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An assault on discourse

A sustained, orchestrated, and well-financed nationwide effort seeks to shut down any and all criticism of Israel and its policies, by any means necessary

Joel Doerfler had been a member of the faculty at Riverdale Country School in New York City for more than 25 years prior to his resignation, heading the history department since 1992.


After 40 years of teaching history in New York City independent schools, I resigned last June to protest the abrupt cancellation of an elective course I had taught for many years dealing with the Israel/Palestine conflict.

The school administration had made no criticism of the way I conducted this class. It acted — and admitted to acting — to mollify a group of right-wing Zionist parents (none of whose children had taken my course) who had targeted the class as “anti-Israel.”

This assault was a relatively minor episode in what has become a sustained, orchestrated, and well-financed nationwide effort to shut down any and all criticism of Israel and its policies, by any means necessary.

There are countless examples of the ways such efforts have played out. For example:

• Recently, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, under pressure from right-wing Jewish groups in Alabama, abruptly rescinded its human rights award to long-time progressive activist Angela Davis because of her outspoken support for the BDS campaign to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel in response to its ongoing human-rights abuses.

• In November 2018, Marc Lamont Hill, lecturer at Temple University and analyst for CNN, was fired after intense pressure was brought to bear by right-wing American Zionist groups because he had called for a “free Palestine from the river to the sea.”

A long campaign of vilification aimed at the Newton South High School history department in Massachusetts for its allegedly anti-Israeli bias culminated in a petition that demanded the overhaul of the curriculum and the ouster of the school superintendent. (Mercifully, in this instance, the effort failed and the school committee unanimously rejected the outrageous demands.)

• For years, a shadowy organization, Canary Missioncovertly funded, we now know, by major Jewish community foundations — has maintained an online blacklist of student activists prominently engaged in supporting Palestinian rights. The organization aims to dissuade future employers from hiring such individuals and to therefore make students think twice before engaging in activities critical of Israel.

* * *

It’s frightful enough when the private efforts of well-organized and well-financed bullies — exploiting the cowardice of schools, media outlets, and community institutions — are able to shut down academic inquiry and political activity. But the danger is dramatically increased when the assault on discourse is legitimized and given legislative support by government itself.

Yet this is precisely what has been happening in the U.S. during the past few years.

At the present time, no fewer than 26 state legislatures have enacted laws prohibiting state agencies from contracting with companies and individuals aligned with the BDS movement.

As a result, Bahia Amawi, a Palestinian-American speech pathologist in Austin, Texas, recently lost her job with the Pflugerville Independent School District (where she had been employed for nine years) for refusing to sign a pledge that she would not participate in any action “intended to penalize, inflict economic harm on, or limit the commercial relations with Israel” during the term of her contract.

George Hale, a Texas reporter for KETR, a member station of the NPR network, was likewise obliged to sign a statement to keep his job — “against his conscience,” according to a civil lawsuit for which he is a plaintiff.

The American Civil Liberties Union considers all such statutes to be unconstitutional.

The New York Times has editorially deplored the state laws against BDS, calling them part of an “ominous trend in which the political space for opposing Israel is shrinking.” But the laws remain on the books.

And there’s more.

Having adopted a new and dangerous “working definition” of anti-Semitism, which equates “claiming that the existence of the State of Israel is a racist endeavor” with Jew-hatred, the U.S. Department of Education has evinced an intention to use the threat of Title VI civil rights investigations to intimidate college administrators into shutting down campus groups and individuals that support Palestinian rights or risk that their schools lose federal funding.

And more recently, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) sought to shepherd through the Senate an anti-boycott bill, originally sponsored by Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and enthusiastically promoted by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which would essentially put the federal government behind the state laws designed to restrict boycotts of Israel (including boycotts of goods produced in illegal West Bank settlements).

Though the bill is opposed by senators Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), by the ACLU, and by the liberal Zionist organization J Street, its chance of eventual passage looks good.

* * *

What makes all this especially hair-raising is that the legislation, the blacklists and, indeed, the entire campaign against those with the temerity to criticize Israel have been in large measure instigated, directed, and even funded by the state of Israel itself.

As Nathan Thrall, project director with the International Crisis Group, which deals with Israel and the occupied territories, recently reported in The Guardian: “The [Israeli] Ministry of Strategic Affairs has outsourced much of its anti-BDS activity in foreign countries, helping to establish and finance front groups and partner organizations, in an attempt to minimize the appearance of Israeli interference in the domestic politics of its allies in Europe and the U.S.”

Covert interference in American domestic politics by a foreign government. An assault on the civil liberties of American citizens. The defense or disregard of heinous human rights abuses abroad. A relentless and systematic vilification and discrediting of those defending fundamental human rights.

Sound familiar?

But the culprits in this instance aren’t Putin, Trump, and Fox News. They are Israel and its lockstep allies in the U.S.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #496 (Wednesday, February 6, 2019). This story appeared on page D1.

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