In recent years, many US pro-Israel groups have been pursuing a multipronged strategy to stifle discourse about Israeli policy and Palestinian rights. They have done so because for the past three decades there has been an erosion of support for Israeli policies, with growing support for Palestinians.
Back in the bad old days of the 1970s, Palestinian voices were often silenced at a time when pro-Israel groups ruled the roost in the US. The people and groups who supported Palestinian rights were excluded from political coalitions, fired from their positions, blocked from speaking at universities, and had their contributions returned by political candidates. Members of Congress who dared to speak out were often smeared and targeted for defeat.
Attitudes began to change with the first intifada, and then later with the Madrid peace process in 1991 that culminated in the Oslo Accords. The power of intimidation lost steam and an open discussion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict began.
The next three decades witnessed ups and downs (mostly the latter) in the peace process – and the debate over Palestinian-Israeli issues continued. The Israeli government's increasingly aggressive and brutal behaviour – and greater scrutiny of their policies resulted in a steady shift in US public opinion. Today, majorities in both parties support tying US aid to Israel to its violations of human rights. By a significant margin Democrats now have a more favourable view of Palestinians than they do of Israel.
This change has been reflected in an increasing number of supporters of Palestinian rights running for Congress and winning. It has also emboldened students – including Arab Americans, Black Americans, Asian Americans, Muslims, and a significant number of young progressive Jews, who cannot reconcile their faith’s values with Israel’s dehumanisation and oppression of Palestinians – to engage in pro-Palestinian actions on college campuses. This shift in opinion has created a crisis for the hardline pro-Israel groups, resulting in a renewed effort to silence critics of Israel.
Reactions to the current violence has exposed the depth of divisions in US attitudes towards Palestine-Israel, while adding impetus to efforts of pro-Israel groups to silence debate. Given the widespread public outrage at Hamas’s actions, these groups saw an opportunity to accelerate their repressive agenda.
The tactics undertaken have included the following: the expanded use of well-funded political committees to smear and defeat progressive candidates who are critical of Israeli policies; passing legislation or securing executive orders penalising supporters of the effort to boycott, divest or sanction Israel over its violations of Palestinian rights, and expanding the definition of anti-Semitism to include legitimate criticism of Israeli policies; pressuring major corporations, law firms and universities to accept this expanded definition of anti-Semitism and have their employees commit to adherence to this policy; and targeting and smearing people and groups that have been critical of Israel or supportive of Palestinian rights.
Within days of the Hamas attacks, universities, organisations and major corporations were pressed to denounce the attacks and to refer to them as anti-Semitic. Many did. Those who hesitated were denounced. As the days wore on and it became clear how many Palestinian civilians were dying from Israeli strikes throughout Gaza, some universities or organisations sought to issue more balanced statements expressing concern for both Israeli and Palestinian civilians. They were also denounced as anti-Semitic by pro-Israel groups for making “false comparisons.”
When a number of campus student groups called out repressive Israeli policies in Gaza both before and after the Hamas assaults, pro-Israel groups painted the students as pro-Hamas and advocates for terror. In some instances, the student groups were threatened with having their charters revoked and being forced to disband. And in a few well-publicised cases, law students who participated in pro-Palestinian actions had job offers from prominent law firms rescinded.
There has also been activity in Congress to pass resolutions expanding the definition of anti-Semitism to include legitimate criticism of Israel, despite the well-founded concern that this constitutes a violation of free speech.
There are two social forces at work here, each pulling and pushing in opposite directions.
On the one hand, there is the continuing fracturing of the US body politic’s attitudes towards Palestine and Israel. On the other side, there is the widespread public horror over the behaviour of Hamas that is being seen by some pro-Israel groups as an opportunity to advance their agenda to silence the emerging debate over Palestinian rights.
Three weeks after the Hamas attacks, the state of play appears to be that the initial revulsion has been somewhat offset by shock as the toll of the devastation wrought by Israel’s massive retaliation against Gaza continues.
While Hamas’s massacres did not advance the cause of Palestine (nor has the careless and offensive language used by some of the pro-Palestinian student groups), neither has Israel’s unrelenting bombing of Gaza stifled debate sought by Israel’s supporters.
Despite the huge investment in resources and political capital by some pro-Israel groups, and the number of people who have been and will continue to be harmed by their assault on free speech, they will lose. They may continue, for a time, to intimidate members of Congress and silence some debate, but changes in public opinion will continue. In fact, the very heavy-handed tactics used by some extreme pro-Israel groups are already creating discomfort with their approach to silencing debate and defending the indefensible.
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