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Censorship and BDS

Submitted by Robin Messing on Sat, 02/22/2014 - 9:10am

In my last post I discussed how Israel's supporters tried to get a bill passed in New York State that would stomp on the free speech rights of those who supported the BDS (Boycott, Divestment Sanctions) movement..  In this post I will show that this bill is just part of a pattern amongst Israel's supporters to stifle debate about Israel's illegal occupation in the West Bank and the BDS movement that has arisen in response to it.  The tactics used are usually legal, though they would fall under the categories of either pettiness or ham-handed bullying.  Whether these tactics take the form of pettiness, ham-handed bullying, or knife thrusts to the heart of the First Amendment, they all indicate one thing: Many of those who support Israel's illegal occupation are nervous.  They are afraid of what happens when Israel's actions are exposed to the light of day and they fear that they will lose on a level playing field of debate.  If Israel's actions were morally defensible. . .  if BDS was merely an instrument that Anti-Semites were using to attack the Jews, then why not encourage, or at least allow unimpeded debate?  Expose the noxious Anti-Semites for what they are and watch them slither away in the shadows.  Instead, some of Israel's staunchest defenders are taking the opposite approach.  Booklyn College Professor Corey Robin wrote:

We seem to be entering a new phase of the Israel/Palestine conflict, in the US and perhaps elsewhere. As Israel loses increasing control over the debate, its organized and institutional defenders have to resort to ever more desperate and coercive measures to control the debate. As they resort to ever more desperate and coercive measures to control the debate, they lose the hip, politically tolerant, embodiment-of-social-justice aura—the Middle East’s only democracy, the country is one big kibbutz, etc.—that traditionally helped them control the debate. Historically speaking, that’s not a good position for self-described liberal democratic regimes to be in.


The Petty


Hillel International is "the largest Jewish student organization in the world".  Their guidelines prohibit partnering with or hosting groups or speakers that   (a) deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders, (b) delegitimizes, demonizes, or applies a double standard to Israel, or (c) supports boycott off, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel."    John Judis, senior editor of The New republic,  writes that when Hillel adopted this policy in 2010 it transformed itself

from an umbrella organization for Jews on campus to a member of a pro-Israel coalition that is based in Washington D.C. and that has generally taken the Israel government’s side in disputes with Obama administration over the conduct of the peace process. Hillel now became officially opposed not only to anti-Semitism, but also to what the David Project termed “anti-Israelism.” It took this final step largely because of the growth on campus of groups that were highly critical of the Israeli government. The guidelines were an attempt to steer the debate on campus and to inoculate Hillel from contamination.

How Hillel wants its guidelines applied is anything but clear.  Read David Harris-Gershon's story of how he was barred from speaking at the Santa Barbara Hillel despite making the following statement

I am a progressive Zionist who believes firmly in the idea that Israel should be a Jewish, democratic state, despite the inherent challenges and contradictions such an existence presents. I am also one who fully supports a two-state political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in which each side is able to live within defined, secure borders.I believe that economic sanctions, such as boycotts, are legitimate forms of nonviolent protest, in contrast to, say, violence or vandalism. I do not, however, subscribe to the BDS movement’s implicit vision of a single, bi-national state as a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Reactions to Harris Gershon's story within the Jewish community were mixed. William Daroff, Senior Vice President for Public Policy & Director of the Washington office of The Jewish Federations of North America said that Harris-Gershon's views place him "outside our communal tent.”  However, though he was disinvited from speaking to the Santa Barbara Hillel, other Hillel's expressed interest in hearing Harris-Gershon speak after hearing about his story.I urge you to read Laurie Goodstein's New York Times article and John Judis's major New Republic thinkpiece for more information on how Hillel's petty attempts to control debate within the Jewish campus community has started a small backlash against it in the form of an Open Hillel movement.


Ham-Handed Bullying


Accusing critics of Israel of being  Anti-Semitic is a special form of ham-handed bullying used by many Israeli right-wingers and their apologists.  This is a tactic that attempts to silence would-be critics into self-censorship or marginalize and discredit what they say without addressing the merits of their criticism.  I have devoted a separate post to discuss the Anti-Semite card in more detail.

Three separate incidents occured within within a week that illustrate bullying intended to chill debate over over BDS.

  1. Respected journalist John Judis was scheduled to be involved in a panel discussion in July about his book, Genesis: Truman American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict. at the New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage.  Here is how Phillip Weiss, of Mondoweiss, summarized the book.

    The book says that Truman personally opposed the partition of Palestine in 1947 because he did not believe in establishing nations that failed to separate church and state, but his arm was twisted by the Zionist lobby in the U.S. and he caved on his principles out of political concern.

The Museum invited Judis to speak, and then suddenly withdrew the invitation.  The Museum's spokesperson explained that the Museum thought his speech would be too controversial.   Why the change of heart? The book received a harsh review in the Wall Street Journal, and one of the most influential Jewish columnists in the U.S., Jeffrey Goldberg tweeted that he agreed with the Wall Street Journal's review.  I can't prove it, but I suspect Zionists read the review, didin't like that the book sullied their favorite historical narrative, and called and sent letters to the Museum complaining about them giving Judis a forum to speak at. Admittedly, this conclusion is speculation since we don't know what went on behind the scenes, but read this column by Weiss and form your own conclusions.

  1. The Jewish Museum of New York (not to be confused with New York's Museum of Jewish Heritage) appears to have capitualted to pressure as well.   Judith Butler, a prominent critic of Israel and a supporter of the BDS movement, was scheduled to give a lecture about Franz Kafka at the Jewish Museum in New York.   I'm guessing that pro_Israel Zionists put her on trial in a secret location using rules no one knows about and found her guilty.  What did they find her guilty of?  I don't know, since she had been invited to speak about Kafka, not about Israel.  But they must have found her guilty of something because evidetly they hounded the Museum, and possibly Butler as well, to the point where Butler felt it necessary to withdraw from her talk. Unlike the Judis case, Weiss provides more direct evidence that the museum came under donor pressure to rescind its invitation to Butler.
  2. Ramaz High School students at the Modern Orthodox institution in Manhattan invited Rashid Khalidi, a Columbia University Professor who has been highly critical of Israel, to speak to their class.  For whatever reason the head of their school, Paul Shaviv, refused to let Khalidi speak.  Weiss summed up these three instances this way:

This is truly disgraceful. The Jewish community is in IQ freefall, and it’s happening before our eyes. The crazy uncles in our community are putting their feet down about who can come into the house, and other forbears are accepting the prohibitions out of some tribal impulse that recalls the self-destruction of the Shabbatai Tzvi collective delusion of the 1600s.

Please note, though these examples show supporters of Israel trying to stiffle debate, I don't mean to imply that all--or even most of Israel's supporters think that this is appropriate.  Some of Israel's staunchest supporters believe in free speech and open discussion.  For example, when Asher Mayerson, the head of the Dartmouth Hillel, heard of that the head of Ramaz High School was preventing Khalidi from speaking, he signed a petition supporting Khalidi's right to speak at the school.  Mayerson said,

As a Jewish Day School graduate and a Hillel President, I support bringing open conversations on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to Jewish communal spaces.


Unfortunately though there are Zionists of prinicple like Asher Mayerson who are unafraid of free debate,  far too many want to silence those who would present ideas from a Palestinian perspective.  And this is nothing new.  Two incidents at Brookly College prove this point.

Brooklyn College hired doctoral student Kristofer Petersen-Overton in January 2011 to teach a course on Middle Eastern politics.  A student enrolled in the course was concerned that Peterson-Overton's alleged pro-Palestinian views would prevent him from teaching a balanced class.  The student contacted New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind about her concerns, apparently before the class even began.  Hikind, who actively encourages American Jews to settle in the West Bank, sent a letter to the President of Brooklyn College complaining about Petersen-Overton's syllabus and accusing him of being an  “overt supporter of terrorism”.  Hikind focused on one of Petersen-Overton's papers, "Inventing the Martyr: Martyrdom as Palestinian National Signifier” and claimed that it romanticized suicide bombers.  (See Dov Hikind's Jan. 24, 2011 letter here.)  He ominously  concluded his letter by saying

Mr. Petersen-Overton’s personal biases should not be allowed to pollute the academic realm, nor should taxpayer dollars be devoted to promoting his one-sided agenda.

Remember, as an Assemblyman Dov Hikind is in a position where he could  potentially influence Brooklyn College's New York State funding.  Though this statement is not a direct threat, it is Ham-Handed Bullying.  Petersen-Overton was fired shortly after Hikind sent his letter to Brooklyn College's President.  Brooklyn College said they fired Petersen-Overton because his hiring was a mistake and that he lacked the credentials to teach a graduate level course.  However, this excuse didn't stand up to scrutiny when it was revealed that the college used other instructors with similar credentials to teach graduate level courses.  For more details on this story I encourage you to read this article at On January 28, The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), sent a letter to BC's President defending Petersen-Overton's academic freedom and questioning the college's lack of due process in its decision to fire him.  Brooklyn College reviewed its decision (apparently as a response to FIRE's letter) and rehired Petersen Overton on February 1.

The second incident involving Brooklyn College involved a more serious threat to free speech.  Whereas the Petersen-Overton debacle was an example of ham-handed bullying with merely a subtle hint that Brooklyn College might be penalized for allowing Petersen-Overton to teach a class, the second example involves a direct threat to Brooklyn College's funding.  I will deal with this in the next section.


Legal Actions and Threats To Stifle Debate


It is no secret that Israel doesn't like it when people talk about BDS.  They view such talk as a threat to their national security.  In 2011, Israel passed an anti-boycott law that punishes support of boycotts against Israel and the West Bank.  The Knesset did a study and determined that this bill was unlike any other law in any democracy.  The Israeli High Court is now considering a petition to strike this bill, but for the time being if you call for a boycott against Israel or the West Bank while you are in Israel, any other Israeli could sue you, even if they had suffered no economic damages because of your call for a boycott.  There is no limit to how much the court could fine you.  And if you are an Israeli citizen visiting the U.S. and you call for a boycott, this law might still make you the target of a lawsuit.

If you are Palestinian and living outside of the Green Line, you don't even have to advocate BDS in order to run afoul of the authorities.  Last week, an East Jerusalem Palestinian was brought in for questioning by Israeli police simply for referring to Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat as the “mayor of the occupation”  on FaceBook.  Michael Omer-Man discussed previous such incidents in this post and then challenged Israeli summon him for questioning  after HE wrote "“Nir Barkat, mayor of the occupation.”   He's betting the Israeli police won't summon him because he's Jewish, even though he has committed the exact same offense as a Palestinian.  That probably is a safe bet.

Israelis don't want to have all the fun of stomping on the free speech rights of those who would advocate BDS.  In France, It is now illegal to advocate boycotting Israel.  Merely advocating BDS in France is being treated as a hate crime under France’s so-called Lellouche law.  And Pro-Israeli activists are trying to get similar laws passed in Europe.  The Lellouche law was passed in 2003 to combat anti-Semitism, but it has since been distorted to make protest against Israel illegal.

On December 20, 2013, Politico published a remarkable letter by former Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren that called on Congress to pass a law that would prevent Americans from speaking out in favor of BDS.  Oren wrote:

But merely protesting this [American Studies Association] abhorrent [boycott] decision will not succeed in reversing it or discouraging other similarly bigoted organizations from following suit. What’s needed is a way to fight back, and Congress can do it.

Oren's letter is full of distortions and half-truths.  Though Steven Salaita's has already written a rebuttal addressing most of Oren's half-truths, Oren's claim that the laws Congress passed in the 1970s sets a precedent for new anti-BDS laws today is particularly misleading and requires a more detailed examination.  Oren wrote:

A successful precedent for that fight already exists in the defeat of the Arab economic boycott of Israel. That embargo began in 1945, before Israel's creation, when the Arab League voted to ban "Jewish products." Over the next 30 years, this boycott damaged Israel's economy—until America stood up.


In 1977, Congress passed a series of laws making it illegal for U.S. companies to cooperate with any boycott of Israel and imposing stiff penalties on those that did. The boycott, Congress concluded, was not only racist against Israelis but all Jews. In signing the legislation, President Jimmy Carter, though a frequent critic of Israel, pledged to “end the divisive effects on American life of foreign boycotts aimed at Jewish members of our society.” (emphasis added)

Oren ignores the differences between the boycott of the 1970s and todays BDS movement.  The American Jewish Comittee's archives contains a pamphlet describing the boycott by Arab states against Israel and against companies that do business with Israel.  Here is an excerpt from that pamphlet.

What forms does the boycott take?

A primary, or direct, boycott covers all Israeli-made goods and services and bans all trade arrangements with Israel by Arab states.

A secondary boycott is directed against companies that invest in Israel or do business there--a ban that is honored or ignored depending on the whims and business preferences of the individual Arab states.

Most recently (and less openly) there are signs of a tertiary boycott aimed at companies that do business with companies that do business with Israel, and even at companies with "Zionists" (read Jews) on their boards or in executive posts.

Beyond these, there is a "shadow boycott"--the self imposed discrimination practiced by some businesses against American Jews and American Jewish companies in an effort to curry favor with potential Arab customers.

How does the boycott work?

Boycott demands on American business take several forms.

American Exporters have been asked by Arab customers to state they do not sell to Israel.  Shipping companies have been asked to certify that vessels carrying goods to Arab countries do not put in at Israeli ports.  Manufacturers may be asked to declare that they have no operations in Israel, or that their products contain no Israeli-made components; banks may be asked to honor letters of credit valid only for those recipients who do no business with or in Israel.

In general, companies that want Arab business may be given to understand their chances are better if they do not deal with Jewish owned or managed companies.  And Saudi Arabia and some other Middle East states usually will not grant entry visas to Jews assigned to work teams of American companies.


Note the differences between the boycott that Oren wants to use as a precedent for Congress to pass laws to suppress the BDS movement and the actual boycott that the BDS movement advocates.  The original boycott targeted, Israel, Israeli companies, companies that dealt with Israel or Israeli companies, and Jews, both Israeli and non-Israeli, Zionist or non-Zionist.  Their are different types of boycott calls against Israel.  Some just call for a boycott.  Some call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions.  Some call for just boycotting companies that have a presence in the West Bank.  Others call for boycotting companies that have a presence anywhere in the West Bank or Israel.  None of them, however, call for the boycotting of Jews per se or companies that have Jews on their boards.

Note also the role of STATES in the coercive nature of the original boycott.  Arab states were blackmailing U.S. companies--"You want to do business with us--you want access to our oil and our Petro-Dollars? Fine.  Don't do business with Israel.  And lose the Jews from your Board of Directors."

Now compare this with the ASA boycott that Oren wants the Congress to outlaw.  The ASA boycott targets Israeli academic institutions, not individuals.  Scholars from Israel can collaborate with their American colleagues provided they are not acting as official representatives of Israel or their academic institutions. And the boycott is completely voluntary.  No one is being coerced to join the boycott.  There are no penalties other than moral opprobrium if ASA members or institutions break the boycott.

The ASA boycott that Oren wants crushed, unlike the original boycott, does not even target American companies that do business with Israel.  Many within the BDS movement do want to boycott companies to pressure them to stop doing business with Israel, and especially to stop doing business in the West Bank, just as Blacks boycotted the Montgomery bus system to protest its racist policies, just as many advocted divestment, and sanctions against apartheid South Africa, and just as gay rights activists called for a boycott against Chick-fil-A for their stance against marriage equality.  The Supreme Court has held that boycotts "to bring about social and economic change" are protected speech under the First Amendment.  (See NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware and this downloadable PDF by the Center for Constitutional Rights)


Of course, since the Supreme Court has protected the right to peacefully organize boycotts, no American politician would pay any attention to Oren. Right? Right???  Wrong! Congressmen Peter Roskam and Dan Lapinski have introduced a bill that "would block federal funding for American universities engaging in a boycott of Israeli academic institutions or scholars to ensure that taxpayer dollars are not used to fund bigoted attacks against Israel that undermine the fundamental principles of academic freedom."  And as you can see, Congressman Roskam freely admits that it was Michael Oren who inspired him to introduce this bill.






I hate to repeat myself, but I can't emphasize this too strongly.  Legislation that would punish academic institutions for implementing a peaceful boycott to bring about social or econmic change is clearly unconstitutional, as discussed in this downloadable PDF by the Center for Constitutional Rights)  To their credit, AIPAC and the Anti-Defamation League have opposed this bill on First Amendment grounds.

Unfortunately, similar bills have been introduced in Illinois, Maryland, and New York, with the New York bill actually passing the State Senate.  I discuss the New York bill in more detail here.  I hope AIPAC and the ADL will take an active stance in fighting these punitive bills, but my guess is they will probably not take a public position on them.


The Second  Brooklyn College BDS Controversy

A drama played out In January and early February 2013 involving Brooklyn College, two characters that I have already discussed in this article--New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikend and BDS supporter Judith Butler, Alan Dershowitz, several New York City Council members, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg.  Students For Justice In Palestine asked the Political Science department of Brooklyn College to sponsor a panel featuring BDS proponents Judith Butler and Omar Barghout.  All hell broke lose when news of the panel became public.

Dov Hikind, in his ever so understated way, said that those favoring BDS "think Hamas and Hezbollah are nice organizations, and they probably feel the same way about Al Qaeda!"

Hikind called for the department vote on sponsoring the panel to be public: "Is someone hiding behind someone’s skirt? Release the vote to the public! Those who want to sponsor the event, put your names down!” He noted just prior to the press conference that the college president Gould has cancelled her upcoming trip to Albany to request increased funds for the university. Hikind added that he was disappointed that she would not be able to advocate for additional funding: “You don’t think it has anything to do with the fact that I said I would make her life a little miserable?” (Emphasis added)

Hikind wasn't the only one trying to pressure the political science department to drop its sponsorship of the panel discussion.  Corey Robin, a member of the political science department writes of recieving abusive mail calling him an Anti-Semites and a "piece of f*cking trash".  I guess such abuse is to be expected. Playing the "Anti-Semite" card is so common that I wrote an entire column about it.  But, Robin writes


What’s different in this case is that progressive elected officials, including all three top mayoral candidates and four members of Congress, are also weighing in, trying to get the president of Brooklyn College to force my department to withdraw our co-sponsorship of this discussion. We’re talking people who control the purse strings of CUNY and people with real state power. This is straightforward political coercion.


Indeed, ten New York City Council members wrote a letter threatening to withhold funds from Brooklyn College if the political science department did not withdraw its co-sponsorship of the event. They backed down quickly after Mayor Michael Bloomberg forcefully told them to back off, saying "if you want to go to a university where the government decides what kind of subjects are fit for discussion, I suggest you apply to a school in North Korea."

The event went on as scheduled with the cosponsorship of the Political Science Department without further commotion after Bloomberg's intervention.


Further Reading on the Brooklyn Controversy:

Keith Gessen, Joan Scott, and others weigh in on Brooklyn College Controversy

New York City Council Threatens to Withdraw $ if if Poli Sci Doesn't Withdraw Cosponsorship

Letter from Council Members threatening to withdraw money from Brooklyn College

Letter by Brooklyn College Professor Karen Gould in defense of academic freedom in defiance of those who threatened to withhold funding from the college.  

Brookly College's academic freedom increasingly threatened over Israel event  This long, but insightful column by Glenn Greenwald is an absolute MUST READ after reading the Letter from Council Members threatening to withdraw money from Brooklyn College

Tonight at Brooklyn College

Who Really Supports Hate Speech At Brooklyn College?




This is hardly an exhaustive list of attempts by right wing Zionists to silence those who are highly critical of Israel.  Their efforts range from the obnoxious playing of the Anti-Semite card to the ostrich-like head in the sand Hillel self-censorship, to the downright unconstitutional efforts to withhold government spending to punish undesired speech.  And I'm sure these won't be the last of their efforts.  In fact, soon after I wrote this article, I saw a hint that Brooklyn College could once again become a battleground for free speech.  Ali Abunimah is a very prominent advocate for a one-state solution in which all Palestinians have the right to return and enjoy equal rights with the Jews who are living there.  If his vision is implemented then Israel as we know it will be no more.  I must admit, I haven't read enough of his work to be as thoroughly knowledgeable about him as I should be, but from what I have read he advocates a non-violent approach to seeking this end, and the Palestine (or Israel, or whatever the new state is called) that he envisions will be something like the United States--a secular country where everyone can worship as he or she pleases and where the rights of all are respected.  Abunimah's dealings with others on Twitter is often caustic and biting.  His take-no-prisoners approach undoubtedly offends many.  But from  the admittedly small number of articles of his that I've read, I think his vision of what a Palestinian/Israeli society should look like doesn't sound much different from what most Americans believe EVERY society should look like--secular with equal rights for all.  In any case, Rabbi Eric Katkin wrote an open letter to the President of Brooklyn College today (March 4) protesting against college departments sponsoring a  talk that Abunimah was scheduled to give March 6 about his new book, The Battle for Justice in Palestine.  The rabbi's letter didn't carry any threats.  There were no hints of improper government pressure to come.  But it is clear that he doesn't want Abunimah to give his talk at Brooklyn College.  His actions, like those of others discussed above, do not appear to be the actions of someone who believes that Israel's existance and behavior is so righteous that it can be easily defended in open, uninhibited debate.

I would be remiss if I did not remind you that there are defenders of Israel like Mayor Bloomberg and Asher Mayerson who do not fear open debate.  They are not aided in their defense of Israel by those who want to shut the debate down.