The following article reproduces with modifications parts of an article entitled ‘ The greatest threat to free speech in the West: Criminalizing activism against Israeli occupation ‘ posted on The Intercept on 16 February in the name of the famous journalist Glenn Greenwald and Andrew Fishman, with thanks.
On 16 February 2016, the UK government announced that it is will be illegal for “local [city] councils, public bodies, and even some university student unions … to refuse to buy goods and services from companies involved in the arms trade, fossil fuels, tobacco products, or Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank” (Oliver Wright, ‘Israel boycott ban’, Independent on Sunday, 14 February 2016). Thus, any entities that support or participate in the global boycott of Israeli settlements will face “severe penalties.”
In addition to being an infringement of free speech and political activity, the government’s move is a response to, and collusion with, a very coordinated and well-financed campaign led by Israel and its supporters literally to criminalise political activism against Israeli occupation, based on the particular fear that the worldwide campaign of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, or BDS – modelled after the 1980s campaign that brought down the Israel-allied apartheid regime in South Africa – is succeeding.
The Israeli website +972 reported last year about a pending bill that “would ban entry to foreigners who promote the [BDS] movement that aims to pressure Israel to comply with international law and respect Palestinian rights.” In 2011, a law passed in Israel that “effectively ban[ned] any public call for a boycott – economic, cultural, or academic – against Israel or its West Bank settlements, making such action a punishable offence ” (Independent on Sunday, op.cit.).
However, the current pronouncements and actions of the British and other western governments are to make such activism a crime not only in Israel, but in Western countries generally. And it is succeeding.
They propose to outlaw activism against the decades-long Israeli occupation – particularly though not only through boycotts against Israel – has permeated multiple Western nations and countless institutions within them. In October, we reported on the criminal convictions in France of 12 activists “for the ‘crime’ of advocating sanctions and a boycott against Israel as a means of ending the decades-long military occupation of Palestine, convictions upheld by France’s highest court. They were prosecuted for “wearing shirts emblazoned with the words ‘Long live Palestine, boycott Israel’” and because “they also handed out fliers that said that ‘buying Israeli products means legitimising crimes in Gaza.’”
Pascal Markowicz, chief lawyer of the CRIF umbrella organisation of French Jewish communities, gleefully published this shameful decision of the highest French court.
Similar measures are afoot in the U.S. to prosecute and outlaw BDS. The Washington Post reported last June , “A wave of anti-BDS legislation is sweeping the U.S. Under a Customs Bill recently passed by both houses of Congress American companies will be obliged to treat settlements in the West Bank as a valid part of Israel, by outlawing any behaviour that would be deemed cooperative with a boycott of companies occupying the West Bank. U.S. companies would be forced to pretend that products produced in the occupied territories are actually produced in ‘Israel’.”
Dozens of anti-BDS bills being introduced in Congress and state legislatures across the U.S., are proof of the lengths that Israel’s staunch supporters will go to shut down any discussion critical of Israeli policies and supportive of Palestinian freedom.
Under the existing laws, American companies have been fined for actions deemed supportive of boycotts aimed at Israel. For decades, U.S. companies and their foreign subsidiaries, for instance, have been required by law to refuse to comply with the Arab League boycott of Israel. Penalties for violators include up to 10 years of imprisonment.
The suppression of anti-occupation activism is particularly acute on American college campuses.
This campus censorship on behalf of Israel was comprehensively documented in a report last year by Palestine Legal titled “The Palestine Exception to Free Speech.” The nationwide censorship effort has seen pro-Palestinian professors fired, anti-occupation student activists suspended and threatened with expulsion, pro-Palestinian groups de-funded, and even discipline for students for the “crime” of flying a Palestinian flag. The report documents how pro-Israel campus groups and alumni “have intensified their efforts to stifle criticism of Israeli government policies.” The report explains: “Rather than engage such criticism on its merits, these groups leverage their significant resources and lobbying power to pressure universities, government actors, and other institutions to censor or punish advocacy in support of Palestinian rights.” And all this is in the name of outlawing ‘hate speech’!!!
It is now routine for students advocating BDS or otherwise working against Israeli occupation to be disciplined or endure other forms of sanctions – clearly a reaction to the increasingly crucial role played by universities and colleges in support of the Palestinian liberation struggle.
When nothing else works, the authorities resort to gutter tactics of equating anti-Zionism with anti-semitism. In September 2015, the University of California debated proposals to ban BDS campaigns by characterising them as manifestations of ‘anti-semitism’.
Similar attempts to ban opposition to Israeli occupation are widespread. The New York state legislature actually passed “a bill that would suspend funding to educational institutions which fund groups that boycott Israel.” Such legislation is becoming commonplace, as the group United With Israel boasted just last month:
Florida became the fifth state in the U.S. to introduce a resolution to confront the anti-Israel BDS movement when it passed a law on December 21, similar to the first anti-BDS legislation introduced in Tennessee last April.
By doing so, Florida has joined Tennessee, New York, Indiana, and Pennsylvania. Another 35 states are reportedly considering similar legislation .
The pro-campus-speech group FIRE has repeatedly documented and denounced attempts to suppress BDS advocacy on campus.
Yet this censorship effort to ban BDS and other forms of Israel criticism continues to grow, in many countries around the world for the simple reason that the Israeli authorities and their most powerful backers have spent vast sums of money and brought to bear their considerable political clout into the campaign to institutionalise this censorship.
Last year, GOP billionaire Sheldon Adelson and Democratic billionaire Haim Saban donated tens of millions of dollars to a new fund to combat BDS on college campuses. Also last year, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “decided to implement a 2014 resolution to establish a special task force to fight the anti-Israeli sanctions”; that task force has funding of “some 100 million Israeli shekels (roughly $25.5 million).”
Anti-BDS legislation has become a major goal of AIPAC. As part of the controversy at the University of California, Richard Blum, the mega-rich investment banker and husband of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, threatened the university that his wife would take adverse action against the university if it did not adopt the harsh anti-BDS measures he was demanding.
This is not to say that suppression of anti-occupation activism is the only strain of free speech threats in the West. The prosecution of Western Muslims for core free speech expression under “terrorism” laws, the distortion of “hate speech” legislation as a means of punishing unpopular ideas and putting pressure on social media companies to ban ideas disliked by governments are all serious menaces to this core liberty.
But in terms of systematic, state-sponsored, formalised punishments for speech and activism, nothing compares to the growing multi-nation effort to criminalise activism against Israeli occupation. Rafeef Ziadah, a Palestinian a member of the Palestinian BDS National Committee, told The Intercept: “Israel is increasingly unable to defend its regime of apartheid and settler colonialism over the Palestinian people and its regular massacres of Palestinians in Gaza so is resorting to asking supportive governments in the U.S. and Europe to undermine free speech as a way of shielding it from criticism and measures aimed at holding it to account.”
Commentators and activists who prance around as defenders of campus free speech and free expression generally – yet who completely ignore this most pernicious trend of free speech erosion – can certainly not be allowed to get away with parading themselves as believers in free speech. They must be condemned for what they really are – the most disgusting hypocrites, attempting to justify the crimes of Israeli fascism.