2015 Year-in-Review: Suppression of Palestine Advocacy Continues

Credit: Abigail Sullivan

Credit: Abigail Sullivan

Palestine Legal Responded to 239 Incidents in 2015

80% Targeted Students and Scholars on 75 Campuses

Palestine Legal, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting the civil rights of people in the U.S. who speak out for Palestinian freedom, responded to 239* incidents in 2015. Eighty percent of the incidents—which included baseless legal complaints, administrative disciplinary actions, bureaucratic barriers, and false accusations of terrorism and antisemitism—targeted students and scholars across the country. Palestine Legal received an additional 64 requests for legal assistance in anticipation of such incidents.

“While these numbers show that we’re dealing with a pervasive and concerted campaign to suppress speech in favor of Palestinian rights, they understate the phenomenon,” said Dima Khalidi, director of Palestine Legal. “Many incidents go unreported because advocates are unaware of their rights or they are afraid to speak out about how they are treated.”

Palestine Legal, together with the Center for Constitutional Rights, recently released a report, “The Palestine Exception to Free Speech: A Movement Under Attack in the US,” which documented for the first time the widespread and growing suppression of Palestinian human rights advocacy in the United States.

*This post was edited on Jan. 17, 2016 to reflect a methodology change. One incident that was previously counted as a 2015 incident will now be counted as a 2016 incident. The incident was an anti-BDS bill that was pre-filed in the New York State legislature in late 2015 for consideration during the 2016 legislative session. 

The incidents Palestine Legal tracked in 2015 illustrate common suppression tactics, including:

  • False Accusations of Antisemitism: 125 incidents, 52%, involved accusations of antisemitism based solely on speech critical of Israeli policy in 2015. This is an increase from 2014, where 76 reported incidents (50%) involved false accusations of antisemitism.
  • False Accusations of Support for Terrorism: 84 incidents, 35%, involved accusations of support for terrorism based solely on speech critical of Israeli policy in 2015. This represents a fourfold increase from 2014, when 20 of 152 incidents (13%) reported to Palestine Legal involved such accusations. One example includes a University of Texas at Austin law student who held up a Palestinian flag while peacefully protesting an event. An Israel Studies professor then falsely linked the student to ISIS following the attacks in Paris in a public post on the university website.
  • Bureaucratic Barriers: In 2015, 54 of 193 campus-related incidents (23%) involved administrative obstacles and policy changes implemented in a way that hampered student organizing for Palestinian rights. These measures include creating impediments to reserving rooms, imposing extra hurdles to get events approved, and forcing students to pay security fees and attend mandated meetings with administrators. Though seemingly neutral, these policies sometimes target, and frequently disproportionally burden, speech in favor of Palestinian rights. For example, at George Washington University, a policy that ostensibly forbids students from hanging flags outside windows was selectively enforced against a pre-medical student who hung a Palestinian flag out of his dorm room window last October.
  • Legislation: Lawmakers, often at the behest of Israel advocacy groups, introduced at least 21 legislative measures in 2015 intended to condemn or restrict Palestinian rights advocacy, often by linking criticism of Israel to antisemitism. In 2014, at least 11 such measures were introduced. These legislative efforts condemn or punish First Amendment protected activity such as advocating for boycotts. In 2015, Illinois enacted a law that sets up a blacklist of companies that boycott Israel and requires the state’s pension funds to divest from those companies. Copycat legislation is continually being introduced in states around the country in a direct attack on the nonviolent movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) of Israel because of its human rights abuses. 

Incidents by State

Palestine Legal responded to a total of 392 incidents in 26 different states (including the District of Columbia) in 2014-2015. The states with the highest number of reported incidents are:

  • California: 122
  • New York: 65
  • Illinois: 45
  • Massachusetts: 19
  • New Jersey: 16
  • Florida: 13
  • District of Columbia: 11
  • Pennsylvania: 10


Palestine Legal urges universities to review policies to ensure that they protect students’ speech rights and academic freedom, and ensure that policies are applied evenly. We urge universities to listen and respond to concerns voiced by students targeted by these attacks that may lead to lasting emotional, financial, and professional repercussions.

Palestine Legal also urges Congress members, state legislators, and government agencies to clearly distinguish between criticism of Israeli policies and antisemitism in their definitions, policies and legislation.

Driven by a network of Israel advocacy organizations, these suppression efforts target the movement for Palestinian rights in the U.S., which has grown significantly over the last decade. The incidents Palestine Legal responded to in 2015 represent a 63% increase from 2014. Palestine Legal expects these suppression trends to continue in 2016, as more resources are invested in thwarting the movement for Palestinian rights.