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Silencing debate

Nov 06,2023 - Last updated at Nov 06,2023

In recent years, US pro-Israel groups have pursued a multi-pronged strategy to stifle discourse about Israeli policy and Palestinian rights. It is a response to a decades-long erosion of support for Israel, coupled with growing support for Palestinians.

Back in the 1970s, when pro-Israel groups ruled the roost, individuals and groups who supported Palestinian rights were excluded from political coalitions, fired from positions, blocked from speaking at university events, and had contributions returned by political candidates. Members of Congress who dared to speak out were smeared and targeted for defeat.

Attitudes began to change with the first intifada, and then the Madrid peace process culminating in the Oslo Accords. The power of intimidation lost steam and an open discussion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict began.

The debate continued over the next three decades’ ups and downs in the peace process. The increasingly aggressive and brutal behaviours by and greater scrutiny of Israeli government policies resulted in a steady shift in US public opinion. Today, majorities in both parties support tying US aid to Israel to its human rights violations, and by a significant margin Democrats now have a more favorable view of Palestinians than of Israelis.

Reflecting this change, an increasing number of supporters of Palestinian rights are running for Congress and winning. 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, are engaging in pro-Palestinian actions on college campuses. For hardline pro-Israel groups, it is a crisis that has resulted in renewed efforts to silence Israel’s critics.

Reactions to the current round of violence has exposed deep divisions in attitudes towards Palestine/Israel, while adding impetus to pro-Israel groups’ efforts to silence debate. The widespread public outrage at Hamas’ actions presented an opportunity to accelerate their repressive agenda.

Their tactics have included: the expanded use of well-funded political committees to smear and defeat progressive candidates critical of Israeli policies; passing legislation or securing executive orders penalising supporters of efforts to boycott, divest or sanction Israel over violations of Palestinian rights, and expanding the definition of antisemitism to include legitimate criticism of Israeli policies; pressuring major corporations, law firms and universities to accept this definition and require employees adhere to this policy; and targeting and smearing individuals/groups critical of Israel or supportive of Palestinian rights.

Within days of the Hamas attacks, colleges/universities, organisations, and major corporations were pressed to denounce the attacks and to describe them as antisemitic. Many did. Those who hesitated were denounced. As the Palestinian civilian death toll from Israeli strikes throughout Gaza rose, more balanced statements expressing concern for both Israeli and Palestinian civilians were denounced as antisemitic and “false comparisons” by pro-Israel groups.

Campus student groups calling out repressive Israeli policies in Gaza both before and after the Hamas assaults have been painted as pro-Hamas and advocates for terror. In a few well-publicised cases, law students identified as participating in pro-Palestinian actions had job offers from prominent law firms rescinded. Congressional resolutions expanding the definition of antisemitism to include legitimate criticism of Israel are being discussed, despite concerns about violating free speech.

Two opposing social forces are at work: the ongoing fracturing of the US body politic’s attitudes toward Israel/Palestine; and some pro-Israel groups seeing widespread public horror over Hamas’ behaviour as an opportunity to advance their agenda to silence the emerging debate over Palestinian rights.

Three weeks after the Hamas attacks, the initial revulsion has been somewhat offset by shock as the devastating toll of Israel’s massive retaliation against Gaza grows.

While Hamas’ massacres did not advance the cause of Palestinians’ supporters (nor has the careless and offensive language used by some pro-Palestinian student groups), neither has Israel’s unrelenting bombing of Gaza served Israel’s supporters seeking to stifle debate.

Despite huge investments in resources and political capital by pro-Israel groups, and those harmed by their assault on free speech, they will lose. For a time, they may intimidate members of Congress and silence some debate, but changes in public opinion will continue. In fact, the very heavy-handed tactics used by the pro-Israel groups are already creating discomfort with their approach to silencing debate and defending the indefensible.

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