In November 2020, Mike Pompeo announced
the State Department’s intent to create a blacklist of, and prohibit funding to, groups that support the boycott, divestment and sanction (BDS) movement for Palestinian freedom. BDS is a global movement that targets Israel’s human rights abuses of Palestinians, employing tactics similar to those used by the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. Pompeo made this announcement after becoming the top U.S. official to visit one of Israel’s illegal settlements.
On the heels of electoral defeat, this action from the waning Trump administration is a last gasp for relevancy and a final effort to push through shock doctrine policies on Israel that have characterized the last four years.
While we may feel relief knowing that Trump will soon be stripped of his access to the nuclear codes, we must remember that President-elect Joe Biden represents an entrenched power structure poised to continue failed policies that hurt so many of our communities. This includes Biden’s career-long history of supporting Israel’s aggression toward Palestinians.
Though the progressive wave in the House has been an encouraging development, and Georgia now appears to have handed Democrats the Senate in a historic runoff, Palestinians have only a handful of allies in Congress.
Nonetheless, Palestinians and our progressive allies have no choice but to try to push the incoming Biden administration — and to make our oft-ignored voices heard.
Any change in policies related to Palestine will require Biden to listen to Palestinians, something that neither he nor past U.S. presidents have done in a genuine way. And then he must drown out the intense pressure that the Israel lobby is exerting on him to continue the devastation that Trump wrought — from settlements to Jerusalem to UNRWA to domestic policies that attack our rights to talk about and organize against what Israel has done and is doing to Palestinians.
If Biden does show the courage it takes to listen to Palestinians, he will hear that we are a people who have been denied self-determination and freedom for far too long. He will hear that we live under a military occupation in the West Bank and Jerusalem, a deadly siege in Gaza, an unequal and discriminatory system for Palestinian citizens of Israel, in perpetual statelessness and in refugee camps around the world, all with the complicity of the United States.
And he’ll also hear that we live under an occupation of our voices and our narratives everywhere we go.
That means that even as a growing grassroots movement has increased awareness about how Israel has been constructed on decades of dispossession and subjugation of Palestinians, Israel and its allies are doing everything in their power to shut the movement down, silence us, and discredit our voices and efforts to achieve justice.
There are two primary tools that Israel and its allies are using to achieve this: pushing measures to define Palestine advocacy as antisemitic, and making false accusations of support for terrorism. Both of these, as deployed in the U.S., are undermining fundamental constitutional First Amendment rights, as my organization, Palestine Legal, has documented.
If Biden truly wants to live up to his mandate to repudiate Trump’s anti-democratic policies, he needs to do the following to protect not just our constitutional rights to call for Palestinian freedom, but our moral obligation to do so as well.
1. Undo Trump’s executive order that silences Palestinian voices.
This is not an easy ask, because the executive order, issued in December 2019, is called “Combating Anti-Semitism,” and dozens of pro-Israel organizations are lobbying Biden to keep it and Trump’s other pro-Israel moves intact. The order adopts a politicized and widely criticized redefinition of antisemitism, and requires federal executive agencies to consider this redefinition in applying anti-discrimination laws.
The definition that the executive order adopts lists 11 examples of antisemitism, seven of which reference criticisms of Israel. One example states that calling Israel a “racist endeavor” is antisemitic.
For Palestinians and our supporters, this means that if we criticize the racist foundations or the systematic actions of a state that has expelled and oppressed us precisely because we are not Jewish, we are to be deemed anti-Jewish. The definition thus conflates critiques of the state of Israel and its policies with anti-Jewish animus. Such a conflation has been rejected by human rights advocates around the world, among them Jews who object to being equated with the bad behavior of an occupying state.
We know the purpose of this definition is to censor Palestinian voices and experiences because we’ve seen it in action, weaponized against students who wanted to hold a vigil mourning Jewish and Palestinian lives together, and used to censor a campus talk about Palestinian rights by a prominent international human rights lawyer.
We also know that Trump is not interested in combatting the very antisemitism that he and his white supremacist followers helped to stoke. His administration has shown, rather, that its ultimate aim is to support Israel’s agenda of total annexation of all of historical Palestine, total annihilation of Palestinian self determination, and total domination of the region.
Biden needs to undo this executive order for the same reason that Congress declined to pass similar legislation twice already: because its implementation would undermine our free speech rights and academic freedom on college campuses.
And Biden also needs to undo the executive order so that Palestinians have a chance to be heard without being bombarded with allegations of antisemitism by those who have no qualms about denying our very existence and humanity.
It is imperative that we resist these efforts to paint Palestinians working for their freedom from occupation as “discriminatory,” an effort ironically led by a state founded on the supremacy of settlers over an indigenous population.
Let us reject the “alternative facts” that Israel and its allies are trying to create, and hear what Palestinians and their allies are really working towards: freedom, justice and equality for all.
2. Reject the “terrorism” framework that threatens all of our justice movements.
Provisions of the PATRIOT Act and other laws that prohibit providing “material support” to groups designated by the U.S. government as “terrorist” are part of a legal régime used widely to criminalize any Palestinian resistance—including humanitarian aid—to Israel’s colonization and occupation of our homeland. And pro-Israel groups are trying to stretch this régime further to criminalize all speech for Palestinian freedom, even college seminars.
A broad rejection of this “terrorism” framework will require a much bigger effort, but Biden can start by issuing regulations to make clear that political advocacy is protected by the First Amendment. As an early fix, Biden must clarify through regulatory means that advocacy for Palestinian rights, which Israel and its allies have been trying to criminalize, is not grounds for prosecution by the Biden or any other administration.
Ultimately, the Biden administration must oppose a number of far-reaching attacks against free expression. In addition to accusations of antisemitism based on the definition above, accusations of support for terrorism are becoming more common, and are raising the stakes for our speech activities in support of Palestinian rights.
This is only possible because material support for terrorism laws have been interpreted so broadly that providing a human rights training to a group designated by our government as “terrorist” is considered criminal “support” for terrorism, under the theory that it frees up resources for the group to commit violent acts against civilians.
And if Israel has its way, pure speech and association too will be swept into this already dangerously broad law.
That’s why groups like the Shurat HaDin — Israel Law Center are targeting the fundraising platforms of human rights advocacy groups, threatening them with material support for terrorism liability based on false and highly attenuated guilt by association claims. (Shurat HaDin is said to be connected with the Mossad, Israel’s spy agency, and one of the organization’s lawyers was convicted for a shooting attack on Palestinian civilians.)
It’s also why Israel lobby groups are urging the Department of Justice to investigate Black Lives Matter groups because of their solidarity with Palestinians. It’s why a student was visited by the FBI at his school because of Facebook posts he made criticizing Israel. And it’s why pro-Israel groups, along with some of our own elected officials, are now trying to get the government to investigate an open classroom at San Francisco State University discussing gender and resistance in the South African, Black and Palestinian freedom struggles as “criminal.”
It is in the spirit of the rising call for abolition—of racist police forces, of the “war on drugs” that criminalizes poverty and addiction, and of prisons that dehumanize Black and Brown people — that we must also call for the abolition of the “war on terrorism” scheme, and the laws that enable it. The terrorism framework feeds off the racist criminalization of Muslims green lights Israel’s criminalization of any and all resistance to its colonization of Palestinian land, and justifies censorship in our classrooms and the criminalization of our speech.
This “terrorism” narrative harms the Movement for Black Lives, as it does the movement for Palestinian freedom. When Trump officials call activists for Black Lives “Black identity extremists” and try to designate antifascist protesters as “terrorists,” they are mobilizing law enforcement to criminalize and repress justice movements.
And many other laws are trending towards the crushing of movements for freedom: They aim to punish protection of Indigenous land and resources, to prevent action against climate change, to shut down calls for humanity in our immigration policies, and eviscerate our right to boycott, all achieved by undermining our protest rights.
Biden and all of our elected lawmakers have an opportunity now to repudiate the Trump era by firmly and unconditionally putting our constitutional and human rights before the interests of a foreign country whose systematic violations of international law the U.S. has consistently subsidized.
We need to shift priorities across our domestic and foreign policy, as many are advocating, so that we stop funding oppression, colonization and authoritarian war mongers, and start to prioritize healthcare, education, housing and human dignity for all — not to mention the preservation of the very planet on which we all rely.
It is a long shot that Biden will heed these calls, but we must push him and all our elected representatives — and it’s not a moment too soon.
Dima Khalidi is the founder and director of Palestine Legal, an organization that protects people speaking out for Palestinian freedom from attacks on their civil and constitutional rights.