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

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.

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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.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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