A Tidal Wave of State and Private Repression Is Targeting Pro-Palestinian Voices

Critics of Israel’s merciless war on Gaza are facing threats of government prosecution and blacklists or firings. In this neo-McCarthyist environment, anything pro-Palestine is being made to carry the whiff of bigotry or even incitement to violence.

Police intervene during peace demonstrations held by thousands of Jews and allies holding an emergency sit-in, demanding a cease-fire in Gaza at Grand Central Station in New York City on October 27, 2023. (Selcuk Acar / Anadolu via Getty Images)

Last week, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) teamed up with the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law to send a letter to nearly two hundred colleges and universities, warning them that the pro-Palestinian organization Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) had “escalated significantly” its anti-Israel “rhetoric and activity,” and demanding that they open investigations into chapters on their campuses. The ADL wanted the chapters scrutinized over their funding, possible violations of school codes of conduct and state and federal laws, and, most seriously, whether they might be materially supporting terrorists, a charge that can bring a maximum sentence of between ten and fifteen years of prison, or even a life sentence in certain circumstances.

The demand from one of the country’s most influential pro-Israel organizations to have pro-Palestinian student groups prosecuted under a federal anti-terrorism statute is alarming. But it’s only a dramatic escalation in a rising wave of political repression aimed at pro-Palestinian voices and those critical of Israeli policy ever since the brutal Hamas attacks on October 7.

“The backlash we’re seeing against people in the US speaking out for Palestinian liberation has become a new McCarthyism,” says Dylan Saba, staff attorney at Palestine Legal.

“Material Support”

Were it to be followed up on by authorities, the ADL’s demand would be a civil liberties nightmare.

“A blanket call to investigate every chapter of a pro-Palestinian student group for ‘material support to terrorists’ — without even an attempt to cite evidence — is unwarranted, wrong, and dangerous,” says Hina Shamsi, director of the National Security Project at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

Use of the “material support” statute massively expanded after the September 11 attacks, when the Justice Department leaned on it to prosecute charities and political activists, often connected to the Palestinian cause. In one case, an activist and critic of US foreign policy was charged for letting an acquaintance that he didn’t know was connected to al-Qaeda stay at his place with alleged “military gear,” gear that turned out to be wet weather clothing.

Another victim was the country’s largest Muslim charity, the Texas-based Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development (HLF). Absurdly, in trying to prosecute the HLF, the Bush administration charged that what made it guilty was the support it had given to a West Bank hospital and to charities controlled fully or partly by Hamas, which meant that Palestinians then “associated this social outreach with Hamas.”

According to the ACLU, by 2009, such material support cases over the period 2001 to 2007 had an “unusually high” acquittal rate, signaling their fundamental spuriousness: a little less than 50 percent, compared to the roughly 80 percent for all felonies during this period. But prosecutors’ failure to get convictions is little comfort for those who are accused of violating the material support statute.

“Overbroad investigations alone can wrongly stigmatize people with one of society’s worst labels, terrorism suspect, which has a devastating impact on personal and professional lives,” says Shamsi. The ACLU has now hit back against the ADL with its own letter to hundreds of colleges and universities, warning that the investigations called for by the ADL “chill speech, foster an atmosphere of mutual suspicion, and betray the spirit of free inquiry,” and harken back to the McCarthy era.

The ADL’s demand is just one front in what is amounting to growing governmental pressure for a crackdown on student protesters. A day before the ADL letter, Florida governor Ron DeSantis ordered state universities to “deactivate” their local SJP chapters, on the identical charge that they were providing “material support” to terrorists.

Virginia has swiftly followed, with the state’s attorney general Jason Miyares announcing earlier this week that he had launched an investigation into the nonprofit American Muslims for Palestine, principally on the grounds that it was taking money without first registering with a government agency, adding the allegations that it was possibly “benefitting or providing support to terrorist organizations” almost as an afterthought. As evidence of these “allegations,” Miyares pointed to a 2022 case that relied heavily on the more-than-two-decade-old Bush-era prosecution of the HLF.

Public and Private Repression

Political pressure is emerging for more crackdowns. Senator Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican, shamelessly pivoting from decrying campus cancel culture and censorship to now demanding both, wrote to the attorney general demanding the Department of Justice investigate “far-left student groups” for possible financial connections to Hamas. Donald Trump and a parade of other GOP presidential candidates have called for revoking student visas or cutting off funding to schools that don’t crack down on the activists.

This isn’t limited to Republicans. Last week, every member of the US Senate — including even Bernie Sanders — voted for Hawley’s resolution that deplored as antisemitic a wide array of student groups’ statements, even those that simply expressed solidarity with Palestinians or blamed Israeli government policies for creating the root causes of Hamas’s violence. With no trace of irony, Hawley’s resolution also condemns statements that do seem to justify Hamas’s violence, but demands the US government “fully and completely” back Israel’s right to defend itself” — which by the time the resolution passed had killed more than seven thousand Palestinian civilians, nearly half of them children.

The White House has now also joined in, with the Biden administration directing the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice to work with campus law enforcement to track hateful online rhetoric. While in theory this sounds uncontroversial — who could disagree with keeping tabs on the acts of bigotry that are rising in the midst of the war? — the question is how broadly these two agencies, not exactly known for their left-leaning sympathies, will define “hateful” speech, particularly at a time when antisemitism is being conflated with criticism of Israel.

Threats of prosecution, state-driven bans, federal surveillance, political pressure for crackdowns — these are all major and sudden escalations in the long-running war on pro-Palestinian speech in the United States. And their reliance on state power to target and discourage free expression makes them more menacing.

But student groups have also been on the other end of censure from the private sector, arguably even more pernicious, since there isn’t even the possibility of having it challenged under the First Amendment. The Wall Street financiers who have donated generously to colleges and universities have reportedly placed pressure on schools to denounce their students. Hedge fund manager Bill Ackman called on schools to release lists of “offending” students and urged executives not to hire them, an intention that has been voiced by several other boardroom tycoons. Even fellow Harvard and Wall Street alum Larry Summers has called this “the stuff of Joe McCarthy.”

A number of top law firms rescinded employment offers to several students from Columbia and Harvard, while one Berkeley law professor urged executives to do the same, as well to grill job candidates about their views on Israel. The chilling reaction came even though the offending student statements, which ascribed full blame to the Israeli government, took exactly the same position that Israel’s paper of record, Haaretz, did the day after the attacks. And those statements also explicitly lamented and mourned the loss of life on the Israeli side.

Meanwhile, websites have popped up doxxing those who signed onto the statements, jeopardizing their physical safety by listing their full names, photos, and hometowns. Someone even took to driving a truck around Harvard Square broadcasting students’ names and faces, declaring them “Harvard’s leading antisemites.”

When Pro-Palestine Means Pro-Terrorism

These attempts at intimidation go well beyond simply campus politics. And whatever one thinks of the statements these student groups endorsed, there are many who have already suffered professional sanction for far less controversial comments.

One hedge fund manager started a website compiling thousands of “potentially supportive sentiments for terrorism among company employees,” sentiments that apparently include saying “Free Gaza” and “#PrayForPalestine,” a clear sign of how even modest statements in solidarity with Palestinians are being conflated with pro-terrorism speech.

Take another example. Journalist Nathan Thrall was meant to be touring cities across the world promoting his most recent book, A Day in the Life of Abed Salama, with its titular subject, a Palestinian man. Despite a long list of praise, including from the New York Times, New Yorker, and Financial Times, Thrall and Salama have had book events canceled in five different cities, including in the United States. Radio advertisements for the book that were approved before October 7 for the NPR broadcast of the Daily and on the US broadcast of the BBC were also suddenly pulled, with Thrall given no explanation why.

“I suspect that people making these demands in the past [to cancel events and advertising], who had not been successful, are finding new success now after October 7,” Thrall says. “They’re finding it for a number of reasons, but one is the cowardice of the executives running these organizations who are frightened to death of being critical or insufficiently supportive of Israel.”

Most recently, Thrall was unable to attend an event at the University of Arkansas, because of his refusal to abide by a 2017 state law that demands government contractors sign a pledge not to boycott Israel.

After signing an open letter that calls for a cease-fire and explicitly states that neither Israelis nor Palestinians “can ever be justified in targeting defenseless people,” Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen saw an upcoming event at 92NY he was set to take part in abruptly canceled. Famed Hollywood agent Maha Dakhil resigned from the board of Creative Arts Agency after reposting Instagram posts that labeled Israel’s siege and bombardment a “genocide” — a characterization of the war that was suggested as early as October 13 by an Israeli expert on the Holocaust and genocide. (Dakhil quickly apologized and is now reportedly going through an “education process” on the Israel-Palestine conflict.)

When Artforum published an open letter calling for “an end to the killing and harming of all civilians” and “an immediate ceasefire,” its editor, David Valesco, was also fired. The firing was reportedly the product of a behind-the-scenes campaign by powerful and wealthy art dealers and curators, who exerted pressure on the magazine and some of the artists who had signed, with at least one ultrarich patron letting some of the artists’ whose work he owned know he was unhappy.

This interweaving of anti-Palestinian censorship with anti-worker politics reached its logical conclusion with the Orthodox Jewish Chamber of Commerce’s (OJCC) campaign for a boycott of Starbucks (“Drinking a Cup of Starbucks is Drinking a Cup of Jewish Blood,” goes the campaign’s slogan). The OJCC falsely accused the Starbucks workers union of declaring “solidarity with Hamas” — in fact, the original offending post said “Solidarity with Palestine” and was directly referring to the bulldozing of the Gaza fence, before Hamas’s atrocities came to light, and its updated statement is clear about condemning murder. Further, the company’s union-busting executives soon used the chamber’s accusation to file a federal complaint.

While efforts to shut down pro-Palestinian speech are long-standing, they’ve acquired a new momentum and ferocity. “It feels totally different, just one hundred times stronger,” says Thrall. “It is a really frightening time for free speech in the United States.”

“At Palestine Legal we’ve responded to thousands of these kinds of incidents since 2014, and the climate of racist backlash right now is orders of magnitude worse than anything we’ve ever seen,” says Saba, the staff attorney at Palestine Legal, noting that the crackdown is “overwhelmingly targeted at Palestinians, Muslims, and other people of color.”

Saba himself has been on the other side of this. After being asked by an editor at the Guardian to write about the censorship of pro-Palestinian speech, the piece was censored without explanation minutes before it was due to run.

Fired for Free Speech

As Saba’s case indicates, the neo-McCarthyist trend is particularly rife in the press, where debate and critical thinking are, at least in theory, supposed to be crucial for the sake of an informed public.

Harper’s Bazaar editor in chief Samira Nasr was forced to apologize and is reportedly fighting for her job after commenting that the Israeli siege of Gaza — an unambiguous war crime that’s starving Palestinians to death, leading them to drink contaminated water, and leaving them receiving life-saving surgeries without anesthetic — is “the most inhuman thing I’ve seen in my life.” Michael Eisen was fired as editor in chief of the open-access journal eLife for linking to an October 13 Onion piece headlined, “Dying Gazans Criticized For Not Using Last Words To Condemn Hamas,” and commenting, “Bingo.” Several other editors subsequently stepped down in solidarity and protest.

Not long after ADL director Jonathan Greenblatt appeared on MSNBC — which has featured a modicum of coverage questioning US and Israeli policy and foregrounding the plight of Palestinians — and asked, “who’s writing the scripts? Hamas?”, the network quietly suspended three of its Muslim anchors. Former MSNBC anchor Keith Olbermann appeared to try to get Zeeshan Aleem, a columnist and editor for MSNBC’s online platform, fired, after Aleem charged the White House with “alternating between silence and vigorous, unqualified support” for Israel’s “illegal behavior.” Numerous Palestinian and Muslim analysts and journalists have reported being disinvited from cable news shows, having their segments cut, or being rejected from appearances after prescreening showed they wouldn’t toe the pro-Israel line.

The same thing has been happening in the political sphere. Democratic Michigan representative Rashida Tlaib, a Democratic Socialists of America member and the sole Palestinian-American member of Congress, has been facing a censure effort from far-right Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene, who accused her of leading “a pro-Hamas insurrection into the Capitol complex,” displaying “her anti-Semitic beliefs,” and demonstrating “her hatred for Israel.” In Rhode Island, Providence council member Miguel Sanchez was fired (and escorted out by police) from his position in Governor Dan McKee’s constituent affairs office for a variety of infractions that the governor claimed had “the potential to fan the flames of hate and division”:

  • Posting about attending a pro-Palestine rally where the slogan, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” was chanted.
  • Accusing the US government of “actively aiding in a genocide” and calling for an immediate cease-fire.
  • Sharing a post that read, “Watching years of occupation broke my heart. Watching the killings of Palestinians and Israelis has broken my heart. Watching Netanyahu ramp up the bloodshed while America stands by ready to send more weapons breaks my heart again.”

It’s hard to know what exactly is objectionable in these statements. The grief over both Israeli and Palestinian lives? Noting Israel’s “occupation” of Palestinian land, which is the same term the United Nations uses? The reference to “genocide,” which, again, is the term used by an Israeli scholar on the Holocaust, as well as a top UN human rights official who resigned over Western complicitly in this crime? Or is it the Palestinian liberation slogan, which is decidedly not about violence or territorial annexation?

The boundaries of what’s acceptable are being narrowed so that anything pro-Palestine is made to carry the whiff of impropriety, bigotry, or even incitement to violence.

Verboten Speech

Pro-Israeli forces are also making use of the bully’s veto to block pro-Palestinian voices from physical spaces.

A US Campaign for Palestinian Rights event set to take place in a Hilton hotel in Houston and attended by Tlaib was canceled under pressure from the same group behind the Starbucks boycott, which labeled the event a “conference for Hamas supporters” that would be attended by “proud Jew-haters,” triggering phone calls demanding the hotel nix the meeting. Hilton appeared to be concerned with security at the venue, reportedly presenting the organization with a $100,000 bill before abruptly pulling the event. Bomb threats to an Arlington, Virginia, Marriott hotel set to host the annual banquet of the Council on American-Islamic Relations likewise triggered a cancelation.

This is alongside the repression taking place in digital spaces. The shadowy system of public-private online censorship that we’ve glimpsed in the past year or so, long known to have an anti-Palestinian bias, has now been fully turned against pro-Palestinian voices. The news outlet Mondoweiss saw its video correspondent’s account suspended on Instagram — after what the outlet said were reports of Israeli soldiers sharing her Facebook account and asking to report nonexistent rule violations — and had its entire account removed by TikTok (at the same time, ironically, that the social media platform is being accused of bias against Israel). Both accounts were restored after a popular outcry.

Meanwhile, users across the United States, as in the rest of the world, have reported that social media posts they’ve made containing pro-Palestinian hashtags or messages, or using the word “genocide,” met with suspiciously low engagement or were even taken down. New York-based artist Molly Crabapple said that a day after sharing a post from the progressive show Democracy Now! about weapons being disbursed among Israeli settlers, she was given a notice that her account would not “be shown to non-followers.” After a post on Facebook accused the Netanyahu government of carrying out genocide in Gaza, journalist Jonathan Cook had it blocked by the platform, which claimed that it violated its rules on “violence and incitement.”

Users across the United States have reported that social media posts they’ve made containing pro-Palestinian hashtags or messages, or using the word ‘genocide,’ met with suspiciously low engagement or were even taken down.

Maybe most outrageous, a number of Instagram users who made clear they were Palestinian in their profile biographies had the word “terrorist” automatically added to the descriptions, which parent company Meta later blamed on a glitch.

The War’s Casualties

What’s described here is classic McCarthyism: the revocation of employment and other threats by employers and the wealthy; heavy-handed government repression and attempts to criminalize speech; the creation of blacklists; and generally the fomenting of a climate of intimidation rooted in scurrilous accusations that intentionally twist the words and beliefs of those who are being targeted for their politics. The crackdown is being waged through a combination of state and corporate channels, where pro-Palestinian protesters are being threatened with the specter of government prosecution or with losing their livelihoods.

Such stifling of speech has been rising for many years now, usually in the form of pushback to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement meant to pressure Israel to end its system of apartheid. But it’s now taken a more menacing and extreme form, one that has expanded its reach to not just private efforts at boycotting Israel, but to calling for an end to the brutal massacre of Palestinians. In a particularly Orwellian twist, in many cases this is being done on the basis that criticizing or calling attention to the various human rights violations the Israeli government is carrying out right now is, itself, inciting racist violence.

The overwhelming casualties of this war are innocent Palestinians, at least nine thousand of whom have so far been killed, and the 3,800 murdered Palestinian children in particular. But we may well find that the right to freedom of speech proves to be another.