[News] 2018 Year-In-Review: Censorship of Palestine Advocacy in the U.S. Intensifies

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Thu Jan 24 12:38:36 EST 2019


  2018 Year-In-Review: Censorship of Palestine Advocacy in the U.S.

January 24, 2019

As students planned to gather at UCLA in November 2018 for a conference 
on Palestinian rights, they faced unprecedented international efforts to 
shut it down.

One city councilmember falsely accused students of engaging in terrorist 
plots. The entire council called on the university to censor the 
conference. A Zionist group physically assaulted students, while 
chanting anti-Arab, anti-Muslim taunts. A congressman wrote to the 
university falsely accusing students of antisemitism and demanding that 
the conference be cancelled. The university sent students a legal threat 
letter claiming that kites are a symbol of violence and demanding that 
they alter their logo. An Israeli government-sponsored app directed 
people to complain of an unsafe environment on campus.

Despite the international pressure campaign against the conference, 
National Students for Justice in Palestine (NSJP) held their largest 
gathering ever.

The threats against the NSJP conference – and activists’ resilience – 
are a microcosm of deepening efforts by Israel advocates to silence the 
movement for Palestinian rights in the United States.

Palestine Legal responded to *289 incidents of suppression* of 
U.S.-based Palestine advocacy in 2018, on top of the 308 incidents 
responded to in 2017. Seventy-six percent targeted students and scholars 
at 68 campuses across the country. Additionally, Palestine Legal 
responded to 62 legal questions from activists who were concerned their 
rights were threatened.

Over five years, from January 1, 2014, through December 31, 2018, 
Palestine Legal responded to a total of *1,247 incidents of suppression* 
targeting speech supportive of Palestinian rights, and an additional 318 
requests for legal assistance in anticipation of such incidents. This 
data reflects only what was directly reported to Palestine Legal, and 
therefore is not an exhaustive account of the suppression.

In 2018, the volume of suppression incidents reported to Palestine Legal 
remained steady, while the severity increased. The level of involvement 
by government actors grew significantly, as Trump appointees implemented 
an anti-Palestinian agenda, as legislatures targeted Palestinian rights 
advocacy, and as law enforcement investigated activists. New lawsuits 
against people who take a public stand for Palestinian rights and the 
continued harassment of students and scholars intensified the chilling 
effects of suppression.

Despite this evolving threat, however, the movement for Palestinian 
rights in the U.S. continues to gain steam, and a growing number of 
people are compelled to speak up for freedom, equality, and justice for 
Palestinians. Moreover, courts are confirming that advocacy for 
Palestinian rights, including boycotts, are protected First Amendment 
activities. Bold new elected officials are standing up against efforts 
to undermine our constitutional rights, opening a path for those who 
oppose the U.S. government’s unconditional support for Israel.

In blatant disregard of the First Amendment, government actors have 
increasingly had a direct hand in censoring Palestine advocacy. This 
censorship originates at all levels of government – from Trump-appointee 
Kenneth Marcus to FBI agents, administrators at public universities, and 
both Democratic and Republican state governors. These actions have also 
empowered anti-Palestinian groups, who, unfettered by the First 
Amendment, have used the tools provided by the government to further 
chill activism.

    Trump Administration Redefines Antisemitism

In June 2018, Trump-appointee Kenneth Marcus was confirmed as head of 
the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) at the Department of Education. Prior 
to joining the Trump administration, Marcus crafted a legal strategy of 
using civil rights law 
<https://palestinelegal.org/news/2017/11/29/kenneth-marcus> to target 
campus criticism of Israel, including by promoting and filing baseless 
complaints with OCR. At the time, OCR investigated and dismissed these 

Within weeks of taking office, Marcus reopened a previously dismissed 
complaint by the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) against Rutgers 
University over a 2011 event featuring survivors of the Holocaust and 
the Nakba. In notifying the ZOA of the reopened investigation, Marcus 
adopted a widely criticized re-definition of 
that classifies virtually all criticism of Israel as antisemitic.

Marcus’ appointment and his adoption of a hotly contested definition 
began to have significant repercussions in 2018. The ZOA and other 
pro-Israel groups were quick to capitalize on the redefinition and the 
presence of ideological allies in the administration.

*Professor Sanctioned Over Academic Boycott: *In September, University 
of Michigan Professor John Cheney-Lippold declined 
<https://palestinelegal.org/case-studies/2018/12/7/umich-suppression> to 
write a letter of recommendation for a study abroad program in Israel 
because he supports the academic boycott for Palestinian rights. 
Right-wing pro-Israel groups launched a campaign demanding that he be 
disciplined over his political statement. Within days, he received over 
500 hate messages, including emails calling for him to be killed. The 
ZOA wrote the University of Michigan, demanding that Cheney-Lippold be 
sanctioned. In its letter, the ZOA cited the reopened Rutgers 
investigation and the re-definition of antisemitism, using the threat of 
federal investigation to pressure the university to take action. The 
university sanctioned Cheney-Lippold with a loss of his earned 
sabbatical for two years and no merit increase for the academic year.

*Federal Complaint Against Student Vigil: *In November, students from 
Jewish Voice for Peace and Students for Justice in Palestine at the 
University of California, Berkeley, planned a vigil to jointly mourn the 
Jewish worshippers killed in the Tree of Life synagogue massacre in 
Pittsburgh and the Palestinian children killed in Israeli air raids in 
Gaza. After antisemitism accusations and threats to their safety, the 
students decided to cancel the event. Students eventually held a small 
private event instead of the shared public experience they had 
originally envisioned. Attorneys representing a pro-Israel group on 
campus wrote to OCR demanding 
that the students be expelled because the event created a “false moral 
equivalency” by insinuating Israelis are “mass murderers,” which would 
be considered antisemitic under OCR’s re-definition.

*Professor Threatens Event Organizer:* In September, a faculty member at 
San Jose State University organized a panel discussion 
<https://palestinelegal.org/news/san-jose-state-event> about the 
suppression of speech critical of Israeli policies. Another professor 
emailed her complaining that the event only presented “one viewpoint.” 
The professor warned against holding the event unless the department 
added pro-Israel perspectives to the panel or in a future event. The 
email included a link to an article on the reopened Rutgers 
investigation, implying that the school could be investigated by the 
Department of Education for “anti-Zionist activities.”

    Anti-Palestinian Legislation

By the end of 2018, 26 states had laws on the books intended to suppress 
boycotts for Palestinian rights.

*In the U.S. Congress*, four federal measures targeting advocacy for 
Palestinian rights were introduced in 2018, all of which failed to 
advance despite heavy lobbying by Israel advocacy groups. Most 


    The Anti-Semitism Awareness Act (ASAA) would have directed the
    Department of Education to use the widely discredited “State
    Department Definition” of antisemitism when investigating complaints
    on campuses. The re-definition is so broad it classifies virtually
    all criticism of Israel and Israeli government policies as
    antisemitic. As in 2016, the bill failed to advance, but members of
    Congress are expected to continue introducing similar legislation.


    Sponsors of the Israel Anti-Boycott Act (IABA), a bill introduced in
    2017 to criminalize certain boycotts of Israel, attempted to insert
    the legislation into an end-of-year appropriations bill. These
    efforts failed due to widespread opposition
    including from senators Bernie Sanders and Dianne Feinstein who
    the bill as a violation of the First Amendment.

*State lawmakers* introduced at least twelve additional measures in 
2018. Executive orders issued by the governors of Louisiana and Kentucky 
required state contracts to include pledges not to boycott Israel. 
Kentucky’s governor stated that Israeli Prime Minister 
asked him to issue such an order.

*First Amendment Lawsuits: *Federal judges in *Arizona* 
<https://palestinelegal.org/news/victory-federal-court-az-law> and 
issued preliminary injunctions against anti-boycott laws in those 
states, blocking their enforcement. Both judges confirmed that boycotts 
for Palestinian rights are protected First Amendment activities and that 
requiring state contractors to certify that they do not boycott Israel 
is unconstitutional. As the judge in the Kansas case noted, by forcing 
its contractors to disavow boycotts for Palestinian rights, Kansas was 
forcing them to “accommodate Kansas’s message of support for Israel.” 
Kansas amended its law to end the lawsuit. The Arizona law is blocked 
pending appeal of the decision to the Ninth Circuit.

In *Texas* 
<https://palestinelegal.org/news/new-lawsuits-arkansas-texas>, the ACLU 
and the Council on American-Islamic Relations both filed lawsuits on 
behalf of individuals who lost contracts or had to forgo payment because 
of the Texas anti-boycott law. The ACLU also sued *Arkansas* on behalf 
of a newspaper publisher that refused to sign a certification that it 
would not boycott Israel.

*Chilling Impact:* While individuals directly affected by anti-boycott 
laws have so far been successful in challenging them, the laws have 
repeatedly been invoked to chill pro-Palestinian speech more broadly. 
For example, an Indiana University student cited state law in claiming 
the school must censor 
<https://palestinelegal.org/news/2018/12/17/iipac-jamil-dakwar> speakers 
who support the movement to boycott for Palestinian rights. In another 
case, the Zionist Organization of America called for the investigation 
<https://palestinelegal.org/news/zoa-cheryl-davila-berkeley> of a member 
of the Berkeley city council who publicly support boycotts for 
Palestinian rights. Though California’s law simply requires state 
contractors to verify compliance with existing anti-discrimination laws, 
the ZOA claimed that the state has a public policy against such boycotts

    Lawmakers Censor Constituents Online

At least two lawmakers censored activists on social media over comments 
supporting Palestinian rights. Dana Al-Hasan, a student activist in 
South Carolina, was blocked 
on Twitter by State Representative Alan Clemmons, a staunch supporter of 
Israel, after she mentioned him in a tweet criticizing discriminatory 
Israeli policies. Clemmons unblocked Al-Hasan after Palestine Legal 
wrote to him explaining that he had violated her First Amendment rights.

    Law Enforcement Scrutiny of Palestine Activists

In 2018, pro-Palestinian activists contacted Palestine Legal for support 
in five different cases after being approached by the FBI. For example, 
FBI agents visited the home of a UCLA student in February to ask her 
about her activism for Palestinian rights, prompting Palestine Legal to 
issue a know your rights advisory 
Officers from the Department of Homeland Security showed up to a June 
symposium hosted by USA-Palestine Mental Health Network. The event had 
earlier faced calls for cancellation and demands for police presence 
<https://palestinelegal.org/news/mental-health-palestine-event>. Israel 
advocacy groups repeatedly petitioned law enforcement authorities to 
prosecute students and community organizations who voice support for 
Palestinian rights under criminal codes, for example at Stanford 

As in previous years, students and scholars continue to be the primary 
target for backlash and censorship. Seventy-six percent of the incidents 
Palestine Legal responded to in 2018 were campus related. Palestine 
Legal responded to 51 administrative complaints against Palestine 
activists, double the number from 2017.

*Temple Investigates Marc Lamont Hill Over UN Speech: *At an event at 
the United Nations in November, Temple University professor Marc Lamont 
Hill spoke about ways in which Israel denies equality to Palestinians 
and about parallels with the Black experience in the U.S. He ended his 
speech calling for “a free Palestine from the river to the sea.” The 
next day he was fired by CNN, where he had been on contract as a 
commentator. The chair of Temple’s board announced that he wanted to 
fire Hill and that the school would investigate 
its options. Two weeks later, Temple released a statement recognizing 
that Hill’s speech was protected by the First Amendment.

*Graduate Students Investigated Over Support for Palestine:* A graduate 
student <https://palestinelegal.org/news/victory-cuny-clears-student> at 
the City University of New York (CUNY) was investigated after making 
comments critical of Israel in an email exchange on a departmental 
listserve. Palestine Legal wrote to CUNY explaining that the student’s 
comments were protected by the First Amendment. After a nearly 
three-month investigation, the university cleared the student.

In California, a graduate student was called in for a meeting with the 
chair of her department after a classmate falsely accused her of saying 
that Zionists are not human. Though the investigation was terminated 
within a few days after multiple witnesses confirmed that no such 
statement was made, the incident had a significant chilling impact. Most 
notably, it prompted the professor to warn the student that she should 
self-censor a paper on Palestinian history that would be reviewed by her 

*Pro-Israel Group Files Complaint Against Columbia Students: *In 
February, Students Supporting Israel filed a formal complaint 
against students for “delegitimiz[ing]” Israel. The complaint named 
Students for Justice in Palestine, Jewish Voice for Peace, Columbia 
University Apartheid Divest and three Columbia students affiliated with 
these groups. It was dismissed in April.

*CCNY Cancels SJP Event: *In April, administrators at the City College 
of New York told Students for Justice in Palestine that they 
the group’s event featuring Israeli author Miko Peled.  At first the 
administrator said the problem was the speaker’s “particularly 
controversial” views and that the school wanted to avoid negative news 
coverage. The same administrator then erroneously claimed that SJP had 
not filed the proper paperwork. After Palestine Legal and Center for 
Constitutional Rights (CCR) intervened, the school allowed the event to 
proceed and apologized to SJP.

As the American public becomes increasingly aware of the Israeli 
government’s oppression of Palestinians, supporters of Israel have 
resorted to underhanded attempts to stifle debate and democratic 
decision making.

*Government-Sponsored App Interferes with On-Campus Debate: *Act.IL, an 
app funded in part by the Israeli government 
directs users from around the world on “missions” to promote Israel’s 
agenda online. During a student senate vote on whether George Washington 
University should divest from companies that facilitate Israel’s 
violations of international law, the app directed users to promote a 
website that threatened to reveal the identities 
of student senators who had voted by secret ballot over concerns for 
their safety. When similar resolutions were being considered by students 
at City University of New York 
<https://twitter.com/AntiBDSApp/status/992030145799249922> and New York 
University <https://twitter.com/AntiBDSApp/status/1069977048968503296>, 
the app directed users to sign petitions against the resolution.

*Anonymous Online Harassment: *Revelations in 2018 shed new light on the 
growing problem of online harassment against supporters of Palestinian 
rights. Footage 
that Electronic Intifada released from a censored Al Jazeera documentary 
shows Jacob Baime, the head of the Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC), 
describing their strategy: “With the anti-Israel people, what’s most 
effective, what we’ve found at least in the last year, is you do the 
opposition research, put up some anonymous website, and then put up 
targeted Facebook ads.” In 2018, anonymous websites made false 
accusations against numerous activists, including sites that targeted 
campus communities such as UCLA and Columbia. The sites were promoted 
through paid ads on Facebook and Instagram. ICC has taken credit for 
similar “anonymous digital campaigns 
including the site SJP Uncovered 

Palestine Legal received several reports of Israeli security 
officials relying on the blacklisting site Canary Mission during airport 
screening as well as reports of employers questioning activists about 
the site. As of January 2019, the site had profiles of 1,853 individuals 
and 563 professors. Though the site continues to operate anonymously, 
there were new revelations in 2018 about the people 
and funding 
behind the site, and an increasing recognition, even by supporters of 
of the site’s damaging tactics.

*“Pollsters” Claim Hamas Supports City Council Resolution:* In April, 
the city council in Cambridge, Massachusetts, planned to consider a 
resolution on boycotting Hewlett-Packard over its role in facilitating 
abuses by Israel. Just ahead of the vote, anonymous callers claiming to 
be taking a poll reportedly called residents to ask if they would be 
more or less likely to support a policy if they knew a recognized 
terrorist organization was promoting it, later mentioning Hamas. The 
same resolution was also the target of an Act.IL mission 
<https://twitter.com/AntiBDSApp/status/986650852008972289>. After the 
backlash, the resolution was never brought to a vote.

Anti-Palestinian groups continued to issue legal threats and file 
lawsuits to silence the movement for Palestinian rights. In 2018, 
Palestine Legal responded to 28 lawsuits or threats of lawsuits or 
criminal prosecution.

*Lawsuit Against San Francisco State and Professor Abdulhadi: *In March 
and again in October, a federal courtdismissed 
a baseless lawsuit that sought to compel the university to restrict the 
speech of students and faculty who support Palestinian freedom. After 
the complaint was first dismissed in March, the plaintiffs filed a 
similar lawsuit in California state court. The plaintiffs also filed an 
appeal with the Ninth Circuit.

*Threat Against Tech Company: *In December, Shurat HaDin, an Israeli 
government-linked law firm, sent 
a threat letter to the donation platform Donorbox claiming that they 
would be subject to civil and criminal penalties for providing services 
to the Palestinian Boycott National Committee (BNC). The letter claimed 
that Donorbox was supporting terrorism by processing donations for the 
BNC, a Palestinian coalition that advocates for boycotts, divestment, 
and sanctions in order to secure freedom and equality for Palestinians. 
The letter prompted Donorbox to suspend the BNC’s account at the height 
of the charity-giving season.

*Lawsuits Against City of Durham: *In April, activists in Durham, North 
Carolina, successfully campaigned for a statement from the city council 
stating that Durham police officers would not engage in training in 
Israel. In October, a pro-Israel group filed a lawsuit on behalf of two 
volunteer police officers in Israel who alleged 
<https://www.heraldsun.com/news/local/article220896635.html> that the 
policy discriminates against them. In December, another suit was filed 
claiming <https://www.heraldsun.com/news/local/article222748170.html> 
that the mayor violated open meeting laws by notifying city council 
members via email that he planned to raise the issue the next day.

    /Case Study: National Students for Justice in Palestine Conference
    at UCLA/

/In November 2018, students from throughout the United States and Canada 
gathered on the campus of the University of California, Los Angeles, for 
the eighth annual National Students for Justice in Palestine conference. 
In advance of the conference, Israel advocacy organizations mobilized a 
widespread campaign to shut it down. /

/These efforts included demands and legal threats from professional 
Israel advocacy organizations, a //widely/ 
from the Los Angeles City Council, petitions full of false allegations 
of supporting terrorism from pro-Israel students and alumni, a letter 
from a member of Congress demanding UCLA take unconstitutional action to 
cancel the conference, and aggressive protests before and during the 
conference where protestors hurled racists insults and reportedly 
physical assaulted three students. During one protest, an LA City 
Council member spoke to the crowd, suggesting that student attendees of 
the conference were “plotting terrorism.” /

/The university permitted the conference to proceed, but not before 
issuing an //unsubstantiated claim of trademark infringement/ 
demanding that the conference alter its logo. The university also 
required an overwhelming presence of administrators, campus police, and 
private security throughout the conference. /

/When the conference went forward, Israel advocates responded by 
immediately filing a complaint with the federal government demanding 
that UCLA be investigated for engaging in an intentional act of 
antisemitism by allowing the conference to take place. /

/Despite efforts to shut it down, the conference was the largest in the 
group’s history. /

*Lawsuits Against Airbnb: *In November, Airbnb announced its plan to 
stop listing properties in illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank. 
Within weeks – before Airbnb even implemented its decision – the company 
faced an arbitration claim in New York, a lawsuit 
<https://palestinelegal.org/news/airbnb-statement> in a Delaware federal 
court, complaint 
to the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Office of Antiboycott 
Compliance, and announcements from lawmakers in Illinois 
and Florida 
that they would investigate blacklisting Airbnb under their states’ 
anti-boycott laws.

*Legal Threat to Barnard College: *In August, the Lawfare Project sent a 
letter to Barnard College, threatening the school with criminal 
liability for supporting terrorism if it went forward with hosting an 
event titled “Breaking Bars: Fighting Incarceration from the US to 
Palestine.” The event, which featured speakers from the Palestinian 
human rights and prisoner support group Addameer, went on as planned 
despite the attempted intimidation.

Activists frequently reported being blocked by Twitter or Facebook or 
having content removed because of posts criticizing Israel or supporting 
Palestinian human rights. For example, in July, the American-Jewish 
group IfNotNow reported 
that a video of a student walking out on an Israeli propaganda tour had 
been deleted by Facebook without explanation. In December, the online 
news outlet Electronic Intifada reported that its Twitter account had 
been locked 
after posting a link to an article on clandestine operations of the 
Israeli military.

Universities also investigated students over posts on Twitter and Facebook.

*Stanford Student Pressured to Resign: *In July, a Stanford student 
faced a barrage of threats 
and calls for the school to fire him from his on-campus job after he 
idiomatically used the phrase “physically fight” in a Facebook post 
criticizing a discriminatory Israeli law. He was investigated by 
Stanford, a lawyer threatened to sue the school, and an Israel advocacy 
group filed a baseless criminal complaint with local prosecutors. He 
ultimately resigned from his position.

*Texas Student Banned from Class: *In October, a student at the 
University of Texas at Austin was banned 
<https://twitter.com/sassysamosa/status/1052781914254389248> from class 
after posting a tweet referring to a classmate as a Zionist. She was 
told her post was antisemitic because the classmate, an outspoken 
supporter of Israel, does not self-identify as a Zionist.

Parents and pro-Israel groups launched campaigns against teachers at 
several high schools for teaching about Palestine and acknowledging 
Palestinian deaths.

*Hearing on History Curriculum*:**High school teachers in Newton, 
Massachusetts, who taught their students about the Middle East had to 
their history curriculum against claims of anti-Israel and pro-Muslim 
bias, culminating in a public hearing in November.

*History Teachers Forced Out*: A history teacher at a New York City prep 
school faced an investigation 
in May after he posted an Amnesty International article and the names of 
Palestinians who had been killed on the door of his classroom. The 
posting sparked a coordinated campaign against the teacher in which he 
was falsely accused of bias in the classroom. The campaign also swept up 
the head of the history department, who resigned in protest after his 
course on Israel and Palestine was canceled.

*Death Threat After Moment of Silence*: In May, the assistant principal 
at a New York City public school received a death threat 
and a petition from parents accusing the school of supporting terrorism 
and violating school regulations after the school held a moment of 
silence for Palestinians killed during protests in Gaza.

Throughout the year, activists in the movement for Palestine rights 
reported being bombarded online with graphic death threats after their 
names were publicized on right-wing pro-Israel websites. Several 
students reported being physically assaulted by Zionists on campus. One 
reported attack took place at UCLA 
in the days leading up to the National Students for Justice in Palestine 
conference and involved a far-right group called Yad Yamin. Members of 
the Jewish Defense League, another far-right group designated by the FBI 
as terrorist organization, were prominently visible 
at a rally at Columbia University in October, where one attendee called 
on pro-Israel students to engage in physical aggression.

The majority of suppression incidents are based on underlying false 
accusations of antisemitism and/or support for terrorism. Palestine 
Legal responded to 142 incidents where Israel advocates levied false 
accusations of antisemitism based solely on speech supportive of 
Palestinian rights, making up 51 percent of our caseload. In 93 
incidents – 33 percent of our cases – activists were falsely accused of 
supporting violence or terrorism based solely on speech supportive of 

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
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