World / November 10, 2023

The Smearing of Rashida Tlaib and the Palestinian Calls for Freedom

The only Palestinian member of Congress was censured, but she has every reason to wear that as a badge of honor.

Yousef Munayyer

Participants at a pro-Palestine rally at the Neptune Fountain hold a banner reading “From the river to the sea, we demand equality.”

(J'rg Carstensen / picture-alliance / dpa / AP Images)

It is not a surprise that Palestinians are being attacked for calling for freedom in their homeland. For decades, the Israeli government and its allies have been trying to blunt any movement to hold them accountable. Recently this has taken the form of demonizing the protest chant, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” When Representative Rashida Tlaib, the lone Palestinian American member of Congress, uttered these words, she explained that the slogan was an aspirational call for freedom. No matter. Her colleagues, including 22 Democrats, censured her with a formal resolution that alleged the phrase “clearly” entailed “Israel’s destruction.”

That’s ridiculous of course. As I’ve written before, the idea that “from the river to the sea” carries genocidal intent is not true and has historically never been true. But, as I wrote, “it is in this space that Palestinians seek to live freely. It is across this space—and across the political and geographic divisions that Israeli rule has imposed—that Palestinians must unite to create change.”

I’ve written about this before, because this has happened before. Oppressive governments often attack the message and the messenger. The recent discourse around “the river to the sea” reminded me of some of the narratives around “Black Lives Matter.” There was no shortage of voices who responded to this much-needed movement by demonizing its slogan. It distracts from the calls for change and instead makes those mobilizing for justice the subject of scrutiny. We heard criticism that ranged from putative liberals who asked “Why not say all lives matter?” to those on the far right who saw the movement as a veiled call for white genocide. Many critics of BLM tried to turn the protesters into villains, and relied on deeply embedded societal racism to attempt to convince people that the organizers were actually deceptive, violent, and dangerous charlatans and that the only way to deal with them was to “send in the troops.”

This prompted the circulation of a meme with the quote, “Equal rights does not mean less rights for you. It’s not pie.”

But for many Zionists and the state of Israel, equal rights is seen as a pie. When Palestinian members of the Israeli Knesset put forward legislation to make Israel a “state of all its citizens,” the Knesset banned it from even being discussed, and the Israeli Supreme Court agreed that the legislation needn’t be considered.

Today between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, there is effectively one state, the state of Israel, and it rules over millions of Palestinians who are denied justice and equality. When we call for freedom from the river to the sea, it is this context we are responding to. We are calling for an end to Israeli domination, not for destruction of anyone but for the dismantling of unjust laws, systems, and practices. But to those who want to undermine our calls for freedom and support this system of injustice, it does not matter what we say our words mean.

Perhaps the most insidious part of the pile-on against Tlaib is that even though she went out of her way to explain that the phrase was not a call to Jewish genocide as some of her detractors preposterously alleged, it didn’t matter. Her critics had already determined what she thought, because she is Palestinian. This “we’ll tell you what you mean” attitude harks back to the Islamophobic hysteria of the early War on Terror period when we so often heard Muslims being told, “We learned everything we need to know about Islam on 9/11.” In committing to willful ignorance and bigotry, Tlaib’s opponents dehumanize Palestinians, silence them, and portray them as a monolith of barbarians. It is the pinnacle of racism.

What makes the attack on Tlaib even more absurd is that while Congress is demonizing calls for freedom in a space where Palestinians are systematically denied it, that same Congress supports the government of Israel, which explicitly commits to denying freedom to Palestinians from the river to the sea.

The original charter of the Likud party, the party of the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu states, “between the Sea and the Jordan there will only be Israeli sovereignty.”A more recent version, updated to reflect the party’s position in the two-state solution era, made this point clear as well, saying, “The Government of Israel flatly rejects the establishment of a Palestinian Arab state west of the Jordan river.” Recently, when establishing the most far-right government in Israeli history, Netanyahu announced its agenda. The top item was, “The Jewish people have an exclusive and indisputable right to all areas of the Land of Israel. The government will promote and develop settlement in all parts of the Land of Israel—in the Galilee, the Negev, the Golan, Judea and Samaria.”

This is not the protest chant of some college students or a comment from the only Palestinian American member of Congress. It is the stated policy of the party that runs the Israeli government, which controls the space between the river and the sea, and is committing war crimes in service of this agenda. Israel is conducting a war on the entire population of Gaza. In a month, it killed more than 10,000 people, over 4,000 of them children. It is targeting civilian infrastructure and denying life-sustaining resources like water, food, and fuel to all 2.2 million people in Gaza. Israeli officials have repeatedly used dehumanizing language and characterized the whole population as targets. No person of conscience should be able to look at what Israel is doing in Gaza along with its statements and policies of collective punishment and dismiss concerns of genocide.

In the West Bank, this government is committed to annexation and the continued expansion of Israeli settlements while escalating its military occupation. In recent years the number of Palestinians killed by Israeli soldiers in the West Bank has skyrocketed.

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Inside Israel, Palestinian citizens, who have always been second-class citizens in the Jewish state, are being arrested for protesting. This includes Palestinian members of the Knesset, some of whom were sponsors of the bill to make Israel a state of all its citizens.

Congress is not accusing the Israeli government of seeking to destroy Palestine or Palestinian life. Nor is Congress censuring Israel or Benjamin Netanyahu. Instead, in 2015, it gave Netanyahu 22 standing ovations during a 40-minute speech. Congress also forks over billions of American taxpayer dollars annually, ensuring that the Israeli government can keep denying freedom to Palestinians from the river to the sea while shutting down any opposition. When it comes to Gaza, a Congress so deeply supportive of the oppression of Palestinians has no moral standing to censure Tlaib. If anything, censure from a Congress with no moral compass is something Tlaib should wear as a badge of honor.

Whatever Congress might say, people of conscience across the world are appalled at what Israel is doing. As Israel continues to move further to the right, expand settlements, eliminate entire Palestinian families in Gaza, an increasing number of people around the world will object to this oppression, and demand that their governments do something about it.

The Israeli government, dominated by right-wingers intent on perpetual apartheid, has known this for a long time. Years ago, the Israeli government charged one of its agencies, the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs, with building a global effort to combat civil-society calls for boycotts, divestment, and sanctions. Together, the government and its partner organizations pushed for anti-BDS laws around the world. It has targeted student groups and universities and encouraged legal action against those who support even these nonviolent calls for accountability.

But in the United States, in addition to apartheid being a hard sell in the 21st century, they ran into a few problems. First, when you try to repress nonviolent dissent, you come off looking like the bad guy you actually are, which tends to create more opponents than allies. Second, the First Amendment stands in the way of many of these repressive campaigns. Seeing these challenges, the Israeli government-backed campaigns turned to smear campaigns that alleged spurious connections to terrorism and antisemitism to get around freedom-of-expression protections and direct the repression of law enforcement against their targets.

This past month, the Anti-Defamation League and the Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under the Law, two pro-Israel organizations that have cooperated with the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs, sent letters to college presidents demanding that they investigate pro-Palestinian student for antisemitism and ties to terrorists.

Set aside for a moment the cognitive dissonance and hypocrisy it must take for groups that purport to be civil rights defenders to call for mass investigations of college students with criminal implications. While these calls are coming at this moment of heightened anti-Palestinian racism and hysteria, they are not new, and they are part of a deliberate effort to hijack the law for repressive purposes. These groups are trying to redefine anti-Zionist protest and opinion as antisemitism precisely so that they can circumvent the First Amendment. Don’t take it from me. Take it from Alyza Lewin, the head of the Brandeis Center. In 2019, she was speaking at a convening for a network of attorneys from around the world committed to fighting dissent against Israel in global civil society, sponsored by the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs. She was transparent about redefining opposition to Zionism as antisemitism:

“Why is it so important that you be able to articulate how Zionism is a key component of Jewish identity and how pro-Israel Zionists are being discriminated against on the basis of this shared ethnic characteristic? The answer, my friends, lies in the law. Our laws are designed to protect individuals from harassment and discrimination. The law does not protect you from an opinion you find offensive. In the United States, even hate speech is protected speech. So if we want to be able to effectively utilize our legal tools, we must act—accurately articulate what is happening as harassment and discrimination. If we fail to do this, we won’t be able to use the tools in our toolbox. If we permit administrators on university campuses, representatives on Capitol Hill, and the general public to perceive the situation as merely a political disagreement where each side takes offense at the other Zionist position, then we neuter the most important weapons in our arsenal. So, I implore you for several reasons: articulate what is happening using the language of discrimination.”

When the smoke clears in Gaza, and I pray that it does soon, we will likely find that Israel is even more entrenched in a one-state apartheid. We will also be in a world where millions more people will have been politicized by the war crimes that they watched Israel commit against innocent people in Gaza. In the wake of this, efforts to stamp out dissent against Israel around the world will only escalate further. That is why it is important to reject these bad faith smears and to say in a clear and loud voice, that Palestinians must have freedom, justice, and equality in their homeland from the river to the sea.

Yousef Munayyer

Yousef Munayyer is a Palestinian American scholar and nonresident fellow at the Arab Center in Washington, D.C.

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