Silencing Dissent

In recent years, British pro-Israel groups have pursued a multi-pronged strategy to stifle discourse about Israeli policy and Palestinian rights. This is a response to a decades-long erosion of support for Israel, coupled with growing support for Palestinians.
Back in the 1970s, when pro-Israel groups dominated, individuals and groups supporting Palestinian rights were often excluded from political coalitions, removed from positions, prevented from speaking at university events, and had contributions returned by political candidates. Members of Parliament who spoke out were smeared and targeted for defeat. Attitudes began to change with the first intifada, and then the Madrid peace process culminating in the Oslo Accords. The power of intimidation diminished, and an open discussion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict began.
The debate continued over the next three decades, with fluctuations in the peace process. Increasingly aggressive and brutal behaviours by the Israeli government, coupled with greater scrutiny of its policies, resulted in a shift in British public opinion. Today, majorities in both major political parties support tying UK aid to Israel to its human rights violations, and by a significant margin, people have a more favorable view of Palestinians than of Israelis.
Reflecting this change, an increasing number of supporters of Palestinian rights are getting involved in politics and advocacy. Students, including Arab Britons, Black Britons, Asian Britons, Muslims, and a significant number of young progressive Jews who cannot reconcile their faith’s values with Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, are engaging in pro-Palestinian actions on university campuses. For hardline pro-Israel groups, it’s a crisis that has led to renewed efforts to silence Israel’s critics.
Reactions to the current round of violence have exposed deep divisions in attitudes toward Palestine/Israel, while adding impetus to pro-Israel groups’ efforts to stifle debate. The widespread public outrage at Hamas’ actions presented an opportunity to advance their repressive agenda.
Their tactics have included the expanded use of well-funded political committees to smear and defeat progressive candidates critical of Israeli policies, passing legislation or securing executive orders penalising supporters of efforts to boycott, divest, or sanction Israel over violations of Palestinian rights, and expanding the definition of antisemitism to include legitimate criticism of Israeli policies. They have also pressured major corporations, law firms, and universities to accept this definition and require employees to adhere to this policy. Additionally, they have targeted and smeared individuals and groups critical of Israel or supportive of Palestinian rights.
Within days of the Hamas attacks, colleges/universities, organisations, and major corporations were pressured to denounce the attacks and describe them as antisemitic. Many did, and those who hesitated were criticised. As the Palestinian civilian death toll from Israeli strikes throughout Gaza increased, more balanced statements expressing concern for both Israeli and Palestinian civilians were criticised as antisemitic and “false comparisons” by pro-Israel groups.
Campus student groups calling out repressive Israeli policies in Gaza, both before and after the Hamas assaults, have been painted as pro-Hamas and advocates for terror. In a few well-publicised cases, students identified as participating in pro-Palestinian actions had job offers from prominent law firms rescinded. Congressional resolutions expanding the definition of antisemitism to include legitimate criticism of Israel are being discussed, despite concerns about violating free speech.
Two opposing social forces are at work: the ongoing fracturing of public opinion in the UK regarding Israel/Palestine and some pro-Israel groups seeing widespread public horror over Hamas’ behaviour as an opportunity to advance their agenda to silence the emerging debate over Palestinian rights.
Three weeks after the Hamas attacks, the initial revulsion has been somewhat offset by shock as the devastating toll of Israel’s massive retaliation against Gaza grows. While Hamas’ actions didn’t advance the cause of Palestinian supporters (nor did the careless and offensive language used by some pro-Palestinian student groups), neither has Israel’s unrelenting bombing of Gaza served Israel’s supporters seeking to stifle debate.
Despite significant investments in resources and political capital by pro-Israel groups, and those harmed by their assault on free speech, they may intimidate members of Parliament and silence some debate for a time. However, changes in public opinion will continue. In fact, the very heavy-handed tactics used by the pro-Israel groups are already creating discomfort with their approach to silencing debate and defending the indefensible.

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