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Est. April 5, 2002
April 07, 2016 - Issue 648

New York Legislator
Calls for Curb on Free Speech
On City Colleges’ Campuses


"Part of the heated debate is the proposed
restrictions on free speech, on campuses
and elsewhere and it even has resulted in
the call for removal of the offending groups
that have called for human rights for Palestinians."

Although he would not couch it in terms of totally curbing the free speech rights of an entire group, New York State Assembly Member Dov Hikind has called for removal from the campuses of the City University of New York (CUNY) Students for Justice in Palestine, calling the group anti-Semitic and blaming it for (so far) unproven violence against Jewish students.

At the end of March, Hikind and 30 of his colleagues in the State Assembly sent a letter to officials of the City University of New York (CUNY), charging that SJP is encouraging violence against Jewish students, although reporting by The Forward newspaper, the successor publication founded in New York City for Yiddish speakers in 1897, showed there to be little evidence of violence and some instances of what could be considered by Hikind “anti-Semitic” confrontations.

Hikind believes that any criticism of Israel, its government, or its policies is anti-Semitism and expects others to fall into line. This kind of thinking is often successful, particularly in light of the current political atmosphere across the U.S., with many Right Wing American politicians expressing the same sentiments as Hikind.

The assault against criticism of Israel’s policies during Benjamin Netanyahu’s terms as prime minister has only intensified, especially in the past few years, when the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement has taken hold, in the U.S. and in other countries. Opponents of the BDS movement, like Hikind, are particularly critical of the movement and its effects on college campuses, where they fear that a generation might be coming up in which political leaders will not be favorable to the standing idly by, while the Israeli government continues its repression of the Palestinians.

Unfortunately for Hikind and others of his bent, the criticism of Israeli policies regarding the Palestinians is not coming just from outside. There are many Israelis and many groups within the country who are very critical of the policies that have so ground down the Palestinians and have pushed them into smaller and smaller enclaves, to the extent that conditions for them have been likened to the Bantustans in South Africa before the defeat of apartheid in that country. One of the more prominent critics of Israeli policy is Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Nobel Prize-winning religious leader who lived much of his life under the deep oppression of the black majority by the white minority. He is not speculating or engaging in hyperbole when he makes the comparison between his own country’s history and the oppression of Palestinians. He has called for an end to the Israeli-imposed conditions under which Palestinians live within the territory that is controlled by the Israel Defense Force and the police.

Israeli settlements in the occupied territory have been growing without end and Netanyahu has said that the settlements will continue to grow. With every new settlement, the area left for Palestinians to create a state of their own is further diminished and the hopes of forming a contiguous land mass for a Palestinian state is further and further out of reach as time goes by. The two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine problem seems to be out of the question, at least for now. And, the question remains: Where might there be a state for Palestinians anywhere in the Middle East, and when?

A simple solution would be for the Palestinians to disappear. For many Israelis, that already has happened. “There never was a Palestinian people,” is the simplest answer, and the speaker retreats to the oldest argument: We were here first and that argument takes the case back about 4,000 years. That starts a whole new debate that never seems to end. Still, there remains the question about the identity of (and what to do about) the people of Gaza and the West Bank, who are without resources (Gaza) and without rights (West Bank).

It’s a chicken-and-egg debate, the end of which is far out of sight, but it is a central debate about foreign relations, harmony among nations, military might, and which people can subjugate another without there being too many repercussions. The Israel-Palestine debate has to be seen in the context of these problems among all nations, but because of the unique relations between Israel and the U.S., it is one that stirs heated debate in both countries, especially in recent years.

Part of the heated debate is the proposed restrictions on free speech, on campuses and elsewhere and it even has resulted in the call for removal of the offending groups that have called for human rights for Palestinians. It has reached more broadly than colleges and universities, as far as state legislatures and other bodies, which have had calls for the defunding of institutes of higher learning, if they do not take a stronger stand against the groups that are calling on Israel to honor the human rights of Palestinians, as set forth by most nations, as part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Today, the debate rages over the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement (BDS), which was aimed at Israeli products made in the Occupied Territories, but apparently has extended to other areas of Israeli commerce. The BDS movement has had enough of an impact to worry Netanyahu and those in power in Israel and they have stimulated the supporters of Israel in the U.S., particularly the more conservative and Right Wing politicians, along with fundamentalist Christians, who make up a very large percentage of the U.S. population.

By last September, more than two dozen pieces of legislation and resolutions against the BDS movement had been passed in the U.S., at the local, state, and federal levels, so it must be effective in getting the attention of the people who either cannot solve the problem or do not want the problem solved. They are worried, because the BDS movement is growing and it is exposing more people to the oppression of Palestinians.

Hikind’s call for removal of the student group, SJP, is just one of the legislative efforts to remove the offending groups from such as the campuses of CUNY. Rather, the effort has reached the highest levels of American political life. The anti-BDS movement is being pushed by the most powerful legislators of the most powerful country in the world and their solution to BDS is to simply cut off the funding. Many U.S. groups receive some funding from governmental agencies and it is that funding that would be cut off by the legislation, if it were found that the group in any way supported or advocated for support of the BDS movement. That’s a powerful incentive to keep one’s mouth shut.

That is where it runs into two constitutional problems in the U.S. First, the counter boycott action by the powers that be is a violation of the First Amendment right of free speech and it is a violation of the First Amendment right of freedom of association. That does not seem to bother those pushing anti-BDS actions, because they see any criticism of Israel or its leaders as anti-Semitism.

When presented with evidence that a substantial number of Israelis are opposed to much, if not most, of the policies which the government uses to oppress Palestinians, the critics are called “self-hating Jews.” They apply the same description to Jews in the U.S. who oppose the official treatment of Palestinians, as well. It does no good to continue to see Jewish critics as “self-hating,” and to redouble efforts to silence those who promote BDS, on or off campuses.

The Center for Constitutional Rights quoted legendary First Amendment lawyer, Floyd Abrams: “The notion that the power to fund colleges and their faculties may be transformed into a tool to punish them for engaging in constitutionally protected expression is contrary to any notion of academic freedom and to core First Amendment principles.” Calls for removal of thought and speech offensive to Israeli policy threatens not only free speech and free association, but academic freedom, as well.

At least two Jewish groups have defended SJP and its members. SJP and its leaders have condemned anti-Semitism and declare that they are against all forms of racism. So do Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) and Jews for Racial & Economic Justice (JFREJ), which, according to their own mission statement, for 25 years in New York City “has pursued racial and economic justice…by advancing systemic changes that result in concrete improvements in people’s everyday lives. We are inspired by Jewish tradition to fight for a sustainable world with an equitable distribution of economic and cultural resources and political power.”

The conditions in which Palestinians live in Israel, Gaza, and the occupied territories, to even the casual observer, fly in the face of ancient Jewish religious beliefs, but, to many Israelis and many American Jews, the BDS movement and organized opposition to that nation’s treatment of Palestinians is tantamount to terrorism. They liken those individuals and groups supporting BDS to Hamas, thus their fear of SJP and JVP as threatening violence toward Israel, even declaring that they seek the elimination of the State of Israel, itself.

Although some observers in Israel have downplayed such a threat (saying that BDS is a fringe movement that largely, in the U.S., at least, is talking to itself), it must be making inroads into the public consciousness, because the warnings about it have become shrill. JVP and SJP have little money and even less power, but powerful political figures in the U.S. have flocked to public forums to declare their unwavering support for Israel, no matter what the issue. Republican candidates and at least one Democratic candidate for president showed up at the recent AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) to express that support.

As her expression of support, in a speech before the AIPAC convention, Hillary Clinton, the Democrat, also linked the BDS movement to anti-Semitism, when she said, “Particularly at a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise across the world, especially in Europe, we must repudiate all efforts to malign, isolate and undermine Israel and the Jewish people. “To all the college students who have encountered this on campus, I hope you stay strong, keep speaking out, don’t let anybody silence you, bully you or try to shut down debate, especially in places of learning like colleges and universities.” She told the thousands of attendees at the convention that she would do everything in her power to defeat the BDS movement. They would have a friend in the White House, should she be elected to the presidency.

Republicans Donald Trump and Ted Cruz also made speeches much to the same effect as Clinton, but in general, they did more saber rattling than Clinton could muster, saying that they would take on any and all detractors of Israel. In another context, speaking about fighting ISIS in the Middle East, Cruz threatened to see if “sand can glow in the dark.” That’s how tough he would be in defense of Israel. The indication from all of the hopefuls who showed up for the AIPAC event was that they will take any steps to protect Israel from its enemies, even to the extent that they will fight the non-violent and First Amendment-protected BDS movement in the U.S.

Jane Eisner, editor of The Forward, in an editorial on April 4, rhetorically asked, “How long can distinction between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism survive?” She was referring, of course, to opponents of Israeli policy regarding the Palestinians. Somehow, every criticism of official government policy morphs into anti-Semitism. She cited the regents of the University of California, who declared there to be no place for anti-Semitism on campuses, but stopped short of criticism of anti-Zionism (belief in the right or duty of return of Jews to Israel), and said others should follow that example.

As public universities in cities from Berkeley to Brooklyn increasingly struggle with how to manage the contentious debate over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, UC’s wise and nuanced approach should serve as an estimable model,” she editorialized. “I hope it can last.”

She continued, “I say that because the line between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism is becoming ever thinner and more porous, and it may disappear altogether, erased by pressures from the left and right, from within and outside the Jewish community, pushed by demographic trends that already connect the fate of diasporic Jews with Israel whether they like it or not.”

In the U.S., there also is a thin line between free speech and free association and suppression of those rights, of which there has been more and more in recent years. Because of the close association between Israel and the U.S., it has to be asked, “Who will decide when criticism of Israel policy crosses over the line to become anti-Semitism?” It would be tragic, if permission to criticize would have to be granted by someone like Prime Minister Netanyahu. Columnist, John Funiciello, is a long-time former newspaper reporter and labor organizer, who lives in the Mohawk Valley of New York State. In addition to labor work, he is organizing family farmers as they struggle to stay on the land under enormous pressure from factory food producers and land developers. Contact Mr. Funiciello and BC.




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