in their newfound role as witch hunters, that non-Jews who identify with Israel are accusing Jews who align with the left and Palestine as excusers of antisemitism. The conflation of anti-Zionism and antisemitism means that virtually any criticism of Israeli policy is now open to allegations of racism.

As the bombing of Gaza ends, the news agenda, shorn of explosions, will continue to ignore Israel’s illegal land grabs, turning its attention instead towards those who voiced opposition to Israel.

Palestinian activists who have succeeded in shattering Israel’s culture of impunity in the West should now prepare to be cancelled. 

Faisal Hanif is a media analyst at the Centre for Media Monitoring and has previously worked as a news reporter and researcher at The Times and the BBC