Why Free Speech On Israel-Palestine Matters So Much

We need to be able to tell the truth about the ongoing crime against Palestinian rights. The enforcement of silence by major newspapers enables atrocities.

In January, Israel’s leading human rights organization, B’Tselem, released a new position paper called “This Is Apartheid: A regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.” Whether the “a-word” should be applied to the Israel-Palestine situation has long been a point of major contention, with supporters of Palestinians insisting that it is an accurate description of the reality and defenders of Israeli policy insisting that the term is offensive and inaccurate. B’Tselem’s paper explains why the organization, long reluctant to use the term, now takes the position that “apartheid” is the correct descriptor. 

According to B’Tselem, there is a common misunderstanding about what has long been called the “Israel-Palestine conflict.” Many lay people still think that there are essentially two relatively sovereign territories, Israel and Palestine, living next to each other. In reality, however, Israel has conquered, occupied, and slowly annexed more and more of Palestine, and Palestinians live with only such rights as the state of Israel is willing to afford them. Israelis routinely seize new pieces of Palestinian territory for settlement and restrict Palestinians’ freedom of movement not only in and out of Palestine, but within it. The West Bank, despite some autonomy (granted at the discretion of Israel) is occupied by a foreign military force, and the Gaza Strip is a kind of open-air prison—a term even used by Conservative former British prime minister David Cameron—with Palestinians only rarely allowed to leave. It is kept under military blockade, with supplies restricted from entering. 

B’Tselem’s position paper explains that the reasons for calling this “apartheid” should be obvious. One government has essentially complete control over two groups of people. But that government explicitly operates in the interest of one of those groups rather than the other. Israel’s Basic Law states that “The exercise of the right to national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish People.” Palestinians do not get the right of national self-determination, but Israelis do. Palestinians cannot cross into Israeli territory and “settle” (i.e. colonize) it, but Israelis routinely displace Palestinians. Palestinians can’t set up roadblocks in Israel, or restrict movement in and out of it or determine Israel’s immigration policies, but Israel does all of these things to Palestinians. 

The roots of the Israel-Palestine conflict are not very hard to understand. Zionism, the project of establishing a Jewish state in the territory that became the state of Israel, was faced from the start with a problem: the reality that a substantial Arab population was already living there. As Israeli historian Benny Morris explained, Zionism was inherently “a colonizing and expansionist ideology and movement,” because it involved attempting to establish a state for one ethno-religious group in a territory that had two. “Jewish colonization meant expropriation and displacement,” Morris writes, and “transfer” (i.e. disposing of the majority Arab population somehow) was part of the idea behind Israel:

Transfer was inevitable and inbuilt into Zionism—because it sought to transform a land which was “Arab” into a “Jewish” State and a Jewish state could not have arisen without a major displacement of Arab population—and because this aim automatically produced resistance among the Arabs which, in turn, persuaded the Yishuv’s leaders that a hostile Arab majority or large minority could not remain in place if a Jewish state was to arise or safely endure.

Morris writes that there was a “virtual consensus… among the Zionist leadership… in favor of the transfer of at least several hundred thousand Palestinian Arabs—if not all of them—out of the areas of the Jewish state-to-be.” David Ben-Gurion, the first Prime Minister, said plainly: “I support compulsory transfer. I do not see in it anything immoral.” Morris says that Zionist leaders were “discreet” about the fact that “the final stage in the development of [our] policy” would necessarily be the expulsion of the Arab population, but that “none of the members of the Executive opposed or questioned” the view that that the “Arab problem” needed to be solved by forcibly exiling a substantial number of Palestinians. And, indeed, in the what Palestinians call the Nakba (Arabic for “catastrophe”), in 1948 over 700,000 Palestinian Arabs fled or were expelled from their homes, creating a population of refugees that still exists to this day and has spent over seven decades seeking the “right of return” to their original homeland. 

Ben-Gurion was quite clear: the roots of the conflict between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs came from the fact that establishing a new state that explicitly prioritized the interests of the former over the latter was never going to be acceptable to Palestinians. As he said

Let us not ignore the truth among ourselves … politically we are the aggressors and they defend themselves… The country is theirs, because they inhabit it, whereas we want to come here and settle down, and in their view we want to take away from them their country.

Elsewhere, Ben-Gurion commented: 

If I were an Arab leader, I would never sign an agreement with Israel. It is normal; we have taken their country. It is true God promised it to us, but how could that interest them? Our God is not theirs. There has been Anti-Semitism, the Nazis, Hitler, Auschwitz, but was that their fault? They see but one thing: we have come and we have stolen their country. Why would they accept that?

This is the context for the conflict. When people read about Hamas sending rockets into Israel, they must remember: the state of Israel was built on what Morris called “expropriation and displacement.” This is not ancient history. This occurred within the lifetimes of many people who are still alive today. Some Palestinian families still have the keys to their homes that they were displaced from, in the hopes that one day they might be able to return. 

The general trajectory of events since 1948 has not been complicated. Slowly, Israel has become a stronger and stronger power, and encroached further and further on what was left of Palestinian territory. Since 1967, Israel has occupied Palestinian territory militarily, and Jewish settlements in the West Bank have made more of what is nominally Palestinian territory off-limit to Palestinians. 

The conditions for people living in Gaza are appalling. In 2017, the UN found that living conditions had been becoming “more and more wretched” over the course of the past decade and predicted that within a few years the strip would become functionally unlivable. Robert Piper, UN Coordinator for Humanitarian Aid and Development Activities in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, wrote that: 

This year electricity is the most visible deterioration in the living conditions in Gaza but it comes on top of a host of other chronic and acute problems that have become part of ‘normal’ life. An 11 year-old child has not experienced more than 12 hours of electricity in a single day in his/her lifetime. No one remembers a time in recent memory when drinkable water reliably appeared out of the tap. Memories of ease of movement in and out of the Strip are also increasingly distant…. For most of us, with electricity only 2 hours a day as was the case recently, and youth unemployment at 60%, the ‘unliveability’ threshold has already been passed. Yet, somehow, families in Gaza find ways to ‘make do’.But this does not change the fact that it is profoundly unjust and inhuman to put Gaza’s civilians through such an ordeal. In full view of the world. And still there is no end in sight, 10 years after the dramatic events of 2006-2007 that left the Strip closed, isolated and divided from the West Bank. Life in Gaza has been in perpetual crisis…

The full report is worth reading. 

After backlash from supporters of Israel, MSNBC apologized for airing this map, even though it accurately depicts the Palestinian loss of land

For many decades, there was hope that the conflict between Israel and Palestine could be resolved through the obvious solution of creating two states, a Palestine that would have the same kind of rights of self-determination and autonomy that Israel has. But hopes for the “two state solution” have faded in recent years, in large part because Israel has no reason to desire an autonomous Palestinian state, and no external pressure has forced them to accept one. The present situation, in which Palestinians live in perpetually-diminishing territory with only such rights as Israel is willing to afford them, suits Israel well, and there has been diminishing global attention to the cause of Palestinian rights. Palestinians may still have a case as far as international law is concerned, but international law is only as meaningful as international law enforcement, and powerful countries like the United States have shown no interest in trying to bring about full Palestinian statehood. What is called the “peace process” is intractable for obvious reasons: Israel, being a hugely powerful country that is no longer threatened militarily by Palestine, sees no reason to substantially alter the status quo, while Palestinians continue to believe they have a basic right to a kind of equality that Israel finds unacceptable. 

The status quo is intolerable for Palestinians. B’Tselem is not wrong that the situation is akin to apartheid—in fact, former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon spoke positively of applying the “bantustan model.” As Amnesty International put it, “The legacy of Israel’s 50-year occupation of the Palestinian territories has been systematic human rights violations on a mass scale.” Palestinian villages are routinely bulldozed. Palestinian water is stolen. Palestinians are harassed, arrested, beaten, and killed. When Palestinians resist the situation, whether nonviolently or violently, Israel makes it clear that they will be collectively punished. At the Great March of Return in 2018—a symbolic attempt to breach the border wall to commemorate the 1948 Nakba—Israeli snipers shot Palestinian protesters in cold blood, killing hundreds including medics and children. 

Israel has never been held accountable for its crimes against Palestinians. This became much worse under the Trump administration, which made clear that it had no intention of taking any actions that would rein in Israel’s aggression. Politicians in the United States have long made it clear that they take Israel’s side; even when they condemn, for example, illegal settlement construction in Palestinian territory, they tend to couple it with a condemnation of Palestinian violence, without noting that Palestinian violence flows from the deprivation of Palestine’s “right to exist,” and without noting that Palestinians are disproportionately the victims rather than the aggressors.

We are now at a critical moment in the history of the Israel-Palestine “conflict” (a term that obscures the fact that the problem is better described as the “prevention of Palestinian self-government.”) Israel, having realized that it can smash Palestinian resistance with impunity—if the mass murder of demonstrators will not ignite the global Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, what will?—is consolidating its control and ending the fiction that it is committed to a “peace process” that would end with a Palestinian state. It is announcing vast new settlements in Palestinian land. Two years ago it incorporated new language into its laws explicitly enshrining ethnic supremacy. The country’s politics continue to swing to the right. 

Here in the United States, it matters what happens now. The U.S. cannot necessarily control Israel’s actions, but it can demand the enforcement of international law, and pull various levers (such as withdrawing Israel’s copious military aid or supporting sanctions against the country). It chooses not to, however, and there are troubling signs that the Biden administration will continue the Trump administration’s policy of declining to hold Israel accountable for crimes against Palestinians. Unless there is serious public pressure on Biden, he is likely to continue aiding Israel even as it flagrantly violates the basic human rights of an occupied people. 

The Deafening Silence

The state of Israel was born in part out of a hideous tragedy. The Nazi Holocaust was the most horrifying and systematic act of mass murder in human history. It is easy to empathize to a certain extent even with some of the foundational concerns of the most right-wing Israeli Zionists. Meir Kahane, founder of the Jewish Defense League, asked in his book Never Again: A Program for Survival: “Will Jews once again meekly submit or will they stand and fight?” Kahane was a racist whose political movement inspired horrifying acts of terrorism against Arabs, but anyone can understand the emotional force of the call for Jewish militant nationalism in the wake of the Holocaust. Kahane was explicitly inspired by Malcolm X, and one can see how a fanatical belief in the establishment of a strong Israeli state “by any means necessary” would have taken root among a generation determined to preserve Jewish identity in a world that has long been full of violent antisemitic hostility. 

But many inside and outside of Israel, firmly convinced of the righteousness of the project of building an impregnable Jewish nation-state, have treated criticism of the “expropriation and displacement” that Benny Morris called inherent to Zionism as an attack on the Jewish right to national self-determination. If it is the case that Zionism requires expropriation, and it is the case that Jewish self-determination means the establishment and maintenance of the state of Israel as a Jewish state, then an attack on expropriation is an attack on the Jewish people. While defenders of Israel like Alan Dershowitz are always quick to say that they do not think all criticism of Israel is antisemitic, it is very easy to see how anything perceived as denying the Jewish right to complete the original project of Zionism could be perceived as antisemitic, even if that original project had dimensions that were inherently racist and ugly.

Furthermore, antisemitism itself is a scourge. Not only is it bad, but it is so bad that it is fair to want to be near-paranoid in trying to seek it out. After all, this is a prejudice that led to a colossal act of mass murder. All of us should be committed to making sure nothing like it can ever happen again, which will require constant vigilance against this deadly, insidious bigotry. A person does not have to declare openly that they hate Jews—when someone starts talking about the dark influence of the Rothschilds, or nefarious Cosmopolitan Globalists, the antennae should go off. Even a slight over-sensitivity to perceived antisemitism that catches a “false positive” or two might be justified as a necessary precaution in light of 20th century history. 

But we also need to be careful, because if it is the case that the state of Israel claims to be the legitimate embodiment of Jewish aspirations toward nationhood (it does), and if the state of Israel is acting in a manner that is oppressive toward Palestinians as part of its effort to create a powerful and secure ethnostate (it is; Ben-Gurion himself admitted the necessity of this), then those who point out Israel’s oppressive conduct can easily be painted as antisemitic. And because antisemitism is so bad, and because we must be vigilant about it, people may hold their tongues about oppressive conduct by the State of Israel for fear of being seen as engaging in a sinister act of bigotry.

Consider the International Holocaust Rememberance Alliance (IHRA)’s “working definition” of antisemitism:

Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities. 

This seems uncontroversial. Who could argue with it? But when we scrutinize it more closely, it seems much more confusing. In fact, it isn’t much of a definition at all. Antisemitism is a “certain” perception of Jews. But what certain perception? It may be expressed as hatred, but can be expressed as things other than hatred—that makes sense, but what are they? It can be directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals “and/or their property?” What is a “Jewish community institution?” Is the state of Israel? In fact, this definition has told us almost nothing about what antisemitism is and isn’t. Realizing this, the IHRA offers the following explanations of the definition in practice: 

Manifestations might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity. However, criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic. Antisemitism frequently charges Jews with conspiring to harm humanity, and it is often used to blame Jews for “why things go wrong.” It is expressed in speech, writing, visual forms and action, and employs sinister stereotypes and negative character traits.

Sinister stereotypes and negative character traits seems unambiguous. But what does it means that “targeting the state of Israel” can be antisemitic unless the charge is “similar to that leveled against any other country?” The IHRA gives the example of “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.” Or, for example, “Applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.” Or “Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.” 

The IHRA definition includes things like “making mendacious, dehumanizing, demonizing, or stereotypical allegations about Jews as such or the power of Jews as collective — such as, especially but not exclusively, the myth about a world Jewish conspiracy or of Jews controlling the media, economy, government or other societal institutions.” These seem like classic manifestations of antisemitism. But the stuff about Israel is of a different character entirely. The existence of a “State of Israel” where, in the words of the Basic Law, one people has a unique right of self-determination, is by definition a racist endeavor. Is Benny Morris antisemitic for writing that Zionism “sought to transform a land which was ‘Arab’ into a ‘Jewish’ State?” The IHRA’s examples therefore go well beyond “negative stereotypes about Jews” and treat it as racist to point out the inherent racism of a project to build a state that ruled over or expelled Palestinians from their land because they were Palestinians.

Now, it seems perfectly reasonable to say that whatever standards one wishes to apply to Israel, one must apply equally to everyone else. But if Israel is the country receiving the most U.S. military aid, and is using that aid to commit atrocities, is one applying a “double standard” by pointing this out? It’s easy to see how the IHRA definition could be used to, if not completely insulate Israel from criticism, at least make people nervous about criticizing Israel, lest they be accused of singling it out. Furthermore, in practice, the IHRA’s insistence that any comparison of acts by the Israeli military to Nazi war crimes is antisemitic means that if (just hypothetically) the Israeli military did engage in an act comparable to a Nazi war crime, one would be obligated not to make the comparison, because to do so would be antisemitic. The definition does not say that false comparisons to Nazi crimes are antisemitic, but that any comparisons are, regardless of the facts of the matter. 

The concern that overly broad definitions of antisemitism will in practice make it harder to criticize Israel’s oppressive conduct toward Palestinians is not an empty one. Over the last few years, Britain has gone through an utterly ludicrous pseudo-scandal ostensibly about antisemitism, in which Labour Party members like former leader Jeremy Corbyn have been branded antisemitic for their involvement in the Palestine solidarity movement. CNN commentator Marc Lamont Hill was immediately fired and accused of engaging antisemitism for using the Palestinian rights slogan from the river to the sea, Palestine must be free.

I myself recently had a run-in with the problem. When I tweeted a joke about U.S. military aid to Israel, making the point that it seems to essentially be the law that no matter what, the flow of weapons from our country to theirs will never stop, the editor of the newspaper I worked for, the Guardian, immediately told me I was perpetuating a myth of “Jewish power.” After all, I was suggesting that Israel’s interests are part of U.S. law. Thus I was suggesting that Israel controlled the U.S. And because Israel is a Jewish state, I was therefore really suggesting that Jews control the U.S.

This is transparent sophistry. But it’s easy to see how it works. Any suggestion that Israel is powerful and oppressive is, because Israel is the only Jewish state, a suggestion that Jews are powerful and oppressive. If this logic is accepted, one may never call Israel oppressive. Even if one does not accept the logic, one may be tempted to be extremely cautious when talking about Israel. For a writer interested in maintaining their career, every dip into these waters is a risk. Anyone seeing my firing, or Marc Lamont Hill’s, now knows that even a single phrase perceived to “delegitimize” Israel will result in being tarred as a bigot, a charge it is difficult to recover from.

Seeing the aftermath of my own firing disturbed me. Writers who were privately supportive were unwilling to sign on to a public statement in my defense, for fear of irritating the Guardian. I realized just how “chilled” writers would be from speaking out on the subject. I myself had been willing to delete my tweets at the editor’s command, worried about the possibility of losing my job and not being able to get another one, having been deemed an antisemite. I realized why I do not hear too much about a free Palestine anymore. If one’s career as a commentator can be ended by any tweet perceived to violate a capacious definition of antisemitism like the IHRA’s, how can anyone speak freely? To support Palestine publicly is inherently to risk one’s livelihood. 

Why It’s Important 

On November 3, while the world was focused on the U.S. election, Israeli forces destroyed the homes of almost 80 Palestinian Bedouins in the occupied West Bank. Fatima Abu Awwad was one of the Palestinians whose home was demolished. “They didn’t leave anything untouched,” she told Mondoweiss’ Yumna Patel. “Our homes, our livestock pens, our bathrooms, our water tanks, solar panels, everything. They destroyed everything. It was cold, windy, and rainy, and we had nowhere to go, nowhere to protect ourselves and our small children. “I feel like I’m destroyed inside,” she added. “Look around at what happened to us, how would you feel? We have nothing left.”

Mondoweiss, Nov. 17, 2020 

“Harun Abu Aram was shot in the neck on the first day of the New Year. In a confrontation captured on film, the 24-year-old Palestinian, along with several other men, can be seen tussling with Israeli soldiers who had been trying to seize a village generator in the West Bank’s South Hebron hills—before a single shot rings out. Over a month later, Abu Aram remains in critical condition in a Hebron hospital, paralyzed from the neck down.”

World Politics Review, Feb. 16. 2021 

The situation facing the struggle for Palestinian self-determination is particularly grim right now. Israel’s Jewish National Fund is pouring millions into massive new expansions of illegal new colonies (usually called “settlements,” but the term is too benign) in the occupied West Bank. As the B’Tselem apartheid report says, “Recent years have seen a rise in the motivation and willingness of Israeli officials and institutions to enshrine Jewish supremacy in law and openly state their intentions.” The Israeli right is emboldened, with bigotry being ever-more-normalized. Benjamin Netanyahu’s pick to head Israel’s Holocaust museum, for instance, had openly called for the expulsion of Palestinians from the West Bank and declared that: “The Arabs will never have a government, nor sovereignty, nor an army, in any part, grain, meter or alley of the State of Israel.”) Attacks on Palestinians by colonists have, according to human rights observers, been increasing. (See, for instance, this incident from last summer in which Palestinian picnickers were brutally beaten by colonists.)

If I begin to go through a list of the regular crimes committed against Palestinians, I will never end. Every report by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty, the United Nations, B’Tselem, and Breaking The Silence contains a catalog of abuses. (Defenders of Israeli conduct dismiss human rights organizations as biased.) Everyday life in the West Bank involves, as HRW puts it, “systematic rights abuses, including collective punishment, routine use of excessive lethal force against protesters, and prolonged administrative detention without charge or trial.” Yet there is no end in sight, because there is no serious effort at extracting compliance with basic international human rights principles from Israel. 

There is a strong effort by Israel and its supporters to prevent any real form of accountability. The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, the most prominent international attempt to try to get Israel held accountable for its illegal acts, is met with everything from villainization to outright criminal punishment. New York City mayoral candidate Andrew Yang has promised that he will use the office to crack down on BDS, which he likens to Nazism. Disowning BDS is an important political litmus test in the U.S.—Georgia Senate candidate Raphael Warnock felt the need to publicly disown BDS and pledge not to cut off U.S. military aid in order to be electable. Arab states have begun normalizing relations with Israel, further diminishing the hopes that pressure will successfully be put on Israel to substantially increase Palestinian sovereignty. 

The situation for Palestinians will only grow worse if it cannot be discussed. If people are afraid to speak out, because they think their remarks will be spun by bad-faith actors as bigotry and intolerance, then every last shred of hope for justice in Palestine will disappear. At the moment, even student groups trying to help the Palestinian cause face serious institutional crackdowns—see the ongoing case at Fordham University, where Students for Justice In Palestine are having to navigate the courts merely to secure the “right to exist.” Media organizations like the Guardian that publish criticism of Israel but then carefully police writers and are easily cowed by spurious antisemitism charges are no friend to the Palestinian cause. In fact, they actively harm it, by making it look as if a robust conversation is being had when behind the scenes, people fear for their livelihoods if they give an honest opinion about what is going on. 

If we are silent, the aspirations of the Palestinian people toward genuine equality stand no chance. In the U.S., the Biden administration has no incentive to talk about Palestine, and will probably prefer that the issue go undiscussed. It is the job of every person who cares about the crimes their country is complicit in to make sure we do not let the Palestinian cause fall by the wayside. (And yes, the same applies to the cause of those victimized by other powerful U.S. allies and the U.S. itself, like the people of Yemen and the detainees of Guantanamo.) Martin Luther King Jr. was right that silence is betrayal, and the deafening silence on Palestine—endless human rights reports ignored, no serious pressure applied, murder rationalized as self-defense, open discussion muzzled—must be broken right now.

* Israel has long called itself a Jewish and democratic state, but this is a laughable oxymoron, no different than a Jim Crow state government that called itself “white and democratic.” Governance in the interests of a particular ethnicity is by definition undemocratic. To maintain its character as a “Jewish state,” Israel will necessarily always have to make sure that non-Jews do not get too numerous or politically powerful, otherwise the contradiction between ethnic priority and democracy will become even more stark.

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