The movement for Palestinian rights is growing steadily in the United States – from the mushrooming of campus groups like Students for Justice in Palestine, to the rise in boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaigns, to everyday people moved to change the status quo in the region.  

As support for Palestinian rights has grown, so too have attempts by groups that uncritically support Israeli state policies to silence advocates for change. Through a variety of tactics, these groups pressure government actors, universities and other private institutions to investigate, censor and punish individuals and groups who criticize Israel or support Palestinian rights.  

On college campuses, students have been disciplined for peaceful protests and professors have been fired for tweets, forced to defend their research projects in Palestine, or faced intimidation for supporting an academic boycott. Events at public venues have been canceled in response to pressure campaigns. Local, state and national government actors have introduced legislation targeting BDS campaigns.

Outright censorship of those who contemplate critically discussing this issue -- as well as self-censorship to avoid backlash -- is pervasive.  

Palestine Legal confronts this widespread suppression of Palestine advocacy by representing, advising and providing legal education to activists and communities who stand up for justice in Palestine.

The Numbers

This crackdown is a nation-wide phenomenon, affecting thousands of people who wish to speak out against Israel’s actions towards the Palestinians.  From January 1, 2014 through June 30, 2015, Palestine Legal responded to 292 incidents of censorship, punishment, or other burdening of advocacy for Palestinian rights across the country, 85% of which targeted students or scholars.

Untold numbers of other instances of students, academics, activists and ordinary people all over the U.S. go unreported, with many electing to keep quiet out of fear of losing their job or facing increased scrutiny for their views.  

How is speech in support of Palestine being silenced?  

Credit: SJP-Northeastern

Credit: SJP-Northeastern

False and Inflammatory Accusations of Anti-Semitism and Support for Terrorism: While anti-Semitism exists and must be confronted and condemned, the conflation of criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism is a harmful distortion of and distraction from real anti-Semitism, and from the human rights issues that advocates for Palestinian rights raise. Unfortunately, many people are labeled anti-Semitic for criticizing Israel’s policies. Activists supporting Palestinian human rights are also frequently falsely accused of supporting terrorism. This can have severe consequences, often bringing undue law enforcement scrutiny upon individuals and groups.  For example, Students for Justice in Palestine, a student group with many chapters around the country, has been accused of having ties to Hamas, a group designated as a terrorist organization by the US, despite a lack of evidence of any such ties. 

Official Denunciation: Institutional actors, often in response to outside pressure, pronounce official disproval of views supporting Palestinian rights, frequently by mischaracterizing Palestine activism, particularly support for BDS, as uncivil, divisive or improperly “delegitimizing” Israel.

Bureaucratic Barriers: Universities increasingly resort to various bureaucratic measures that hinder students organizing for Palestinian rights. When students have difficulties reserving rooms, getting their events approved, are required to pay for or accept extensive security measures at their events, or are called in to discuss the details of their events with administrators, it forces them to expend resources defending their activities rather than organizing. 

Cancellations and Alterations of Academic and Cultural Events: Institutions respond to pressure to cancel or alter academic and cultural programs from Israel advocacy groups. For example, the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Francisco canceled a show of Palestinian children’s artwork about the 2008-9 war on Gaza after complaints that it was too divisive and created an unsafe environment. The University of California, Hastings Law School withdrew its support of a conference entitled “Litigating Palestine” after intensive complaints from Israel advocacy groups. 

Administrative Sanctions: Universities often respond to complaints by Israel advocacy groups by disproportionally investigating and punishing students and student groups for speech supporting Palestinian rights. Examples include: students who have been criminally prosecuted for peaceful walkouts, groups have been suspended for distributing human rights fliers, and a tenured professor fired for Gaza tweets.

Threats to Academic Freedom: Academics perceived to be critical of Israeli policies or sympathetic to Palestinian human rights are frequently targeted by Israel advocacy groups. Campaigns against faculty sully reputations and have even lead to termination of employment.

Lawsuits and Legal Threats: Lawsuits, administrative civil rights complaints and threats of lawsuits against groups engaged in boycott campaigns or speech critical of Israel have largely been unsuccessful. They nevertheless exact a significant emotional and financial toll.

Legislation: Attempts to redefine anti-Semitism to include common criticisms of Israeli policies and advocacy such as BDS have resulted in non-binding legislation in the California legislature condemning such activism, resolutions in student government bodies, and other similar initiatives. After the American Studies Association (ASA) passed an academic boycott resolution in 2013, legislation threatening to defund public universities who paid for ASA memberships and other expenses were introduced in several states.  Eleven such measures were introduced in 2014 and at least another sixteen in the first half of 2015.

Criminal Investigations and Prosecutions: Law enforcement have questioned, investigated and in some cases prosecuted Palestine rights advocates based on their speech critical of Israel.