Protect the Right to Speak Against Israel
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Campus fights about free speech and censorship tend to devolve into rage-filled deadlocks pitting “intolerance” against “political correctness,” resolving nothing. One topic, though, has produced a depressing consensus: that it’s acceptable to suppress speech advocating economic protests targeting Israel.
The pro-Palestinian movement promoting boycotts, divestment and sanctions to protest Israeli occupation of the West Bank and control of Gaza is being systematically targeted by campus authorities and also by state governments and even Congress.
The administration of President Donald Trump, too, has demonstrated a remarkable double standard on this question.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions declared Monday that “freedom of speech and thought have come most under attack on the college campus,” and vowed that the Justice Department would protect this “valued right” from being “attacked or eroded.”
Yet almost simultaneously, the new head of civil rights for the Education Department, longtime pro-Israel activist Kenneth L. Marcus, reopened an old investigation into complaints by Jewish students at Rutgers University in New Jersey. The students had claimed that the university failed to protect them from harassment, and that they were discriminated against by being charged entrance fees to a public pro-Palestinian event in 2011. Those allegations were rejected by a 2014 investigation by the Education Department, which closed the case.
Marcus said he was reopening the issue based, in part, on the embrace by the Trump administration of a definition of anti-Semitism that includes “denying the Jewish people the right to self-determination” or holding Israel to a double standard.
The first effectively renders all non- and anti-Zionist perspectives “anti-Semitic” by definition, and the second could be applied to almost any strong criticism of Israeli policy or conduct.
Twenty-four state legislatures have adopted measures punishing advocacy and activism promoting boycotts of Israel, often foisting the same flawed definition of anti-Semitism on public schools and universities.
These efforts range from the sinister to the ridiculous; Dickinson, Texas tried to make victims of Hurricane Harvey pledge not to boycott Israel as a condition for receiving government relief aid.
The “Anti-Semitism Awareness Act” embraces the same language about “self-determination” and double standards that could easily be construed as barring all but the most mild criticisms of Israeli policies.
Like many of its state-level precursors, the “Anti-Boycott Act” aims at penalizing participation in, and even advocacy of, anti-Israel boycotts.
These laws not only conflate criticism of Israeli policies with discrimination against Jewish Americans, they also conflate Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories with Israel itself. The “Anti-Boycott Act” would apply uniformly to Israel and to “Israeli-controlled territories,” laying out criminal financial penalties for those who engage in boycotting Israel or its settlements in occupied territories.
Such measures, whether at the state or national level, are plainly unconstitutional and ultimately unenforceable. But they contribute to chilling strong criticism of Israel.
The boycott, divestiture and sanctions movement itself is no friend of free speech. Many of its advocates promote academic and cultural boycotts of Israelis, and try to silence pro-Israel speech. Many of its most strident voices advocate a one-state agenda that imagines the Jewish state vanishing as the Palestinian population rises. But they’ve been singularly ineffective.
What has actually gained traction, particularly in Europe, are efforts to distinguish between Israel and the West Bank Jewish settlements, and to simultaneously promote engagement with Israel and disengagement with settlements.
That’s the real target of these state and national laws, not generalized boycotts of Israel, which are marginal and ineffective. Efforts to boycott Israel’s settlements and their products, on the other hand, are growing and potentially effective.
Both Israel and its supporters (to stigmatize all boycotts) and the strident BDS movement (to promote itself) conflate them as a single, unified campaign. And even when the call is precisely for a total boycott of all things Israeli, it’s inappropriate and unconstitutional for state and federal governments to try to suppress such advocacy.
Yet this issue is rarely raised in the raging debate about free speech, especially on campuses.
As a long-standing critic of one-state rhetoric and strident BDS advocacy, my own campus lectures have been repeatedly disrupted by anti-Israel protesters in recent years. And anti-Semitism is alarmingly extant among my fellow Arabs, and is the purest poison for the Palestinian cause.
Yet calls to boycott Israel in general are usually not anti-Semitic as much as they are quixotic, confused and misguided. What we need is more engagement, not more alienation.
I’m disturbed that campus, state and national authorities are using their power to punish boycott-advocacy as hate-speech, in the process chilling many other valid criticisms of Israel.
People who really care about free speech, on campuses and elsewhere, should be prepared to defend it even for ideas they don’t like. There can’t be an exception to free speech for strong criticism and even boycotts of Israel.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
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