2016 Mid-Year Report

Palestine Legal responded to 171 incidents of suppression in first half of 2016

90 percent of incidents targeted students and scholars

Palestine Legal responded to 171 incidents of suppression of Palestine advocacy from 19 states in the first six months of 2016 alone, a 22 percent increase* from the same period in 2015. The incidents predominantly targeted students and scholars across the country, and included a variety of punitive measures such as administrative sanctions, censorship, intrusive investigations and other forms of discriminatory treatment targeting speech in favor of Palestinian rights. 

Palestine Legal received an additional 45 requests for legal assistance in anticipation of such incidents, and separately documented 31 legislative proposals targeting Palestine advocacy, all but two of the proposals aimed at suppressing the constitutional right to boycott. From January 1, 2014 to June 30, 2016, Palestine Legal responded to 563 incidents.

*The number of incidents for 2016 excludes the 31 legislative measures to restrict boycotts. The 2015 figure included 16 such measures. Accounting for this methodology change, the percent increase in incidents for 2016 is in fact slightly higher than 22 percent. 

State Officials Attack Free Speech  

The first half of 2016 was marked by a wave of legislative proposals across the country aimed at punishing or suppressing boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaigns for Palestinian freedom. Anti-boycott bills were introduced in fourteen states and the U.S. Congress during this period. Ten of these proposals included the creation of McCarthyite blacklists. In June, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the first executive order directing a state to create a blacklist of entities deemed to support or promote BDS. “If you boycott Israel, New York will boycott you,” Gov. Cuomo said at a press conference announcing the order. 

As of this report, anti-boycott measures have been enacted in eleven states.

Punishing Campus Speech

Universities, in response to pressure from Israel advocacy groups, investigated and disproportionately disciplined students for their speech supporting Palestinian rights. Incidents of suppression that targeted students of color in particular stood out during the first half of 2016, including cases involving black, Arab and Latino students.

  • St. Louis University disciplined sophomore Christopher Winston for asking critical questions at a campus lecture about Israel’s humanitarian aid around the world. During the question-and-answer period, Winston, the only black person in the room, calmly posed questions about how Israeli ambulances respond to Palestinians in need of medical aid. Event organizers, uncomfortable with his questions, threatened to call campus security, causing Winston to comment that their “Zionist fascism” was apparent. The university informed Winston that he engaged in a “bias related incident,” and he was found to have violated university policy prohibiting “disruptive behavior” due to the “manner in which he presented himself.”
  • At Brooklyn College, two leaders with Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), both students of color, faced expulsion for engaging in a ‘mic check’ to raise concerns about issues of racial and economic justice at CUNY. The Zionist Organization of America falsely accused them of anti-Semitic speech and called on SJP to be banned from all City University of New York (CUNY) campuses. CUNY hired a private law firm to head an independent investigation into these and other antisemitism claims. Meanwhile, the New York State Senate voted to cut $485 million in funding to CUNY colleges, citing antisemitism. After a three-month investigation and five-hour disciplinary hearing, the students were ultimately cleared.
  • A peaceful student protest outside a film screening and panel of Israeli soldiers at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) was referred to the Orange County District Attorney, who ultimately decided not to pursue charges. Israel advocacy groups called the majority black, Asian, Latino and Arab students a “violent” and “angry mob.” Video footage shows the protesters engaged in spirited but peaceful chanting outside the event, with messages opposing state violence at home and abroad. UCI is now pursuing charges against SJP for alleged violations of the student code of conduct.

False Accusations of Antisemitism and Support for Terrorism Continue

Advocates for Palestinian rights continue to be falsely accused of antisemitism or supporting terrorism, based solely on their criticism of Israeli policy.

  • 87 incidents (51 percent) involved false accusations of antisemitism. 56 incidents (33 percent) involved false accusations of support for terrorism.  
  • In a number of instances, the false accusations against activists were made anonymously online. The blacklisting website Canary Mission continued to create profiles of SJP activists aiming to damage their employment prospects. Canary Mission contacted employers and graduate schools with baseless accusations that student activists promote antisemitism and “murderous incitement”- accusations based solely on their activism for Palestinian human rights.
  • At Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), an SJP member was the target of an alarming online campaign of harassment and intimidation. The campaign included the creation of anonymous, defamatory blogs falsely asserting that the student was a “major potential threat to the national security,” a “would-be attacker,” and warning of the student’s “open support for terrorism.” These accusations were based solely on the student’s peaceful speech activities with SJP.
  • The David Horowitz Freedom Center distributed posters on campuses throughout California, including UCLA, San Diego State, UC Berkeley and others, highlighting names of individual students and faculty, and accusing them of being “allied themselves with Palestinian terrorists to perpetrate BDS and Jew Hatred.” These accusations were based solely on these individuals’ advocacy for Palestinian rights.  

Incidents responded to by region

The northeast was a hot spot in the first half of 2016 as the number of incidents Palestine Legal responded to in the region increased by 75%, compared to the same period last year. The busiest states during this period were New York and California. 

January 1, 2016 – June 30, 2016

Northeast: 70 (41 percent)

Midwest: 36 (21 percent)

South: 12 (7 percent)

West: 45 (26 percent)

National: 8 (5 percent)

Total: 171

What does this mean?

Recent polls indicate a shift in U.S. public opinion in support of Palestinian rights, particularly among millennials, liberal democrats and progressives. Fearful of a shift in opinion among young people, Israel advocacy organizations are leveraging significant resources and lobbying power to punish advocacy in support of Palestinian rights – rather than engaging the issue on its merits.

As grassroots support for Palestinian rights grows, some Israel advocacy organizations are openly admitting that they are “very bad” at building diverse coalitions. These organizations are increasingly turning to state capitols where they have more success lobbying politicians to legislate against the constitutional right to boycott. In a patronizing illustration of Israel advocacy groups’ lack of influence in the grassroots, the executive director of one group said, “while you were doing your campus antics, the grown-ups were in the state legislatures passing laws that make your cause improbable.”

Palestine Legal expects these suppression trends to continue in 2016 as Israel invests more resources to target activists and thwart the movement for Palestinian rights.