Silencing Dissent: How Biased Civil Rights Policies Stifle Dialogue on Israel

Protestors hold a sign that says, "Join the human rights and free speech consensus" and cover their mouths.

Members of Students for Justice in Palestine demonstrate against HR 35, a California state resolution that defines student-sponsored boycott, divestment, and sanction campaigns as categorically anti-Semitic. Credit: Tom Pessah.

Outrage over Israeli policies toward Palestinians has continued to swell the movement for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS). In response, critics of BDS are spreading rhetoric that is corroding support for civil liberties, civil rights, and free expression of ideas in the United States.

Controversies over U.S. policies in the Middle East are not new, but the current stance of some institutions claiming to speak for the U.S. Jewish community, combined with biased federal policies targeting anti-Semitism on U.S. college campuses, raises the specter of not just blacklists and political witch hunts but de facto government censorship.

During the presidency of George W. Bush, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (USCCR) and the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights created headlines with policies that provide federal civil rights protection against harassment or discrimination targeting Jewish college students. Meanwhile Muslims, Sikhs, and students from other faith traditions did not receive the same level of attention. Under the Obama administration neither the commission nor the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has rectified this situation; and the gridlocked Congress has failed to hold hearings or pass legislation that would clarify and correct biased federal policies and actions. Meanwhile, pressure to silence criticism of Israeli policies toward Palestinians continues to grow, spurred on by growing public opposition to the Israeli military attacks in Gaza.

A recent incident casts a spotlight on the smoldering tensions that highlight the need to protect free speech: In June a gig by the musical group the Shondes was cancelled by the Washington Jewish Music Festival because they refused to sign what amounted to a loyalty oath swearing they had never supported the BDS movement. Two founding members of The Shondes, singer Louisa Rachel Solomon and violinist Elijah Oberman, in a public letter “in light of this blacklisting debacle,” responded:

Sooner or later they will realize that increasing numbers of Jews oppose Israel’s actions in our names, and many of those who don’t endorse BDS unequivocally support open conversation of it…. What an irony that institutions whose missions focus on protecting Judaism’s future are writing themselves out of it.

Solomon and Oberman have described Judaism, activism, and music as “inseparable, essential parts of our lives” and have been opposing militarism and discrimination for years. In the wake of 9/11, they wrote: “We saw Arab, Muslim, and South Asian friends demonized and attacked…. We protested, organized, and tried to figure out what solidarity was.”

Civil rights, civil liberties, free speech, and academic freedom should not be adversaries. When they are in conflict, the ultimate victim is the free exchange of ideas that nurtures democracy itself.

Rights in Conflict

Since the 9/11 terror attacks, the silencing of dissent inside and outside the Jewish community has steadily increased. The issue of possible government censorship on campus was first raised in a public joint letter by Kenneth Stern, an expert on anti-Semitism with the American Jewish Committee, and Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors. Stern and Nelson warned that the civil rights policies of the federal government could lead to censorship and the suppression of free speech on campus. Under pressure from right-wing ideologues, the American Jewish Committee retracted Stern’s signature and repudiated the letter. Stern and Nelson feared the potential outcome of biased and misguided federal policies aimed at campus clashes over Middle East policies, especially involving the BDS movement.

How did these biased policies evolve? During his presidency, George W. Bush appointed numerous right-wing ideologues to federal agencies in an attempt to sidestep congressional oversight of policies and implement so-called color-blind policies while gutting affirmative action programs. The Justice Department, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights were special targets for right-wing ideological cleansing. Under Bush, these federal agencies shifted their attention from Islamophobia and focused on the issue of anti-Semitic incidents on U.S. college campuses. This happened despite the education office’s stated goal of protecting “all religious minorities—not just Jews but also Sikhs, Muslims, and others—from discrimination at federally funded secular institutions of higher learning.”

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Correction: Please note that this article contained two errors. Abigail Thernstrom’s term on the US Civil Rights Commission ended in December 2013, and she was never on the board of the Cato Institute. The authors take full responsibility for the errors and offer their apologies to Ms. Thernstrom and the editors and readers of Tikkun.

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