When “Progressives” Make Palestinian Rights Taboo, They Are Coddling the Far Right

Carlos Ramirez-Rosa lost his spot on the gubernatorial ticket of Daniel Biss for refusing to condemn global movements for Palestinian human rights.

Rahul Saksena September 21, 2017

Daniel Biss pictured at his Skokie, Ill. office. (Tim/flickr)

Ear­li­er this month, Illi­nois State Sen­a­tor Daniel Biss removed Chica­go Alder­man Car­los Ramirez-Rosa as his run­ning mate in the Illi­nois guber­na­to­r­i­al race due to Ramirez-Rosa’s refusal to oppose the 2005 Pales­tin­ian-led call to use boy­cott, divest­ment and sanc­tions (BDS) tac­tics to pres­sure Israel to respect Pales­tin­ian rights and to com­ply with inter­na­tion­al law. BDS cam­paigns, inspired by the South African anti-Apartheid strug­gle, are vig­or­ous­ly opposed by Israel’s fiercest defend­ers, who pre­fer to per­pet­u­ate a sta­tus quo that favors dis­crim­i­na­tion and apartheid over jus­tice, free­dom and equality. 

Supporting efforts to suppress Palestinian rights advocacy will inevitably undermine resistance to Trump and bolster the rising white nationalist right that sustains him—so why do Democrats abide?

Biss’ deci­sion is the lat­est sign that, even among self-described pro­gres­sive politi­cians, sup­port for Pales­tin­ian rights remains taboo.

The move­ment for Pales­tin­ian rights sits at the inter­sec­tion of some of the most trou­bling aspects of the Trump agen­da. Trump cod­dles Israel’s far-right gov­ern­ment while he dou­bles down on his campaign’s anti-Mus­lim and anti-immi­grant rhetoric. He rejects the rights of refugees and makes no secret of his dis­dain for dis­sent. Many Democ­rats have shown a will­ing­ness to sup­port this harm­ful agen­da, to avoid being per­ceived as sym­pa­thet­ic to Pales­tin­ian freedom.

Take, for exam­ple, bipar­ti­san sup­port for the Israel Anti-Boy­cott Act, cur­rent­ly being con­sid­ered in Con­gress. The leg­is­la­tion is backed by the pow­er­ful Amer­i­can Israel Pub­lic Affairs Com­mit­tee (AIPAC).

The bill, which is cham­pi­oned by Rep. Peter Roskam (R.-Ill.) and Sen­a­tor Ben­jamin Cardin (D.-Md.), enjoys the sup­port of 67 Democ­rats in the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives and 14 Democ­rats in the Sen­ate. If enact­ed, it would pro­hib­it — and in many cas­es crim­i­nal­ize — actions tak­en to com­ply with or sup­port a boy­cott for Pales­tin­ian rights fos­tered or imposed by” an inter­na­tion­al gov­ern­men­tal orga­ni­za­tion. It has been wide­ly con­demned by activists and civ­il lib­er­ties lawyers as an uncon­sti­tu­tion­al infringe­ment on First-Amend­ment rights, includ­ing the right to sup­port and advo­cate for polit­i­cal boycotts.

If passed, a human rights advo­cate who dis­trib­utes research on com­pa­nies oper­at­ing in ille­gal West Bank set­tle­ments could be slapped with a 20-year prison sen­tence and/​or a $1 mil­lion fine if that individual’s intent was to sup­port a human rights boy­cott ini­ti­at­ed by an inter­na­tion­al gov­ern­men­tal orga­ni­za­tion like the Unit­ed Nations or Euro­pean Union.

Trump’s open hos­til­i­ty toward Pales­tini­ans, Arabs and Mus­lims sig­nals that, if enact­ed, his admin­is­tra­tion could use the Israel Anti-Boy­cott Act as a pre­text to sur­veil, inves­ti­gate and pros­e­cute these communities.

Fear of being tar­get­ed for speak­ing out against Israel’s human rights vio­la­tions is not irra­tional para­noia. It’s already happening.

In 2015, my orga­ni­za­tion, Pales­tine Legal, pub­lished a report, The Pales­tine Excep­tion to Free Speech,” which describes the tac­tics used to tar­get and sup­press Pales­tine advo­ca­cy in the Unit­ed States. Pub­lished in part­ner­ship with the Cen­ter for Con­sti­tu­tion­al Rights, the report was based on our expe­ri­ence respond­ing to and doc­u­ment­ing such inci­dents. From 2014 to 2017, we respond­ed to over 600 inci­dents of sup­pres­sion of Pales­tine advo­ca­cy, and field­ed near­ly 200 legal ques­tions in antic­i­pa­tion of such suppression.

In recent days, for exam­ple, we field­ed ques­tions from dozens of New York­ers who received legal threats from an anony­mous web­site incor­rect­ly claim­ing that their advo­ca­cy for Pales­tin­ian rights vio­lates New York law. The web­site black­lists these activists due to their per­ceived sup­port for BDS cam­paigns, post­ing their pic­tures and list­ing their per­son­al infor­ma­tion online.

The web­site mir­rors Canary Mis­sion, an anony­mous black­list of more than 1,000 stu­dent activists across the coun­try, which pub­lish­es online pro­files in an attempt to smear their names sole­ly because they sup­port Pales­tin­ian rights. The web­site often tweets defam­a­to­ry pro­files to the stu­dents’ schools, employ­ers and the FBI.

Black­list­ing tac­tics, con­sid­ered fringe since the McCarthy red-bait­ing era, are also being adopt­ed by politi­cians of both major polit­i­cal par­ties. To date, 21 states, pres­sured by Israel advo­ca­cy orga­ni­za­tions, have enact­ed laws aimed at under­min­ing the move­ment for Pales­tin­ian rights in the U.S. by cre­at­ing polit­i­cal black­lists of BDS sup­port­ers and pun­ish­ing those who sup­port BDS cam­paigns, in vio­la­tion of the First Amendment.

Illi­nois, the first state to enact (and bun­gle) such a law, is now con­sid­er­ing expand­ing it. When Pales­tin­ian rights and free speech activists suc­cess­ful­ly defeat­ed a black­list­ing bill in the New York State leg­is­la­ture last year, Gov­er­nor Andrew Cuo­mo, a Demo­c­rat, signed an exec­u­tive order cre­at­ing a polit­i­cal black­list of com­pa­nies and insti­tu­tions that sup­port Pales­tin­ian rights.

These laws aim to send a clear sig­nal that sup­port for Pales­tin­ian rights is dis­fa­vored by our gov­ern­ment and is poten­tial­ly pun­ish­able. They cre­ate a severe chill­ing effect on peo­ple across the coun­try who are oth­er­wise inclined to sup­port First-Amend­ment-pro­tect­ed boy­cotts for Pales­tin­ian rights, or who are curi­ous to learn more.

Vocal right-wing Israel advo­ca­cy groups like the Amcha Ini­tia­tive, Bran­deis Cen­ter and the Zion­ist Orga­ni­za­tion of Amer­i­ca (ZOA) rou­tine­ly pres­sure uni­ver­si­ty admin­is­tra­tors to inves­ti­gate and pun­ish stu­dents for orga­niz­ing events and cam­paigns aimed at rais­ing aware­ness for Pales­tin­ian rights.

For exam­ple, the ZOA has pres­sured the City Uni­ver­si­ty of New York (CUNY) to ban Stu­dents for Jus­tice in Pales­tine (SJP) from all twen­ty-three cam­pus­es. Last year, an inde­pen­dent, six-month-long inves­ti­ga­tion ini­ti­at­ed by CUNY found ZOA’s claims against SJP either could not be sub­stan­ti­at­ed or could not be attrib­uted to the stu­dent group. The inves­ti­ga­tion affirmed that SJP’s activ­i­ties were pro­tect­ed polit­i­cal speech. Nev­er­the­less, the ZOA’s alle­ga­tions con­vinced New York leg­is­la­tors to pro­pose leg­is­la­tion to defund CUNY.

At Pales­tine Legal, we reg­u­lar­ly receive reports from stu­dents who are cen­sored and harassed, as well as indi­vid­u­als who receive rape and death threats due to their Pales­tin­ian rights advocacy.

When Ford­ham University’s stu­dent gov­ern­ment approved stu­dents’ request to start an SJP club, the admin­is­tra­tion banned the group. The New York Uni­ver­si­ty chap­ter of SJP report­ed that they received anony­mous threats on three sep­a­rate occa­sions last aca­d­e­m­ic year, includ­ing a mes­sage that read, in part, At your next protest you will all die. We will mur­der you all. The blood will runs [sic] slow­ly on the streets of NYC.” At Indi­ana Uni­ver­si­ty-Pur­due Uni­ver­si­ty Indi­anapo­lis, an SJP activist received threat­ing phone calls and was harassed anony­mous­ly online and in on-cam­pus flyers.

Aca­d­e­mics who speak out for Pales­tin­ian rights face pub­lic pres­sure cam­paigns aimed at ruin­ing their rep­u­ta­tions, chill­ing their speech and harm­ing their careers. For exam­ple, the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois Urbana-Cham­paign fired Steven Salai­ta, a for­mer pro­fes­sor of Amer­i­can Indi­an Stud­ies, for tweets crit­i­cal of Israeli policy.

Despite this blow­back, grass­roots sup­port for Pales­tin­ian rights con­tin­ues to grow in the Unit­ed States, par­tic­u­lar­ly among young peo­ple, pro­gres­sives and peo­ple of col­or. In August, the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca over­whelm­ing­ly passed a res­o­lu­tion endors­ing BDS campaigns.

But Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty lead­ers con­tin­ue to be out of touch with vot­ers when it comes to Pales­tin­ian rights. Polls con­sis­tent­ly show that near­ly half of all Amer­i­cans — and a major­i­ty of Democ­rats — would sup­port sanc­tions against Israel due to its con­struc­tion of set­tle­ments on occu­pied Pales­tin­ian land in vio­la­tion of inter­na­tion­al law and long­stand­ing offi­cial U.S. policy.

Dur­ing the 2016 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, Hillary Clin­ton assured bil­lion­aire mega-donor Haim Saban that she would make coun­ter­ing BDS a pri­or­i­ty.” Sen­ate minor­i­ty leader Chuck Schumer and dozens of con­gres­sion­al Democ­rats sup­port the Israel Anti-Boy­cott Act.

AIPAC and oth­er Israel advo­ca­cy groups that pres­sure law­mak­ers to tar­get Pales­tine advo­cates and crush pop­u­lar boy­cott tac­tics in order to shield Israel from scruti­ny are, in fact, aligned with Trump and the grow­ing far-right on oth­er anti-Mus­lim, anti-immi­grant pol­i­cy mat­ters. In fact, the ZOA will wel­come Stephen Ban­non at its annu­al gala in November.

Sup­port­ing efforts to sup­press Pales­tin­ian rights advo­ca­cy will inevitably under­mine resis­tance to Trump and bol­ster the ris­ing white nation­al­ist right that sus­tains him — so why do Democ­rats abide?

Those of us who val­ue jus­tice and equal­i­ty for all are search­ing for polit­i­cal lead­ers who will stand with us, and against Trump and AIPAC’s dan­ger­ous agen­da. Ramirez-Rosa may have lost his spot on Biss’ fum­bling guber­na­to­r­i­al tick­et, but his refusal to denounce a move­ment for free­dom, jus­tice and equal­i­ty will show him to be on the right side of history.

Rahul is a staff attor­ney with Pales­tine Legal. His work focus­es on leg­isla­tive issues, advo­ca­cy for activists whose rights are under attack, and build­ing Pales­tine Legal’s net­work of legal and oth­er advocates.
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