Fears are running high that US President-elect Donald Trump will crack down hard on civil liberties once he takes office next month. But Democrats are missing the opportunity to stand up for free speech when it comes to advocacy for Palestinian rights.
The Anti-Semitism Awareness Act – presenting itself as a force against anti-Jewish bigotry, but actually a means of censoring campus criticism of Israel’s policies – was unanimously passed by the Senate earlier this month.
While it sailed through the Senate, the bill was killed in the House – not by Democrats concerned with basic freedoms, but after Representative Bob Goodlatte, a Republican from Virginia who chairs the House Committee on the Judiciary, delayed it. Goodlatte reportedly wanted more time to consider its profound First Amendment implications.
Both the Senate and House will have to take up the bill anew in 2017 if it is to proceed. This should be a wakeup call that Democrats are not waiting for Trump to gut civil liberties, but are out in front with legislation giving vent to anti-Palestinian enmity they share with Republicans.
White nationalist Steve Bannon is closely advising Trump and there are very real incidents of anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim hatred occurring around the country. Yet politicizing the definition of anti-Semitism and codifying speech on campus is not the appropriate response.
For the moment, student attention on Israeli human rights abuses remains – despite the US Senate conflating advocacy for Palestinian equal rights with anti-Semitism – entirely legitimate political speech in the eyes of the law.
Should the legislation pass next year, universities can be expected to monitor pro-Palestinian speech, presenting a profound threat both to academic freedom and to democratic norms. The record will show that Democrats were as zealous in their pursuit of censorship as their Republican colleagues.
There is one vital contrast between Congressional Republicans and Democrats regarding legislation pertaining to Palestinian rights. Republican elected officials represent the views of their constituents on these matters; Democrats do not.
A recent poll from Shibley Telhami, a fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank, makes explicitly clear the disconnect between attitudes towards Israel held by Democratic politicians versus those held by Democratic voters.
Telhami describes a “deep polarization” among Americans regarding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Republicans, he says, want the US to side with Israel while Democrats increasingly prefer a tilt toward neither side.
“This has created a political imbalance, where Republican politicians – especially in Congress – take positions that are in tune with their constituents; Democratic politicians, meanwhile, seem more at odds with their constituents.”
Most striking in Telhami’s November poll is that Democratic support to impose economic sanctions or other “more serious action” rose from 48 percent in 2014 to 49 percent in 2015 to a head-turning 60 percent this year.
Congressional Democrats are almost entirely out of step with this viewpoint.
Even Representative Keith Ellison, viciously attacked in recent weeks by Haim Saban and Alan Dershowitz in his bid to head the Democratic National Committee, has announced his opposition to the Palestinian campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions to secure freedom and equal rights.
He has received scant public pushback from allies because advocates for Palestinian rights have so few other options and because there is a tendency among activist groups – making difficult judgments on what is possible in the current political climate – not to press politicians seen as better than most.
Democrats lead blacklisting
The anti-Palestinian bigotry is filtering down to the states as well.
In New York, the Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo, this month released a blacklist of those companies that support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.
With Democrats and Republicans standing virtually unanimous in their willingness to run roughshod over the fundamental rights of Americans to advocate for Palestinian freedom, there can be little doubt Republicans will be able to push through even wider abuses of the rights of Muslims, Latinos, women and the LGBTQ community.
If Democrats are not willing to stand up for the First Amendment when it comes to Palestinian rights, we can expect it will be all too easy for Republicans to peel away Democrats on other issues.
Palestinian-American advocates – and perhaps their allies – are likely to be the ones most targeted and suppressed in the months ahead due to the clear bipartisan nature of anti-Palestinian animosity.
Grassroots advocates should clean house and make clear that anti-Palestinian sentiment of the sort expressed by the Clinton Democratic platform team is unacceptable. Until then, Democratic politicians will continue to take the path of least resistance and permit – and perhaps even lead – legislation that targets the civil liberties of one group after another in the US.
Yes, Republicans will be worse on these matters. But too many Democrats are already showing a willingness to stand aside when the targeted group lacks sufficient size or importance to their reelection prospects.
Just last week, Senator Charles Schumer, a Democrat from New York, tweeted his frustration that the Obama administration didn’t veto a UN Security Council resolution reaffirming the illegality of Israel’s settlements:
He may yet lead on some civil liberties issues, but there are gaping holes and disturbing double standards in his awareness, particularly when it comes to Palestinian rights.
The Anti-Semitism Awareness Act is something of a test case. Democrats cannot be relied on to lead the resistance to Trump and the Republican Congress. Concerted grassroots pressure will be called for and those failing the test will have to confront primary challenges in 2018 of the sort they rarely face.