Wednesday, 01 November 2023 15:42

Israel’s crackdown on dissent will only hurt it

Pro-Palestine supporters attend a demonstration in New York in 2018.

Eight years ago, I published a novel about a Montreal Jewish family with a dangerous mystical obsession. It had absolutely nothing to do with Israel. But that didn’t stop a former Israeli combat soldier from trying to get me disinvited from a book event.

He emailed the venue, arguing that it should not promote an author who had written critically about the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, as I had during my time as an Israel-Palestine reporter. “This,” he wrote, “is a disgrace.”

Luckily, the venue held firm and I got to do the event. But that experience — absolutely trivial compared to the censorship Palestinians have long experienced — planted a worry in my mind: If I, a Jew and citizen of Israel, am not allowed to question the Israeli government’s narrative, then who is?

The answer, increasingly, is nobody.

Not the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen, who was supposed to speak at Manhattan cultural hub 92NY but saw his event abruptly pulled after he signed an open letter condemning Israel’s war in Gaza.

Not the editor-in-chief of science journal eLife, Michael Eisen, who was fired after reposting an Onion article about Gaza with the headline “Dying Gazans Criticized for Not Using Last Words to Condemn Hamas.”

Not the Web Summit CEO Paddy Cosgrave, who tweeted that “war crimes are war crimes even when committed by allies,” referring to Israel’s war in Gaza, and then had to resign from leading Europe’s biggest tech conference.

Not the Boston Workers Circle, a Jewish cultural center that got ousted from the Boston Jewish community’s umbrella group after cosponsoring a rally calling for a ceasefire.

Not the Israeli professors, journalists, and lawmakers who have been suspended, fired, or even arrested for criticizing the war in Gaza.

And not even the Israeli hostages who were recently released from Hamas captivity. When 85-year-old Yocheved Lifshitz stated that she was “given access to medical care” and “treated well while in captivity,” Israeli officials moved to prevent any similar press conferences in the future.

American commentators, viewing all this through the lens of American politics, call the silencing of Israel’s critics “cancel culture.” But it’s more serious than that. This is political repression. And that’s a problem not only because it cuts against the value of free speech, but because it stands to hurt everyone, including Israel itself.

Silencing voices that challenge the status quo and branding all dissent as disgrace makes it harder for those in power to think clearly. And clear thinking is crucial — especially in wartime.

Israel’s climate of repression has been building for a long time

For intellectuals and artists who are now criticizing Israeli policies for the first time, the intensity of the backlash they face may come as a shock.

But it shouldn’t, because for decades, Israel has been silencing Palestinians who protest the occupation and advocate for their own freedom. Is it really so surprising that after silencing Palestinian dissenters, Israel would end up silencing others who dissent, whether they’re American, European, or even Israeli?

The curbs on Palestinian freedom of expression go back at least as far as 1967, when Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza and set up a military occupation that still deprives Palestinians of some basic civil rights. “Since Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967, it has ruled using military orders issued in those early days,” explains Human Rights Watch. “Under those orders, the Israeli army has stripped Palestinians of basic civil rights protections, arresting Palestinian journalists, activists, and others for their anti-occupation speech, activism, and political affiliations.” Recent examples abound.

Israeli and American Jews started to pay more attention over the past decade, when the repression began to target them. Starting around 2012, it became more common to see Jews critical of Israeli policies disinvited from speaking gigs. In 2013, college students who were sick of the leading Jewish campus group Hillel International telling them who could and couldn’t speak about Israel formed Open Hillel to promote more pluralistic debate. And 2014 saw the launch of Canary Mission, an anonymously run website that blacklists people sympathetic to Palestinians and posts dossiers on their personal lives and activism.

Over the ensuing years, as Israel launched repeated military operations in Gaza so common that they became known as “mowing the grass,” American sympathies, long solidly pro-Israel, began to shift toward Palestinians, especially on the left. This March, a Gallup poll found for the first time that Democrats sympathize more with Palestinians than Israelis.

Israel’s government, which has lurched to the far right under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, responded to these shifts not by tempering its policies but by increasingly stifling its critics. One strategy has been to brand absolutely any criticism of Israel antisemitic. Many Jews disagree with that characterization, noting that although anti-Jewish hate is all too real — we’re seeing it surging today — it doesn’t help Jews or anyone else to use it as a shield for everything Israel does to Palestinians.

Many journalists and analysts warned during this period that the space for dissent about Israeli policies was shrinking. Now, it’s shrunk so much that, as the writer Sarah Schulman recently noted in New York magazine, the result is a state of “‘manufactured consent’ — Noam Chomsky’s term for a system-supported propaganda by which authorities and media agree on a simplified reality, and it becomes the assumptive truth.”

How silencing dissent harms clear thinking

The latest crackdown on dissent in the Israel-Hamas war is so stark that some journalists and civil rights groups are labeling it downright “McCarthyite.”

The reference to the Cold War era in America is apt. During the “Red Scare,” the atmosphere was so hyper-suspicious that fear overtook reason. Case in point: thousands of Americans accused of sympathizing with communism were booted from their jobs even though no evidence of disloyalty was found.

Some scholars have analogized the climate of repression in Israel after the October 7 Hamas attack to the climate in America after 9/11. In both countries, shocking attacks that killed many civilians occasioned fear, rage, and a thirst for revenge. As the Middle East scholar and pollster Shibley Telhami recalled on X this month, “Shrinking media space for criticizing US policy in Israel/Gaza is reminiscent of the pre-2003 Iraq war period. In the middle of war frenzy, it became harder to publish anti-war analysis.”

We all saw how that turned out. US politicians alleged, based on faulty reports from the intelligence community, that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. As media outlets overflowed with pundits beating the drums of war, the last Gallup poll before the US invasion of Iraq showed 64 percent of Americans in favor of invading. That support actually rose to 72 percent after the US operation began, despite the failure to turn up any evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

At times like these, it’s incredibly useful to have dissenting voices who force us to consider what the evidence is telling us. Yet in both these cases, we see not only that people have a tendency to close ranks when they feel threatened, but also that they tend to undervalue counter-evidence. They also don’t think clearly about how they’ll make a region safer after war winds down.

America would have benefited from listening to dissenters after 9/11; instead, it silenced them. Israel — with support from its strongest ally, the US — is now making the same mistake.