It's time to stop silencing young Americans who speak up for Palestine

Pro-Palestinian support was always going to be countered but the virulence of some pro-Israel attacks is worrying

Columbia University's faculty hold a protest in support of Palestine and for free speech on the Columbia University campus on November 15 in New York City. Getty Images via AFP
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Several events in the past few weeks should make people pay attention to the frightening reality of freedom of speech regarding Palestine and Israel. We are on precarious ground.

Public opinion has shifted in a more pro-Palestinian direction, especially among younger Americans and people of colour. Up until now, this shift registered mainly in polling data. But with the past six weeks of Israel’s brutal assault on Gaza, there has been an outpouring of support for Palestinian rights and opposition to Israel’s unrelenting war.

It was expected that pro-Palestinian support would be countered by groups supportive of Israel. But the virulence of the pro-Israeli counter-attacks has been worrisome. A major American Jewish organisation purporting to defend civil rights had called on universities in the US to ban the student society Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). They have called the student group anti-Semitic and in an extraordinary move, called on the US government to investigate whether the students could be charged with “providing material support for terrorism”.

While sometimes incautious, and in rare instances thoughtless, language may have been used by young students to express support for Palestinians and anger at their indiscriminate killing, there is nothing to substantiate the dangerous charge of terrorism. Some US universities have responded by banning the SJP, together with Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), a national organisation of young progressive American Jews supportive of Palestinian rights. Despite its Jewish membership, JVP has also been termed anti-Semitic by the same pro-Israel advocates.

A week ago, the chair of a Midwestern state’s Democratic Party issued a press release denouncing a group of officers of the Young Democrats on one of the state’s college campuses. The student Democrats’ letter ended with a nuanced version of what pro-Israel groups have come to insist is a controversial statement. So instead of saying “From the river to the sea, Palestine shall be free,” they wrote, “May every Palestinian be free, from the river to the sea.”

Despite the students' best efforts, the state party chair’s release accused them of using anti-Semitic language, making Jewish students feel unsafe on campus and supporting genocide against the Jewish people. The state chair also called on them to resign from their posts as elected officers in the Democratic group.

In justifying this harsh response, the chair cited the definition of the original phrase provided by a pro-Israel group:

“This phrase is anti-Semitic and can make members of our Jewish community feel unsafe because it calls for genocide. ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free’ is an anti-Semitic slogan commonly featured in anti-Israel campaigns and chanted at demonstrations… Usage of this phrase has the effect of making members of the Jewish and pro-Israel community feel unsafe and ostracised. It is important to note that demanding justice for Palestinians, or calling for a Palestinian state, should not mean, as this hateful phrase posits, denying the right of the State of Israel to exist.”

Just a week ago, a respected community-based organisation in the state of Maryland, called Casa (Court Appointed Special Advocate), that provides support services for immigrants, also issued a statement in support of the Palestinian people. It denounced the massacres perpetrated by Hamas on October 7 and the Israeli bombing campaign that has taken the lives of thousands of Palestinians. The Casa statement went on to say that as people of colour, they identified with the struggle for justice and freedom because “the Palestinian struggle mirrors our own.”

Casa’s solidarity was met by a letter from a group of Maryland legislators and elected officials demanding they rescind their statement, declaring it “anti-Semitic”. And as state legislators who decide the state’s budget, they more pointedly stated without any concern: “This might be an appropriate time to re-evaluate the state’s mechanism for providing financial aid and support to our immigrant community.”

Subtle, this was not. Since thousands of immigrants depend on Casa for critical services and advocacy, they felt compelled to apologise and take down the statement. As of yet, it seems the legislators have not relented in their threat to end the group’s funding.

Finally, an op-ed in the New York Daily News last week that called for the re-establishment of the Jewish Defence League, a religious-political organisation on the far-right in the US, should cause concern and outrage. Instead, it passed without comment from elected officials concerned about the spread of hate. In his column, David Blumenfeld, a prominent New York philanthropist, praised the JDL’s founder, Meir Kahane, and extolled the virtues of the group that he claimed represented strong Jews and a firm response to threats against their safety.

He ignored the facts that for decades the JDL was on the FBI terrorism list; it was one of the major perpetrators of terrorist violence during the 1970s and 1980s; and was even banned in Israel as a racist terror group that spawned the likes of the person who perpetrated the massacre of Muslim worshippers in Hebron’s Ibrahim Mosque and the assassin of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. That a major US paper would even publish such a piece without comment is an indicator of how dangerous the situation has become.

From these examples, it would seem the wrong discourse is being scrutinised.

Published: November 22, 2023, 2:30 PM