Jadaliyya Interview with Dima Khalidi

Defending Palestine Solidarity Activists: An Interview with Dima Khalidi

Sep 18 2014 by Nadine Naber

In this interview, attorney Dima Khalidi, who founded and directs Palestine Solidarity Legal Support (PSLS), discusses what it means to provide legal defense to protect Palestinian rights activists in the US from suppression and criminalization. Khalidi describes the perpetrators behind attacks against Palestine solidarity activists and provides an overview of the kinds of attacks they face, including pressures placed on universities to discipline and punish students and faculty for their speech activities. Khalidi also discusses the role of the Israeli government in several cases, provides recommendations for activists, and shares the goals of PSLS for the near future. Given the case of Professor Steven Salaita which developed after we completed this interview, Khalidi’s work is urgent than ever. In 2013 alone, activists and community members reported over 100 incidents of repression and intimidation to PSLS, and the numbers are increasing this year.

Nadine Naber (NN): Can you tell me about the organization you founded, Palestine Solidarity Legal Support?

Dima Khalidi (DK): The idea for PSLS came out of an assessment I did with others interested in figuring out the best use of legal resources in the United States when it comes to Israel/Palestine. The efforts to get accountability for Israel’s international law violations are huge. But what came up again and again was the enormous pressure that activists in the US are under—the legal threats, intimidation, and smearing that students, academics, and others who speak out about this issue are subjected to, and the fact that there were very few resources to help them.

We started PSLS with the aim of being that resource, providing the legal defense and advocacy that would ensure that advocacy and activism for Palestinian rights is not suppressed or criminalized. The intent was to better coordinate and bolster the ad hoc work going on with organizations like the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and the National Lawyers Guild to support Palestinian rights activists.

Our work has several components. We track incidents of repression and intimidation so that we can detect patterns in the ways that Palestinian rights activists are being targeted. Through an intake system, we help activists respond to the attacks they face by giving them legal advice, representing them, and advocating on their behalf when possible, or referring them to other local attorneys who understand the political and legal context of this issue. A big component of our work is developing and providing resources, such as Know Your Rights workshops and guides. These empower activists to prepare for and navigate the different situations they may face. We are also building a network of legal professionals, advocacy organizations, and others who are familiar with this issue and who can be engaged in different aspects of the work.

Beyond these legal services, we aim to challenge the narrative that right-wing organizations are pushing to defend Israeli policies and shield Israel from accountability, which distract from the real injustices that Palestinians face on a daily basis. This false narrative relies on the notion that supporting Palestinians and criticizing Israel is not based on any real interest in human rights, but on a senseless hatred of Jewish people—or anti-Semitism. This narrative also tries to make indistinguishable a hatred of Jewish people and criticism of the Israeli state. It is common now to see the terms “anti-Semitism” and “anti-Israelism” used together, which reinforces the false equation.

We advocate for the right to speak about Israel/Palestine without being marginalized, ostracized, having your reputation and career prospects destroyed, and getting visits from the FBI because of your views. Our work aims to change public opinion in this country—not only about the Palestine question, but also about social justice activism in general. It is the activists, working on many levels to connect social justice struggles and to effect real change, whose voices need to be amplified, not silenced. I view PSLS’s role as making that amplification possible by neutralizing or eliminating the inevitable legal threats that come with such activism.

NN: As an expert on this topic, can you help our readers understand the various sorts of assaults that are waged against anti-war and Palestine solidarity activists, students, or scholars in the United States? How do you suggest we understand the many types of assaults waged by varying levels of government, individuals, and organizations?

DK: We can think of the attacks on activists as coming from three general sources: private organizations that support Israeli policies, the US government, and the Israeli government. There is a level of coordination among these sources, and it is clear that the objective is to maintain the status quo, both between Israelis and Palestinians, and in terms of unconditional US support for Israel. A common thread in the attacks by these forces is to paint individuals and groups who are advocating for Palestinian rights as motivated by anti-Semitism, terrorist sympathies, and the desire to destroy the state of Israel. Theseaccusations underlie almost all of the attacks we are seeing.

The efforts of private, often non-profit organizations to stifle pro-Palestinian activity in the United States are the most obvious and public source of repression. This is not new. For years, organizations that promote a Zionist agenda have been attacking Palestinian rights activists. We have seen a distinct uptick in the last few years with a rise in activism in the wake of Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2009, which awakened a new generation of activists who were outraged by the casualties and damage that Israel caused. Another factor is the growth of the movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS). Asincreasing numbers of people question Israeli policies and US support for Israel, pro-Israel organizations have sought to dominate the narrative with often false, exaggerated, and highly inflammatory accusations. This is likely to intensify now, with the latest and most brazen mass destruction in Gaza yet, which is mobilizing people to oppose Israeli and US policies in record numbers, and will likely strengthen the movement for BDS. Of course, Israel’s propaganda machine is working on all cylinders to somehow justify the massive civilian casualties by shamelessly blaming the victims and claiming the onslaught is an exercise of the right of self-defense.

To give a sense of the types of legal tactics that these organizations use, I will describe a couple of cases we have worked on in the last year-and-a-half since PSLS started. Many of these tactics are directed at activism on campuses, where the student Palestine solidarity movement has burgeoned, and more academics are undertaking scholarship and public advocacy on this issue.

The situation at Florida Atlantic University (FAU) illustrates the lengths to which off-campus, Israel-promoting organizations will go to shut down student speech. The Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at FAU was putting on a lot of educational events and activities to raise awareness about Palestine. In April 2012, SJP distributed mock eviction notices in a dorm. These flyers announced that students were being evicted, then went on to explain Israeli policies of eviction and home demolition that facilitate Israel’s continued settlement of Palestinian land. With permission from administrators, they taped the notices to dorm room doors. In response, the campus Hillel chapter, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the Zionist Organization of America, and others made a big fuss, claiming that the notices were only taped to Jewish students’ doors, and that students were scared and intimidated by them. They insisted that the university investigate it as a bias incident. Even Palm Beach County was threatening legal action because the students had put a county seal on the flyer. The SJP students started getting death threats and intimidating emails. The university conducted an investigation and found that there was absolutely no evidence that Jewish students were targeted, and that it was clear the flyers were distributed randomly with an educational intent.

After this incident, several videos came out claiming that FAU itself was anti-Semitic, urging people to stop giving money to the university, naming individual students protesting, and labeling them as pro-terrorist and anti-Semitic. This put a lot of pressure on FAU. In April 2013, the students staged a walkout of an event featuring an Israeli soldier who was talking about the ethics of the Israeli military. One student said a few words about Israeli war crimes, others held up a banner, and then they walked out, all within a couple of minutes at the start, and the event continued for a while after. Afterward, five of the SJP students were charged with disciplinary violations. Rather than going through a skewed hearing process, they ended up agreeing to some conditions on their activism—that they would not hold leadership positions in student organizations, that they would attend “diversity trainings” (which were designed by the ADL, to add insult to injury), and they were put on academic probation so that any other infraction would cause them to face more severe penalties. One student had to do community service. All of this retaliation for a short walkout, which is a time-honored, peaceful protest method, that was intended to register outrage at the presence of an Israeli soldier talking on campus about how great the IDF is! This example illustrates the kind of pressure that is being placed on universities to take disciplinary action against students for their speech activities, from donors and organizations that make these kinds of damaging accusations.

These Zionist organizations are also demanding US government scrutiny. They are pushing legislation in different states and city councils that condemns student activists, or that attacks boycotts, notably after the American Studies Association’s endorsement of an academic boycott. Legislation was proposed in at least six states and the US Congress to condemn boycotts, and even to penalize universities that subsidize their faculty’s membership in or travel to ASA conferences—something that would be plainly unconstitutional. They are using civil rights laws to instigate Department of Education investigations into universities that they claim are discriminating against Jewish students by tolerating a hostile anti-Semitic environment on campus, allegedly created by all of the Palestine-related events that students and academics organize. We have seen a number of examples of Zionist organizations making claims that groups or individuals are connected to terrorist organizations, or that their fundraisers are supporting terrorism, and publicizing that they reported them to law enforcement. We have had a number of activists call us because the FBI is trying to talk to them. There is a palpable, and justified fear on the part of students that there are government agents and informers among them.

These tactics of criminalizing dissent and infiltrating groups are, of course, very similar to those used against other civil rights and social justice movements in the 1960s and 1970s, and against immigrants’ rights, antiwar, environmental, and animal rights movements today. The difference is the powerful layer of domestic organizations and the fact that the Israeli government is fueling and actively pushing for this criminalization of human rights activism in order that Israeli crimes go unchecked.

NN: Given these pressures, what are your recommendations for activists, from a legal standpoint?

DK: We are working with dozens of activists all over the country, and I have to say, there are some formidable organizers out there who keep on going despite all of this pressure. In our Know Your Rights workshops, we encourage activists to think ahead, and to think strategically about the activities they organize, to understand and be able to predict the kind of backlash they will encounter, and we give them tools to better withstand threats against them. Most of all, we want activists to be confident that they have the right to speak out, to be passionate, to expose the injustice, and to use their collective power to try to make a difference—whether through petitions or boycotts or sit-ins. Of course, this does not guarantee that they will not be attacked for it, or arrested or disciplined—as I explained, that is a more and more common result. But if they go into everything knowing the possible outcomes, and if they know that PSLS and the other organizations and individuals we work with are ready to defend them, it is a little less intimidating to go up against the powers that be. My hope is that PSLS is providing some breathing room by dispelling the legal threats that they face, and acting as a bulwark against the rising tide of desperate attacks by apologists for the Israeli government.

NN: What has PSLS uncovered about this interrelationship between Israeli government pressure and funding of these groups and US government involvement in any if these cases?

DK: In several cases we have encountered, the role of the Israeli government has been public, and in many others, we can only guess at the influence it is having. We know in big criminal cases that Israel has been the impetus behind some prosecutions and has provided the US government with much evidence, often tainted by torture and utter disregard for human rights and due process. This was the case in Muhammad Salah’s trial in 2006 on terrorism-related charges, as well as in the Holy Land Five case. It is very likely the case now in theprosecution of Rasmea Odeh, a beloved community activist who has done amazing work organizing Arab women in Chicago for over a decade. Odeh allegedly committed immigration fraud ten years ago because she did not mention on her naturalization application that she was arrested, convicted by an Israeli military court, and imprisoned for ten years by Israel for a crime she says she did not commit. During her interrogation by Israeli security forces, she was brutally tortured. Her trial will take place in Detroit this fall.

The US government would have little incentive to go after these cases involving humanitarian charity to Palestine, or community-based activists, without Israel’s encouragement and supply of evidence that forms the basis for the prosecution’s charges. In most of these situations, US courts become tools of Israeli efforts to silence and punish dissent. Even constitutional protections have been thrown out of the window in many cases, with Israeli secret service agents testifying in disguise, defense attorneys barred from seeing evidence against their clients, courtrooms closed to the public, all based on Israel’s determinations of what should and should not be made available to public scrutiny in the United States. It is shameful.

At the same time, Israel is engaging on a more surface level in efforts to oppose BDS activism. This illustrates the threat that Israel perceives from this non-violent tactic. We have seen Israeli diplomats showing up on campuses trying to convince students not to vote for divestment, participating in campus events, and even engaging on social media to influence the debate. This happened at DePaul University this past spring. The consular entourage also managed to photograph and videotape student activists campaigning for divestment, a very distressing intimidation tactic because many have family and friends in Palestine and travel there themselves.

What is unseen, I think, is the level of coordination between the Israeli government and the numerous organizations in the United States that do its bidding. In a lawsuit against the Olympia Food Co-op for its board members’ decision to boycott Israeli goods, a case that our partner organization, CCR, has successfully defeated so far, the Israeli consul made clear that the Israeli government was supporting StandWithUs in its case against Co-op board members. We have seen Israeli officials laud and encourage legislative efforts to defeat BDS as well, as was the case with the recent legislation proposed in several states and in Congress attempting to punish the ASA for its endorsement of a boycott against Israeli academic institutions. Former Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Oren inspired these efforts, which have so far been defeated by strong coalitions with which PSLS has been working. There have been explicit calls from Israeli officials to use legal measures and surveillance of activists to counteract BDS, and we are seeing that manifested now.

NN: What is your vision for the future? What changes are you at PSLS seeing and what are you working towards? 

DK: Long term, I hope that the work of these young folks, and the work of many other groups that are now pushing for concrete changes, will really turn the tables at the top. This situation in which the oppressor, the occupier, the colonizer, the war criminal is protected and enabled by our own government while the occupied are blamed, shunned, and portrayed as the aggressors cannot continue indefinitely. The change is now happening at the bottom. These conversations are happening on college campuses all over the country, and the orthodoxies on this issue are being challenged. Change feels possible now more than ever. There is definitely a steep climb ahead, and I am certain that legal attacks will be a primary tool in the arsenal against these activists.

Nevertheless, we are still on the defensive, trying to prove that these activists are not the monsters they are portrayed to be. But slowly, I think we can make a difference in these perceptions—by educating university administrators, government agencies, and media outlets about the real power dynamics at play here, by exposing the breadth and depth of the attacks on activists, and by defending their right to nonviolently advocate for change using the same tactics of the civil rights and anti-apartheid movements that are now celebrated. Importantly, the legal efforts to punish activists so far have not been successful, and we hope to keep it that way.

Based on our experience in the short time that PSLS has been in operation, I already get the feeling that people in positions of power feel bullied into acting against student activists, or publicly condemning critics of Israel. Many have thanked us for being a counterweight to this enormous pressure. Many have said that their hands are tied by Israel’s defenders without counter demands being made on them to support Palestinian rights. So it is my hope that rather than being stifled, silenced, and distorted, the demands for justice in Israel/Palestine will be heard, will grow louder, and will be impossible to ignore. PSLS’s role is to fend off legal and other obstacles thrown in their way, and to help shift the discourse, so that time may come a little sooner.

INTERVIEWEE ID: Dima Khalidiis the founder and Director of Palestine Solidarity Legal Support (PSLS), and Cooperating Counsel with the Center for Constitutional Rights. She has a JD from DePaul University College of Law with a concentration in International Law, an MA in Comparative Legal Studies from the University of London – School of Oriental and African Studies, and a BA in History and Near Eastern Studies from the University of Michigan. Prior to founding PSLS, she worked with the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) as a cooperating attorney on the Mamilla Cemetery Campaign, and as an intern on numerous cases that sought to hold Israeli officials and corporations accountable for violations of international law. Khalidi also headed a research project at Birzeit University on informal justice mechanisms in the Palestinian legal system. Her writings and interviews have appeared in the New York Times, the Jewish PressThe Real News NetworkMondoweissHuffington PostLaw and DisorderRadio, and Radio Tahrir.