Silencing Dissent

The Persecution of the Palestinian Voice

by Conrad Jacober

In her recent Kenyon Collegian article, Rachel Kaplan states that, “there are ways to go about critiquing [Israel’s] actions without simultaneously being anti-Semitic, and Steven Salaita has not succeeded.” Put simply, Kaplan labels Salaita an anti-Semite. The evidence? Two of his tweets: “Zionist uplift in America: every little Jewish boy and girl can grow up to be the leader of a murderous colonial regime. #Gaza” and “Zionists: transforming ‘antisemitism’ from something horrible to something honorable since 1948. #Gaza #FreePalestine.”

One needs only the slightest context to understand Salaita’s words for what they are: a critique of Israel’s birthright program and a critique of Zionists who have conflated the meaning of anti-Semitism with the criticism of the Israeli state.

Though Kaplan believes that these two tweets should have “raised a red flag for the Kenyon Students for Justice in Palestine,” one should be far warier about the haphazard denigration of Israel’s critics as anti-Semites. Indeed, it is the very baselessness of this criticism that contextualizes Salaita’s second tweet: since Zionists have termed the critics of Israel anti-Semites, they have thus hollowed out the concept of its horrific meaning and transformed it into “something honorable”—if one believes, as Salaita does, that critiquing the state of Israel is honorable.

One needs only the slightest context to understand Salaita’s words for what they are: a critique of Israel’s birthright program and a critique of Zionists who have conflated the meaning of anti-Semitism with the criticism of the Israeli state. But context muddles their argument. It is far easier for Kaplan and for the University of Illinois to label Salaita anti-Semitic and to silence his voice; far more difficult is to engage with his critique.

Rather than considering Salaita’s arguments, his critics protested his presentation as a “stand with hate” in a public attack on an invited speaker that Kenyon has not seen since the old Kenyon Observer invited a known fascist to campus. Defaming Salaita and charging, as Kaplan does, that his invitation to campus was merely “a calculated, inflammatory move” are common attacks on those who voice dissent over Israel’s colonial domination of the Palestinian people. The silencing of this voice has become common practice in the US and Israel. As Salaita recognized in his talk, “people are simply not willing to hear the very necessary critiques of the state of Israel”—to make this reality otherwise was KSJP’s purpose in inviting Salaita to speak.

There are a slew of examples of the persecution of Palestinian voices in the US and Israel. This article will focus on the developments in a few of the cases that have come out recently: the killing of Rachel Corrie in Israel, the deportation of Sami Al-Arian to Turkey, and finally the indictment of Rasmea Odeh. In every case, an activist voice for the Palestinian people was violently stifled, either by the US government or the Israeli government.

On March 13, 2003, Rachel Corrie was in the occupied Gaza Strip on behalf of the International Solidarity Movement. Along with other activists, she was decrying the Israeli Defense Force’s bulldozing of Palestinian homes. This is a common tactic by the IDF, often defended by a claim that a terrorist lives in the home. However, Corrie and others were protesting the destruction of homes that were targeted for simply being within 100 meters of the newly constructed border wall. Of course, there was no compensation for families affected by the destruction.

Corrie stood 20 meters in front of a bulldozer to protect a Palestinian doctor’s house targeted for demolition. The bulldozer charged ahead, crushed her body, and reversed back over her with the plow pressed down, further crushing her. She suffered massive internal injuries and brain hemorrhaging and was dead after a few agonizing minutes in an ambulance called by the other activists who had witnessed her be crushed. The targeted house was then bulldozed with the American-made Caterpillar bulldozer, acquired as part of billions of annual US aid to Israel.

Just last week, Corrie’s family lost their appeal for the IDF to be held accountable for the loss and pay damages to the family. This was decided under the The Civil Wrongs (Liability of the State) Law, which was amended in 2002 to exempt the state of Israel from any responsibilities or liabilities during wartime, including any action “intended to prevent terror and hostile acts and insurrection, committed in circumstances of danger to life or limb.” This included the bulldozing of Palestinian homes within 100 meters of the Wall, which, of course, is a violation of international law. That did not matter though, as the court “explicitly refused to apply international humanitarian law—the laws of war—or international human rights law to Corrie’s case” (Human Rights Watch, February 17, 2015).

In a statement released last Thursday, Corrie’s family said of the case, “our family is disappointed but not surprised.” They stated further that the decision “amounts to judicial sanction of immunity for Israeli military forces when they commit injustices and human rights violations.” And just as there is no justice for Palestinians and those who struggle on their behalf to be found in Israel, so too is there any justice to be found in the US. The US government fully supports not only the state of Israel both politically and monetarily but also the persecution of Palestinian voices.

Sami Al-Arian was a successful professor at the University of South Florida. He is a Palestinian, a long-time advocate of the Muslim community, and a fervent voice of dissent for the Palestinian people. He had visited the White House a few times on behalf of his Muslim community and was then invited on the Bill O’Reilly show in 2003, during which O’Reilly viciously slandered him as a terrorist. Following this, his University was pressured to fire him, which they did so successfully on the ground that he was a threat to the University—not he himself, but his presence, as he had received death threats. He was held accountable for those threatening his life.

The story gets far worse though. Under the Patriot Act, then US prosecutor John Ashcroft brought 17 terrorism-related charges against Al-Arian. In February 2003, he was placed in a maximum security prison. For the next three years, Al-Arian was kept in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day, and for 24 hours a day for a 6-month period. His conditions were so extreme that on July 17, 2003—mere months into his years of solitary confinement—Amnesty International wrote to the Federal Bureau of Prisons that his conditions “appeared to be gratuitously punitive and to breach international standards.” The toll on Al-Arian and his family was extreme.

The US prosecutor failed to convict Al-Arian on a single charge; the jury acquitted him on eight of the counts and were deadlocked 10-2 in favor of acquittal on the remaining nine counts. Running out of money for lawyers and trying to end the suffering of his family through what could become years of appeals or retrials, Al-Arian entered into a plea bargain in which he plead guilty to helping his brother-in-law pay for an immigration attorney—an offense which was contrived to be “conspiracy to contribute services to or for the benefit of the Palestine Islamic Jihad.” He received the maximum prison sentence of 57 months.

Unfortunately that was not the end. The US prosecutor then called him to testify in another case against more accused supporters of terrorism. Of this, Al-Arian’s lawyer stated on February 5, 2015 that, “Dr. Al-Arian objected that he was assured that he would not be forced into any additional proceedings and many viewed the grand jury was a ‘perjury trap’ where the prosecutors would charge on any statement that could be alleged to be inaccurate or untrue. He refused” (jonathanturley.org). Following his refusal to be dragged into further legal proceedings, the US prosecutor refused to honor his plea bargain. He was charged for civil contempt, sentenced to six more months in prison, and then further charged with two counts of criminal contempt—for both of which the judge would not set a court date. Al-Arian undertook a 60-day hunger strike in protest, losing 53 pounds.

Finally, in September 2008, Al-Arian was placed on house arrest and allowed out of jail. However, the litigation on his criminal contempt indictment kept him on house arrest until June of last year, when the US prosecutor’s office finally dropped the charges. After more than a decade of being subjected to some of the most heinous forms of imprisonment through the utter abuse of the legal system, Al-Arian was finally deported to Turkey three weeks ago. Following this, he said that he originally came to the US for freedom and now leaves in order to regain that freedom.

In the United States, as well as in many other western countries, those who support the Palestinian struggle for justice, and criticize Israel’s occupation and brutal policies, have often experienced an assault on their freedom of speech in academia, media, politics and society at large.

On February 5, Al-Arian released a statement saying that, “the forces of intolerance, hegemony, and exclusionary politics tend to favor the stifling of free speech and the suppression of dissent. But nothing is more dangerous than when such suppression is perpetrated and sanctioned by government… In the United States, as well as in many other western countries, those who support the Palestinian struggle for justice, and criticize Israel’s occupation and brutal policies, have often experienced an assault on their freedom of speech in academia, media, politics and society at large.”

Now another Palestinian and voice of dissent, Rasmea Odeh, is being persecuted based on a forced confession she made in Israel that was achieved through torture. In 1969 at the age of 21, she was taken from her home in Ramallah, where her family had taken refuge following their forced expulsion from Jerusalem in 1948 by the Haganah—predecessors of the IDF. As Charlotte Silver wrote for The Nation on November 4, 2014, “for twenty-five days her interrogators tortured her. She was beaten from head to toe with sticks and metal bars; her body, including genitalia and breasts, was subjected to electric shocks after she was forced to watch a male prisoner tortured to death in this very way. All the while, she was told she would die if she did not confess. But it was not until they brought in her father, threatening to force him to rape her, that she agreed to sign a confession stating that she had helped orchestrate two explosions in West Jerusalem that killed two civilians. Even then, her torturers raped her with a thick wooden stick.”

Odeh renounced her confession before the Israeli military court but was given a life sentence  anyways. After ten years, she was released on a prisoner trade. Odeh later moved to the US in 1995 and reported on her 2004 naturalization forms that she did not have a criminal record, as she justifiably believed her imprisonment was itself illegal and would not be recognized by the US. Unfortunately, this was not the case. Just one year shy of the statute of limitations, the US prosecutor’s office brought charges against her and now seeks her imprisonment and deportation. The timing of her indictment is significant; on November 4, 2014 the President of the National Lawyers Guild stated, “The targeting of Rasmea Odeh is the latest shameful episode in the US government’s systematic crackdown on activist Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims” (nlg.org).

The judge for her case subsequently rendered inadmissible any details of Odeh’s torture, rape, forced confession, and subsequent PTSD in the trial while simultaneously admitting evidence gathered by Israelis during her torture. On top of that, KSJP members witnessed on jury selection day that any potential juror with a Muslim friend was disqualified from serving on the jury. The struggle for justice in the case of Rasmea Odeh looks bleak; we can only hope that she will not face the same abuse to which Sami Al-Arian was subjected.

These cases are but a few examples of the persecution of those who speak out against the Israeli occupation. The US and Israeli governments have shown that they will do anything they can, legal or extralegal, to immiserate those who voice dissent and organize marginalized communities of Muslims. Salaita’s case is but another example of this injustice—his career has been destroyed by the University of Illinois, responding to the pressure of Zionist trustees. Far from standing with hate, KSJP and its speakers urge us to stand against hate and to fight for justice and for a world that permits the self-determination of Palestinians and those who stand up for justice in Palestine. We must end this unjust persecution and give voice to those who have been silenced.

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