There Is a Coordinated Campaign to Suppress Criticism of Israel

Israel’s human rights violations are accompanied by U.S. efforts to stifle dissent.

Azadeh Shahshahani August 13, 2018

A Palestinian woman takes a picture of a member of the Israeli security forces as he takes her picture in a street in Jerusalem on December 16, 2017. (AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images)

A new law intro­duced in the U.S. Con­gress seeks to clamp down on crit­i­cism of Israel at the expense of First Amend­ment rights. The uncon­sti­tu­tion­al bill, titled the Anti-Semi­tism Aware­ness Act of 2018, con­flates crit­i­cism of Israel with anti-Semitism. 

Though I was generally familiar with the situation, nothing prepared me for the extent of systematic racism and state-sponsored terror inflicted upon Palestinians until I was actually there.

This U.S. leg­is­la­tion coin­cides with Israel’s own efforts to crack down on its crit­ics. As Israel con­tin­ues to engage in gross human rights vio­la­tions against Pales­tini­ans, Israel and its allies in U.S. Con­gress are try­ing to pre­vent Amer­i­cans from trav­el­ing to Pales­tine to see the sit­u­a­tion with their own eyes — and from speak­ing out about it. As activists, we can­not sit back qui­et­ly and allow this to happen.

One of the lat­est tar­gets of Israel’s attempt to pre­vent fur­ther expo­sure of its sys­tem­at­ic human rights abus­es was Omar Shakir, the direc­tor of Human Rights Watch in Israel-Pales­tine, who came close to being deport­ed by Israel on May 24, in a bla­tant attempt to clamp down on crit­i­cism of its human rights record. While his depor­ta­tion has tem­porar­i­ly been halt­ed by an Israeli court, its prospect is still very much loom­ing and is meant to silence human rights activists.

Sev­er­al oth­er human rights lead­ers were pre­vi­ous­ly banned or deport­ed. On April 29, Vin­cent War­ren, the exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Cen­ter for Con­sti­tu­tion­al Rights (CCR), and Kather­ine Franke, the Chair of CCR and Pro­fes­sor of Law at Colum­bia, were denied entry to Israel. They were detained for 14 hours at the Ben Guri­on Inter­na­tion­al Air­port and inter­ro­gat­ed about their affil­i­a­tion with human rights orga­ni­za­tions that have crit­i­cized Israel for its treat­ment of Palestinians. 

In Octo­ber 2017, Raed Jar­rar of Amnesty Inter­na­tion­al was also detained and ques­tioned for hours, then denied entry. He was on a per­son­al trip to vis­it his fam­i­ly in Pales­tine after the death of his father. This past July, five mem­bers of an inter­faith 22-per­son del­e­ga­tion were also denied entry, report­ed­ly because Israel had giv­en Lufthansa a black list. 

I had a sim­i­lar expe­ri­ence in May 2014 as part of a Nation­al Lawyers Guild del­e­ga­tion. We were plan­ning to look into the sit­u­a­tion of Pales­tin­ian polit­i­cal pris­on­ers. Israeli author­i­ties first tar­get­ed me because of my Iran­ian birth. I was told to sit and wait like the many oth­er Arabs, Mus­lims and Pales­tini­ans were. The offi­cials then researched my back­ground and found out my affil­i­a­tion as the then pres­i­dent of the Nation­al Lawyers Guild. I was sub­ject­ed to five rounds of inter­ro­ga­tions over 11 hours. 

Unlike Jar­rar, I was ulti­mate­ly allowed in. This was before the law that went into effect in March 2017 that bans entry to for­eign­ers who have called for boy­cott of Israel or even the set­tle­ments, which are ille­gal towns that Israel builds on occu­pied Pales­tin­ian lands. Had I gone in the past year, I may have been barred as well (the Nation­al Lawyers Guild passed a boy­cott and divest­ment res­o­lu­tion in 2007 in line with the 2005 Pales­tin­ian civ­il soci­ety call).

I had a pow­er­ful and sober­ing expe­ri­ence dur­ing my week in Pales­tine. Though I was gen­er­al­ly famil­iar with the sit­u­a­tion, noth­ing pre­pared me for the extent of sys­tem­at­ic racism and state-spon­sored ter­ror inflict­ed upon Pales­tini­ans until I was actu­al­ly there. We met many sur­vivors of human rights vio­la­tions, includ­ing young chil­dren who had been impris­oned and phys­i­cal­ly abused by Israel. We met an elder­ly woman liv­ing in East Jerusalem half of whose house had been occu­pied by set­tlers orig­i­nal­ly from New York, and we gath­ered with the coura­geous peo­ple of Bil’in dur­ing their week­ly protest against the occu­pa­tion wall. We also met with the fam­i­ly of Rachel Cor­rie, the young Amer­i­can woman crushed to death by an Israeli mil­i­tary bull­doz­er in 2003, who were there for a hear­ing at the Israeli Supreme Court against the Israeli mil­i­tary (the court exon­er­at­ed the Israeli mil­i­tary of respon­si­bil­i­ty for its crime). 

We also met with fam­i­lies of polit­i­cal pris­on­ers whose hous­es were raid­ed in the mid­dle of the night and whose sons were pros­e­cut­ed on spu­ri­ous grounds. as well as the Pales­tin­ian res­i­dents of Hebron who have to con­stant­ly watch out for rocks and feces thrown by set­tlers. We spoke with lawyers who were denied basic infor­ma­tion about their clients, as well as Pales­tini­ans for­mer­ly incar­cer­at­ed through the Israeli mil­i­tary court sys­tem that, accord­ing to the State Depart­ment, has a con­vic­tion rate of over 99 per­cent for Palestinians.

We com­piled our find­ings into a report called Pris­on­ers of Injus­tice, which is focused on the state of injus­tice for Pales­tini­ans caught up in Israeli pris­ons, most­ly because of acts of polit­i­cal protest. We have shared the report wide­ly and con­tin­ue to pub­li­cize the sit­u­a­tion of impris­oned Pales­tini­ans, often draw­ing par­al­lels with the incar­cer­a­tion of polit­i­cal pris­on­ers and immi­grants in ICE deten­tion in the US, and the meth­ods of resis­tance the pris­on­ers employ, includ­ing hunger strikes. 

This type of aware­ness-rais­ing is exact­ly what Israel is afraid of as it rapid­ly los­es the pub­lic­i­ty attempt to frame itself as a democ­ra­cy. This is illus­trat­ed through the con­tin­u­ing suc­cess of the Boy­cott, Divest, and Sanc­tions Move­ment (BDS), which calls for the boy­cott of Israel until it ends vio­la­tions of Pales­tin­ian rights. Among many celebri­ties who have can­celed their appear­ances in Israel are the New Zealand singer-song­writer Lorde as well as Elvis Costel­lo, Lau­ryn Hill and Goril­laz.

As Pales­tini­ans com­mem­o­rate the 70th anniver­sary of Nak­ba, the mass killings and evic­tions of Pales­tini­ans in 1948, and new laws in Israel that fur­ther clamp down on the self-deter­mi­na­tion of Pales­tini­ans go into effect, we must con­tin­ue to stand by Pales­tini­ans in their strug­gle against colo­nial­ism, dis­place­ment and sys­temic racism. One way to do that is to vis­it Pales­tine in per­son and hear and learn from Pales­tini­ans direct­ly, despite mount­ing obsta­cles engi­neered by the Israeli gov­ern­ment. Anoth­er way is engag­ing in BDS cam­paigns despite new repres­sive laws intro­duced in the US Congress. 

We can learn from what the Move­ment for Black Lives did in the sum­mer of 2016. After their del­e­ga­tion to Pales­tine, they includ­ed a demand for BDS in the Vision for Black Lives. They faced mas­sive back­lash from pro-Israel orga­ni­za­tions, but they stuck by their prin­ci­ples. The orga­ni­za­tion Dream Defend­ers could not have said it bet­ter: For the chil­dren who are met with tear gas and rub­ber bul­lets as they walk home from school, for the fam­i­lies of those we have lost to police vio­lence, for the com­mu­ni­ties dev­as­tat­ed by eco­nom­ic vio­lence and apartheid walls, we fight. To all those who believe in a world in which all peo­ple are free, join us. For those who no longer stand with Black peo­ple because of this belief, good­bye. We do not need nor want you in our movement.”

Azadeh Shahsha­hani (@ashahshahani) is Legal and Advo­ca­cy Direc­tor with Project South and a past Pres­i­dent of the Nation­al Lawyers Guild.
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