Stifling Discussion Over Palestinian Human Rights

By: Ron Forthofer, Ph.D

For too long, people supporting human rights and international law in relation to the Palestinian/Israeli issue have been reluctant to speak out. Many university faculty members didn’t want to get involved in an issue that they believed might cost them their jobs or tenure.

Politicians were afraid of the power of the Israel Lobby. For example, in 1974 funding from the Lobby played a major role in ousting Senator J. William Fulbright, one of the more powerful and courageous senators, and his defeat sent a loud message to others. He had earned the enmity of the Lobby by exposing its activities during Senate hearings in 1963, and this enmity was increased with Fulbright’s appearance on “Face the Nation” in 1973. Fulbright then stated”… Somewhere around 80 percent of the Senate of the United States is completely in support of Israel and of anything Israel wants.” The Lobby helped to defeat a number of other politicians who didn’t toe the Lobby’s line on Israel. However, the Israel Lobby hasn’t always won.

Other individuals were afraid of being smeared as being anti-Semitic. Jews respecting Palestinian rights were concerned about being ostracized in their community and of being labeled as self-hating.

Even the mainstream media were intimidated by the potential loss of ad revenue if they reported on Israeli violations of human rights and international law. In addition, the New York Times, the Washington Post and National Public Radio provide particularly egregious examples of pro-Israel reporting. Since they use correspondents with apparent conflicts of interest, it is not surprising that these media badly misinform the public on this crucial issue.

If a person couldn’t be smeared, there were other ways of dealing with them. For example, during a three-day visit to Australia in October 1990, Nelson Mandela discussed the Palestinian people: “We identify with them because we do not believe it is right for the Israeli government to suppress basic human rights in the conquered territories.” He continued that the ANC does not consider the PLO a terrorist group, adding: “If one has to refer to any of the parties as a terrorist state, one might refer to the Israeli government, because they are the people who are slaughtering defenseless and innocent Arabs in the occupied territories, and we don’t regard that as acceptable.”

In 1997, on the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, Mandela said it was important for South Africans “to add our own voice to the universal call for Palestinian self-determination and statehood” because “we know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians ….” Note how the mainstream media omitted his support for the Palestinian people in covering his death. The media also omitted any mention of Senator Fulbright’s concern about the Lobby’s vast violations of U.S. laws.

Today more people are becoming informed on this issue. Israel’s horrific bombing attacks on Lebanon in 2006 and on Gaza in 2006, 2008/09 and again in 2012 shocked people worldwide. Israel’s attacks on unarmed and peaceful flotillas bringing aid to Gaza also brought home Israeli brutality.

Many church groups have gone to Palestine and seen firsthand the harshness of the Israeli occupation. In addition, some Israeli and U.S. Jews who are ashamed of the treatment of Palestinians are speaking up as well as acting together. Jewish Voice for Peace is one of those groups that strongly challenges many Israeli policies. Thus it is harder for the Israel Lobby to control the story today although it still tries.

For example, based on the continuing U.S. government support for Israel’s long persecution of Palestinians, the American Studies Association recently passed a resolution endorsing a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. Since the ASA resolution was endorsed, there has been a campaign to divert attention from Israeli violations of human rights and international law to a bogus concern about academic freedom. I claim that the concern is bogus because the critics of the ASA have not shown any concern about the decades of violations of Palestinian human rights, let alone their academic freedoms.

Israel’s supporters have also managed to have bills introduced in New York and Maryland as well as Congress that would violate true academic freedom. The House bill (H.R. 4009) would mandate the denial of federal funds to any institution in which one of its organizations adopted a resolution or issued a statement in support of the boycott.

University campuses are a crucial battleground today. For example, in 2012, following widespread campus activism by supporters of Palestinian human rights, the California Legislature passed a non-binding resolution. This resolution attacked the freedom of speech of students and the academic freedom of faculty by equating legitimate criticisms of Israeli policies with anti-Semitism. It is important to note that the critics of the ASA resolution did not participate in a campaign to counter this terrible resolution.

The group StandWithUs is particularly active on campuses and targets supporters of Palestinian human rights. A report by Mondoweiss provides documentation one of these efforts, that includes the provision of dossiers of activists.

Showing the Lobby’s desperation, even Jewish groups that question some Israeli policies can be attacked. In the March/April issue of The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Allan Brownfeld wrote about the Jewish campus group Hillel and its attempt to stifle debate on campuses. Brownfeld quoted from a December 29, 2013 New York Times story: “Hillet’s…staff members on more than a dozen campuses have refused to allow J Street U…to co-sponsor events. The explanation was that donors to Hillel do not support J Street, which…is critical of Israeli settlement building and the occupation of the West Bank.”

Brownfeld also quoted from a letter by Michele Sachar, whose grandfather originally built Hillel: “Our willingness to engage dissenters rested on logic and morality. I fear that the trend to stifle legitimate criticism of Israel comes from a collective fear: that the occupation of the West Bank has forced Israel and those who unquestionably support it to cede the moral high ground.

I strongly concur with Sachar’s point about the moral high ground, but I think that those who unquestionably support Israel lost the moral high ground at least as early as the 1940s. That was the period when armed and violent Jewish terrorists used assassinations and other violent attacks on Palestinians and British officials and military, quickly followed by the ethnic cleansing of over 700,000 Palestinians.

Despite the highly biased mainstream media reporting and Hollywood’s negative role, awareness is growing and views are changing. The many excellent sources of more objective information available on the web play an important role in this change. People traveling to Palestine, meeting with Palestinians and sharing their experiences, as well as an increased number of human rights activists speaking out, also help to change perceptions. There is finally a glimmer of hope for a just resolution of this one-sided conflict.

About the author: Dr. Ron Forthofer, a retired Professor of Biostatics, currently works as a volunteer promoting peace and social justice. He was also Green Party‘s candidate for the US Congress as well as the Governorship of Colorado.