“Unconditional Supporters of Israel Know the Facts Are Not on Their Side”

Sahar Aziz

A new report details how Islamophobia fuels conflations of criticism of Israel with antisemitism. We spoke with one of the report’s authors about the slanderous attempts to muzzle supporters of Palestinian rights.

An Israeli flag flies during the "March For Israel" at in Washington, DC, on November 14, 2023. (Noam Galai / Getty Images)

Interview by
Alex N. Press

On Saturday, November 4, some three hundred thousand people marched in Washington, DC, in solidarity with Palestinians. It was the largest pro-Palestine march in US history, a heartening sign that the McCarthyite backlash to solidarity with Palestinians in the face of Israel’s ongoing onslaught on the besieged Gaza Strip has not accomplished its aims. Rather than cowing critics of Israel, which has killed more than twenty-two thousand Palestinians in Gaza, domestic repression has fueled commitment, a determination among many not to sit idly by as an entire people are slaughtered.

That’s not for a lack of effort from those hoping to muzzle Israel’s critics in the United States, which continues to provide funds and military assistance for Israel’s bombardment. Such geopolitical ties make silencing critics in the United States a priority for Israel’s supporters.

One of the key strategies for achieving that goal is the equating of anti-Zionism with antisemitism. This is particularly true when the source of such criticism is a Muslim, and especially, a Palestinian. As Palestine Legal staff attorney Dylan Saba told me of the ongoing repression against critics of Israel in the United States, “All of this repression is overwhelmingly targeted at Palestinians, Muslims, and other people of color. 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.”

Into this environment comes “Presumptively Antisemitic: Islamophobic Tropes in Palestine-Israel Discourse,” a report by the Center for Security, Race and Rights (CSRR) at Rutgers Law School. Coauthored by Mitchell Plitnick, the president of ReThinking Foreign Policy, and Sahar Aziz, Rutgers Law School distinguished professor and CSRR’s founding director, the report looks at the role Islamophobia plays in conflations of criticism of Israel with antisemitism, what the authors describe as the presumption of antisemitism.

I spoke with Aziz, who is also the author of The Racial Muslim: When Racism Quashes Religious Freedom, about censorship on US college campuses, what the report calls “the Islamophobia network,” and what the Palestinian solidarity movement should take away from the authors’ research. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Alex N. Press

Your report couldn’t be more timely, but I know it was long in the works before October 7 and Israel’s subsequent attack on the besieged Gaza Strip, as well as the West Bank. And you have written about this subject for a long time. What led you to begin researching how this dynamic — the conflation of criticism of Israel with antisemitism, especially when it is voiced by a Muslim or Palestinian — plays out?

Sahar Aziz

What caused us to write the report was not October 7. It took us over a year to research and then write it. But this is a long-known strategy of silencing and discrediting and vilifying Muslims who want to critique Israel in any way; that’s the focus of our report.

There are two components. The first is the phenomenon of Islamophobia, which has become a permanent component of racism in America, especially since 9/11. Although anti-Muslim racism existed before 9/11, it became a staple form of bigotry after 9/11 because the government effectively legitimized it under the rubric of national security. As a result, members of the public were socialized to believe it was rational to suspect Muslims of terrorism, violence, and antidemocratic values.

Then you have another phenomena that predated 9/11, I would argue it started in earnest after 1967, with the US increasingly allied with Israel, but Israel has always been a bastion of American hegemony in the Middle East. And the foil there is the “dangerous Palestinian,” the “barbaric uncivilized Palestinian,” the “antisemitic Palestinian,” which was part of the broader anti-Arab framing of US policy in the Middle East. Before 9/11, the Palestinian was portrayed as terroristic and violent and antisemitic, whether it was because of the Palestinian Liberation Organization in the ’60s and ’70s, the First Intifada in the ’80s, or the Hamas suicide attacks in the ’90s.

After 9/11, those two merge and it becomes even easier to vilify Palestinians when they’re trying to promote peace or a two-state solution, for example, and it also becomes much easier to smear and defame Muslims and Arabs and South Asians when they try to criticize Israel, especially during times of conflict. So whether it’s the Second Intifada, or whether it’s the more than four times that Israel has violently laid siege to Gaza and killed hundreds if not thousands of people — each time that happens, you have groups of people in the US who take issue with that from a human rights and foreign policy perspective.

And proponents of Israel, who are often Christian or Jewish Zionist groups who don’t hide their alliance, discredit, vilify, and even criminalize, as we saw with the ADL [Anti-Defamation League]. The ADL alleged that the Students for Justice in Palestine provides material support to terrorism, which we know is not true, as they are a domestic group, they are not internationally tied. That was a naked attempt to silence them, to censor them, and to criminalize them, if not in a court of law, at least in the court of public opinion. We’ve seen those two phenomena intersect since 9/11, and now we’re seeing it again.

Alex N. Press

Your report opens with an exchange from 2021: Representative Rashida Tlaib, the only Palestinian American in Congress, opposed adding $1 billion to the $4 billion in US aid to Israel.

“I will not support an effort to enable war crimes and human rights abuses and violence,” Tlaib said. “We cannot be talking only about Israelis’ need for safety at a time when Palestinians are living under a violent apartheid system and are dying from what Human Rights Watch has said are war crimes. . . . I urge my colleagues to please stand with me in supporting human rights for all.”

“We heard right now from my colleague across the aisle, a shocking statement,” responded Representative Chuck Fleischmann. “She opposes this because they have a vocal minority in the majority party that is anti-Israel, that is antisemitic, and as Americans, we can never stand for that.”

In more recent months, such accusations against Tlaib have been constant, and she’s even been censured in Congress. Her treatment seems like a continuation of the conflation of anti-Zionism with antisemitism and the idea that Palestinians are always antisemitic.

Sahar Aziz

The fact that the Islamophobia network, which has strong ties with many right-wing Zionist groups, was attacking Rashida Tlaib as soon as she got elected is evidence of their anti-Palestinian racism and their Islamophobia. They do not want “our people” to be equal citizens. They do not believe that we are human beings and that we have the right to run for elected office and win and express our perspectives and analysis.

But when October 7 happened, it became exponentially worse because not only is she the only Palestinian in office, but she’s also not willing to be the token. Some minorities end up falling into that trap as the racial bribe for being allowed conditionally into the club of power, but she doesn’t.

She’s also a target because each time Israel has attacked Gaza since 2008, support for Palestinian human rights has expanded in the US. More and more people are critical of Israel because they see for themselves — especially now that we have social media — the atrocities that Israel is committing against Palestinians. They see for themselves that the lies they’re fed in mainstream media or in school about Israel being a victim are not true, because in fact Israel is an oppressor of many Palestinian civilians, and while self-defense is certainly their right, what they’re engaging in is far beyond self-defense. It’s collective punishment and targeting of civilians as opposed to staying within the bounds of the laws of war and international law to protect itself as a state.

Among people under thirty-five, the polls show the majority support Palestinian human rights and are critical of Israel. If you look at the Democratic voters, it’s somewhere in the 70 percent range. The more that that shift is happening organically, the harder and more aggressive and more hostile pro-Israel groups are toward anyone that they can access, especially if they’re high profile but even if they’re average students.

Why do these pro-Israel organizations, who brag about the large budgets they have and are wildly successful in fundraising — why do they care what students are doing on college campuses? Students have no power: they don’t have an income, they don’t have a job, they’re young. It’s because they do not want anyone to know the facts about what’s happening in Palestine, and what students do really well is they share information, and they talk and they debate and they discuss and they think. They’re in phases in their lives where they’re not as willing to be fed propaganda. That’s why we have universities.

Unconditional supporters of Israel know the facts are not on their side, and they are willing to sabotage American higher education, academic freedom, and free speech on college campuses. That’s one of the most distinctly American traditions, one that leads hundreds of thousands of students across disciplines to come to America because our universities are open and free and we allow the marketplace of ideas to work and when people disagree, they disagree on the merits, they don’t engage in ad hominem attacks, they don’t sit there and smear each other. They’re willing to sacrifice that and sabotage that for their own ideological purposes.

All of us are going to be hurt in the long run if we develop a new norm where universities are sites for censorship, not sites for debate, discussion, and disagreement.

Alex N. Press

You mentioned “the Islamophobia network,” and the report has a full section on that topic. Can you explain what you mean by that phrase? And concretely, what does that network consist of: Who is it and how does it function?

Sahar Aziz

The Islamophobia network is an ecosystem of organizations that are anti-Islam and anti-Muslim insofar as they believe quite explicitly that Islam teaches violence, misogyny, and illiberalism. They fundraise around those values to support the discrimination of Muslims. They are opposed to religious accommodation. They’re opposed to mosques being built in America. They’re opposed to women having the choice to wear the hijab.

Our report cites others who started that research. In 2011, the Center for American Progress published a report on this network called “Fear Inc.” The Council on American–Islamic Relations also did a report, as did the Bridge Initiative at Georgetown [University]. These reports show how much money these organizations have raised, who the people are who lead them, the quotes they make publicly that are explicitly hostile to Muslims, and the policies they support that, for example, seek to ban Muslims from America, denaturalize Muslims, or deport Muslims.

None of this is a secret; they’re proud of it. There are a number of these organizations that started after 9/11, especially those that have a large base in the South and the Midwest, but some were pre-9/11 and focused on Palestinians because their primary agenda was pro-Zionism. They used Islamophobic tropes in trying to attack Palestinians and Arabs in the US. Once 9/11 happened, it became even more acceptable to be Islamophobic. And they bring in the Palestine-Israel issue alongside others in that network.

Many people are willing to accept that the Islamophobia network is real because we’ve witnessed it for twenty-two years: [Donald] Trump was the most Islamophobic president. But many people don’t realize the connection between those hateful networks and these right-wing Zionist groups. The agenda is the same, which is to deny Muslims free speech, academic freedom, equal opportunity, equal treatment by the government, and effectively treat them as second- or third-class citizens.

Alex N. Press

I want to talk about the report’s recommendations. Those are: include the perspectives of Palestinians in the development of US foreign policy, preserve academic freedom and free speech at American universities, and hold Israel accountable for violations of Palestinian human rights.

Now, those recommendations are well and good — the US should hold Israel accountable, universities should preserve academic freedom — but they aren’t happening. Policymakers are not doing the right thing. So, what can people in the Palestine solidarity movement do? What do you hope our takeaways from your report will be as we fight censorship and criminalization?

Sahar Aziz

Because we’re an academic center, our audience tends to be policymakers, but I think what many in the community and grassroots organizations and student groups are doing right now is precisely what they should be doing: raising awareness through various strategies — whether it’s virtual or in person — so that more Americans understand the injustice, but also to impose pressure on politicians to change how they vote with regard to a cease-fire, with regard to funding the Israeli military’s war crimes against Palestinians.

The challenge there is that it’s clear — and it’s been clear for a few decades now, with the Supreme Court’s blessing — that our politicians are bought by special interest groups and by billionaires. It’s becoming less and less the case that they vote based on the preferences of their constituents rather than the preferences of the few very wealthy donors for their campaigns. Everybody seeking some kind of systemic change faces that challenge. But the power of the people is the direction to go.

I think they’re doing everything right, they just need to keep doing more of it. Whether it’s weekly protests, whether it’s sit-ins, whether it’s teach-ins, the more that people can normalize the humanization of Palestinians, the more we’re likely to see change. We have to change the narrative about Palestinians to see them as human beings: as moms and dads, children, aunts, and uncles and grandparents. So when the death toll is reported, it’s reported as “these humans were killed by a military,” not that they’re random objects that no longer exist. It’s not anything novel, but the hard part is the implementation.

Alex N. Press

Is there anything you want to underline or emphasize from your research about what we’re seeing and why we’re seeing it at such a sort of brutal and extreme scale, both in the violence in Palestine, but also in the censorship and repression we’re seeing here in the United States?

Sahar Aziz

Every American needs to be deeply concerned with the threats to our values that this crisis is exposing, specifically threats to academic freedom — which everyone needs, regardless of their politics or ideological commitments, we all need free speech in order to live in a healthy democracy — the commercialization of universities, especially public universities, where presidents report to boards of donors rather than prioritizing students as a collective, and that would include ensuring that they have free speech rights, academic freedom, and the ability to be exposed to different ideas; and the corruption of our political system by special-interest groups and lobbying groups that make our votes not matter.

When you put all of that together, that is a recipe for authoritarianism in the long run. People want to put a face to threats to democracy by pointing to Trump or some other politician, but those people come and go. The real threats are when we start to accept practices that are authoritarian. When you have the Students for Justice in Palestine being suspended and shut down at various universities, that is a significant threat to free speech, academic freedom, college activism, and the life of the university. That’s going to have long-term implications for higher education and for college students regardless of what they believe in and what their relationship is to Palestine-Israel.

The most important thing is for people to understand the structural changes, and say, no, we have to be committed to these principles and we cannot allow anyone to compromise with these principles, whatever their justification or pretext may be.