The Israel Lobby’s Growing Assault on Free Speech
Journalist and author Max Blumenthal talks about the growing BDS movement and the efforts to muzzle it
NADIA KANJI, PRODUCER, TRNN: It’s been almost 10 years since the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, also known as BDS, began. Its goal is to increase economic and political pressure on Israel to end the occupation and the growth of Israeli settlements, and it’s grown more and more in popularity. Celebrities, from Desmond Tutu to Stephen Hawking, support the movement, and just recently the United Nations Human Rights Council voted to create a blacklist of corporations doing business in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.
This growing movement is making those from lobbying group AIPAC very worried, and our guest, Max Blumenthal, is here to discuss what their strategy is to crush the movement. Max is a journalist and author, and his recent article is titled, “The Israel lobby’s dangerous agenda for the US: attack free speech and criminalize resistance.” Thank you so much for joining us, Max.
MAX BLUMENTHAL: Thanks for having me.
KANJI: So, I just wanted to start off with what is AIPAC’s strategy?
BLUMENTHAL: Well, AIPAC, in the past, had never mentioned BDS. Even recently, in 2011 when Benjamin Netanyahu spoke at this conference, which brings together a who’s who of the pro-Israel lobby, 20,000 supporters as the main arm of pro-Israel organizing in the US, Netanyahu did not mention Palestinians once in that speech. It was all about manipulating and badgering the Obama administration into attacking Iran on Israel’s behalf, and it was all about Iran. He did not want to talk about Palestinians. He definitely didn’t want to talk about the movement that Palestinian civil society as conceived that’s spreading around the globe to pressure Israel to end its project of apartheid.
So, fast forward four years later to 2015. Last year Netanyahu mentioned BDS 18 times, and now this year AIPAC became [an] important campaign stop for all candidates except for Senator Bernie Sanders, who stayed in Utah and Arizona to campaign with actual Americans instead of to pander before a foreign lobby for apartheid, and struck a very different tone on Israel-Palestine, more akin to the kind of tone you might hear from an organization like J Street.
The other candidates were united. Hillary Clinton, the Democratic frontrunner, and Ted Cruz, and Donald Trump and John Kasich in striking a very belligerent, anti-Palestinian, even Islamophobic tone. Ted Cruz began his speech by denying the existence of Palestinians, essentially. Big applause line. Donald Trump turned the Verizon Center, filled with 18,000, mostly Jewish, Americans into the kind of colosseum atmosphere that we’d seen at his rallies in the Deep South, showing that this kind of hate speech finds fertile soil not only among the stereotype of the southern redneck, but also among affluent, suburban Jews.
And Hillary Clinton set the tone by attacking the campus left, kind of reverting to the Goldwater girl of her early days, trashing the campus left as anti-Semitic and demanding that the BDS movement, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, be stopped. Ted Cruz actually went a little further, called for criminalizing it by legally punishing any campus that implements a divestment measure against corporations involved in the Israeli occupation.
So we’re seeing AIPAC bring this agenda out into the open, not only through these candidates but in state legislatures, where there are bills now being posed, from Massachusetts to California, to actually outlaw BDS by punishing corporations who refuse to do business in Israel or divest from their Israeli holdings.
KANJI: So I wanted to ask you about this, because in the US, First Amendment free speech rights are one of the strongest in the world. In Canada there are hate speech laws which make it a sort of different ball game. So is there precedent for how they could go about attacking BDS by calling it hate speech, sort of like they’re trying to do in Canada right now?
BLUMENTHAL: Well, the precedent lies in other countries that have less protection for free speech, which really reveals the pro-Israel lobby as the greatest threat to free speech in the West. They’ve already triumphed in France through the Alliot memorandum, named after the former French justice minister, which is still enforced and has resulted in scores of pro-BDS organizers being brought to trial for their speech, for organizing in support of Palestinian equal rights. In the UK you’re seeing the conservative Cameron government attempt to pressure local town counsels, actually to forbid local town counsels from exercising their democratic right to divest from companies who do business in occupied Palestinian territory, and weapons companies. They’re basically attempting to prevent them from enacting other progressive measures.
And you can see the smears of Jeremy Corbyn, and how Israel is being instrumentalized to break down progressive social movements across the West. In Canada, where you mentioned that there are hate speech laws, the government of Liberal Justin Trudeau has joined with the Conservatives to condemn BDS in an official resolution, condemning it as a form of anti-Semitic hate speech. [crosstalk] And so–
KANJI: [interceding]–Yeah, well he actually called it the new form of anti-semitism.
BLUMENTHAL: Yeah. Which is just, as I’ve said before, it’s absolutely disgusting, because they’re actually setting parameters on who can be a Jew. Now, what they’re doing in the US to limit speech and to create a free speech exception around Palestine is to force, attempt to force universities and even state houses to adopt a definition of anti-Semitism that does away with traditional definitions of anti-Semitism which define it as discrimination against Jews as Jews, and re-orient it into discrimination against Israel, which is held up as the sole representative of world Jewry, according to this definition.
It’s been conceived by an Israeli politician of the Likud party who’s a supporter of the settlement enterprise named Natan Sharansky, and he calls it the three-Ds definition, which is delegitimization and demonization of Israel. If you criticize Israel you’re an anti-Semite, according to this definition, and the pro-Israel lobby in the US has already forced the State Department to adopt this definition, and the University of California’s regents have just adopted the same definition, defining anti-Semitism as, defining anti-Zionism, a political perspective which is gaining in popularity among many Jews, I’m an anti-Zionist, as a form of anti-Semitism.
So if an anti-Zionist is an anti-Semite, then who is a Jew? According to this definition a Jew is necessarily a supporter of Israel, and anyone who stands outside those narrow ideological confines is not a Jew. So Gentile authorities, under pressure from the pro-Israel lobby, are defining what it means to be a Jew. That’s how dangerous it is. Beyond the free speech implications it has implications for the future of Jewish political organizing, and I think we’re going to see this division among Jews in the US grow much more stark, in a much more stark direction.
KANJI: Because even presidential candidate Bernie Sanders did sort of equate the BDS movement with anti-Semitism. Let’s take a look at what he had to say.
CHRIS HAYES: –you connected BDS to anti-Semitism. Do you think that’s a fair linkage?
BERNIE SANDERS: I think there is some of that, absolutely. Look, Israel has done some very bad things. So has every other country on earth. I think if people want to attack Israel for their policies I think that is fair game, but not to appreciate that there is some level of anti-Semitism around the world involved in that I think would be a mistake.
KANJI: So, Max, what’s your response to that?
BLUMENTHAL: Well, you heard that Sanders said it’s legitimate to attack Israel’s policies, and then he made this vague statement that there is a lot of anti-Semitism out there. And I’d actually agree, there is a lot of anti-Semitism out there. Israel and Zionism, which have become a sort of political–Zionism is the ideological foundation for Israel which has occupied Palestinians for 50 years and maintained a project of apartheid for 68 years, has inspired anti-Semitism across the Arab world. It is the primary catalyst for anti-Semitism, and if the Arab world is the main vehicle for anti-Semitism then it’s because of Israel.
And I would venture to say that BDS, which will actually relieve Jewish Israelis of the obligation to be occupiers, colonizers, and to conscript into an occupying army, might actually reduce anti-Semitism, if it were ever implemented, if equal rights were ever implemented, something Bernie Sanders claims to support, at least in the United States. So I think his statement, in one way, was helpful, and in another way he doesn’t analyze the roots of anti-Semitism.
Because if there is anti-Semitism then we have to fight it, but if everyone is called an anti-Semite who’s a critic of Israel then it negates the power of the accusation of anti-Semitism and it makes it impossible for us to fight the real anti-Semites who can now wear it as a badge of honor and call themselves free speech champions. We’ve already seen white supremacists and neo-Nazis do the same thing in Europe. So the pro-Israel lobby’s actually creating a scenario where that is almost inevitable.
KANJI: So, I actually want to ask you about legislation. So Canada passed a motion in February condemning BDS, and as we said, Prime Minister Trudeau even called it the new form of anti-Semitism. And then we have a UK law that says publicly funded institutions cannot boycott goods from the settlements. So why do you think governments are so aggressively going after BDS right now?
BLUMENTHAL: You know, you have to look at the situation that Israel’s in. It’s under the control of the most right-wing government in its history, headed by Benjamin Netanyahu who’s, you know, used to be considered the extreme edge of the right wing in Israel and is now finding himself under extreme pressure from his right wing. The occupation is firmly entrenched, and the West Bank is on its way towards being annexed as part of Israel, as part of greater Israel, which would be Apartheid Israel. The Green Line, which was supposed to provide a border between a future Palestinian state and Israel is gone, permanently. That’s something even Barack Obama and Angela Merkel have acknowledged, and the Iran deal is ratified.
The pro-Israel lobby has nowhere else to go except to attack the last line of resistance, and the last line of resistance is in capitals across the US, on campuses. It’s BDS. And so the occupation of Palestine is being projected outwards, in parapatetic fashion, and it’s moving into our societies through the pro-Israel lobby, and with it its totalitarian nature. The great Israel philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz referred to Israel as the only totalitarian country in the enlightened world, and he was referring to the way that it promotes itself as this enlightened democracy with gay rights and women’s rights and voting while it shutters Palestinian media outlets, raids Palestinian homes, takes their children out of their beds and puts them on trial before a military court and throws them into cells for months and months for nothing.
That system is moving outwards through Netanyahu’s cut-outs. And it’s political pressure, not the actual interests of governments in the UK or France or the US, that are responsible for these laws and these anti-Democratic measures. It’s political pressure from a pro-Israel lobby that has a totalitarian agenda to crush and criminalize all opposition. I don’t think I’m being extreme when I say that the pro-Israel lobby’s agenda, across the West, is to outlaw all criticism of and dissent against Netanyahu’s Apartheid Israel.
KANJI: Do you think that also it might have to do with BDS getting a lot of momentum?
BLUMENTHAL: Well, the success of BDS is the fact that we’re talking about it right now and that every presidential candidate is required to address it and call for crushing it. That means that Palestinians who have otherwise been disappeared are on the agenda, and as I said at the beginning of this discussion, Netanyahu in 2011 at AIPAC did not feel the need to mention Palestinians once. Now it’s all about Palestinians and the global campaign, which I think is one of the defining human rights causes of our time, for their liberation.
So that’s where BDS has triumphed, is forcing Israeli Apartheid and the struggle for Palestinian liberation onto the agenda of politicians across the West, and the public as well. The public has to hear about it now. The public has to make up its mind, and what we’re seeing is that more and more people who didn’t know anything about Palestinians, but who have progressive tendencies, who are out there canvassing for Bernie Sanders and going to his rallies, are sympathetic to the kind of language that I’m speaking right now, and I see them showing up when I give talks across the country, with Bernie stickers on, older people, many older, Jewish people tell me they never knew how bad it was 10 years ago.
This is the triumph of BDS. It’s not just a pressure campaign. It’s an education campaign, and in that respect it’s already won.
KANJI: All right. Thank you so much for joining us, Max.
BLUMENTHAL: Thanks for having me.
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