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Podcast: Dima Khalidi of Palestine Legal on ‘Palestine Exception to Free Speech’

In the United States, there is a campaign by Israeli advocacy organizations—with the support of the Israeli government—to censor, intimidate, harass, and vilify activists engaged in activism for Palestinian human rights. Particularly, the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement is seen as a threat.

The focusing of resources against activists, especially on campuses and universities, has created a chilling effect. This has created a pervasive problem, where the right to engage in free speech and freedom of expression on the issue of Israeli military occupation and Palestinian human rights is undermined.

One organization, Palestine Legal, a nonprofit legal advocacy organization, has responded to hundreds of incidents in the past two years, where administrators, government officials, and pro-Israel groups have sought to censor and punish student activists. They put out a major report this past week, “The Palestine Exception to Free Speech.”

This week on the “Unauthorized Disclosure,” Palestinian Legal Director Dima Khalidi joins the show to discuss the comprehensive report. Khalidi addresses the escalation by Israeli advocacy groups against activists on college and university campuses. Khalidi highlights how Israeli consulate officials are spying on students, how students threatened are forced to pay for their own security or cancel events, and what organizations like Palestine Legal are doing to push back against lawmakers, who have worked to pass legislation to discourage boycotts and divestment campaigns against Israeli apartheid.

During the discussion part of the show, hosts Rania Khalek and Kevin Gosztola talk about the US airstrike against a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan, Prime Minister Benjamin Netyanahu’s speech at the UN General Assembly, right-wing human rights activist Thor Halvorssen’s effort to have a story on him censored, and some of the Clinton emails mentioning WikiLeaks.

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Below are some highlights from Palestinian Legal Director Dima Khalidi’s interview.

WHAT IS PALESTINE LEGAL?:”Palestine Legal is an independent organization, and we advocate for the rights of Palestinian activists in the U.S. to be able to speak freely about this issue without fear of intimidation and legal bullying and harassment. So, our work ranges from advising people about their rights and about how to do deal with certain situations, their backlash they’re facing for expressing their views. We also do “Know Your Rights” work to make sure people know what their rights are beforehand. And we document these kinds of incidents of suppression. So that’s where this report came from. A few years of documentation of what’s been going on on campuses and around the country when people speak out on Palestine.”

STUDENTS AS PRIME TARGETS: “Students are the most vulnerable targets because they’re young and impressionable and they have a lot to lose. So, we see them being targeted with a lot of this suppression, this backlash. Often it’s personal attacks on individual students. They are called out. They are profiled on these websites, like Canary Mission, which has the explicit intent of trying to get employers to deny them jobs. They also get racial slur. They’re harassed on social media. And a lot of it is racialized and Islamophobic. There’s a lot of misogynistic attacks on women. You know, I think you yourself, Rania, have experienced it.”

“The effect is really stark. A lot of these students are getting involved in activism for the first time so it’s shocking to them when they’re singled out because they’re expressing their views in favor of Palestinian rights or expressing some criticism of Israel. What we’re seeing is we’ve heard a lot from students that they’re scared to put their names on things they write for the media. They don’t want to join SJPs, Student for Justice in Palestine chapters. We’ve heard more recently at least a couple of elected SJP leaders resigning from their positions because of their profiles on Canary Mission.”

DOUBLE STANDARD EXPOSES “PALESTINE EXCEPTION”: “There is a certain double standard that happens when we’re talking about protecting the rights of people to speak freely on this issue. One of the trends we’re seeing is there is what we call official disfavor. It sounds pretty benign. A lot of university presidents are condemning BDS, condemning the actions of SJP, and conflating them with anti-Semitism, conflating them with actual anti-Semitic incidents that happen on campus like swastika graffiti when there is no connection between the two. What this does is to put SJP and Palestine activism in a negative light but it also has the effect that the university ends up putting all these bureaucratic barriers up when students are trying to organize around Palestine.”

TYING ACTIVISTS TO TERRORISM: “There seems to be a more explicit effort to try to connect Palestine advocates with terrorism. It seems that this is also part of this growing trend we’re seeing, that many of these Israeli advocate groups are very intertwined with the Islamophobia industry, if you will. So, we’re seeing this kind of anti-Muslim vitriolic agitation happening, and it’s being super-imposed on Palestinian advocacy in general.”

“There’s a big attack on SJP claims that it’s not only anti-Semitic but has connections to Hamas, which is a designated terrorist organization. These are really baseless organizations that are based on insinuations and innuendo and it’s really dangerous in this post-9/11 climate when the mere mention of terrorism really can bring a lot of law enforcement scrutiny. We see Israeli advocacy groups explicitly reporting things to the FBI and to other law enforcement agencies in order to bring that scrutiny on people and I think it’s another way to intimidate people by saying, oh, we think you’re a terrorist and we’re going to report this.”

ISRAELI GOVERNMENT SPIES ON U.S. ACTIVISTS: “We’ve seen in several instances, some of which are documented in the report, that the Israeli government through consulates is involved directly in trying to shut down advocacy for Palestinian human rights. And we’re hearing this more and more that the Israeli government is putting resources into fighting the BDS movement and Palestinian advocacy in general globally and through legal strategies…Surveillance is a theme here. A lot of these Israeli advocacy organizations use surveillance methods to try to intimidate and profile and track and ‘expose’ Palestine advocates.”

For the full interview with Dima Khalidi, listen to the full interview here

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."