America Joins Israel’s Campaign to Smear and Silence Palestinians

From where I live in Ramallah, I can see two Israeli settlements. Our access to legal justice, roads, even water, couldn’t be more unequal. But the basic right to call for our freedom is under increasing legal threat across Europe and the U.S.

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 A Palestinian protester waves the national flag at an Israeli border guard at a protest against Israel's demolition of buildings in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sur Baher (in background). July 26, 2019
A Palestinian protester waves the national flag at an Israeli border guard at a protest against Israel's demolition of buildings in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sur Baher (in background). July Credit: AFP
Salem Barahmeh
Salem Barahmeh

Palestinian advocacy for freedom and rights faces a concerted campaign of suffocation and delegitimization around the world. When we speak out and challenge our oppression, we are silenced, attacked and called anti-Semitic.

Now, there is also growing trend of legislation seeking to shut down our demand for justice and accountability - formalizing our exclusion. 

The latest iteration of this was the anti-BDS resolution passed by the U.S. House of Representatives. As Rep Rashida Tlaib – herself the daughter of Palestinian immigrants - noted, the resolution was an "attack on our freedom of speech and the right to boycott the racist policies of the government and the state of Israel."

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This shrinking space abroad is being promoted by those seeking to relegate us to a footnote in history rather than a people that can stand free and equal with dignity. It is an extension of the systematic Israeli occupation, discrimination and dispossession we face at home that penetrates every aspect of our lives.

Across the hilltop from where I live in Ramallah, I can see two Israeli settlements built on Palestinian land in the heart of the West Bank.

The illegal settlers are allowed to consume more of our water than we do. They have roads and infrastructure from which we are segregated. We are tried by martial law in Israeli military courts that "boast" an almost 100 percent conviction rate, while the settlers living next door, under Israeli law, can harass and attack Palestinians with impunity. 

The decades-old policy of Israeli settlement construction and annexation has already created a one-state reality between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. The reality is that today there are 13 million people that live under Israeli rule.

But one group of people is governed by one set of laws and another is governed by a multi-tiered system of laws that holds them to be unequal and unfree. This reality has many shades of injustice that go by different names, but ultimately it is an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one group of people over another. 

The promise of an independent Palestinian state has turned into an illusion of self-government limited to our towns and cities. We live in ever-shrinking islands that are consumed by the rising tide of Israeli expansionism and control.  

Yet we see statements, resolutions and laws by parliaments and governments around the world claiming that our advocacy for freedom and rights is what infringes upon the viability of peace and a two-state solution. At times I wonder what alternative reality they live in.

As Palestinians, we're increasingly denied the right and space to define, speak out or challenge that reality. When we pursue means of protest and advocacy that comply with core democratic values – like human rights, the right to boycott, freedom of speech and ethical consumption – we are conflated with anti-Semites.

Equating criticism of Israel with the vilest forms of hate is a tactic to smear, delegitimize and silence. It is a grave charge that leaves the indicted associated with the worst of human behavior, with little or no room to respond. 

Yet this tactic is continuously weaponized to cynically further a political agenda rather than to stand against anti-Semitism. We saw this on display when President Donald Trump attacked four women of color, Democratic members of Congress, by calling them anti-Israel and anti-Semitic.

Countless Palestinian and international organizations have been attacked and delegitimized by being called "terrorists" or "anti-Semitic" for their work on Palestine and human rights – with the aim to cut their funding or completely shut them down. Civil rights icon Angela Davis, rapper Talib Kweli, and Peter Schäfer, the director of Berlin’s Jewish Museum, have all been victims of this approach. 

At the Palestine Institute for Public Diplomacy, which I head, our digital campaigns showing the human side of a struggle for freedom and rights are met with hate speech - to silence Palestinian voices, deny our existence as a people and reduce us to Muslim terrorists. 

These attacks and attempts at delegitimization even targeted a film we launched about the mental health of the children of Gaza - because it had the temerity of showing the horror of a child living under siege. 

The phenomenon of shrinking space is no longer limited to these public smear campaigns but is moving to political and legislative initiatives that aim to criminalize our struggle for freedom and rights.

In the United States, at least 26 states have passed legislation that shuts down the right to protest Israel through boycott. The resolution in the House of Representatives is not the first, nor will it be the last, attempt to silence.

This is not isolated but a part of growing global wave. Whether conflating criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, and/or banning boycott as a form of protest, these initiatives have taken place in Germany, France, Canada, Netherlands and Switzerland - and that's not a complete list.

A protester is removed from the guest area as he shouts pro-Palestine slogans while Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) speaks to supporters during a campaign event in Newark, New Jersey, April 13, 2019.Credit: AFP

The threat this poses is not just confined to Palestine. Legal and political actions like these strike at the heart of core democratic values and rights all over the world.

It is a worldview built on exclusion: civil and human rights for some but not for all. It is another example of the instrumental use of fear and racism to incite against the "other" and attack those who don’t share a particular form of regressive politics.

We must all stand against anti-Semitism, and against all forms of hate speech, whether it is anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant or anti-black. And we also must be wary of those who actively use hate speech to normalize injustice and facilitate impunity. Injustice should be called out and held accountable regardless of the identity of the perpetrator or the victim.

Challenging systems of subjugation and discrimination, no matter what they are, is a collective struggle that transcends geography or identity. It is a matter of values.

For those who share the universal values of freedom, justice and equality, or claim to do so, we must stand against initiatives that seek to suffocate Palestinians – and collectively reclaim our space to speak out for a more just world.

Salem Barahmeh is the Executive Director of the Palestine Institute for Public Diplomacy, an independent NGO that raises awareness about Palestine and mobilize people to take action for change. Twitter: @Barahmeh

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