As bombs rained down on the besieged Gaza Strip in May, countless individuals took to social media to express their outrage over the latest slew of atrocities perpetrated by the Israeli military, “the most moral army in the world.”
The cruelty of these strikes seemed to be surpassed only by the indiscriminate nature of infrastructure targeted: residential buildings, the only COVID-19 testing center, an Associated Press office.
Online outrage at what was happening was widespread. But in some cases, that outrage had material repercussions.
On 26 May, Dr. Fidaa Wishah, an accomplished Palestinian-American pediatrician from Gaza, now living in Phoenix, Arizona, took to her personal Facebook page to express her outrage at the injustice playing out in real time.
This was far more than an abstract ethical issue for Wishah, as she explained over the phone.
“The last attack on Gaza was painful for me because I still have family there … my mom, her sister has five kids. They showed me the house that had been bombed … she was telling me ‘hopefully we will survive the night.’ She was telling me that they would stay in the hallway because that was the safest place for them.”
Wishah’s Facebook account is private, but she had made all her Palestine-related posts public in order to “make my voice heard,” she told The Electronic Intifada.
At the time of posting, Wishah was a physician with Phoenix Children’s Hospital, a position she had held for two years. During her time there, Wishah enjoyed a wide degree of community respect.
A family member of a patient at Phoenix Children’s who asked to remain anonymous said, “To see everything [Wishah] has done in life, everything she’s done for the community beyond her cause alone … that’s exactly what we need in a physician.”
Yet unlike many others who were able to post and then go on with their lives, Wishah found herself swiftly targeted by a Twitter account devoted to smearing and harassing outspoken Palestinians and their allies.
The account belongs to StopAntisemitism.org, which seems to function much like Canary Mission. Ostensibly a US organization that claims to fight anti-Semitism in America, it seems primarily concerned with stigmatizing criticism of Israel and Zionism.
The website boasts both Israeli and US flags on its homepage, suggesting this is more than merely about the US. The group also has a wide enough conception of anti-Semitism to consider the CEO of Ben & Jerry’s a “bigot” for the company’s decision to stop selling its products in occupied territory.
It also promotes a bizarrely aestheticized “Antisemite of the week” section which has included people like comedian Trevor Noah, international law expert Richard Falk and author and son of a prominent Israeli military general, Miko Peled, whom it describes as the “enemy within.”
With Wishah, StopAntisemitism.org took issue with the last few lines of her post: “A state based on atrocity, inhumanity, racism and cannibalism never lasts long ! Hey #israel … your end is coming sooner than you think.”
Phoenix Children’s account was tagged in a tweet on 21 June claiming that Wishah had called “for the end of the Jewish State” and that “this hate-filled woman is not morally and ethically sound to be around Jewish children!”
Anyone who read the entirety of Dr. Wishah’s Facebook post rather than cherry-picking lines would realize this is blatantly the case. But groups like StopAntisemitism.org and others rely on a process that Tom Pessah has referred to as “anti-Semitizing.”
Pessah writes, “Our opponents made sure to ‘translate’ phrases we used into familiar anti-Semitic tropes in order to smear us.”
Online anti-Palestinian accounts disguise a relentless and vicious campaign to intimidate people into silence by falsely portraying them as racists, and sanction them by proxy by pressuring employers for swift termination.
As Steven Salaita notes in a timely and informative essay on the topic of Zionist defamation campaigns, such manufactured outrage can be very effective because it appeals to the worst sensibilities of corporate professionalism that prioritizes conformity and compliance over the need to challenge injustice.
In 2014, Salaita was himself fired by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for tweets criticizing Israel’s bombardment of the Gaza Strip that year.
In Wishah’s case, Phoenix Children’s replied to StopAntisemitism.org on 23 June to say that after a “thorough review” Wishah was “no longer providing care at Phoenix Children’s.”
“What happened to me was shocking. The hospital didn’t reach out to me, didn’t ask any questions. I think their decision was under pressure,” Wishah said.
David Chami, an attorney for Wishah who has filed a complaint over her termination through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, said he is certain that she will be vindicated.
“I am confident that the evidence will show that Phoenix Children’s Hospital terminated Dr. Wishah‘s employment because she is a Palestinian-American woman who dared to question the Israeli government.”
Wishah has never been accused of discriminating against a patient in all of her years as a physician, Chami added.
And while Phoenix Children’s sees fit to flaunt its supposedly anti-racist bona fides by firing a Palestinian woman from Gaza without any semblance of due process, the hospital’s actual commitment to anti-racism has been questioned for quite some time.
Amy Meglio, an organizer with Neighborhood Organized Crisis Assistance and the Grassroots Law Project, told The Electronic Intifada that they had been canvassing for signatures to protest racialized “preferential treatment” but the hospital was unmoved.
“A concerned employee of PCH reached out to me and another activist in June 2020 asking if we can help amplify the fact that there was preferential treatment for white patients and no executive representation on the boards at PCH. As we spoke to community members, so many BIPOC parents expressed concern and bad past experiences that they all signed the letter, which PCH ignored. They [Phoenix Children’s] never responded to the letter or to any of the messages we sent online.”
The petition echoed widespread concern in the community about the hospital’s handling of racism. The anonymous family member told The Electronic Intifada:
“As a parent, I want to know how a hospital is handling these issues. How can I be sure you’re taking care of kids if you’re not addressing racism? They seem to feel like they have no accountability to the community.”
Some also expressed concerns that Phoenix Children’s inattention to structural racism is tied to conflicting affiliations. For example, Robert Delgado is former chairman and still on the board of directors at Phoenix Children’s and also CEO of the Hensley Beverage company.
On 3 June 2020, the Hensley Beverage Company issued a belated statement about the activism following George Floyd’s murder that while denouncing discrimination seemed designed to express concern with protests turning to “violence.”
The Facebook activity of George F. Getz, Chairman of the Board at Phoenix Children’s, suggests pro-Trump sentiments – not exactly comforting for those seeking commitment to anti-racist praxis when Trump has repeatedly called for police and military violence to be deployed against activists denouncing white supremacy.
For instance, on 29 August 2020, Getz shared an Instagram video from Oregonians For America, which essentially argued that there is a widespread conspiracy against the reelection of Donald Trump because he opposed “globalism.”
From April 2018 to January 2020, Getz also donated amounts ranging from $1,000 to $5,000 to individual right wing political candidates such as US Senators Lindsey Graham and Martha McSally, and the PAC WinRed.
When Phoenix Children’s did finally address community concerns about structural racism, it was in the form of a tepid and non-committal communiqué from President and CEO Robert Meyer saying that attention to racism is reflected in the contention that all people deserve equal access to medical care, as well as the hospital’s hiring of “top quality pediatric leaders.”
Meglio told The Electronic Intifada that “it’s no surprise based on the all-white C Suite and the complete disregard of Black, Brown & Indigenous parents’ calls for representation and support in 2020 that any individual who spoke in favor of Black or Brown lives would be retaliated against and terminated.”
And what happened to Wishah is about racism.
In 1987, Helen Samhan used the term “political racism” to refer to how a default, pro-Israel stance within institutions allows for structural racism against Palestinians, Arab Americans and people of color to occur without thought.
Those challenging Zionism and dispossession of Palestinians, Samhan argued, can be fired, harassed, targeted, and generally excluded from the public arena in various ways that completely violate their rights without a thought because the protection of Zionism (and the larger imperialist status quo that supports the US’s “special relationship” with Israel) is far more important than the rights and dignity of Palestinians and their allies.
Due to “political racism,” marginalized peoples can be fired without question. The dehumanization of Palestinians and those in support of the Palestinian cause is so pervasive and necessary to keeping the US’s support for Israel intact that this shockingly discriminatory treatment is not even acknowledged as racism within the mainstream.
In a recent article for Jewish Currents, Peter Beinart builds on the arguments of Mezna Qato, a Palestinian historian of the Middle East at Cambridge University and the work of Palestine Legal, a legal organization that focuses on defending the rights of activists for Palestine. He argues that a framework of “anti-Palestinianism” is needed to describe the particular forms of repression Palestinians and their allies face for challenging Zionism.
This is all part of a concerted process to make criticism of Israel costly and to intimidate individuals from speaking out on behalf of Palestinian rights. According to Zoha Khalili, an attorney at Palestine Legal, such anti-Palestinian campaigns attempt to distract at multiple levels, forcing individuals on the defensive or perhaps out of the public sphere altogether while attempting to intimidate their comrades.
“Regardless of what form they take – social media accounts, apps, websites, posters, news articles, or even rumors spread by word of mouth – anti-Palestinian smear campaigns attempt to shield Israel from accountability by exacting a personal cost from individuals within the movement for Palestinian liberation.”
Meanwhile, events in Palestine are sidelined.
“The public is made to focus on an epidemic of hurtful words instead of the death, destruction, and injustice taking place half a world away.”
The anonymous family member told The Electronic Intifada they have since left Phoenix Children’s and looked for care for their children elsewhere, because what happened to Wishah was the last straw.
“As a human being, I’m so disgusted that they could malign her family and character in the way that they did.”
As for Wishah, the experience has left her angry but determined to seek redress.
“I think a change should be made. I don’t know if it will be in my time or my kids’ time, but I think minorities need to be heard and not silenced the way I was silenced.”
Omar Zahzah is the Education and Advocacy Coordinator for Eyewitness Palestine as well as a member of the Palestinian Youth Movement (PYM) and the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI.)