The Anti-Palestinian censorship machine runs on racism

Radhika Sainath

Jacobin  /  April 1, 2023

If you’re a Palestinian in the US speaking out for Palestinian rights, you can expect to be censored and slandered. This isn’t just an affront to free speech — it’s often a manifestation of anti-Palestinian racism.

The effort of Israel’s newest far-right government to overhaul its judiciary has apparently made it okay to criticize and even threaten to boycott or divest from the state. In the past couple weeks, thousands of Israeli soldiers have declared their intent to refuse should Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu go through with his plan, the largest association of trade unions in Israel has threatened mass strikes of historic magnitude, and Israeli universities have shut their doors. Three companies have moved their money outside of Israel, and others have vowed to leave if the reforms become law.

Even Alan Dershowitz has complained.

The exact same tactics that were previously framed as singling out Israel — and thus antisemitic and even “violent” — are now being lauded as protecting democracy.

As a recent +972 Magazine essay by Amjad Iraqi notes, it is “telling that BDS [Boycott, divestment, and sanctions] tactics are currently being legitimized in the name of helping Jewish Israelis protect a status quo ante in which racial supremacy and military occupation were the norm, albeit wrapped in more democratic clothing; using BDS in the name of equality, freedom, and justice for Palestinians, though, is an existential threat.”

The same double standard when it comes to Palestinian rights is happening here in the United States. And we need to call it what it is: anti-Palestinian racism. How else would you describe two people doing the exact same thing, yet the person who acts in the name of Palestinian human rights is punished and the person who does it in the name of “Israeli democracy” is lauded?

Today most people on the Left understand that advocacy for Palestinian rights is often a free-speech issue. Indeed, my office, together with the Center for Constitutional Rights, coined the term “The Palestine Exception to Free Speech,” the name of our 2015 report documenting the phenomena. And as a new report by my office, Palestine Legal, shows, the censorship machine against those who speak out for Palestinian rights is still running at full speed.

But it’s important to name the deep-seated anti-Palestinian racism that goes beyond mere censorship.

For example, it was an anti-Palestinian pressure campaign that led the president of Florida State University to blast a statement condemning Palestinian undergraduate student Ahmad Daraldik for “anti-Israel” speech after he was elected student senate president and posted a video of himself talking about what it was like to be a child living under Israeli military occupation — resulting in him receiving a barrage of messages calling him “dirty ass towelhead,” “monkey ass piece of Arab shit,” and “Muzzlit.”)

And it was anti-Palestinian racism that prompted George Washington University to cancel a virtual healing space aimed at helping Palestinian students process their trauma while Israel was bombing Gaza in 2021 (when classes were virtual due to the pandemic) after the university Hillel group complained. When staff pointed out that similar services had been provided to black, brown, Asian, and Jewish students, the university effectively shut down the office that attempted to provide the virtual healing space.

Earlier this semester, Palestinian and other members of Students for Justice in Palestine at the University of Illinois Chicago tried to attend a Zoom informational session on study abroad in Israel. All the students with recognizably Palestinian or Arab names were kept in the waiting room and barred from entering. Their friends with Western (or not clearly Arab) names were permitted to enter. They brought this to the attention of the university organizers, who responded by changing the Zoom event location. Sensing what might be going on, the Arab-named students changed their names to Hayley, Rebecca, and Alissa. They were allowed in.

That Palestine is not purely a First Amendment issue should be obvious to leftists, but because the political repression of those who advocate for Palestinian rights in the United States most often looks like censorship, much of the discussion gets couched in free-speech terms. Israel is a settler-colonial state, and like other settler-colonial states, it was founded on the belief that one group (Jews from Europe) should have supremacy over another group (indigenous Palestinians).

It is no secret that David Ben-Gurion and other founders of Israel openly discussed the need to forcibly remove indigenous Palestinians, a practice otherwise known as ethnic cleansing. (“With compulsory transfer we [would] have a vast area [for settlement]. I support compulsory transfer. I don’t see anything immoral in it.”)

What this European Zionist supremacy looks like today in the United States is racism and discrimination, and it is fueled by the controversial International Holocaust Remembrance Association (IHRA) definition of antisemitism. IHRA has attempted to legitimize the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948 by making criticism — even discussion — of it taboo.

The IHRA definition — which Israel advocacy groups are trying to get enshrined into discrimination policies — radically departs from the traditional understanding of antisemitism by redefining the term to include almost any criticism of Israel. Its “contemporary examples of antisemitism” include “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor” and “applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.” Seven of the ten examples name Israel.

Many civil rights groups have noted that this definition, which Israel advocacy groups are urging the Department of Education and universities to adopt, would run afoul of the First Amendment.

How could you possibly tell schools they could lose federal funding if they allow a professor to publish data showing that Israeli policy intentionally harms Palestinians (i.e., is racist)? Or that they must ban Palestinian students from sharing experiences living under Israeli military occupation (i.e., a racist endeavor)?

Under this definition, If Palestinians say they have suffered harm at the hands of the state that rules them, they are antisemitic and must be punished (unless they also criticize other democratic states — how many, the definition does not say). If they try to get other social-justice-minded students to add Palestinian equality to their agendas by agreeing not to invite Zionist speakers, they are accused of antisemitism and their universities are investigated by the Department of Education.

But the definition is also fueling anti-Palestinian racism, whereby anything coded as Palestinian — even identifying one’s Palestinian heritage — is deemed antisemitic (and thus punishable). Pro-Israel groups pushing the definition are also pressing for an interpretation of it, with examples, that cast a wide net ensnaring most Palestinian expression.

A couple of years ago, we started to receive reports of Palestinian high school students being told by school administrators to take off their kaffiyeh stoles (Palestinian traditional scarf) at graduation, though other ethnic designs like kente stoles were allowed. Flag pins to show your heritage are okay at work — unless you’re Palestinian, as a TikTok by Palestinian Apple employee Tariq Raouf last week made clear. (They weren’t the first.) Palestinian children are told their cardboard presentations about their heritage or a T-shirt that says “Palestine” makes Jewish students feel unsafe and are pulled out of class and forced to apologize.

As the Anti-Empire Project notes in its excellent “Anti-Palestinian Racism Resource”:

The creation of a zero-sum situation — either Palestinians are absent or Jewish Westerners are unsafe — has segregation as its only conclusion. A safe space is a Palestinian-free space. Any other kind of space, in which Palestinian identity or advocacy is present, is depicted as anti-Semitic, even “triggering” in mental health terms. The logic is based on a number of assumptions: 1. Jewish people identify with Israel. 2. Advocacy for Palestinian rights constitutes violence against Israel and therefore against Jewish people themselves.

As pro-Israel groups try to push the IHRA definition beyond college campuses, it is important for employers and diversity, equity, and inclusion offices to be aware that by singling out Palestinians and those who speak out for their human rights for investigations, punishments, and censorship, they may be running afoul of discrimination laws.

Should universities adopt the IHRA definition, it would embroil their own staff in a legal morass of discriminatory practices for which they could face liability.

Imagine a class where students were asked to share what they did during winter break. A Ukrainian student could talk about the hardships back home with Russia’s invasion, and a black student would be able to criticize a racist stop by his local police department, but a Palestinian student would not be able to discuss Israeli army killings of civilians in the West Bank. Should that happen, the professor might be required to silence the Palestinian student, report them, or take other action.

And academics would effectively be barred from studying Israel or Palestine, because what academic study isn’t at least a tiny bit critical of a government’s practice?

The law simply does not allow for universities and employers to treat Palestinians, people perceived to be Palestinian, or people who speak up for Palestinian equality differently because Zionists complain. It was racist in 1948, and it is racist now.

Radhika Sainath is a senior staff attorney at Palestine Legal