It was not long ago that many nations in the west made a impressive display of solidarity in favor of free speech following the massacre of the writers and cartoonists at the magazine Charlie Hebdo. There were marches and speeches celebrating the right to free speech and the need to be vigilant against attempts at censorship.
And yet, as Glenn Greenwald points out, despite those stirring words, those same nations are now actually criminalizing peaceful activism and speech. But only if the target is Israel’s occupation of Palestine and its oppression of Palestinian people.
The UK Government today announced that it is now illegal for “local [city] councils, public bodies and even some university student unions . . . to refuse to buy goods and services from companies involved in the arms trade, fossil fuels, tobacco products or Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.” Thus, any entities that support or participate in the global boycott of Israeli settlements will face “severe penalties” under the criminal law.
This may sound like an extreme infringement of free speech and political activism – and of course it is – but it is far from unusual in the west. The opposite is now true. There is a very coordinated and well-financed campaign led by Israel and its supporters literally to criminalize political activism against Israeli occupation, based on the particular fear that the worldwide campaign of Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment (BDS) – modeled after the 1980s campaign that brought down the Israel-allied apartheid regime in South Africa – is succeeding.
The Israeli website +972 reported last year about a pending bill that “would ban entry to foreigners who promote the [BDS] movement that aims to pressure Israel to comply with international law and respect Palestinian rights.” In 2011, a law passed in Israel which “effectively ban[ned] any public call for a boycott — economic, cultural or academic — against Israel or its West Bank settlements, making such action a punishable offense.”
But the current censorship goal is to make such activism a crime not only in Israel, but in western countries generally. And it is succeeding.
In the U.S., unbeknownst to many, there are similar legislative proscriptions on such activism, and a pending bill would strengthen the outlawing of BDS. As the Washington Post reported last June, “a wave of anti-BDS legislation is sweeping the U.S.” Numerous bills in Congress encourage or require state action to combat BDS.
Eyal Press warned in a must-read New York Times Op-Ed last month that under a Customs Bill passed by both houses of Congress and headed to the White House, “American officials will be obligated to treat the settlements as part of Israel in future trade negotiations,” a provision specifically designed “to combat the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, a grass-roots campaign.” But as Press notes, under existing law – which is almost never discussed – “Washington already forbids American companies to cooperate with state-led boycotts of Israel.”
The real purpose of this new law, as Press explains it, is to force American companies to treat settlements in the West Bank – which virtually the entire world views as illegal – as a valid part of Israel, by outlawing any behavior that would be deemed cooperative with a boycott of companies occupying the West Bank. U.S. companies would be forced to pretend that products produced in the occupied territories are actually produced in “Israel.” The White House announced that it will sign the bill despite its opposition to the AIPAC-backed pro-settlement provision.
The suppression of anti-occupation activism is particularly acute on American college campuses. Among other things, that is deeply ironic. In the U.S. over the past year, there has been a widespread media debate over censorship on college campuses. Notably, the pundits who have most vocally condemned this censorship and held themselves out as free speech crusaders – such as New York‘s Jonathan Chait – have completely ignored what is far and away the most widespread form of campus censorship: namely, punishment of those who engage in activism against Israeli actions.
But in terms of systematic, state-sponsored, formalized punishments for speech and activism, nothing compares to the growing multi-nation effort to criminalize activism against Israeli occupation. Rafeef Ziadah, a Palestinian a member of the Palestinian BDS National Committee, told The Intercept: “Israel is increasingly unable to defend its regime of apartheid and settler colonialism over the Palestinian people and its regular massacres of Palestinians in Gaza so is resorting to asking supportive governments in the US and Europe to undermine free speech as a way of shielding it from criticism and measures aimed at holding it to account.”
This demonstrates once again the glaring hypocrisy when it comes to Israel, enjoying the support and protection of western nations, even while it has become effectively an apartheid state when it comes to its dealings with the Palestinian people.
This is not deterring the activists. A group of Jewish students from McGill University in Canada has published an article where they fight back against the charge most commonly used to suppress criticism, that being critical of Israeli policies is to be anti-Semitic. They are symbolic of the rising anti-Zionist sentiment among young people who are appealing to the long traditions of social justice in their religion that they say is being perverted by current Jewish leadership.
Coming to the realization that being Jewish does not require supporting Israel is cause for both internal and social conflict. At McGill in particular, it can be quite a marginalizing experience. Campus rhetoric consistently pairs anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, preventing Jewish students from speaking out comfortably against Israel’s state policies for fear of being labelled a “self-hating Jew.” On a campus where the heart of Jewish life is dominated by Hillel, an organization whose vision is one where “every student is inspired to make a commitment to Jewish life, learning and Israel,” and by Chabad, which wants its members to “apply the timeless Jewish principle of Ahavat [the love of] Israel” – not to mention Israel on Campus – it is crucial for Jews to act to break down the hegemony of this discourse at our university.
We define anti-Zionism as the opposition to the State of Israel as it exists today. We do not aim to speak for all Jews at McGill, nor for all Jewish anti-Zionists; the terms “Zionism” and “anti-Zionism” are both loaded and can be defined in many different ways, and our group members ascribe to various definitions within this range. Irrespective of these identifiers, however, we feel that we must begin to take up space in a campus discourse that has been polarized for too long. It is precisely because of our deep connection to Israel created by the consistent conflation of Judaism and Zionism that we can no longer merely question what we’ve been taught – we must take action.
Fighting for justice is integral to Jewish identity, considering the centuries of persecution and exile that constitute our people’s history. We root our actions in traditions that stem from lineages of Jewish feminist thought – such as that of Judith Plaskow, a religious studies professor at Manhattan College, who writes in Standing Again At Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective that “the economic, social, and moral costs of military occupation make it incompatible with equity within one’s own boundaries. The rightful claim of Palestinians to a land of their own renders occupation profoundly unjust.” By reclaiming Jewish traditions of resistance, we hope to encourage others to make room for a critical Jewish perspective.
The McGill students’ view are merely one sign of a widening disillusionment with Israel’s policies.
A recent poll found that 47 percent of the UK’s Jewish population believe that the Israeli government is “constantly creating obstacles to avoid engaging in the peace process.” Three quarters said that the expansion of settlements on the West Bank is a “major obstacle to peace.” Just under a third even said they wouldn’t demand that Palestinians must recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
You could chalk these new feelings of detachment from the Israeli state up to a shift in government policy. Netanyahu’s Likud party was re-elected into power in 2015, veering further rightwards with its pledge to end talk of further withdrawals from occupied land. “If I’m elected, there will be no Palestinian State,” Netanyahu boasted on the final day of the campaign.