From Tel Aviv to Tallahassee

{Originally published in Counterpunch 6-21-19}

 

From Tel Aviv to Tallahassee

Please take your seat, sir,” said the steward to Governor Ron DeSantis “we will be landing at Ben Gurion Airport shortly.” Snapping his seat-belt firmly into place, the edgy Governor fingered his rosary beads as he wondered, to himself, whether Israeli Jews would have big noses like those of Miami. Do they tan well? Would he understand what they say, given their heavy, Eastern European accents? What was the exchange rate for his pocketful of “Benjamins”? Looking around the first class section, DeSantis eyed a man with a long, thick, black beard seated one aisle away. For a moment, he thought about getting up to ask him for the missing answers… but he stopped, The guy was too tall and fit with no hook nose… and where was his black beanie? Goyim, he thought to himself, using a term he had picked up in a Boca campaign stop. He looked away uncertain of what awaited.

No… I’ve not lost my mind. And for those of you who I have offended by this frenzy of odious, dark canards… good! It was intended to cause reaction. It’s a parody. It’s called protected speech. It’s the First Amendment. It allows me to say what I want… to affront who I please, to stand on any street corner shouting out to passersby they should boycott that damn lunch counter that won’t serve people of color or that country that will not allow Palestinians to breathe. And to do so without any imposition of government will upon my voice… be it through a penalty on my purse or the loss of my personal liberty.

On May 29th, Florida Governor, Ron DeSantis, flew to Israel with his cabinet for a closed, political moot court session. Barring journalists, and thus, ultimately, the public who elected him and paid for his trip, the governor performed a symbolic signing of a bill that places the interests of Tel Aviv clearly ahead of the constitutional rights of Tallahassee.

Surrounded by Israeli dignitaries, accompanied by AIPAC checkbooks, Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, and Morton Klein of the Zionist Organization of America, the DeSantis journey was nothing short of a full on fidelity cheer for Israel. A staunch supporter of the move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, earlier this year attending a meeting of the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County, the governor urged sanctions against Airbnb unless it reversed its decision barring lodging listings in the occupied West Bank of Palestine. While still in Congress, he supported several Florida anti-BDS laws prohibiting public entities from contracting with any company or non-profit group engaged in an Israeli boycott. He also embraced legislation that prohibits state pension funds from investing in companies which participate in “politically motivated” challenges to Israel.

DeSantis has an opportune history of vilifying those who confront Israeli apartheid. Indeed, like his predecessor, former Gov. Rick Scott, who took three Florida funded trips to Israel, he is an astute politician who knows just what it takes to get elected. Describing BDS as “nothing more than a cloak for anti-Semitism”, he has boasted that, “as long as I’m Governor, BDS will be DOA.” Yet, the bill DeSantis lobbied for, and signed but two days after his empty performance in Israel, is much more insidious than the mere imposition of civil penalties upon activists who advocate a non-violent boycott.

In relevant part, HB 741 states that, “A public K-20 educational institution must treat discrimination by students or employees or resulting from institutional policies motivated by anti-Semitic intent in an identical manner to discrimination motivated by race.”

With sweeping unconstitutional reach, this legislation conflates mere criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. It lays bare the authoritarian groundwork for criminal prosecution for those in public schools and universities with the temerity to challenge Israel through words… and nothing more. Using provocative tripwires of Holocaust denial and conspiracy theories that target Jews as examples of prohibited academic speech, the statute remains at odds with the First Amendment nonetheless. Moreover, to the extent HB 741 equates a challenge to Israel with bias motivated by racial animus, it is an interesting legislative recast in the light of the personal history of DeSantis… indeed, of Florida as a whole.

To be sure, in his campaign for governor, DeSantis drew support from various self-professed neo-Nazis. He spoke at a conference chaired by a man who believes that African Americans should thank white people for freeing slaves. His campaign used ads with jungle music and the call of monkeys in their background. He, himself, urged voters “not to monkey up” by voting for his African American opponent. The divide between one who has never hesitated to use vile, painful speech to promote his voice and his proud, eager squeeze of a censorship whip has rarely been so vivid. Not one to walk alone, from coast to coast the governor’s duplicity drives statehouse halls as legislators speak in selective tones promoting constitutional protections such as the right to bear arms while suppressing others that extol fundamental rights of speech, association and peaceful boycott.

DeSantis is a true son of Florida. While it has long prided itself on the mirage of cultural, religious and political diversity, it has an insidious history of ignoring, if not accepting, the very brand of political and social disenfranchisement and violence that is synonymous with Israel. Thus, in the shadow of the Civil War, Florida enacted laws called Black Codes that, by design, were intended to disenfranchise its black citizens. Can a Nation State be far off?

Twenty years later, the white-Democrat controlled legislature passed a poll tax which finished the job. Losing what little remaining political power they had, African American voters were essentially stripped of all legal and political rights. No longer able to vote, they were excluded from sitting as jurors and barred from running for elective office. Before the turn of the century, there was no black political influence anywhere in Florida. Not long thereafter, Governor Napoleon Bonaparte Broward suggested that African Americans find a location outside the state for them to live. To be named the deal of the century?

In the mid-1920’s, the Ku Klux Klan moved the political assault upon African American communities throughout Florida to one of sheer terror and outright violence. With power bases in major cities such as Jacksonville, Tampa and Miami, the Klan soon became the very public face of the hatred that had long found comfort through the state’s legislative batter. So brazen was the Klan’s thumb-print on the life and death of black Floridians that it held publicized group initiations at the Miami Country club. During this time, Klan-like violence flourished throughout rural Florida,,, with mob attacks on African Americans so frequent that local newspapers rarely covered it and law enforcement typically looked away. In1920, a white mob broke into a jail in Macclenny and lynched four black men accused of raping a white woman. In Ocoee, the same year, a white mob destroyed its black community… causing as many as 30 deaths and destroying 25 homes, two churches, and a Masonic Lodge. This devastation was later mirrored in the Rosewood massacre, a racially charged slaughter that resulted in the deaths of upwards of 150 black residents in rural Levy County and which left the town of Rosewood completely destroyed. To be, later, rebuilt with new white “settlers”?

Decades have passed since the Klan and mob rule shaped Florida with a public iron fist. Yet, in the years since, a walk down its streets from the Panhandle to Miami Beach remains very much a tempt of fate for persons of color. Once adorned with sheets of hate, the attacks are now most often carried out by those who wear the badge of law enforcement.

It would be far too easy to simply cluster police violence in Florida with that endemic across the country. However, that toll bears a dramatic face in Florida, a state driven by a transparent legislative show of support for the agenda of a far off country that flaunts international law while it shows palpable indifference to the constitutional rights and physical safety of its own citizenry.

As of five years ago, the African American population in Florida was outnumbered 3 to 1 by their white counterparts. An investigation, by the Tampa Bay Times, found that during the six year period preceding it, Florida police shot 827 people… 343 of them were black. More than half were fatal… the majority of them black.

Paring off cases involving crimes of “violence” or where there was actual evidence that those shot had threatened police with weapons, the Tampa Bay Times investigation found there were 147 cases that presented no apparent grounds for the use of deadly force by police,.. 97 of them involved black Floridians. Of those who were unarmed, African Americans outnumbered whites two to one. They were twice as likely to be shot after being pulled over for a traffic violation, or by reaching for something harmless such as a license or gearshift. They were also three times as likely to be shot while being chased by police on foot, while suspected of a minor crime such as smoking pot, or while not committing any offense at all.The report found African American victims were four times more likely to be shot in the back.

These statistics give no one with knowledge of the recent history of Florida reason to pause. They reflect but one short period of unbroken police violence directed at the African American community throughout the state.

In 1967, Martin Chambers, 19, was shot dead by police in Tampa. Fleeing with two other young black men from the scene of a robbery of a photo supply store, he was shot in the back by an officer who later said he feared that Chambers would escape. In noting that lawbreakers accept the risk that “officers might have to use force to do their jobs”, the State Attorney ruled the shooting justified because the victim was a “felon fleeing apprehension.” Within hours, rioting broke out which lasted three days… destroying a large swath of the African American community.

Rodney Mitchell, 23, was stopped in Sarasota for not wearing a seat belt. Police shot him as he reached to put the car in park… claiming they feared he had a gun.

After being stopped by police for riding his bicycle on the wrong side of the road in West Palm Beach, 22 year old Dontrell Stephens was shot in the back and paralyzed when an officer said he saw Stephens flash a dark object at him with his left hand. The object was a cell phone.

17-year-old Jeremy Hutton, with Down syndrome, who took his mom’s minivan for a joyride, was shot three times during a low-speed car chase.

Alens Charles, 21, fell asleep in his car, unarmed, and in his own driveway. He woke up to investigating officers who shot him when he sat up.

Gregory Frazier, 55, was using a small pocket knife to eat near his home in Pompano Beach when police responded to a phone call of an argument between him and his daughter. Knowing he had a knife, officers told Frazier to get down on the ground. Not long after saying “leave me alone”, he was shot dead.

Corey Jones was shot and killed by a plainclothes officer while he stood waiting by his disabled car in Palm Beach Gardens. 31 years of age, Jones was struck by three of six shots fired by the officer who falsely claimed that he had identified himself and shot in self defense.

Latasha Walton, 32 years old, was shot and killed by a Florida Highway patrol officer after being pulled over for allegedly driving erratically. Officers claim a trooper opened fire as she attempted to flee the scene.

Charles Kinsey, a mental health therapist, was shot by police in North Miami while he sat on the ground with his hands in the air… seated next to his autistic 23 year old patient who had wandered away from his group home. Unarmed, Kinsey asked the police not to shoot him while trying to convince his patient who was playing with his toy truck to obey officers. After being shot, he was handcuffed and left bleeding on the ground for 20 minutes with no medical aid.

Recently, Dyma Loving, a 26-year-old mother-of-three, called police after getting into an argument with a white neighbor who threatened her and a friend with a rifle. Responding officers pushed Loving against a metal fence and put her in a headlock before forcing her to the ground.

Not long thereafter, police slammed a 15 year old boy’s head into the pavement during a “trespassing” incident in which he had been seen merely reaching down to pick something up off the ground outside of a McDonald’s in Tamarac, Florida.

These are but a few of the faces of African American women and men, of all ages and backgrounds, that have long been victimized by police violence throughout Florida. The fortunate ones have been injured or left crippled but lived to tell their story. Countless others have been buried leaving family to wonder why, seeking not just answers… but justice. For them, it never came.

Just what is there about Florida that lingers-on for its African American community forced to relive the horrors of Macclenny, Ocoee and Rosewood far removed in time and place… but not outcome? It’s far too easy and academic to simply write it off to the residual effects of “badges and incidents of slavery”. Can it be the North Miami Police Department using images of black men for target practice which reinforces it daily? Or the once Biscayne police chief who told his officers “… if they have burglaries that are open cases that are not solved yet, if you see anybody black walking through our streets and they have somewhat of a record, arrest them so we can pin them for all the burglaries.” Or the scathing indictment by the Department of Justice of the Miami Police Department in 2013 concluding it’s officer’s shot and killed way too many people of color yet doing nothing of consequence about it.

Meanwhile, as DeSantis posed in Jerusalem, life and death for Palestinians went on very much as it has these past ten, thirty, fifty, seventy plus years… an unbroken march of death and destruction fed by excuse… fueled by hate. According to B’Tselem (The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories) over the last decade, approximately three-thousand five hundred Palestinians have lost their lives to the Israeli armed forces or paramilitary settler violence. (I have no idea what it based these figures on… they seem low with my figures well over 4K… including the three “wars” and the great March) Among those killed have been seven-hundred eighty two minors and three-hundred thirty eight women. According to a data base maintained by Israel-Palestine Timeline, since 2000, approximately 10,000 Palestinians have been killed by Israel… including 2,172 children. Another 100,000 have been injured.

Over the last year, much of the world has watched fixated on the Great Return March in which Israeli snipers have murdered more than 300 Palestinian demonstrators on the eastern edge of Gaza. Another 30,000 have been injured by gunshots or teargas. Nearly 60 of those killed and 7,000 of those injured have been children. Hundreds, including children, have had their limbs amputated as a result of being shot with ammunition designed to tear apart limbs. Apparently the Florida State Legislature has slept through the carnage. Perhaps a match between some recent numbers and names and backdrop might awaken Tallahassee politicians who fear words but seem perfectly comfortable with violence.

On January 11, 2019 Abdul-Rauf Ismael Salha, 14 was shot in the head with live fire by an Israeli sniper while demonstrating during the Great Return March in Northern Gaza. He died three days later.

On May 31, 2019 Israeli soldiers shot and killed Abdullah Luay Gheith, 16, from Hebron, as he and several other young men tried to enter Jerusalem by climbing over a border fence from just outside Bethlehem to attend Friday prayers at the al-Aqsa Mosque. He died instantly after being shot in the heart. Mo’men Abu Tbeish, 21, was also shot and seriously injured in the same incident.

On May 5, 2019, Maria Ahmad Ramadan al-Ghazali, 4 months, was killed along with her father, Ahmad Ramadan al-Ghazali, 31, and Eman Abdullah Asraf, 30, when their high-rise apartment in a Beit Lahiya building was hit by Israeli missiles.

On May 4, 2019, Seba Abu Arar, 14 months, and her pregnant aunt, Falastin Abu Arar, 37, were killed by a rocket that struck close to their apartment building. The infant died instantly when, while sitting on her aunt’s lap, was hit by shrapnel which entered their apartment. Her aunt succumbed later to her wounds.

On April 18, 2019 Fatima Suleiman, 42, a school teacher, was killed after the car she was driving was rammed by a large truck driven by a settler near her home in Teqoua’. Thrown from her car, the truck struck and killed her before fleeing the scene.

On March 6, 2019 Malak Rajabi, 18 months, and her brother, Wa’el, age 4, died in a fire in Hebron when Palestinian rescue crews were blocked, by the Israeli military, from reaching their home before they were burned alive inside.

On December 15, 2018, Sumayya Mahmoud Nasser, 68, died in Jerusalem when she suffered a heart attack while praying at the al-Aqsa Mosque. Israeli forces outside the mosque prevented an ambulance with life saving equipment from reaching her.

On October 13, 2018 Aisha Rabi, 48, mother of eight, was on her way home with her husband, to Bidya in the northern West Bank, when her family’s car was struck, near the Za’tara roadblock, by a hail of large rocks thrown by a group of young settlers just south of Nablus. One of the rocks smashed the windshield and struck her in the cheek and ear. She bled for about two minutes and died.

On August 9, 2108, Israeli air force dropped a guided bomb on a home in the al-Ja’frawi neighborhood which lies on the southeastern outskirts of the Gazan town of Deir al-Balah. The bomb, which failed to detonate, went through the roof of a house rented by Muhammad and Inas Abu Khamash and into their living room… killing Inas, 22, an education student who was nine months pregnant, and Bayan, the couple’s 22-month-old daughter.

On August 27, 2017, eight year old Aseel Tareq Abu ‘Oun was run over and killed by a settler as she left a supermarket near her home in Foroush Beit Dajan village in Nablus.

On August 11, 2017, Amir and Hamza Abu Sbeih, Anas Haymouni and Youssef Roman, each six years old, were severely injured when a settler mounted a curb in East Jerusalem and crashed his vehicle into them.

On May 20, 2017, Fatima Jibril ‘Ayed Taqatqa, 15, died two months after she had been shot in the head by an Israeli soldier at the Etzion junction, south of Bethlehem. Shot on March 15th, soldiers claimed she had tried to ram them with her car. Evidence showed she had no driver’s license, was an inexperienced driver who panicked upon seeing soldiers and was shot after her car came to a complete halt.

On July 1, 2016, Sara Daoud Ata Tarayra, a 27 year old pregnant woman living in Hebron, was shot dead at the entrance of the Ibrahimi Mosque in the city. Ordered to accompany a female soldier to a room to be searched, after being sprayed with pepper spray and fleeing, she was shot and killed by other soldiers. Palestinian medics were prevented from treating her as she lay bleeding on the ground.

On July 1, 2016, Muhammad Mustafa Habash, 63, from Nablus, died after suffering from severe tear gas inhalation after being fired upon by Israeli troops. He was one of 40 who suffered from excessive tear gas as they attempted to cross the Qalandiya checkpoint from Ramallah, in the central occupied West Bank, to attend prayers at the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.

On April 28, 2016, Maram Saleh Abu Ismael, 24, from Beit Surik, five-months pregnant and a mother of two young daughters, and her 16 year old brother, Ibrahim Taha, were shot dead by Israeli soldiers at the Qalandia terminal north of occupied Jerusalem. On her way for a visit to Jerusalem for the first time in her life, the two were apparently approaching soldiers in a drive through lane not intended for pedestrians. Told to stop in Hebrew, a language which neither understood, they continued on until shot dead in a hail of 20 rounds fired from a distance. Both lay bleeding on the ground while soldiers prevented Palestinian medics from treating them.

On August 1, 2014, the extended family of Salem Al Mahmoum was wiped out by indiscriminate Israeli tank and artillery shelling, on a street in Rafah, after fleeing a house that had been attacked just moments before by an Israeli war plane.

The 16 extended family members who were killed in that attack:

  1. Aziza Mahmoud Salaman Al Mahmoum (50), Salem’s wife;

  2. Wafa’ Salem Suleiman Al Mahmoum (25, Aziza and Salem’s daughter;

  3. Hani Salem Suleiman Al Mahmoum (23), Aziza and Salem’s son;

  4. Yahia Salem Suleiman Al Mahmoum (13).Aziza and Salem’s son

  5. Asma Salem Suleiman Mahmoum (16), Aziza and Salem’s daughter;

  6. Iqzaya Hammad Salman Al Mahmoum (36), wife of Mustafa Nasser Al Mahmoum;

  7. Bisan Mustafa Nasser Al Mahmoum (9), Mustafa and Iqzaya’s daughter;

  8. Hiba Mustafa Nasser Al Mahmoum (7), Mustafa and Iqzaya’s daughter;

  9. Dou’a Mustafa Nasser Al Mahmoum (4), Mustafa and Iqzaya’s daughter;

  10. Ubada Mustafa Nasser Al Mahmoum (2), Mustafa and Iqzaya’s son;

  11. Itaf Hammad Suleiman Al Mahmoum (30), Iqzaya’s sister;

  12. Ibtisam Hammad Suleiman Al Mahmoun (18),  Iqzaya’s sister;

  13. Anas Ibrahim Hamdan bin Hamad (4);

  14. Mohammed Anas Mohammed Arafat (4 months);

  15. Usama Hussein Hassan Abu Sneima (30); and

  16. Su’ad Jum’a Hamad Al Tarabin (31)

On July 30, 2014, Israeli tanks fired two artillery shells at the house of Mohammed A’ta Al Khalili located in Al Sanafour area in At-Tuffah neighborhood, east of Gaza City. One shell landed on a group of family members awaiting evacuation, killing eight, including two women and three children. The eight were:

  1. Ashraf Mahmoud Al Khalili (33)

  2. Nedaa Ziyad Al Khalili (27). Ashraf’s wife

  3. Deema Ashraf Al Khalili (5). Ashraf’s daughter

  4. Ziyad Ashraf Al Khalili (2). Ashraf’s son.

  5. Mahmoud Ashraf Al Kahlili (7). Ashraf’s son.

  6. Ahmed Mahmoud Al Khalili (28). Ashraf’s brother

  7. Aya Mohammed Al Khalili (23). Ahmed’s wife who was three months pregnant

  8. Lama Ahmed Al Khalili, 4. Ahmed’s daughter

 

Israeli Demolitions

On June 11, 2018, Israeli forces demolished a house, a multi-story residential building and 2 commercial facilities in the villages of sour Baher and al-Mukaber Mount, south of occupied East Jerusalem. The next day, their bulldozers razed a residential building, 7 stores and a gas station in the vicinity of the Qalendia checkpoint north of occupied East Jerusalem. Elsewhere, they seized a large plot of Palestinian land to build a new “settlement” street Northeast of Nablus. That same day, they destroyed another multi-story residential building under construction and back-filled a well in Khelet al-Surbat in southern Hebron. Southeast of Nablus, the Israeli military moved boundaries to seize Palestinian agricultural land in the village of ‘Asirah al-Qibliyah.

There was nothing remarkable about these two days. In all respects they were typical ones in the life of occupied Palestine. A small seize in a timeless grab, the destruction of these homes, residential buildings and shops, along with the confiscation of Palestinian land for Israeli military purpose or settler convenience, was a continuum of a boundless land snatch that started long before the occupation. One year later the targets may have changed… the theft has not.

On June 10, 2019, as part of “settlement” expansion, a Palestinian woman… unable to pay the demolition costs of her home… was forced, pursuant to an Israeli municipality order, to demolish her own home in Sur Baher village, south of occupied East Jerusalem, rendering her and her six children homeless. That same day Israeli forces compelled a Palestinian civilian to self-demolish his residential building, under-construction, in Sho’fat refugee camp, north of occupied East Jerusalem.

Meanwhile, other Israeli vehicles demolished a residential house, an under-construction building and a commercial facility in Surbaher village and al-Mukaber Mount area, south of occupied East Jerusalem. Accompanied by dozens of soldiers and police officers, streets surrounding the demolition sites were closed before the properties were raided and leveled. Later that day, a military order was issued to confiscate a sizeable plot of land to construct a new street for the Alon Moreh settlement northeast of Nablus.

On Wednesday, June 12, 2019, Israeli forces moved into Um al-Khair village, southeast of Yatta, south of Hebron, and demolished a Palestinian house that was home to ten persons, including 7 children. Meanwhile, other Israeli forces and a bulldozer moved into Kherbit Khashem al-Daraj, east of Yatta, south of Hebron, where they uprooted barbed wire and demolished a Palestinian barn. That same day, Israeli forces moved into Kherbit Ras al-Ahmar, in the northern Jordan Valley, where they uprooted tents and demolished houses and barns belonging to 4 families. Later, they destroyed a residence and 4 barracks for grazing sheep and horses in Beer ‘Onah village, north of occupied East Jerusalem.

On June 11, 2019, Israeli forces and 2 bulldozers moved into Kherbet Abu Kbaish, east of Tamoun village, southeast of Tubas. Uprooting some 550 forest and 240 olive trees and destroying two wells in one location… and an additional 310 forest trees and an agricultural well in another, they declared the now leveled woodlands to be a “nature reserve.”. The trees and wells had been donated by the Brazilian Consulate. Later that day, military forces and 3 diggers moved into Khelat al-Sharbati area near Jawhar Mount neighborhood, in the southern area of Hebron, where they demolished an under-construction multi-unit building and a well.

Elsewhere, the military issued 3 orders: one to change borders and seize agricultural lands belonging to Palestinian civilians in ‘Asirah al-Qabaliyah village, southeast of Nablus… another to confiscate agricultural lands belonging in Burin village, also in southeast of Nablus,.. and a third to change borders and seize around nearby land to expand a military camp assigned security for a nearby settlement. Not long thereafter, Israeli forces demolished a residence, 4 barracks used to raise livestock and horses, and four agricultural facilities in Ber ‘Ounah. Eyewitnesses reported that Israeli forces randomly fired rubber bullets during the demolition process.

By no means a rarity, increasingly, demolition orders, have become the rai·son d’ê·tre for the Judaization of Jerusalem as Israel seeks to transform its physical and demographic landscape and character at the expense of its Muslim and Christian ones. Just several days ago, Israeli occupation forces issued demolition orders for all Palestinian homes in Jerusalem’s Wadi Yasul neighbourhood… leaving some 550 Palestinians homeless.

Settler Attacks

Never ones to leave the theft and destruction of Palestinian land and homes to military forces, alone, illegal “settlers” were active during the same period… typically under the watchful eyes and protection of Israeli troops. For example, on June 5, 2019, settlers from “Ahiya” settlement, which sits on the southern side of Jaloud village, southeast of Nablus, attacked the village outskirts from the southern side. They threw stones at the village secondary school breaking several windows and set fire to olive fields destroying over 1000 olive trees planted some 65 years ago. The following day settlers seized agricultural lands in the al-Makhrour area in Beit Jala, where they planted various crops before enclosing it with barbed wire and placing mobile homes on what was Palestinian land. On June 8, 2019, settlers attacked a land trust in the Al-Khader village, in southern Bethlehem, where they placed water pipes and planted hundreds of olive, apricot, and peach trees.

Not long thereafter, settlers from the nearby Yitzhar settlement vandalized Palestinian homes in Einabous village, South of Nablus city, in the northern West Bank… as well as a local mosque, and clinic. According to local residents, they slashed the tires of Palestinian vehicles and spray-painted the Star of David on the mosque, clinic, and homes, along with racist, anti-Palestinian slogans spray-painted in Hebrew.

These are but a few of the thousands of instances of theft, violence and outright murder perpetrated by the Israeli military and deadly settler movement against Palestinian civilians for as far back as one can see. Yet, in the run-up to his fawning recital in Israel, even a casual glance of recent events in Palestine should have given DeSantis reason to pause. Predictably… he did not.

In the run-up to the DeSantis arrival, Israeli forces conducted at least 90 military incursions into Palestinian communities throughout the occupied West Bank… including 7 in Jerusalem and its suburbs. During those raids, Israeli forces killed a Palestinian child and wounded 17 civilians,,, including 6 children. Ten of them, including 2 children, were wounded during their participation in the weekly protest, at Kafr Qaddoum, against Israeli land confiscations and the closure of the village’s southern road by Israeli forces. Six, including 4 children, were wounded while protesting a military incursion into Nablus to secure the entry of hundreds of settlers into the eastern area of the city to perform rituals in Joseph’s Tomb. During this same period, Israeli forces arrested at least 82 Palestinians…including children. Among them were 45 civilians and 3 women in Jerusalem and its suburbs.

In early May of this year, Israeli bombings in Gaza took the lives of at least 12 civilians… including two women, one of them pregnant, and a number of toddlers. Another 100 were injured. This past Friday, the 61st Friday of the Great Return March, Israeli snipers wounded 92 Palestinian civilians… 28 of them children and four paramedics, one a female, in the eastern Gaza Strip. One of the wounded was a child who was hit with a live bullet to the chest sustaining serious wound. In addition, dozens of civilians suffered tear gas inhalation and seizures due to tear gas canisters that were fired by Israeli forces from military jeeps and rifles in the eastern Gaza Strip.

Against this light, Governor DeSantis flew to Israel to show support for a country which cripples and murders with impunity, while ignoring the precise violence perpetrated daily against citizens of his own state. Against this light, the State of Florida seeks not to end violence which targets generations of African American citizens but, rather, to silence protected speech that seeks little more than to express solidarity and support with others who know all too well that same deadly aim some 6,500 miles away.

The Law

It would be far too easy to confront the conspicuous marrow of the latest legislative attacks on BDS by reliance on constitutional purpose and precedent alone. That pure non-violent speech, association and boycott carry and further the stamp of First Amendment approval is, by now, beyond peradventure.

Long ago, in NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware Co. the United States Supreme Court unanimously recognized that economic boycotts constitute a form of constitutionally protected expression no different than traditional means of communication such as speaking or writing and that those who exercise that right may not be penalized for any such lawful conduct.

In Claiborne, a local branch of the NAACP launched a boycott, in 1966, of white merchant’s to obtain a long list of demands for equality and racial justice from civic and business leaders. Though the boycott was largely limited to speeches encouraging others to support their cause through nonviolent picketing, some acts and threats of violence did result. Several years later, the merchants sued the NAACP seeking damages for the boycott alleging it caused malicious interference with business interests, for antitrust violations and for violation of a state boycott statute.

Rejecting First Amendment claims, the lower Mississippi state court found for the merchants and ordered the NAACP to pay $3.5 million in damages. It also issued a permanent injunction prohibiting the protesters from posting “store watchers” at the premises of the boycotted businesses; persuading others to withhold patronage from the boycotted businesses; “using demeaning or obscene language to or about any person” for continuing to patronize the boycotted merchants; “picketing or patrolling” the premises of the boycotted businesses; and “using violence against any person or inflicting damage to any real or personal property.” On appeal, the verdict was largely upheld by the Mississippi Supreme Court.

In a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the state court decision finding that the boycott was a form of political speech entitled to protection under the First Amendment. In doing so, it noted that “…the boycott clearly involved constitutionally protected activity” through which the NAACP “… sought to bring about political, social, and economic change.”

The high court found that while the boycott may have negatively impacted local businesses, it was part of broader peaceful political activity on an issue of public significance: “Through speech, assembly, and petition… rather than through riot or revolution… petitioners sought to change a social order that had consistently treated them as second-class citizens.”

Moreover, it reasoned that, without proof of an organization’s unlawful goals, an individual cannot be held liable for exercising their First Amendment right to assemble with other people… even if some of the others committed violent acts. Under those circumstances, the Supreme Court noted that when acts of violence are committed in conjunction with lawful expression, regulations must be sufficiently precise to impose damages only upon those who are guilty of wrongful conduct.

There should be no doubt about the continuing vitality, indeed, controlling application of Claiborne to the latest spate of legislative efforts to silence BDS. In a series of recent cases that have considered the state’s power to prohibit political boycotts, district courts have fallen clearly on the side of those who engage in BDS, and related speech activity, as a fundamental constitutional right.

For example, in Amawi v. Pflugerville Indep. Sch. Dist, Texas sought to require an oath from public employees that they would not support BDS or, essentially, any other challenge to Israel as a condition of their employment. The lead plaintiff, Bahia Amawia, a U.S. citizen and speech pathologist, is a Palestinian, with family in Palestine, who participates in the BDS movement because she “advocate[s] for Palestinian human rights and justice [and to that end] support[s] peaceful efforts to impose economic pressure on Israel, with the goal of making Israel recognize Palestinians’ dignity and human rights.” For almost a decade, she contracted with a local school district in Texas to provide speech therapy and childhood evaluations. When she refused to certify that she did not, and will not in the future, boycott Israel, she was fired and sued.

Rejecting the state’s power to prohibit the boycott of Israel as a condition of public employment, the court scoffed at the Texas argument that BDS was merely an effort to “…refuse to buy things.” In siding with the broadest reach of First Amendment protection the court reminded Texas of the now almost four decade old teach of Claiborne “… that boycotts are “deeply embedded in the American political process”—so embedded not because “refusing to buy things” is of paramount importance, but because in boycotts, the “elements of speech, assembly, association, and petition… “are inseparable” and are magnified by the “banding together” of individuals “to make their voices heard.” With quick dispatch, the court ruled the Texas statute unconstitutional.

Likewise, in Koontz v. Watson, the court rejected an attempt by the Kansas legislature to impose a fidelity clause upon state contractors which prohibited them from engaging in a boycott of Israel. In Koontz, the plaintiff, a Mormon, became motivated to boycott Israel by a documentary she saw, in 2016, about conditions in Palestine. The following year, she began to boycott Israeli businesses not long before the Mennonite Church USA passed a resolution that called on its members to boycott products associated with the occupation. As a result, Ms. Koontz decided she would not purchase any products or services from Israeli companies or from any company which operates in Israeli-occupied Palestine.

Because of her refusal to sign the required certification, Ms. Koontz, a curriculum coach at a public school, was denied an opportunity to participate as a teacher trainer in a statewide program under a contract that would have enhanced her career and increased her income.

In revisiting Claiborne, the court noted that Ms. Koontz, and other members of the Mennonite Church, have “banded together” to express their dissatisfaction with Israel and to influence its governmental action which, they see, as one riddled with injustice and violence.

Drawing no distinction between the unconstitutional anti-boycott efforts of Mississippi, some fifty years ago, and that of Kansas, today, the court reasoned Ms. Koontz “and others participating in this boycott of Israel seek to amplify their voices to influence change… as did the boycotters in Claiborne.” Agreeing with Ms. Koontz, that the law violated her First Amendment rights, the court granted a preliminary injunction enjoining the state from enforcing the law.

A similar conclusion was recently reached in the matter of Jordahl v. Brnovich. In 2016, Arizona enacted legislation “… aimed at divesting state funding from companies that engage in a boycott of Israel.”. In relevant part Arizona Revised Statute § 35-393.01 states :

A public entity may not enter into a contract with a company to acquire or dispose of services, supplies, information technology or construction unless the contract includes a written certification that the company is not currently engaged in, and agrees for the duration of the contract to not engage in, a boycott of Israel.”

Mikkel Jordahl is an attorney who participates, on a personal level, in a boycott of consumer goods and services offered by businesses which support the occupation of the Palestinian territories. Jordahl was moved by the Peace Not Walls campaign, promoted by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which calls on “… individuals to invest in Palestinian products to build their economy and to utilize selective purchasing to avoid buying products made in illegal Israeli settlements built on Palestinian land.” Mr. Jordahl is a non-Jewish member of Jewish Voice for Peace and supports its endorsement of BDS campaigns. As head of his own law firm, he desired that it participate in his boycott of “all businesses operating in Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories.”

For more than a decade, Mr. Jordahl’s firm contracted with an Arizona county jail to provide legal services to incarcerated individuals. Following passage of Arizona’s anti-BDS law, the County asked him to execute a written certification, on the Firm’s behalf, that it “is not currently engaged in a boycott of Israel,”, that “no wholly owned subsidiaries, majority-owned subsidiaries, parent companies, or affiliates” of the Firm are “engaged in a boycott of Israel,” and that neither the Firm nor any of the above-mentioned associated entities would “engage in a boycott of Israel” for the duration of the contract agreement.” He refused. As a result, the county stopped paying for his firm’s legal services although Mr. Jordahl continued its work, free of charge, at significant personal expense.

The Arizona court had little difficulty in siding with Mr. Jordahl and his firm. Beginning with the settled proposition that citizens do not forfeit their First Amendment rights by accepting public employment, the court found no difference of constitutional consequence between Claiborne and its progeny and the Arizona law at hand.

From there it was a quick judicial walk to the conclusion that Arizona’s anti-BDS law impermissibly “burdens the protected expression of companies wishing to engage in such a boycott. The type of collective action targeted by the Act specifically implicates the rights of assembly and association that Americans and Arizonans use “to bring about political, social, and economic change.”.

In light of these cases, it is wishful sophistry to see the Supreme Court do a 180 degree turn if, and when, an anti-BDS case reaches its historic bench and to find that such legislation passes constitutional muster. Yet, Florida and its toadying Governor, desperate for political pomp, have gone one step further in its most recent law that not only impermissibly prohibits boycotts, but seeks to criminalize mere words,themselves. Under their broken view of the First Amendment, one can silence public discussion and debate over the policies and practices of Israel by simply reducing it to little more than a trendy puerile talisman of anti-Semitism. It will not work.

If there is any remarkable feature of the American experience, it is the First Amendment. By its very language, it is imposing. It is meant to be. “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech or of the press…” While this unqualified phrasing was not intended to safeguard all expressions, First Amendment protection of speech and press is the exalted cornerstone of our Republic.

Nowhere is there more compelling than it is with regard to political speech. As noted by the Supreme Court… “Speech concerning public affairs is more than self-expression; it is the essence of self-government.” To be sure, the High Court has often “… reaffirmed that speech on public issues occupies the highest rung of the [hierarchy] of First Amendment values and is entitled to special protection” The constitution thus permits only the most minimal of interference with political speech.

The constitution permits but minimal interference with political speech. And when it takes the form of a “prior restraint” suppressing it before the fact, it is presumptively unconstitutional whether from a court or by legislative act. The right of speech stretches from the speaker’s voice to the listener’s right to hear what others have to say… free from government interference.Ultimately, it is only through a robust exchange of ideas and opinion that decisions can be drawn on essential issues of public concern.

 

Ripped from the historical presence of Palestine, Israel has received hundreds of billions of dollars from the United States since its founding. In the decades since, it has provided Israel an endless supply of high grade weaponry, technical assistance and unbridled support in the United Nations. It has shaped much of its own foreign policy in the Middle East, Gulf and parts of North Africa in reliance upon what is described, by some, as a bilateral relationship that has furthered the interests of both states. Over these years, the United States has inflicted millions of casualties in the region and suffered tens of thousands of its own. While some choose to describe the relationship between the United States and Israel as one of architect and proxy, with vigorous disagreement over which is which, there can be no reasonable quarrel over the fact that they have been inexorably intertwined with one another on issues of public interest and policy for more than seventy years. Given this history, to suggest that discourse and debate about that relationship, indeed, about Israel itself, does not constitute protected speech about pressing public issues is sheer folly.

That is not to suggest that all comment and speech about Israel, its leadership, its people, its property must be constitutionally countenanced under all circumstances at all times. Indeed, it is well settled that, under limited circumstances, speech can cross the line from protected observation and comment to illegal conduct.

Thus, in the landmark case of Brandenburg v. Ohio the Supreme Court noted that speech “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action” and “likely to incite or produce such action” may be punishable via criminal law. However it went on to note that speech may encourage or even advocate lawless action, yet be unlikely to incite such action, leaving it fully protected under the First Amendment.

Cut to its essential chase, Brandenburg and its progeny reaffirm a call for calculation and consideration of words and context not whitewash of thoughts. Florida would silence that calculus by legislative fiat. It would convert any challenge to Israel, any dare to its policies, any opposition to its practices to prohibited, perhaps criminal speech.

Close

Whether by ignorance or political convenience, the fundamental disconnect between the secular evil that is Zionism and the age-old faith that is Judaism seems to narrow day by day across certain political divides. BDS is a movement of non violence and humanity… it singles out no one faith, race, or sexual identity for either scorn or praise. Yet, with unsurprising ease and clear purpose, it has been reworked, by some, to turn aside its well defined goal and, by now, settled history and practice. Short on cover, excuse and allies, desperate Zionists have never hesitated to exploit painful historical events to further their faithless geopolitical blueprint. And while many wince at the claim of an age-old international Jewish conspiracy, Zionists welcome the screed as so much supporting fodder for their all too convenient baseless charge that Jews are under attack, everywhere. Make no mistake about it, Israeli hate and violence is under attack… as well it should be. But to cast its long, supremacist and deadly shadow as vulnerable victim to ”anti-Semitism” by critical speech,.. and speech alone… is little more than cheap obfuscation and petty rewrite.

While HB 741 may please Florida’s political benefactors, ultimately it will fail as but another cheap pander to those who find comfort in lofty self-praise but flee the search for truth. That search will not permit the future of Palestinians to remain high jacked through the fabrication of a shallow Zionist chronicle.

When the history of our time is written, anti-BDS legislation will be dispatched as little more than opportune political chant. As for BDS, itself, it will have proven to have played a defining role as a loud and powerful megaphone that confronted the longest and most insidious system of apartheid of our day… bar none.

 

 

 

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Israel and Academic Freedom: a Closed Book

Originally published in Counterpunch September 30, 2016

 

Israel and Academic Freedom: a Closed Book
by STANLEY L. COHEN

You have a 17-year-old daughter… let’s call her Rachel, or perhaps Nadia… raised in a home where dialogue, debate and disagreement have been served as so much a mainstay of the family dinner every night for years. On holidays, it just meant longer and louder arguments with more folks to piss off. Yet, nothing made you prouder. She had flourished in a “safe-zone” where her view and voice did not take a back seat to any others simply because she was young, female or provocative in her thought. It doesn’t get any better than this.

One day the search for the right college begins. Sure, the distance from home and physical layout is important and her personal safety paramount, but that’s just the start. You’ve got this list of grand, impressive, perhaps historical, universities to check out with reputations for not just academic achievement but with a well settled commitment to free speech and thought; a safe zone… safe from outside intimidation that seeks to limit or suppress how she grows… not just as a student but more important, a human being.

University is intended to be a melting pot, a grand experiment of sorts, to unite the diverse not in “acceptable” uniform thought but in the notion that ideas must be free and robust to be healthy… all ideas… the good, the bad, the uncomfortable. Yet, today, all across the United States it seems that purity of thought has become synonymous with the idea of a sound “healthy” education. It’s not by accident that free speech and association is under attack from coast to coast in ways unseen since the academic purges that targeted largely “radical” Jews of the 50’s brought to us by a guy named McCarthy. He too had this notion that good thought must necessarily adhere to a checklist of sanitized ideas. That safe speech and association demanded a line of logic dictated by the powerful and pervasive.

American Bred Academic Repression

The McCarthy era was not the first in this country where petty political or academic demagogues sought to impose their view upon craven institutions of learning to win votes or curry favor with powerful benefactors. In 1832, a member of the University of Virginia’s student Jefferson Society publicly declared his support for the emancipation of slaves, which led the faculty to declare, “there should be no oration on any distracting question of state or national policy, nor on any point of theological dispute.” He was driven from the school. In 1833, the Board of Trustees of Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati banned an antislavery society formed by students and some of the faculty, declaring that”education must be completed before the young were dismissed for their views.” In 1856, after professor Benjamin Sherwood Hedrick at the University of North Carolina favored the Republican Party, the North Carolina Standard called the party “incompatible with our honor and safety as a people,” and faculty repudiated his views. After being burned in effigy by students, Hedrick was fired after refusing to resign or change his anti-slavery views.

By 1917, America had entered the Great War, and the suppression of academic freedom quickly reached extraordinary levels not to be seen again on college campuses until the recent attack on the BDS  Movement.

At that time the New Republic reported more than 20 cases of professors fired because of their refusal to support the war; no doubt many more belief-triggered firings went unreported. In a University of Michigan “War Aims” course, students were warned about “the wild excesses of the revolutionists,” [pgs 165-166] being told that “a surprising number” of them were Jews.

World War I fear-mongering about radicals and seditious speech made repression in academia predictable in years to come, leaving the university community an “atmosphere… charged with fear.” In 1915 a controversial leftist economist named Scott Nearing was fired from various teaching positions because of controversial classroom views which challenged child labor and religious and social orthodoxy that went so far as to advocate “ the ruthless redistribution of property.”

In the 1920s, a journalism professor at Ohio State was fired for treating a coal strike favorably, and pacifist leader John Nevin Sayre was barred from speaking at the University of Oklahoma [pg.166]. A 1920 survey by the Intercollegiate Socialist Society, [pgs. 166-167] “Freedom of Discussion in American Colleges” found that “an increasing number of schools were (1) prohibiting outside affiliations for political groups, (2) placing increasing restrictions on speakers, and (3) censoring the faculty’s right to express liberal opinions.” Sound familiar?

In the 1930s, liberal professors were under fire in various parts of the United States for a wide range of political stands deemed offensive to conservative university administrators and trustees… much of them race related. Academic careers were ruined because of “unsound” positions on race relations that violated social norms such as holding teas that included both white and “colored” people and supported granting scholarships to “negro” graduate students.

McCarthy and earlier academic repression destroyed lives and reputations; more important, as a nation, indeed as a people, these purges set us back, dramatically, creating a poisoned environment that forced free thinkers to choose between their beliefs and safety and cost our young dearly as they struggled to become the leadership of generations to come. If, however, there was a common thread among earlier academic tyranny and politically correct academic dogma it was generally homegrown and imposed. Today’s purity of thought is different. It finds impetus and funding not in the halls of town meetings or domestic politics but in the global view of Israel, a foreign autocracy which seeks to control the narrative and dialogue of our transcendent young in our own country.

Israel’s Influence Today On US Academics

For Israel it’s not enough to invade our lecture halls at prestigious schools such as De Paul, the University of Illinois, Oberlin, CUNY or Columbia to drive“controversial” pro-Palestinian academics of the likes of Finkelstein, Salaita, Karega, Schulman, Massad and Dabashi from college lecterns; or to strong-arm a university such as Berkley to suspend a course that presents a view of settler colonialism at odds with the Zionist narrative. Indeed, now through well funded pro Zionist proxies Israel seeks to fundamentally redesign those same halls to promote and suit its own geopolitical needs and interests

Recently, from coast to coast, well funded organizations such as the Amcha Initiative and the Canary Mission have labored to intimidate university administrators and faculty in an effort to punish what they call anti-Semitism in the classroom. In the name of acceptable academic freedom, these groups promote an Israeli view of free speech, one where diversity of thought is under constant attack in the class rooms and the streets in an effort to silence Palestinian dissidents and their supporters by one means or another.

The Israeli History of Academic Freedom

The idea that Israel is indifferent to core principles of free speech and association, and fears an open exchange of ideas, is a debate without disagreement. Any conversation about how it views the importance of academic freedom and the state’s right to control unfettered access to information must, of course, begin with its well documented, indeed unparalleled, history of targeted, often deadly, assaults upon institutions of learning and their students throughout the Occupied Territories.

Israel’s brutal onslaught upon the academic infrastructure of Gaza in 2014 is well known It’s too recent to forget that in some 50 days of round the clock bombing it completely destroyed 26 primary and secondary schools and damaged another 122, including 75 UNRWA schools. Of Gaza’s 407 kindergartens 133 were damaged and 11 totally destroyed. Four universities sustained significant damage and loss of life among their staff and student populations. In one deliberate attack upon the north Gaza branch of Al Quds Open University, 22 students were killed. Although the exact number of students who were injured or lost their life during the summer of 2014 is unknown, 490 Palestinian children were killed and 3000 wounded. It is believed that 9 academic and administrative staff of higher education institutions were killed and 21 injured, and 421 college students killed with 1,128 injured.

In an earlier attack on Gaza’s educational infrastructure in 2009, Israel destroyed 18 schools and damaged 280 out of 641 others, including 14 of its 15 higher education institutions.

Make no mistake about it, Israel views Palestinian education not as a fundamental right but a political impediment, preferring isolated, if not silenced, generations of students to young women and men with the academic ability and experience to challenge it in the market place of ideas at home and abroad.

Thus, between 1988 and 1992 Israel closed, yes closed, all Palestinian higher education institutions during the 1st Intifada, preventing any students and teachers from attending classes, using libraries or obtaining clinical experience. Although now once again open, institutions of higher education in the occupied West Bank function under a reign of academic intimidation… at times sheer terror… that moves well beyond the border of criminal. As so much the norm, Israel raids universities throughout the West Bank. Among others, Birzeit University, the Arab American University, Polytechnic University and Al Quds University in East Jerusalem have been frequently targeted by the Israeli military which has attacked and arrested students, destroyed university property and equipment and seized student organization materials.

Over the last four years Al Quds University in particular has been a favorite target of marauding Israeli soldiers which have raided its main campus on some three dozen occasions. During these attacks more than 2000 students have been injured, and 12,000 evacuated as soldiers discharged thousands of tear gas canisters and rounds of ammunition. Several hundred students have been seized for “investigation” with many detained without formal charges. To this day some remain isolated under military custody. In the school year of 2013-2014 alone, more than 600 lectures were canceled at Al Quds, with a thousand students withdrawing from active enrollment too traumatized to continue with classes.

Even where Palestinian education has been permitted to proceed without physical assault, Israeli censorship of Palestinian schools is ever present… sanitizing references, symbols and history from texts, sparing no grades including kindergarten, in a readily transparent effort to rewrite a long, well documented and illustrious past. Years ago Israel began the formal process of cleansing written Palestinian history of signposts it considers contrary to acceptable, controlled education or which it believes pose a “threat” to its unitary supremacist view of the world.

For example, among other things, the logo of the Palestinian Authority has been removed from book covers and all pictures of Palestinian flags removed from textbooks, even in the coloring books for six-year olds. All mention of the Nakba (catastrophe of 1948) and the right of return has been expunged as if a mere figment of the imagination of millions of Palestinians. Poems, songs and stories about the beauty of Palestinian landscapes and villages, the resistance of the first and second Intifadas and Israeli checkpoints have been deleted from all texts, video and audio representations. All mention of Jerusalem as Al Quds has been sanitized along with any note of Israel as an occupation force of the Palestinian capital. The one million plus Palestinians living inside Israel “proper” have been stripped of their identity and go unmentioned as Palestinians anywhere in Israeli controlled education. In middle school textbooks almost an entire history book has been redacted leaving blank pages for students to gaze at, chapters once rich with detail about events from the Balfour declaration of 1917 through the Nakba, as if they too were little more than provocative historical fiction.

Israel’s Attack On Free Speech And Academic Freedom For Jews

In all fairness to Israel, its drive to control the narrative of 68 years of its Occupation and Apartheid has not been limited at all to just Palestinian educational circles.

In March 2011, the Israeli Knesset passed the so-called Nakba law authorizing the Finance Minister to reduce state funding to an institution if it engages in an “activity that is contrary to the principles of the state.” Although ambiguous in its reach, the law did specifically include those that reject “the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state” and or commemorate Israeli independence as a day of mourning.

Recently Israel’s Education Ministry has disqualified a novel that describes a love story between an Israeli woman and a Palestinian man from use by high schools around the country. Among the reasons stated for the banning of “Borderlife” is the need to safeguard “the identity and the heritage of students in every sector,” and the belief that “intimate relations between Jews and non-Jews threatens the separate identity.”

The Tel Aviv Museum of Art, the strongest art museum in the country, recently canceled an exhibition of works by the Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei which was also going to feature portraits of thousands of Palestinian refugees and refugee camps by Israeli photographer Miki Kratsman.

Inside universities, Jewish students and faculty often police the academic environments acting as so much the monitors of “dissident” professors. To avoid public vilification, job loss, imprisonment, or worse, educators have been known to redact information that might be used to otherwise punish external political groups and activists that oppose government policies. More than once academic purity has driven some of Israel’s most respected Jewish scholars from prominent teaching positions. Thus famed Professor and author Ilan Pappe who supports the academic boycott of Israel was himself boycotted at Haifa University. After receiving several death threats and condemnation by the Knesset, he moved his work to the University of Exeter in 2008. Professor Ariella Azoulay of Bar-Ilan University was denied tenure because of her “controversial” political associations. And in what can only be described as an effort to silence political dissent and opposition from an entire department at Ben Gurion University, the Council for Higher Education moved, albeit unsuccessfully, to close its politics and government department because it had faculty accused of being left-wing.

Elsewhere the freedom of expression of largely Jewish students has been impaired. In one case, Haifa University, with the support of the student union, prohibited a group of students from holding a demonstration to mark the first anniversary of Operation Cast Lead. In a similar case, it prohibited a demonstration against events surrounding the flotilla from Turkey to the Gaza Strip. In a third instance, the NRG-Maariv website alleged that Tel Aviv University prevented a reporter from a regional radio station in “Judea and Samaria” from covering a conference on the subject of the Nakba.

Students at a number of Israeli universities report that often they cannot receive authorization for activities such as campus demonstrations, lecturers, setting up a stall, or distributing leaflets. And, on those rare occasions when they do, approval is often withdrawn at the last moment, without any meaningful explanation. Not rare at all, student organizers of demonstrations or teach-ins are summonsed to a disciplinary committee.

Academic Freedom And Free Speech In The US

This is not Israel. I want Rachel and Nadia to stumble, perhaps even fall, as they ready themselves to assume the mantle of leadership in this world. Orthodoxy simply means more of the same broken path. I want them to be free to exchange provoking rough-and-tumble ideas with Robert and Tarik. At times, it will go smoothly, at others it will make them cringe with the pain that can, indeed must, devolve into tense, uncomfortable debate. It’s what’s called the marketplace of competing ideas. There is nothing wrong or unhealthy with yelling or even crying over belief. It’s one of those universal bridges which for time immemorial has transcended the narrow limitations of national boundaries and oaths.

Today’s free speech debate between Zionists that seek to control the argument and those that struggle to resist its corrupting narrow view of our world is not new. Tension between the powerful and those that dare to challenge their stretch is here as old as the Republic itself. Though each generation has confronted different demons in different ways, at day’s end, it has always come back to the notion of free and robust speech as the best vehicle for knowledge and change. Ironically one of the most eloquent explanations of the First Amendment’s critical role in the search for truth was penned by none other than a Zionist, Justice Louis Brandeis in his concurring opinion in Whitney v. California, 274 U.S. 357, 375 (Brandeis, J., concurring). Justice Brandeis’ words bear repeating:

“Those who won our independence believed that the final end of the State was to make men free to develop their faculties; and that in its government the deliberative forces should prevail over the arbitrary. They valued liberty both as an end and as a means. They believed liberty to be the secret of happiness and courage to be the secret of liberty. They believed that freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth; that without free speech and assembly discussion would be futile; that with them, discussion affords ordinarily adequate protection against the dissemination of noxious doctrine; that the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people; that public discussion is a political duty; and that this should be a fundamental principle of the American government. They recognized the risks to which all human institutions are subject. But they knew that order cannot be secured merely through fear of punishment for its infraction; that it is hazardous to discourage thought, hope and imagination; that fear breeds repression; that repression breeds hate; that hate menaces stable government; that the path of safety lies in the opportunity to discuss freely supposed grievances and proposed remedies; and that the fitting remedy for evil counsels is good ones. Believing in the power of reason as applied through public discussion, they eschewed silence coerced by law – the argument of force in its worst form. Recognizing the occasional tyrannies of governing majorities, they amended the Constitution so that free speech and assembly should be guaranteed.” Id. at 375-76

Boycotts, Now and Then: an Open Letter on BDS to the City Council of New York

Boycotts, Now and Then: an Open Letter on BDS to the City Council of New York
by STANLEY L. COHEN

First published in Counterpunch  SEPTEMBER 15, 2016

Like the religion of my youth and the country of my birth, I just don’t know the City of my life any more. Several days ago in what can only be described as a one sided political prisoner exchange, a quid pro quo of suffering, the craven New York City Council held a session to “debate” a proposed resolution on how best to convert constitutionally protected BDS speech and activity into per se anti-Semitism… a perverse leap of faith similar to the sinister shroud of supremacy worn by the Reichstag supporters of the 30’s at a time when today’s Palestinians, were yesteryear’s Jews.

In announcing that the peaceful and pure political speech of BDS was not constitutionally protected and now most unwelcome in New York City, the resolution’s sponsor inadvertently became the movements best salesman by correctly describing it as an international effort “to boycott, divest from and sanction the people of Israel (including) its academic, cultural, and civil society institutions.”

Yes, Councilman Cohen (no relation), BDS is precisely about delegitimizing Israel, a pariah state that has flaunted international law since its very inception by embracing apartheid, occupation and ethnic cleansing as so much an essential and proud way of life for millions of illegal immigrants and so-called settlers. And yes, Mr. Cohen, right again, by design, BDS does indeed go well beyond simply “protesting… government policies” by targeting “…all facets of Israeli society.” That’s the aim. To send a loud unmistakable message to the people of Israel that silence is complicity and that to remain complicit is to invite the collective political, economic and social discomfort that should, indeed, must come with blind support of a government that targets and tortures millions of Palestinians for no reason other than their heritage, religion and historical right to a nation whose theft began in 1948 and continues on day by day by day.

Although I was not present, witnesses describe an angry hate filled session; a public meeting filled with spit and Islamaphobic taunts coming from the largely vetted Zionist audience egged on, all the while, by their pet councilmen and women. To the pro Israeli, anti First Amendment bloc, the mere mention of any support of BDS triggered the all too familiar and convenient chorus of “anti-Semite”… even the half dozen or so rabbis who attended to voice their support for BDS and opposition to the Council’s attempt to stifle dissent were not spared J’accuse. It mattered not that the air was heavy with principle and calls for justice and a powerful example of protected participatory government at its best- it was anti-Semitic. It always is… whenever people dare to challenge Israel or its official narrative packaged and sold like none other.

Not long after it began, police moved in to clear the public session of its BDS supporters, those daring enough to display pro Palestinian placards or flags; those foolish enough to believe that a City Council meeting was about dialogue and debate and not just a politically staged event to provide “participatory” cover for a decision long ago rubberstamped through a well placed political contribution or bargained for exchange.

My city is one that relishes debate… the good, the bad, the ugly, the true and the false. We thrive on disagreement and diversity. It’s what makes us great… different than everywhere else in this country, if not the world. It’s not a city of racial or religious orthodoxy. It’s not a city that welcomes purity of any sort, let alone that of thought or speech. Yet today’s jejune City Council has started us down that precise slippery slope deigning to become censors of what it is that we are free to say and feel, what it is we can and cannot do in ensuring that our peaceful voice is heard.

To say that I am embarrassed for most of these 51 lost souls who oversee and represent 51 different districts within our five boroughs and which, interestingly enough, has a Black, Latino, and Asian Caucus comprised of twenty-five of the fifty-one members… but one away from the majority… is to describe New York as simply a City with a lot of people.

In New York, the City Council (which oversees the fourth-largest governmental budget in the United States, just behind that of the federal government, California and New York State) is supposed to provide the checks and balances of our local government. By design it wears many hats, not least of which is to represent the heart and soul of its millions of constituents; New Yorkers who see themselves as very much a part of a vibrant and opinionated political, artistic and social community both local and international. Just hop in a cab and listen to a driver rave on at his radio while he follows a breaking news story some seven thousand miles away that has nothing to do with his shift, or his life, but has him engaged as if it were unfolding right then and there before him

Unfortunately, as evidenced by the most recent private sale of a public trust, today’s City Council is not one which understands let alone respects its own history… an electoral journey often fueled by fierce independence and determined integrity in the pursuit of justice within, not just the narrow confines of our five boroughs, but our world as a whole. Was it so long ago that an earlier City Council unanimously passed anti-apartheid legislation kick-starting a national movement intended to, and which ultimately did, break the back of apartheid South Africa. Like today’s BDS effort, the 1985 City Council bill was supported by a broad coalition of unions, activists and academics. Like today’s BDS effort, it targeted all facets of South African society including not just its academic, cultural, and civil society institutions, but individual South African citizens as well, in its challenge to long-term institutional segregation that had resisted most forms of international criticism until the disinvestment campaign came along. Sound familiar?

Indeed, in proposing the legislation, Upper West Sider Ruth Messinger explained, “We’re going to cut off all loan monies for South Africa from New York Banks. The city has finally begun to realize the extraordinary leverage it has with its funds. It’s only a beginning.”

A year earlier, then Mayor Koch created a panel to measure possible responses New York City could take to pressure the South African government… and the panel recommended withdrawing municipal employee pension funds from companies doing business there. While others city and state governments undertook similar measures, the $665 million pension investment withheld by New York was by far the largest American fund to disinvest as political/economic pressure directed at a regime no more repressive than that of Israel since the occupation of Palestine began nearly 70 years ago.

On other occasions the City Council has moved to make its voice heard on matters far from the East River that rubbed up against well-settled international norms and laws. Thus, in 1997, the City Council, with the support of then Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, passed a measure that called for New York City to withdraw deposits and investments from banks that did business with some 16 countries including Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Myanmar (Burma), Egypt, China, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Laos, Pakistan, Morocco, Nigeria, North Korea, Sudan and Vietnam for alleged religious persecution of minorities. The bill would make more than one-third of the world’s business population off-limits to the city, and cause tremendous economic and social hardship to more than a half a billion citizens of the world because of the conduct of their respective governments. In supporting the bill City Councilman Thomas Dunne, a Manhattan Democrat, called it a moral issue for the city.

“Just like in South Africa and in Northern Ireland, New York City can stand as a leader in the battle for human rights around the world,” Dunne said. “As an international city, New York has a responsibility that’s far beyond the borders of our five boroughs.”

Historically, the City Council has often moved to ensure the widest possible reach of human rights be it for its own citizens, those in other states or abroad. Often its resolutions have been groundbreaking and not at all popular for the times. Thus, on February 16, 1951, at the height of Jim Crowe, the New York City Council passed a bill prohibiting discrimination against African Americans in city-assisted housing projects. The bill was directed mainly at the Stuyvesant Town housing project. One month later, the Brown-Issacs Bill became law in New York City, making racial discrimination in public housing developments a misdemeanor offense punishable by a fine and prison term for the owner of any housing development constructed with public assistance found to discriminate on account of race, color, or nationality. Stuyvesant Town, long a symbol of discrimination, was barred from using race as criterion in tenant selection.

Years later, the City Council was to pass Human Rights Law Title 8 of the Administrative Code of the City of New York. Under its current form the NYCHRL protects New Yorkers against actual or perceived discrimination based on sixteen categories. Categories include race, color, creed, ages, national origin, alienage or citizenship status, gender, sexual orientation, disability, marital status, partnership status, any lawful source of income, status as a victim of domestic violence, status as a victim of sex offenses, stalking or lawful occupation.

From this code and our collective commitment to diversity and justice, New York City has seen a wide range of powerful political protests and statements in support of the right of individuals to chart their own course in pursuit of personal rights and beliefs that do not interfere with those of others who call this City home. So, too, Title 8 has been quick to serve as the legislative impetus to challenge abhorrent practices, even private ones, which would reduce the rights of our citizenry on the basis of their minority status, whatever they might be.

For example, in its most recent application, Mayor Bill de Blasio and members of the City Council called for a city-wide boycott of Chick-fil-A, a private business owned by a devoutly Christian family whose owner had announced that he believed marriage is just between a man and a woman and that any other union offended core standards of decency. In supporting the boycott, Councilman Dromm, who founded the Queens Lesbian and Gay Pride Committee and organized the first Queens LGBT Pride Parade and Festival, noted that the restaurant supports groups that impart “…a strong anti-LGBT message by forcing their employees and volunteers to adhere to a policy that prohibits same-sex love… it is outrageous that Chick-fil-A is quietly spreading its message of hate by funding these type organizations.”

Last year Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito announced that because the council is “committed to celebrating and respecting the diversity” of the city it would not have an official presence at the St. Patrick’s Day Parade because of rules that prevent gay and lesbian groups from identifying themselves while marching.

In 2015 the City Council honored Ethel Rosenberg on what would have been her 100th birthday for “demonstrating great bravery” in leading a 1935 strike against the National New York Packing and Supply Co., where she worked as a clerk. At the height of Cold War hysteria Ms. Rosenberg was executed for treason having been convicted with her husband for passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union.

In 2007 a group of primarily African American New York City Council members called for a resolution to “express profound regret” for the city’s role in chattel slavery. The New York City Council members who introduced the resolution wanted the city to apologize for its role in sustaining and benefiting from the slave trade where 12 million Africans were physically coerced into a life of bondage in the Americas. This comes in light of various attempts made by lawmakers to absolve the country of its associations with slavery.

And in 1994 in an outpouring of love led by City Council Speaker Peter F. Vallone, City Comptroller Alan G. Hevesi and Mayor Giuliani, IRA leader Gerry Adams, once imprisoned and denounced by the British as a Northern Irish terrorist, received multiple awards and praise from city officials. Describing Adams as a “civil rights activist,” Giuliani specifically cited the “North’s suffering under an outside occupation force.” Where have we heard this phrase before?

In New York, City Council boycotts have not been limited to human rights abuses abroad but have targeted a wide range of domestic activity, often defying popular political sensibilities and the voting allure of the day. Thus, in 1978 the City Council supported a nation-wide citizen’s boycott directed at the Southern based textile giant J.P. Stevens for labor law violations. In proving the apple can in fact fall very far from the tree, then Governor-elect Mario Cuomo declared “…to shun the products of J.P. Stevens as you would shun the fruit of an unholy tree.”

In 2011, a different Council passed a resolution calling for a boycott of the state of Arizona and all of its businesses and tourism including U.S. Airways (based in Tempe), the Diamondbacks ballclub and the Grand Canyon in reaction to a law that allowed police officers the right to ask residents to provide immigration documentation. In noting that the Council had “…concerns about how the boycott can hurt working-class people,” Councilman Ydanis Rodriquez of Washington Heights nevertheless compared it to the 1980s anti-apartheid boycotts against South Africa, concluding “…we believe that…it is necessary.”

We are a city of dissidents, of creative free spirits and thinkers, of independent women and men who do not suffer fools lightly. New Yorkers have made it a calling standing up to the petty popular, and the passing fancy. We have survived draft and race riots and an unprecedented attack of terror in lower Manhattan which took the lives of thousands. We’ve given comfort to runaway slaves and refuge to those in flight from injustice at home and abroad alike. We’ve embraced, indeed welcomed, thoughts very much taboo elsewhere. We are a City with streets and boulevards that honor fallen free thinkers and movements; those who scoffed at tyranny and, by doing so, often paid for their acts of defiance and courage with their all.

To drive through the five boroughs we call home is a passageway of dramatic history and sacrifice. Where but New York do you find the names Malcolm X, Frederick Douglass, King, Robeson, Tubman, Juan Pablo Duarte, Mother Hale, Susan B. Anthony, Teddy Gleason, El Grito de Lares and Toussaint Louverture intersecting corners named for the Young Lords, Buffalo Soldiers and Abolitionist Place.

Given our clear and long history of commitment to the unpopular voice, and the difficult battle, what is there that drove this most recent effort by some in the City Council to sully the name and tradition of its predecessor councils? It’s far too easy and “nuanced” to blame the corrupting political influence of AIPAC or the blind obedience to Israel shown almost uniformly by our City’s Jewish politicians. No, it’s more basic and tawdry than that. This resolution was very much government at its worst; business as usual, a quid pro quo, an exchange of votes with one caucus currying favor with another driven not by principle, but mere patronage.

Indeed, in supporting the resolution, Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito’s said all the right things its Zionist sponsors wanted to hear. Calling BDS a “…harmful, exclusionary campaign aimed at undermining the unbreakable bond between Israel and the United States,” the speaker delivered on a promise she had made to the Jewish caucus last year. The reality of it is, she could care less about either the BDS movement or Israel. Informed sources at City Hall report that this was a simple, bargained for, exchange with Viverito delivering the power of her position and her caucus in exchange for Jewish council members supporting her earlier resolution that President Obama commute the sentence of legendary Puerto Rican Independista, Oscar Lopez Rivera now unjustly serving his 35th year of imprisonment of a 55 year sentence following his conviction for seditious conspiracy as a leader of the FALN.

The irony of the Speakers cheap political ploy is that Rivera himself would, like Mandela, reject any deal that required of him that he sacrifice his principles and his support of others engaged in armed struggle, let alone peaceful protest, to obtain his own liberty. Like Mandela who when offered his freedom after 17 years of imprisonment if only he renounced violence but instead walked back to his cell to do 10 more, Rivera years ago refused to accept President Clinton’s commutation offer which would have required of him to renounce the use of “terrorism” to obtain independence for the Caribbean commonwealth.

So Madame Speaker, the next time you pass the Statue of Liberty remember it sits as a beacon of hope, equality and justice in the East River of New York, the capital of the free and fierce world, and not the Jordan River which runs red with the blood of Palestinian civilians trapped by the bondage of apartheid and occupation. BDS.

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It Ain’t the Promised Land

In compliment to Prison America Parts I & II,  this is the first installment in a new ongoing series…

It’s 6:00 AM, the loudspeaker blasts out, “Main line, main line, main line,” as the huge cracked panel lights go on as so much a collective alarm clock waking all those whose blanket has slipped from their face as another day of despair begins for 130 battered men in the “House of the Dead.”

Whoever has experienced the power and the unrestrained ability to humiliate another human being automatically loses his own sensations. Tyranny is a habit, it has its own organic life, it develops finally into a disease. The habit can kill and coarsen the very best man or woman to the level of a beast. Blood and power intoxicate…the return of the human dignity, repentance and regeneration becomes almost impossible.” Fyodor Dostoyevsky, “The House of the Dead”

In his epic, semi-autobiographical novel of life and death in an 1880’s Siberian Gulag where he was imprisoned for four years as a political dissident, Dostoyevsky wrote of despair, isolation, sickness, and death. 130 years later, what was then and there remains very much here and now.

Pennsylvania is one of many states that has profited richly from a Gulag system run by federal, state, and local governments. Home to more than 40 penitentiaries of one sort or another, within Pennsylvania sits a massive penal archipelago that employs many thousands of administrators, guards, and local service workers as beneficiaries of a nation wide “crime pays” empire that costs some 75-80 billion dollars annually to operate as it cages some 2.5 million prisoners in Federal and State Prisons and local jails (an additional 4.8 million are supervised on probation and parole plus appx. 50,000 youths held in Juvenile Detention), most for complaint-less or non-violent offenses (appx 8% incarcerated for violent offenses). Pennsylvania State Prisons, alone, account for appx. 2.1 billion dollars annually. 25 years ago, most non-violent offenders were released on their own recognizance. Today, most are given bail and will pay a bondsman if they can afford it. Roughly .5 million adults, annually, sit in jail awaiting trial because they cannot afford bail. It costs an additional 9 billion, annually, to house them.

Located in an isolated valley surrounded by rolling hills in the Northeast corner of Pennsylvania not far from the New York border sits Canaan, one such federal prison complex. Although it plays an essential role in the economic lifeblood of a distressed rural community which provides dozens of local jailers and contractors, Canaan is, nevertheless, viewed locally, with much suspicion, as so much the odd stepchild not to be talked of, let alone seen.

Perhaps the deaths two years ago of two local residents turned guards… one at the hands of a prisoner under mysterious circumstances and the second a suicide that followed in its wake… has left Canaan very much like the haunted house on the hilltop that all know of, yet only the foolhardy dare to visit. Or, perhaps, like all prisons in this country, Canaan, by design, remains ever foreboding, out-of-sight, out of mind to all but its caged and their gatekeepers.

Anything but a Biblical place of promise, hope, and redemption, Canaan is a cold, vicious, and isolated outpost of psychic and occasional corporal punishment which exudes desperation and despair from every wall, cell, and bunk whether from its maximum security prison or companion “camp.”

Seemingly quarantined, like most prison outposts that dot this country from coast to coast, Canaan and its host community are always on edge. Taut with the tension born of ignorance and fear, racked with suspicion, both are hostile to “those” people. Whether it’s the town’s one pub which, almost proudly, suggests to the few Black customers passing through the exclusively White community that they move on before sunset, or the stuffed monkey hanging from a small noose posted outside the office of a Black (now former) prison administrator, or the constant call of “boy” that rings throughout the prison, or the admonition that prisoners stop acting like “angry Black men,” ugly, pervasive racism is a constant companion to those who live and work voluntarily or otherwise in the very much gated community. For Jews, life is no more comfortable. More than a few report outbursts of anti-Semitism from guards ranging from “I thought Jews didn’t eat Hershey’s” to “You eat all of them, you will be a fat Jew boy” to “You’re a malingering Jew.” In one sudden outburst at a forced labor assignment, a guard screamed at a Jewish prisoner that he was the “SS commandant”, this [was] his camp, and [that] “you are all my campers.”

Six months a year, Canaan gives meaning to Dostoyevsky’s Siberian nightmare as very much a barren, frozen wasteland buried in mounds of snow swept by frequent blasts of gale-force winds with subzero Arctic wind-chill factors the norm.

The maximum-security prison rated both on and off the mythical inmate.com grid as among the most repressive and violent federal prison tombs in the United States is home to some 1,500 prisoners, two-thirds serving sentences of 20 years or more, the rest, life without the possibility of release. To them, some 500 men, the coroner’s wagon will at day’s end provide the only freedom they will again know. Meanwhile, day in and out can be heard the shrill screams of men buried in hopelessness and futility as they struggle to survive yet another day where stab wounds, broken bones, and burns become a rite of passage among many prisoners and guards alike.

At any given time, 15% of the prison population is segregated in the SHU, or Special Housing Units. Designed to isolate “acting out” or “violent” prisoners, the SHU at Canaan, like all federal prisons, has evolved to become the cornerstone of the BOP’s unofficial behaviour modification program. For those prisoners who refuse to be broken or silenced, or who display any open independence, a trip to the SHU is all but just a matter of time.

Buried deep in the cavernous prison, the SHU occupies three isolated and frigid floors divided into rows of dirty and dank cells each with a single window frosted over to ensure its prisoners cannot see outside the walls of their 7 by 10 foot homes, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, often for many months on end.

Provided but a single sheet and blanket for their tiny 2 ½’ x 6′ cots along with a jumpsuit, a single pair of socks, and shorts, prisoners on the top two floors shiver around the clock as wind pours through missing window seals with temperatures controlled to remain at 62 degrees year-round. For the truly unbroken or unrepentant, the bottom floor of the SHU, or the “hole,” awaits prisoners provided but a single sheet, one t-shirt, and a pair of boxer shorts to insulate them from the punishing 55-degree temperature likewise maintained day in and out.

For the two men who share each cell with a combination sink and toilet, each is provided but a single towel, never laundered or replaced; one spoon and cup, not exchanged if broken; and no cleaning supplies to scour the ever-present layered filth from the purgatory they call home. During a prisoner’s stay in the SHU, there is essentially a ban on prison visits from family and friends and almost no communications permitted with others, be it by telephone, email, or letter. Likewise, no mail is received. In each cell sits a shower timed to run but for 4 minutes at a time, from which runs scalding hot water which burns the skin off as prisoners try to wash themselves… and which they use over and over again throughout the day to fill the boredom. Allowed but two books per cell every two weeks, prisoners read and re-read the same books over and over again as they desperately try to maintain their sanity in the House of the Dead.

A recent prisoner at the SHU advised he received absolutely no exercise or “rec” or time out of his cell (save for some 15 minutes) during the many weeks he was kept there, and wore the same pair of underwear, socks and t-shirt for the first 21 days of his isolation. Meanwhile “up top” in the main prison, life and death goes on very much unchanged for mostly young men of color who sit and stare at broken dreams and lost lives praying silently for that early release miracle that never comes as their 20’s give way to their 30’s and their 40’s typically for getting high, or helping others to, and so little else.