Anti-Semitism Smears Used to Silence Palestine Activists

05/20/2015 02:11 pm ET | Updated May 20, 2016

By Dima Khalidi, director of Palestine Solidarity Legal Support (Palestine Legal) and cooperating counsel with the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR)

Across the country, as the movement to advance Palestinian human rights gains traction, a counter-effort is underway to silence the voices of Palestine human rights activists. In recent months, there have been numerous stories in major media outlets -- The New York Times, most notably -- repeating the claims of Israel advocacy groups that anti-Semitism is on the rise on U.S. college campuses and that the rise is attributable to increased activism for Palestinian rights, including calls for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) from Israel.

These stories ignore the reality faced by students, professors and ordinary people speaking out for Palestinian rights. As revealed in data published this week by Palestine Legal and the Center for Constitutional Rights, there is a distinct trend of falsely equating criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism or support for terrorism. Palestine Legal responded to over 80 such accusations on campuses around the country in the first four months of 2015 alone.

These accusations are not occurring in a vacuum. They are part of a well-resourced effort by dozens of Israel advocacy groups, encouraged by the Israeli government itself, to malign and deter Palestine activists from speaking out about human rights abuses. They serve to justify legal threats, disciplinary action by universities, legislative initiatives against BDS, and the smearing of individuals for their views supporting Palestinian rights.

Indeed, at the heart of the opposition to Palestine activism is not any refutation of the substantive human rights issues that activists raise. Rather, it is the disingenuous claim that those advocating for BDS or criticizing Israeli state policies against Palestinians are motivated not by a real concern for Palestinians or human rights, but by a hatred of Jewish people.

This narrative has been facilitated by Israel advocacy groups' attempts to redefine anti-Semitism to include criticism of Israeli policies and to make such criticism suspect if one is not simultaneously criticizing all other human rights violators in the world. This new definition is being used by the U.S. State Department for the limited purpose of identifying instances of anti-Semitism abroad, but it has reared its head in student government resolutions condemning anti-Semitism and in a California state resolution doing the same.

Over 250 members of Jewish Voice for Peace's Academic Advisory Council wrote to the State Department demanding that this new definition be revised "to prevent the charge of anti-Semitism from being misused to silence critics of Israel." This new definition would violate First Amendment principles if used to restrict speech activities on Israel/Palestine, as has been encouraged.

Palestine Legal has consistently challenged major media outlets to consider this larger context of the Israel/Palestine conversation when reporting on campus activism. The repeated exclusion from these discussions of the experiences of Palestinian, Arab, Muslim and other diverse advocates - including many who are Jewish - is troubling. Those who do not hew to the party line of unequivocal support for Israel face real consequences when they speak out for Palestinian rights. From a professor fired for his Tweets lamenting Israel's killing of Palestinian children in Gaza, to students disciplined for peaceful protests, or subjected to racial, ethnic and religious slurs and death threats for expressing their views, the message is clear: those who criticize Israel will be shunned and even punished. These consequences are reinforced by universities that condemn initiatives to divest from corporations facilitating Israeli military abuses, and legislatures that declare BDS to be anti-Semitic. And yet, they are rarely reported.

Rather than honestly reporting on the widespread suppression of this dissent, outlets like the Times have instead adopted the narrative that it is those who support Israel who are under attack, whose rights to feel "comfortable" supporting Israel are being undermined by those who stand up for Palestinian human rights.

But there is another story here. And that is one where students of all colors, religions, genders, classes and orientations are connecting the experiences of marginalized communities and communities subjected to militarized and racialized policing to those of a colonized people subjected to discrimination and military occupation. There is an awakening going on, and it will continue, despite attempts to stifle it. This is the real story.