United States President Donald Trump, since day one in office, has persistently held feelings of ill-will towards Palestinians, feelings no doubt induced by the conviction that he can walk all over these folks with no fear of adverse consequences to his administration.
Almost two years ago this month, he recognised occupied Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and later moved the American embassy there, in defiance of a long-held international consensus on the status of the Holy City. He cut off American funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the group tasked since 1949 with providing relief and human development programs for Palestinian refugees.
Then, most recently, in another act of defiance, this one of international law, he declared that Israel’s colonisation of land in the occupied West Bank was not in violation of that law, thus effectively giving Israeli leaders the green light to pursue their expansionist policies at will.
Still, not satisfied with the grievous harm he has inflicted on the Palestinian cause, he has now gone after those who support it on US campuses, which in recent years have become hotbeds of activism on behalf of Palestinian national and human rights.
Last Wednesday, clearly in an effort to advance himself yet again as an unflinching supporter of Israel — the gift that keeps on giving, as it were — and to ensure the flow of unstinting contributions to his campaign coffers by right-wing Jews, he signed an executive order that essentially equated criticism of Israel in educational institutions with ant-Semitism, formally bringing the order under the purview of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, that outlaws discrimination against minorities.
The order, in this case, would allow the Education Department to withhold funding intended for a university, or a specific programme by an area studies department there, that is deemed to be offering, say, a course on the Palestine-Israel conflict considered “critical” of Israel.
What we have here then is a president who is weaponising Title VI to proscribe textbooks deemed pro-Palestinian and threaten professors deemed to harbour a bias against Israel. Exploring intellectual potential
In an effort to advance himself yet again as an unflinching supporter of Israel — the gift that keeps on giving, as it were — and to ensure the flow of unstinting contributions to his campaign coffers by right-wing Jews, Trump signed an executive order that essentially equated criticism of Israel in educational institutions with ant-Semitism, formally bringing the order under the purview of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act
Not surprisingly, the order, obviously one that restricts free speech on campus, sent a chilling message to educators everywhere, including those progressive Jews among them who consider absurd the labelling of anti-Israel criticism as anti-Semitism, and consider abhorrent an assault on the hallowed halls of a university, the ultimate bastion of free speech.
It is there, after all, where students go to learn new ideas — irrespective of how controversial or provocative — explore their intellectual potential and have their beliefs challenged, all to their young minds’ enrichment, all in an environment where free speech is a free-for-all.
Saying things we don’t want to hear
And if free speech means anything in a free society, it means we exercise the right to tell others what they may not want to hear, and hear them, however much under duress, tell us things we do not want to hear either.
Progressive Jews are in the vanguard of denouncing the order. Jeremy Ben Ami, the president of J Street, the fair-minded Jewish lobby in Washington, saw the order for what it was — a cynical effort to woo right wing Jewish voters and campaign contributions, not as a defence of “Jewish rights” in America.
“It is particularly outrageous and absurd for President Trump to pretend to care about anti-Semitism during the same week in which he once again spouted anti-Semitic tropes about Jews and money”, Ben Ami said in a statement.
And Kenneth Stern, the American Jewish Committee’s expert on anti-Semitism, stated: “It was never intended to be a campus hate speech code ... this order is an attack on academic freedom and free speech, and will harm not only pro-Palestinian advocates but also Jewish students and faculty, and the academy itself”.
Meanwhile, don’t be fooled into thinking that Palestinians, whether under occupation or in exile, are on their backside. Were their supporters around the world, in particular those engaged in the Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) movement, not so effective, Israel’s advocates in the US would not have resorted to such an expansive definition of anti-Semitism in order to muzzle them.
Alice Walker, the celebrated African-American writer, poet and social activist, who wrote The Color Purple (1983), which won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, has declared: “I want the Israeli government to be held accountable for its behaviour against Palestinians, and I want the people of the US to stop acting as if they don’t understand what is going on”.
Alice, have no fear. Both your wishes will inevitably be granted. History will see to it that they are, for dreams of the future, as Thomas Jefferson — one of America’s Founding Fathers and the principal author of its Declaration of Independence — explained, are more decisive than the history of the past.
That Palestine, in time, will have its day, and Israel its eclipse, is a preordained event in the bending force of the region’s politics.
Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.