Assaulting Free Speech in the Israel/Palestine Debate

6 December, 2020
Newtown grafitti (Photo: Flickr, CC BY)

Firouzeh Afsharnia

These days, Amer­i­cans and Euro­peans who crit­i­cize Israel for its poli­cies and polic­ing of Pales­tini­ans are them­selves fac­ing cen­sor­ship, as more and more often, they find them­selves accused of anti-Semi­tism, or “hate speech”. In the Unit­ed States, the ACLU and the Cen­ter for Con­sti­tu­tion­al Rights are among sev­er­al orga­ni­za­tions fight­ing this assault on the First Amend­ment. On the oth­er side of the equa­tion are dozens of city and state gov­ern­ments, aca­d­e­m­ic bod­ies and now, Facebook.

“Your com­ment goes against our com­mu­ni­ty stan­dards on hate speech.” 

Facebook, according to the  Intercept , reveals it has deleted accounts at the direction of U.S. and Israeli governments.

The mes­sage popped up on Face­book when I tried to post a response to an Aljazeera inter­view in which Meh­di Hasan chal­lenged Dan­ny Ayalon, the for­mer Deputy For­eign Min­is­ter of Israel, on the nuclear ambi­tions of Iran, and whether it is an exis­ten­tial threat to the region. 

I post­ed a response on my page: “I love Meh­di Hasan. Israelis are hyp­ocrites. They have hun­dreds of nuclear weapons. Not part of NPT. Not part of ICC. They ignore UN res­o­lu­tions. They ignore ICJ rul­ings. They vio­late inter­na­tion­al law when it suits them. Who enables it? We do. The US does.”

Meh­di Hasan chal­lenged Israel’s alarmist rhetoric that for over 20 years, Iran has been alleged to be only two to three years away from hav­ing a nuclear bomb.  He half-jok­ing­ly called Netanyahu worse than the boy who called wolf; nev­er mind the fact that it is Israel that har­bors an illic­it nuclear pro­gram, and Israel which has defied UN Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil res­o­lu­tion 487 call­ing for “Israel to urgent­ly place its nuclear facil­i­ties under the safe­guard of IAEA” and which has sev­er­al hun­dred unde­clared war­heads.   “So what?!” was Ayalon’s response. 

Ayalon assert­ed that Iran is a threat to every­one in the region, unlike Israel which has nev­er invad­ed or aggressed a sin­gle coun­try in the region—an eye pop­ping claim con­sid­er­ing the mil­lions of Pales­tin­ian refugees strand­ed in neigh­bor­ing coun­tries and dis­pos­sessed from their home­land. A sim­ple Google search will doc­u­ment Israel’s aggres­sions against vir­tu­al­ly all its neigh­bors (cer­tain­ly Egypt, Jor­dan, Lebanon and Syr­ia) under the jus­ti­fi­ca­tion of secur­ing its sur­vival.  As Avi Shlaim, anoth­er of Meh­di Hasan’s guests not­ed dur­ing the con­ver­sa­tion, “Iran is not an exis­ten­tial threat to Israel but it is a strate­gic threat. Now, let’s com­pare the records of these two coun­tries, Iran has nev­er attacked a neigh­bour, Israel has repeat­ed­ly attacked its neigh­bours, Iran signed the non-pro­lif­er­a­tion treaty, Israel has refused to sign.”

Israel’s con­stant warn­ings about Iran con­sti­tute a smoke­screen, for Israel’s record is unequiv­o­cal in the eyes of the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty.  Just look up the list of Unit­ed Nations res­o­lu­tions con­cern­ing Israel. As of 2013, Israel was con­demned in no less than 45 res­o­lu­tions by the Unit­ed Nations Human Rights Council. 

Among oth­ers, UN Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil Res­o­lu­tion 2334 states that Israel’s set­tle­ment activ­i­ty is a “fla­grant vio­la­tion of Inter­na­tion­al Law” while the Inter­na­tion­al Court of Jus­tice (ICJ) called the con­struc­tion of the sep­a­ra­tion wall that cuts into Pales­tin­ian ter­ri­to­ries ille­gal.  Res­o­lu­tion 242 calls for Israeli with­draw­al from ter­ri­to­ries occu­pied in 1967, and UNGA res­o­lu­tion 3379 in 1975 deter­mined that Zion­ism is a form of racism and racial discrimination—one that was lat­er rescind­ed under the strong arm­ing of Israel and Unit­ed States (sur­prise!) As for the Inter­na­tion­al Crim­i­nal Court, Israel is pre­dictably not a sig­na­to­ry.  Why pile up more con­dem­na­tions you plan to ignore? 

By now, it is com­mon knowl­edge that Israel plays by its own rules, shield­ed by the lone veto on the Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil and account­able to no one. But the sys­tem­at­ic quash­ing of crit­i­cism and the con­cert­ed effort to reframe the nar­ra­tive takes it to a lev­el that flies in the face of free speech and demo­c­ra­t­ic norms that both the U.S. and Israel claim to uphold. 

The fact that we can open­ly talk about the U.S. geno­ci­dal past, crit­i­cize the treat­ment of African Amer­i­cans and freely dis­cuss whether US impe­r­i­al adven­tures around the world have left behind carnage—but can­not make the slight­est allu­sion to Israel’s ser­i­al flout­ing of inter­na­tion­al law and vio­la­tion of human rights for fear of being smeared as anti-Semit­ic or active­ly engaged in hate speech, is a tes­ta­ment to the for­mi­da­ble army of vig­i­lante orga­ni­za­tions, lob­bies and the exten­sive polit­i­cal influ­ence it wields in Wash­ing­ton as well as in Sil­i­con Valley. 

The fact is that today, Israelis in Israel have more free­dom to crit­i­cize their gov­ern­men­t’s treat­ment of the Pales­tini­ans than Amer­i­cans do in our own country.

Face­book is now col­lab­o­rat­ing with the Israeli gov­ern­ment, rep­re­sent­ed in part by the extrem­ist Jus­tice Min­is­ter, Ayelet Shaked, who does not believe in a Pales­tin­ian state, to deter­mine who should be cen­sored and whose accounts should be deleted. 

Accord­ing to her, 95% of the 158 requests were granted.

In A Promised Land, his lat­est book, Barack Oba­ma speaks of the asym­met­ri­cal pow­er of AIPAC, and Israel’s influ­ence in Wash­ing­ton that muz­zles any crit­i­cism of Israel and dis­torts the pol­i­cy on Iran. He states that inside the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty “even stal­wart pro­gres­sives were loath to look less pro-Israel than Repub­li­cans”; and that “those who crit­i­cized Israeli pol­i­cy too loud­ly risked being tagged as ‘anti-Israel’ (and pos­si­bly anti-Semit­ic) and con­front­ed with a well-fund­ed oppo­nent in the next elec­tion.” Israeli activism in Wash­ing­ton is respon­si­ble for the Trump Admin­is­tra­tion’s with­draw­al from the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) and its crush­ing sanc­tions cam­paign, which has sunk over 75 mil­lion peo­ple into pover­ty. Accord­ing to leaked intel­li­gence reports, sanc­tions “have left Iran bereft of finan­cial resources to mount an effec­tive pub­lic health response [to Covid-19].” 

Crit­i­cism of Israel and its heavy-hand­ed poli­cies is sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly fenc­ing in aca­d­e­mics, includ­ing demands that events be can­celed or speak­ers be banned. Groups like Canary Mis­sion specif­i­cal­ly tar­get and black­list activists on col­lege cam­pus­es.  More than 100 bills penal­iz­ing boy­cotts of Israel have been intro­duced in state and local leg­is­la­tures in recent years, and 24 states have act­ed specif­i­cal­ly to tar­get BDS, the Boy­cott Divest­ment Sanc­tions move­ment. Con­gress has intro­duced a bill to with­hold fed­er­al fund­ing to insti­tu­tions where Israel is crit­i­cized as evi­dence of “anti-Semi­tism”.  The ACLU calls it “part of a dis­turb­ing surge of gov­ern­ment-led attempts to sup­press the speech of peo­ple on only one side of the Israel-Pales­tine debate.” 

The height of absur­di­ty was demon­strat­ed in Dick­in­son, Texas, where in 2017 vic­tims of Hur­ri­cane Har­vey were required to pledge not to boy­cott Israel as a con­di­tion of receiv­ing relief aid. 

My response on Face­book in the week Israel brazen­ly assas­si­nat­ed yet anoth­er sci­en­tist in a sov­er­eign coun­try was one among thou­sands of com­ments with no effect on pol­i­cy or pub­lic opin­ion, even as offi­cial nar­ra­tive is dai­ly craft­ed to push for a dan­ger­ous con­fronta­tion with Iran. 

So we have to ask our­selves, what is the end game? Assas­si­na­tions were once seen as the hall­mark of ter­ror­ists and jihadists—of the likes of the PLO and the IRA. How far is Israel, enabled by the U.S., will­ing to go in order to crush adver­saries and silence crit­ics of its rogue poli­cies? Where does it end? Con­cern­ing Iran, war might be the inevitable out­come. As for the Pales­tini­ans, a few words come to mind but I should prob­a­bly avoid men­tion­ing them. After all, you nev­er know who might be mon­i­tor­ing you.

TMR sup­ports the Uni­ver­sal Dec­la­ra­tion of Human Rights and as such reserves the right to allow its con­trib­u­tors to crit­i­cize any coun­try, includ­ing (for exam­ple) Israel, the USA and Sau­di Ara­bia. We have no sacred cows here. We hon­or free­dom of expres­sion above all else. That said, the views expressed by inde­pen­dent colum­nists do not rep­re­sent the offi­cial pol­i­cy of TMR.

Firouzeh Afsharnia

Firouzeh Afsha­nia was born in pre-rev­o­lu­tion­ary Iran and came to the U.S. to study Busi­ness Admin­is­tra­tion at Boston Uni­ver­si­ty. She holds an MBA from the Uni­ver­si­ty of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia and a Mas­ter of Inter­na­tion­al Ser­vice with a focus on Con­flict and Africa from the Amer­i­can Uni­ver­si­ty in Wash­ing­ton D.C. She was part of the Unit­ed Nations Peace­keep­ing Mis­sion in DR Con­go where she was also based. She has trav­eled and worked exten­sive­ly in Africa, con­sult­ed for the World Bank and served on sev­er­al elec­tion obser­va­tion mis­sions with The Carter Cen­ter in Nepal, DRC and Ivory Coast. She lives and writes in Los Angeles.


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