InternationalVOLUME 19 ISSUE # 33

Watching the watchdogs: Palestinians resist unprecedented silencing

In the past nine months, national and local authorities in the United States have tried to suppress and criminalise Palestinian activism and expressions of identity. This crackdown has affected various sectors, including politics, business, civil society, higher education, culture and others.

Security forces have quelled peaceful protests, officials have made sweeping accusations of anti-Semitism against protesters, and various public figures have ridiculously labelled wearing the Palestinian chequered keffiyeh scarf and using the word intifada (Arabic for uprising) code for “wiping out Israel”.

Israel and its national and local American allies wish to erase Palestinians from history, because as Palestinians challenge the US-Israeli racist onslaught, they also force a public discussion of the historical background and actions of the settler-colonial philosophy of Israel and the Zionist movement that created it. Israel and Zionism cannot withstand such scrutiny.

One of the most blatant recent attempts to silence Palestinian voices was made against Rabea Eghbariah, a Palestinian lawyer, legal scholar, and JSD candidate at Harvard University. In November, the Harvard Law Review journal decided not to publish an article it had commissioned from Eghbariah that proposed the Nakba as a legal framework for Palestine. The piece was killed after it was edited, fact-checked and approved by the journal’s own editors. After the incident, editors from Columbia Law Review reached out to Eghbariah and commissioned from him another article, also on Palestine. Five months later, following a lengthy and thorough editing process, the journal published the article titled Toward Nakba as a Legal Concept, only for its editorial board to shut down its website. Editors stood up to pressure to take down the text and threatened to stop all work on the journal, which eventually saw the website reinstated.

The fate of Eghbariah’s writings for two of the most prestigious legal journals in the US captures the new contestations between those who prioritise Israeli views and interests and those who insist on hearing the Palestinian narrative. When I asked him what is most significant about his case, Eghbariah answered in a wider context that recalled the colonial dimensions of Israel’s birth, the Nakba, and the ongoing struggle for Palestinian rights: “The erasure of Palestinians is a structural, material reality that continues from the Nakba, with our displacement, dispossession and replacement a constant feature. This extends to silencing Palestinians in the US and the West, and silencing dissent. My article tests an idea of how we might dismantle the legal structures that emerged from the Nakba, that see Palestinians fragmented into different groups that are subjugated separately.”

He also pointed out that the attempts at censorship and suppression are met with protests and pushback. “The legal cases, popular protests, and other actions to protect Palestinians in the face of the unprecedented carnage we witness are part of the growing movement to protect our rights, because people increasingly see through the propaganda. The Palestine struggle has exposed the post-WWII global colonial hierarchies that are embedded in the world’s legal order.”

Many also recognise that the stifling of Palestinian voices goes well beyond censorship. Abdallah Fayyad, who moved recently from the Boston Globe Editorial Board to Vox, where he is a policy correspondent, suggests that the many different tools used to silence Palestinians in the US and elsewhere should be called “anti-Palestinian racism”.

Like all racism, he told me, “it uses the power of institutions and the state against individuals and groups, aiming to suppress Palestinian expressions of their identity and their rights. In this case, labels of hate against Palestinians and their allies will eventually run out of fuel, as the public sees the reality and Palestinians and their allies fight back against inaccurate charges.”

Fayyad explained in a recent article that this phenomenon predates the Gaza war. “For decades, Palestinians and their allies around the globe have faced serious consequences for supporting the Palestinian cause, including retaliation in the workplace, government surveillance, and hate crimes.” He sees anti-Palestinian institutionalised racism in cases which include “governments monitoring Palestinians, and pro-Palestinian organisations, and institutions like universities cracking down on pro-Palestinian protests in recent months, including banning student commencement speakers”.

For Brooklyn College Professor Moustafa Bayoumi, anti-Palestinian sentiments have had an impact well beyond the Palestinian community and cause in the US. In a recent article for The Guardian, he wrote that anti-Palestinianism has been fuelling institutionalised American Islamophobia for decades, with the US authorities putting significant efforts into surveilling and suppressing pro-Palestinian Arab American organising since 1967. Today’s crackdown on pro-Palestinian voices and activism is the culmination of these historical efforts.

Stunningly, the US role in this echoes what the world witnessed a century ago – when the imperial power of the day, Britain, sided with the Zionist movement and helped it dominate all of Palestine, making its Palestinian Arab majority disappear. In 1917, the British government issued the Balfour Declaration that promised to support the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine, whose population at that time was 93 percent Palestinian Arab. In 1920, the League of Nations granted Britain a mandate over Palestine, allowing it largely to shape the society as it pleased and to disregard the rights and interests of the Palestinian majority.

The US walks in Britain’s footsteps today. As the West’s leading imperial power, it ignores Palestinian rights, supports Israel’s genocidal policies, shields it in international diplomatic fora, and colludes with it to criminalise and silence Palestinian voices.

But just as British imperial support for Zionism faced resistance last century, so does US support today experience unprecedented pushback by Palestinians and their American and global allies. This includes public protests and non-violent disruptions, media and academic articles by respected scholars, national and international legal challenges, and solidarity alliances with marginalised Americans, including Black people, Hispanics, progressive Jews, Native Americans, students, and others.

This broad mobilisation in the US against anti-Palestinian racism and suppression is now recognised as one of several drivers of the global Palestine solidarity movement. As Bayoumi wrote: “Significantly, the young Muslim Americans and Jewish Americans who are at the center of today’s protest movements are placing Palestinian rights back in the struggle to defeat Islamophobia. Why? … Freedom. These young people recognize that to free the US from its anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish prejudices requires freeing the Palestinian people from their oppression. This is not a position just for the moment – it’s a lesson about overcoming oppression worldwide.”