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Michael Ratner: Regulations against hate speech used to close down criticism of Israeli occupation

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore. And welcome to this week’s edition of the Ratner Report with Michael Ratner, who now joins us from New York City.

Michael’s the president emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights. He’s chair of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights in Berlin. He’s a board member of The Real News. And he joins us.

Thanks very much, Michael.

RATNER: Paul, it’s good to be with you again.

JAY: So what are you–I know you’re working on a ton of things every week, but what are you going to talk about this week?

RATNER: You know, every week, there’s so much going on, I could spend hours on your show. But I’m going to step back for a second, although it’s really stepping forward as well. I want to talk about Palestine and Israel, but particularly the issue of free speech and dissent in the United States.

And my view for a number of years has been, with regard to issues of Palestine, with regard to criticism of Israel in particular, there’s what I call the Palestine exception to free speech or the Palestine exception to the First Amendment, which is our free speech protection in the United States. And when I say exception, what I mean is you can almost speak about anything in the United States, but the one thing that you get accused of and they try and stop you from speaking about is critiques of Israel with regard to the Palestinian people. And they call people who are oftentimes critical of Israel, they say they’re engaging in anti-Jewish or antisemitic speech.

In my experience and what I’ve looked at over the last number of years, particularly at universities where a lot of this dissent happens and where actually over the last month we’ve had anti-apartheid week with regard to Israel, where there’s actually a lot of suppression of free speech and there’s a lot of effort to stop critiques of Israel, and it comes off over things that are clearly not antisemitic–you oppose the occupation–the people who support Israel down the line say, well, that’s antisemitic. You call Israel an apartheid state–antisemitic. Of course, it’s not. You support BDS, boycott, divestment, and sanction–antisemitic. And I could go on. So the critiques people are making, particularly university students and others, around Israel’s behavior is often, often deemed antisemitic.

And the question I’ve asked myself over time is: how do we change a policy in the United States if the people who want to push for change in the United States can’t engage in free speech on that policy? If we talk about John Stuart Mill and the idea that there’s a marketplace of ideas, assuming there was any kind of equal media out there, which there’s not, that you’re trying to remedy, you at least have to get the ideas out there. And they’re not getting out there, because critiques of Israel are suppressed.

And CCR, my office, Center for Constitutional Rights, noticed this over the years and has been trying to represent people whose speech gets suppressed, as well as teach them their rights. We’ve set up a website called We give information, representation, etc., on that website.

But let me give people a sense of what’s going out there. They attack free speech–they being people who want to suppress this speech, whether they’re, you know, heavy Zionists that don’t want to hear the other side, don’t want to debate the other side. Rather than debate it, they call it antisemitic. And they do it politically, they do it legally, and they do it by creating a climate of fear on the campuses for people who want to speak out on Israel.

We just had one a few weeks ago here in New York when there were two speakers at Brooklyn College who were going to speak on boycott, divestment, and sanction. One of them really favored boycott, divestment, and sanction; the other one, while very critical of Israel, didn’t favor it as strongly.

And there was a huge what I call political attack on Brooklyn College for doing it. And what actually happened is a number of members of our city council, eight or ten at one time, wrote a letter to Brooklyn College, which is a public college, saying, we will consider withdrawing your funding if you continue to sponsor this biased, one-sided presentation. And, of course, yes. Did it have a pro-Zionist on there? No, it didn’t.

But this happens at universities all the time, as we all know. They’re not required at a university to put both sides on every issue. And of course the person who did the most complaining here was Alan Dershowitz from Harvard. He speaks all the time as a Zionist without anybody opposing him. When I went to college, I heard Malcolm X speak. They didn’t put someone on the other side with Malcolm X. A university doesn’t have to balance every single panel. And that was in my view just a fig leaf or an excuse for attacking the panel.

So here you have city councilmen saying, we’re going to withdraw funding. To his credit, our mayor, Mayor Bloomberg, said, I support free speech at Brooklyn College. This is not, as he said, the university of North Korea. That’s not what this is. This isn’t a country like North Korea where you suppress speech. You let it happen. And he finally–I wouldn’t say put an end to it, because it’s still going on, in the sense that people are still now angry at the organizers, claiming that people were kicked out of the lecture, etc., but Bloomberg at least said the right thing on that issue.

So it just–there’s a political way in which universities get attacked, their funding gets threatened. That happened recently at Brooklyn College.

There’s a second, legal way, and that’s something called Title 6, which most people are probably not familiar with. It’s being used heavily at the University of California. It’s being used by people who object to critiques of Israel. And Title 6 is part of our national statutes that prohibits discrimination based on race, color, or national origin. It does not say anything about prohibiting discrimination based on religion.

But of course as this thing has heated up and the critiques of Israel have gotten stronger, and as obviously there’s been more support for critiquing Israel in the world and particularly the United States, the so-called Zionist lobby is breaking apart, to a certain extent. There’s more diversity in it. As that’s increased, the Department of Education, which is where Title 6 complaints go to, expanded the definitions to basically say that antisemitism could be considered an attack, I presume, on national origin in some way or on maybe race. But they call it ethnicity. And they expanded it so complaints under Title 6 could be filed.

And why they’re important is that every educational institution in this country that gets any federal money is subject to Title 6. So a complaint against a university, like University of California or its constituent colleges, is taken seriously. It goes to the Department of Education, and federal funding can be cut off if it’s found to be violating Title 6. And there’s been half a dozen of these complaints filed.

And when you look at them, the complaints are essentially complaints that are critical, critical of Zionism. And, in fact, in one of these cases–in two of these cases, the Center for Constitutional Rights has written letters to the university, and the ACLU did it as well. And the ACLU looked at these complaints under Title 6, saying, this is discrimination, and they said what is going on on these campuses are expressive speech and conduct that expresses opposition to the policies and actions of the state of Israel or the ideals of Zionism and are equivalent. And to say they are equivalent to anti-Zionism [sic] and hate speech is just ridiculous, and it should not come under Title 6. But those are going on.

And even if they’re in the end found wanting, even if the Department of Education says, this is just free speech, this is not antisemitism, this does not come under Title 6, what happens is investigations ensue, and people who are speaking out in criticism of Israel are very intimidated, and universities begin to get frightened, and they begin to suppress, really, free speech because they’re afraid, afraid of these DOE complaints.

And to give you some sense of how bad it’s been going, particularly in California, but, as I just said, in New York as well, the assembly, state assembly in California passed a bill a few months ago basically trying to define antisemitism in a very broad way and saying that this kind of conduct constitutes antisemitism and should not be allowed. I’m just going to read you a couple of sentences. It’s considered to be that falsely described Israel Zionists include–and Jews, including that Israel is a racist, apartheid, or Nazi state.

Okay. Israel is a racist or apartheid state. I think–or a Nazi state. You can say it. It’s not antisemitic. Or you can say Israel is guilty of heinous crimes against humanity, such as ethnic cleansing and genocide. Now, it seems to me that is not antisemitic. In fact, I read a book called The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine that talks about the destruction of some almost 700 villages in Palestine. Or to say that Jews in America wield excessive power over American foreign policy. Now, that’s a much debated issue, but there’s a lot of evidence about that. There’s professors at Harvard who’ve written major books on it. It’s considered a really important issue. And yet this resolution in California labels that kind of discussion as antisemitic. So there is not just the political; there’s the legal.

And then there’s the third, which is there’s a climate of hostility that’s created for people who want to speak out on Israel at these campuses. They’re criticized by their professor. They’re given–they’re yelled at and given names. Their speech is suppressed.

What’s really happened here, if you look at the political, the legal, and the climate that’s created is that people who don’t want to hear any criticism of Israel or its practices have actually done the exact reverse of what’s really going on. What’s really going on here is people who speak out on Israel, people who oppose the occupation, people who support BDS, boycott, divestment, and sanction, people who talk about the Zionist lobby in the United States as being powerful, those people’s speech are being suppressed.

The people who are speaking in favor, obviously, of Israel without any criticism, that’s the speech that’s allowed, that’s the speech that’s printed. And so they’ve basically turned this upside down. And it’s–the reason that we at the Center founded this project, the Palestine legal support project: because we think that free speech, particularly around contentious issues like Israel and Palestine, is an absolute necessity in this country.

JAY: Right. Well, the, you know, Zionist lobby has been able to create this idea that somehow criticizing Israel, the Jewish state, is equivalent to wanting genocide against Jews. They don’t quite say it, but they treat these debates as if it’s a debate whether to have genocide or not, which of course it’s not. But that’s the level it’s treated at, because I suppose if you were going to have that kind of debate, that would be hate speech, and one could imagine closing that kind of a debate down, I suppose, should we have genocide or not. But nobody’s saying those things.

But let me just go come at this from another direction. While I would say the vast majority of criticism of Israel is not antisemitism, some is. I know from our stories–we do stories about Israel which have been very, very critical of Israeli policy. We get comments, especially on our YouTube site, some of which are just virulently racist comments, just anti-Jewish, racist comment. In fact, some of the stories that have nothing to do with Israel, many of our economic stories are permeated with many, many of these comments that are just filled with hatred of Jews and not really critique of Israel as much. So I think it’s important to recognize that some of this critique of Israel actually is driven by racism.

RATNER: Obviously, if you see that kind of stuff, that’s one thing. But what I’ve come at and where we’ve seen over the years is what we see as really solid criticisms of Israel or its occupation or BDS or its human rights record, that’s not antisemitic; that’s critique. And what people have done is because there may be a few people out there with virulent antisemitism–just are there people with virulent anti-Muslim, in particular, is the other area where you see that–that does not mean you suppress speech altogether.

And so my problem is is what’s happened is the Zionists have really equated criticism of Israel with antisemitism. And that’s just not right. It’s not fair. And it’s really suppressing an important, really important conversation that has to happen in this country.

Of course there’s antisemitism. As I said, there’s antisemites, there’s anti-Muslims, and anti-Christians. There’s people who hate atheists. And they’re out there, and they’re virulent. And of course there’s a special history, of course, with Jews and antisemitism because of the Holocaust. And so people are obviously very, very sensitive to that, as they should be.

But to say that you can’t do critiques of Israel because of what happened to Jews during the Holocaust seems to me completely unreasonable and cuts off, really, as I said, a crucial debate that’s going to be necessary to actually get U.S. policy on track with what’s required by law and human rights.

JAY: Alright. Thanks for joining us, Michael.

RATNER: Good to be with you again, Paul.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Michael Ratner is President Emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) in New York and Chair of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights in Berlin. He is currently a legal adviser to Wikileaks and Julian Assange. He and CCR brought the first case challenging the Guantanamo detentions and continue in their efforts to close Guantanamo. He taught at Yale Law School, and Columbia Law School, and was President of the National Lawyers Guild. His current books include Hell No: Your Right to Dissent in the Twenty-First Century America, and Who Killed Che? How the CIA Got Away With Murder.

NOTE: Mr. Ratner speaks on his own behalf and not for any organization with which he is affiliated.