For us Palestinian-Americans, the height of election year means it is cringe season. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference, intentionally timed to attract the presidential frontrunners, is a perfect illustration of why. It is at AIPAC after all, that those hoping to become or remain our elected leaders are pandering to powerful pro-Israel groups this week in order to win their favor, or avoid their disfavor.
Typically, this involves pledging undying allegiance to Israel and its security, namely, continuing the over $3 billion in annual military aid and the supply of lethal weaponry, as well as promises to shield Israel from any scrutiny or accountability for its systematic violations of international law. This year we’re hearing these promises and the usual unconditional praise, intensified by the unbridled racism and Islamophobia that certain leading candidates are openly espousing.
"Unsurprisingly, U.S. politicians got the memo and are obediently on message in opposing BDS. And universities have been towed along."
As if all this wasn’t concerning enough, this year those currying AIPAC’s approval are also vilifying the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement. BDS, a nonviolent grassroots movement to pressure Israel to abide by international law and respect Palestinian rights, is the new punching bag for those wishing to publicly flex their pro-Zionist muscles, a shiny new boogie man to fear and loathe.
Long an obsession of the extreme right-wing Netanyahu government, which identified it as “a strategic threat of the first order,” BDS`s efficacy in recent years has made it all the more frightening to those who wish to maintain the status quo of occupation and apartheid. In Israel’s framing, responsibility for the country’s continually spiraling “image problem” lies with BDS—not its nearly seven-decade-long subjugation and military occupation of Palestinians.
Unsurprisingly, U.S. politicians got the memo and are obediently on message in opposing BDS. And universities have been towed along.
Candidates made clear at AIPAC and to pro-Israel donors their view that fighting BDS is a priority. Veiled attacks on advocacy for Palestinian rights, BDS included, are seen in promises to bolster Israel and Jewish students who support it on campuses by combatting the growing student movement for Palestinian rights.
Over several years, my organization, Palestine Legal, has documented a concerted effort by Israel advocacy groups, with the backing of the Israeli government, to shut down Palestine activism. These efforts have focused on U.S. college campuses, where youth activism for Palestinian rights is blossoming. Israel advocacy groups are putting enormous pressure on universities to condemn, censor, and punish student activists and outspoken academics. One of the primary tactics in this war on the movement is the labeling of all advocacy for Palestinian rights and criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic, and therefore a direct attack on Jewish students who support Israel.
The narrative has been so successful that, at the demand of Israel advocacy groups, the University of California Regents considered adopting a policy that would explicitly name “anti-Zionism” as a form of discrimination. Even the L.A. Times declared the folly of such a statement that so baldly tries to silence speech critical of a political ideology. In the face of opposition, this week the Regents adopted an amended version instead condemning “anti-Semitic forms of anti-Zionism.” This new version will undoubtedly be exploited by Israel advocacy groups, who proclaim BDS efforts and other Palestine advocacy to be inherently antisemitic, to further stifle criticism of Israel on campus.
Legislative arenas around the country are another focus of the anti-BDS foot soldiers. In 2015 alone, Palestine Legal documented 22 legislative initiatives taking direct aim at BDS, up from 11 in 2014. Last year, Illinois passed a bill requiring state pension funds to blacklist and divest from companies that boycott Israel, and similar anti-BDS legislation has been introduced in 18 states so far in 2016. New York’s would create a public blacklist of any individual, organization, or company that professes support for a boycott - in case anyone is nostalgic for McCarthyist tactics.
While much of this legislation raises constitutional red flags because of well-established law that recognizes boycotts as protected First Amendment activity, the effect is chilling and the intent is clear: to scare those who advocate for BDS against Israel into silence, and to shield Israel from any collective action for accountability.
It is no doubt because of the impact of BDS campaigns worldwide, which have caused companies profiting off occupation and human rights abuses to pull their business out or take financial losses, that this peaceful movement is the focus of so much revulsion and pressure. It also surely must have something to do with the fact that grassroots activism for Palestinian rights in the U.S. has locked arms with the Black Lives Matter movement and other youth-led social justice uprisings.
As much as candidates try to appeal to certain grassroots movements and deny their indebtedness to their mega-donors, it is clear where their loyalties lie. Billionaires like Sheldon Adelson and Haim Saban have explicit agendas that straddle otherwise rigid party lines, and the candidates oblige.
Mercifully, the election season will pass. But the attacks on those who challenge the Israel/Palestine status quo will persist. We are expecting many more legislative initiatives in the months and years ahead, along with other efforts to silence Palestine advocacy, from lawsuits, to personal attacks, to censorship and other threats to First Amendment rights. It is up to all of us to ensure that those who are engaged in these struggles are protected in doing so.
The fact that every candidate for president is compelled to profess their intent to continue the United States’ reflexive defense of Israel is indication in itself of the massive power imbalance on this issue. The short-term benefits might seem too good to pass up. But in the long term, those who toe Israel’s line will find themselves on the wrong side of history.