With Friends Like Bannon

Trump's administration will embolden the Right to harass, suppress, and silence any criticism of Israel.

A Zionist Organization of America booth. Uzi-DoesIt / Flickr

There is much uncertainty about what a Trump presidency will mean. On one point, however, the signs are clear: the next four years will see increased attacks on Muslim and other minority communities at home, hawkish support for Israel abroad, and a disdain for our right to criticize any of it.

Consider his appointments: white nationalist Steve Bannon has risen to chief strategist; Frank Gaffney, an Islamophobic conspiracy theorist who peddled the Obama-as-secret-Muslim story and claimed that the Muslim Brotherhood is infiltrating the United States, will help pick Trump’s national security advisers; and an uninhibited Islamophobe who called the religion a “cancer” — retired lieutenant general Michael Flynn — will become national security adviser, a position “so influential that some have called it the White House’s second chief of staff.”

Trump has now nominated his bankruptcy lawyer, David Friedman, as ambassador to Israel. Friedman, who has been described as “more far right . . . than . . . [Israel prime minister Benjamin] Netanyahu,” has contributed tens of millions to settlement organizations and has likened the moderate Jewish lobby group J Street to Nazi collaborators for its support of a two-state solution.

Friedman, along with Jason Greenblatt — another of Trump’s lawyers who served on his Israel advisory committee — laid out a number of policy positions prior to the election. They made it very clear that Trump will not only maintain the United States’s blind support for Israel, but also that he’s willing to torpedo previous policy that, however disingenuously, at least gave lip service to international legal norms.

For example, we should expect Trump to move the embassy from Tel Aviv to occupied East Jerusalem. He will also likely reject the much-repeated trope that Israeli settlements represent an obstacle to peace and decry the “the false notion that Israel is an occupier,” thereby giving permission for settlement expansion. And he’ll mend fences with Netanyahu, with whom President Obama feuded even while doling out the biggest military aid package in American history.

All of this is troubling, but it really just makes de jure what is now de facto — the United States has long supported and subsidized Israel’s settler-colonial project and the massive violence against Palestinians required to maintain it.

More troublesome than this hardline pro-settlement stance on Israel, then, are the pledges Trump’s Israel advisers have made to go after Palestine advocates here, aligning with their leader’s contempt for the First Amendment.

State-sanctioned Suppression

The incoming president’s policy plan states that “The US should view the effort to boycott, divest from, and sanction (BDS) Israel as inherently anti-Semitic and take strong measures, both diplomatic and legislative, to thwart” it. Trump will also “ask the Department of Justice to investigate coordinated attempts on college campuses to intimidate students who support Israel.” This builds on the narrative that has emerged over the past several years that portrays Palestine solidarity activism as antisemitic, pro-terrorist, and a threat to pro-Israel students. This has led to dozens of legal complaints and investigations against students and faculty who support Palestinian rights.

Things would have still been thorny with Hillary Clinton — who vowed to make fighting BDS a priority — as president. But with Palestine advocacy in the crosshairs of a government that has promised to target Muslims with abandon, to prosecute the “war on terror” with a vengeance, and to openly support Israel’s ongoing violations of international law, we find ourselves in ever more dangerous territory.

My organization, Palestine Legal, has been working since 2012 to protect advocates for Palestinian rights against increasingly aggressive efforts to condemn, censor, punish, and otherwise undermine their activism. In a report we published with the Center for Constitutional Rights last year — The Palestine Exception to Free Speech — we described the tactics used to suppress Palestine advocacy and dozens of incidents that we responded to, affecting both groups and individuals.

It is difficult to measure the scope of this problem. From 2014 to date, we’ve responded to over six hundred suppression incidents and nearly two hundred legal questions in anticipation of suppression. But these numbers only reflect what’s reported to us.

Dozens of Israel advocacy groups, with Israel’s blessing and support, have led these efforts, pouring tens of millions of dollars into these campaigns: Sheldon Adelson raised over $20 million to fight BDS on campus; Israel earmarked at least $26 million dollars to fight it online; and over two dozen Israel advocacy groups are leveraging millions to undermine student activism and to fight BDS in the legislative arena. Thirteen states have already passed laws punishing BDS, and many more have been proposed.

Students and faculty who openly support Palestine or criticize Israel immediately become subject to various forms of attack. A shadowy McCarthyist website, Canary Mission, has profiled hundreds of students and scholars. The website aims to warn future employers about these individuals, whom it describes as antisemitic terrorism supporters.

Other Israel advocacy groups, working more openly, have made similar attacks against students and faculty. Recently, UC Berkeley cancelled a student-led course that examined Palestine through a settler-colonial lens in apparent response to pressure from over two dozen advocacy groups that called the class propaganda. The dean blamed Paul Hadweh, the Palestinian student who proposed the course, for failing to follow approval procedures. Only much later did the dean apologize — inadequately — for these false accusations.

The course was reinstated a week later, but the damage was done: the university had signaled that any attempt to critically study Palestine would be met with lengthy ordeals, baseless accusations, and public attacks.

At the City University of New York, the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) has spearheaded campaigns to get the group Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) banned from all twenty-three campuses due to alleged antisemitic activities. An independent, six-month long investigation, however, found that the claims either could not be substantiated or could not be attributed to the student group, that the group’s activities were protected political speech, and that the “tendency to blame SJP for any act of anti-Semitism . . . is a mistake.”

Nevertheless, the damage, again, had been done. New York legislators responded to the ZOA’s alarmist accusations by threatening to cut CUNY’s funding because of its “failure” to address the alleged antisemitism. Students at several campuses have spent years beating back successive attacks. And, like many other universities that are pressured to condemn, censor, and punish Palestine activists, CUNY too often obliged the demands, subjecting pro-Palestine students to extra scrutiny, requiring additional security at their events, erecting procedural barriers, and charging them with disciplinary violations.

The situation is already terrible, but Trump will operate on an entirely new platform built on his open contempt for people of color, women, and ethnic and religious minorities. Those who supported him will be emboldened to intensify their anti-Palestinian campaigns.

David Horowitz, who has plastered campuses across the country with posters accusing students and faculty who support Palestinian rights of “Jew Hatred” and being “allied with terrorists,” has vigorously defended Bannon, claiming he couldn’t possibly be antisemitic because he supports Israel. Horowitz’s argument ignores that white nationalists’ support for Israel is rooted in their admiration for the country’s ethno- and religious nationalism, which they’d like to recreate in the United States for white Christians, putting American Jews at the receiving end of their supremacist ideology.

In the new climate, there is no question that Horowitz, together with far-right groups like ZOA, will be emboldened. With friends like Bannon, they can continue their crusade against Palestine activists in the most regressive ways. Already, they blame these groups for antisemitic behavior perpetrated by Trump’s base.

Indeed, the recently proposed Anti-Semitism Awareness Act, which flew through the Senate without debate and before the bill’s text was even made public, illustrates how Israel advocacy groups are exploiting the alarming rise in antisemitic incidents to justify reigning in criticism of Israel. The bill, which stalled in the House after the ACLU, Palestine Legal, and other groups raised strong constitutional objections, attempted to impose a discredited definition of antisemitism — that would classify virtually any criticism of Israel as antisemitic — on the Department of Education (DOE).

It aimed to force the DOE to investigate more complaints from Israel advocacy groups about student activism for Palestinian rights. The DOE has dismissed such complaints over the last decade, noting that the activists’ speech is protected by the First Amendment, and that college is supposed to be a place where students encounter “robust and discordant expressions” of different viewpoints. While the bill failed to pass this session, it will surely be back with the new Congress next year.

It is frightening to think that the DOE, DOJ, and, by extension, other law enforcement agencies, will use information provided by the likes of Horowitz and Canary Mission, not to mention the dozens of Israel advocacy groups that traffic in false accusations against activists, to drive investigations of Palestine activists.

An Injury to One

From pro-Israel advocacy’s far right to its center, we expect a more and more hostile environment for the most vulnerable supporters of Palestinian rights.

So far, many public and private institutions have fortified the attacks and accusations against activists. Universities have condemned them, investigated them, taken disciplinary action against them, and even fired them for their speech activities. Politicians are legislating against the growing effort to use nonviolent tactics like boycotts to pressure Israel. And government agencies are increasingly monitoring and investigating Palestine advocates.

It will be telling to see how universities respond in the coming months and years, as the connections between those who attack Palestine activists and those who attack other vulnerable communities becomes even clearer. The forces fomenting Islamophobia also call for a ban on SJP organizations on campus. Those who call Black Lives Matter activists “terrorists” also call students advocating for peaceful boycotts “terrorists” and support investigations against them.

All of us working toward a more just world already understand that a threat against some of us threatens all of us. Undermining one community’s civil rights and liberties will inevitably bleed into others. The only way to protect our rights is to recognize the common threat that forces of bigotry — now holding the reins of power — pose to black, Jewish, Muslim, ethnic, immigrant, and LGBTQ communities, and to have a common front.

The struggle for Palestinian rights may not be at the forefront of people’s minds right now, but it undoubtedly sits at the intersection of many of Trump’s agenda items, and it will be caught in the crosshairs of his reactionary policies. As will our right to dissent, if we don’t remain vigilant and act to protect it.