N.J. Bill that Punishes Support for Palestinian Rights Erodes the Rights of Americans, Group Says
BY: DIMA KHALIDI
New Jersey legislators recently introduced a bill (S-4001/ A-5755) that would define virtually any speech supportive of Palestinian rights at public educational institutions as antisemitic.
The bill is part of a much larger campaign to prevent Palestinians and their allies from even talking about their freedom and self-determination, or from criticizing the colonization of their land and the seven decades of systematic international law violations that have characterized Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.
For seven years, my organization, Palestine Legal, has tracked efforts to silence the growing movement for Palestinian rights in the United States. We’ve seen 27 states (including New Jersey) pass measures to suppress boycotts for Palestinian rights. Even Congress has attempted to undermine this human rights movement.
This New Jersey bill represents a new wave of legislation attacking the movement by smearing critics of Israel as antisemitic. It follows Florida, which recently enacted an almost identical law codifying the same widely criticized redefinition of antisemitism for public schools. A similar bill is pending in the U.S. Congress.
The consequences of such top-down legislative attacks are real, and have only further emboldened suppression efforts by groups that wish to silence advocacy for Palestinian rights. Between 2014 and 2018, we responded to nearly 1,250 incidents of suppression of Palestine advocacy from hundreds of people who make up the growing grassroots movement for Palestinian rights. They’re being targeted with anonymous harassment, false smears, condemned and even punished for speaking out for Palestinian freedom.
Just recently, a reading of a children’s book “P is for Palestine” at a New Jersey public library, and, ironically, a public talk about censorship of Palestine advocacy at a university in Massachusetts, have been targeted with pressure campaigns and, in the case of the university event, a lawsuit to cancel them.
With strong community organizing, legal pushback, and still robust free speech protections, we are able to insist that these events are allowed to take place, that our government cannot deny space to celebrate Palestinian culture and history, or to discuss our political realities. Even courts are weighing in, striking down anti-boycott laws and ruling that boycotts for Palestinian rights are protected expression.
In enjoining Texas’ anti-boycott law, a federal judge recently noted that the purpose of the statute, which required people who entered into contracts with Texas to vow that they would not boycott Israel while contracting with the state, was “obvious: to prevent expressive conduct critical of the nation of Israel,” and that such a purpose is unconstitutional.
But if New Jersey’s bill were to pass, it would place public university officials in the position of government censor, requiring them to make judgments about what kind of criticism of Israel is allowed. For example, applying a “double standard” to Israel by “focusing peace or human rights investigations only on Israel” would violate New Jersey’s proposed redefinition of antisemitism. University officials would have to determine: how many other states must a human rights investigation focus on in order to investigate Israel? What degree of criticism would students be required to make in order to avoid a “double standard” on Israel? The application of this redefinition would lead to absurd and unconstitutional viewpoint-based distinctions, in violation of the First Amendment.
We know that Israel is funding, facilitating and encouraging many of these efforts to undermine the movement for Palestinian rights, alongside Zionist organizations and right-wing billionaires like Sheldon Adelson, Trump’s largest donor. A Trump administration official stated recently at a conference sponsored by an Israeli government ministry that laws similar to the New Jersey bill are the result of efforts of U.S. and Israeli organizations pushing a redefinition of antisemitism that encompasses criticism of Israel.
We must unequivocally resist the terrifying anti-Jewish rhetoric and violence perpetrated by far right white nationalist groups, just as we must resist the anti-Black, homophobic, anti-Muslim and xenophobic strains with which it goes hand in hand.
This bill is not the answer. As we and 12 other civil and human rights groups told legislators, despite its purported aim to protect Jewish students from discrimination, it adds no significant new legal protections. New Jersey has laws that protect Jewish and other communities from hate crimes and discrimination. The only thing this bill adds is a widely criticized redefinition of antisemitism so vague and broad that it intentionally makes advocates for Palestinian human rights its real targets.
This kind of censorship has implications far beyond the movement for Palestinian rights. Threatening public support for Palestinian rights is the beginning, not the end of unconstitutional government censorship. Such legislation signals the erosion of constitutional norms intended to protect our civil and political rights from the kind of government interference that defines authoritarian and fascist regimes.
Instead of shrinking the space for vital discussion of human rights and social justice issues, our legislators should be finding effective ways to thwart the widespread bigotry and racist violence that is a common threat to us all.