A pro-Palestinian rights protester holds a sign.
A pro-Palestinian rights protester holds a sign saying that "Pro-Palestine is not equal to Antisemitism" at a hearing held by the U.S. House Judiciary Committee on November 8, 2023.
(Photo: @codepink/Twitter)

Don’t Stop Speaking About Palestine

No matter the challenges of speaking up in the United States, censorship is deadly for Palestinians.

Every Muslim American knows that speaking up for justice in Palestine means you are punished twice: You face Islamophobia as a Muslim and are defamed as antisemitic for criticizing Israel’s violations of Palestinians’ human rights.

The ample evidence of this backlash against Muslim American legislators such as Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar is instructive. Each time they seek to humanize Palestinians, the attacks on their character are based on an Islamophobic trope that falsely presumes Muslims are taught to hate Jews. This racist stereotype is squarely debunked in a recent groundbreaking report Presumptively Antisemitic: Islamophobic Tropes in the Palestinian-Israel Discourse by the Center for Security, Race, and Rights. This report gives Muslim Americans and the broader global human rights movement a well-researched frame for exposing bad faith attempts to silence Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims from engaging in human rights advocacy.

In the past months. Americans have witnessed how structural and institutional Islamophobic backlash causes people to lose jobs, Palestinian Americans to be shot and stabbed, and protesters to be jailed simply for expressing the view that Palestinians deserve human rights. And when Americans courageously participate in protests calling for a cease-fire in Gaza, New York City Mayor Eric Adams shamefully describes his constituents as extremists. Universities such as Columbia and Rutgers have suppressed student’s speech on Palestine by suspending Students for Justice in Palestine.

The steep penalty for speaking up for Palestinian rights is often higher when you are Muslim.

I have personally experienced the false antisemitic presumption in my career as a human rights lawyer and professor, even though I have devoted my entire professional career to protecting the rights of all vulnerable members of our global society, including efforts to combat real antisemitism. In 2014, after attending a rally in support of Palestinian human rights in Times Square, while waiting for my husband and children to return from the restroom, I was aggressively arrested by a police officer. Recall in 2014, Gaza was bombarded for 50 days with Palestinian children being the most impacted. At the time, I was preparing for a temporary leave from my appointed position as a top lawyer to the New York City Public Advocate to conduct human rights related research in Bangladesh after the tragic death of over 1,100 garment workers.

When I sought out public support for my arrest, one progressive New York elected official wrote: “I saw it on Twitter, and wanted to express sympathy, but the complexity of the overlapping issues of Palestine and policing are more complicated than I could figure out how to address in 140 characters.” The elected official was willing to speak on the policing aspect of my unlawful arrest, but not on Palestine because speaking on Palestine would have consequences for their electability.

I filed a lawsuit challenging the arrest, not hiding the fact I was present at Times Square supporting Palestine, and that I viewed the arrest as Islamophobic. When the media contacted my city employer, they said I did not work there. The message was clear. So, I returned to New York after my human rights research fellowship with no job, even though I had been appointed as “top counsel” to the city. With elite law firms proudly rescinding offers to law students who support international law and the Palestinians, I fear their fate—and understand this form of repression is all too common. I know from my volunteer work providing legal advice and support to those who lost their livelihoods due to Palestine speech that educators, healthcare workers, and people from all professions have experienced harassment, discrimination, and job loss simply for expressing support for Palestine.

Four years after that baseless arrest, I joined the faculty at CUNY School of Law. My participation in collective efforts to lift up Palestinian human rights makes me a McCarthyistic target of right-wing Zionist groups who collapse the distinction between holding anti-Zionist principles and harboring anti-Jewish bigotry. Each time I sign a petition on Palestinian rights, I receive emails baselessly labeling me an “antisemite.”

Months before Israel’s current siege on Gaza, right-wing organizations and media outlets called for funding to be cut for CUNY because our Muslim graduation student speaker, elected by her peers, spoke on police brutality and Israel’s human rights violations. Her comments were consistent with United Nations reports finding that the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory is unlawful under international law. Every major human rights organization has long issued similar statements of fact.

Presumptively Antisemitic highlights how students experience a hostile academic environment that impedes their ability to learn and closes all opportunities for greater understanding among students. We are observing this Islamophobic backlash right now as CUNY students of all faiths and ethnicities organize around Palestinian human rights—but none are more targeted and slandered than Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim students. As Presumptively Antisemitic aptly states, “Islamophobia is weaponized to deny Palestinians recognition of their civil, human, and national rights while upholding the consistent partiality of U.S. policy in favor of Israel.”

The steep penalty for speaking up for Palestinian rights is often higher when you are Muslim. Presumptively Antisemitic describes this reality as a “racialized double standard.” When Muslim Americans exercise their constitutionally protected “free speech” rights to criticize the U.S. government’s persistent failure to hold Israel accountable for its systemic violations of Palestinians’ human rights, they are often “treated as security and cultural threats deserving of social stigma at best or criminalization at worst.”

Recently I saw a meme pop up on one of my social media feeds that read: “Don’t Stop Talking About Palestine.” It was a much-needed reminder that censorship is deadly for Palestinians. At present count, the death toll exceeds 20,000, with no end in sight. No matter the challenges we may individually face, even myself as a South Asian-origin Muslim in a professional position, they pale in comparison to Israel’s unrelenting bombardment and starvation of Palestinians.

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