Posts Tagged ‘Middle Eastern Policy Inc’

Human Rights Lawyer Maria LaHood on Israel’s Suppression of Criticism in the US

September 25, 2018

This is another video from the conference ‘Israel’s Influence: Good or Bad for America?’, organized by the American Educational Trust, which publishes the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs; and Middle Eastern Policy, Inc. The speaker in this piece is Maria LaHood, a deputy legal director at the Centre for Constitutional Rights, who works to defend the constitutional rights of Palestinian civil rights activists in the US. In this clip she describes some of the cases she’s worked on defending Palestinian and pro-Palestinian activists from legal attack by the Israel lobby. These includes the case of the Olympia Co-op, Professor Stephen Salaita, and filing Freedom of Information Act Requests to obtain government documents about Israel’s attack on the Freedom Flotilla to Gaza. The speaker also says she works on the Right to Heal Initiative, helping Iraqi civil society and veterans seeking accountability for the damage to Iraqis’ health from the last war. She’s also challenged the American government over the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki and Caterpillar over its sale of the bulldozer used to kill Rachel Corey to Israel. Before joining the Centre, she also worked campaigning for affordable housing in the Bay area of San Francisco.

She begins by talking about attempts to harass, prosecute and suppress pro-Palestinian students and professors at US universities.

The first case she talks about is Professor Stephen Salaita, an esteemed Palestinian-American lecturer, who had a tenured position at Virginia Tech University. He was offered a position at the University of Illinois, Urban Champagne on its Native American Studies programme, which he accepted. He was due to begin his new job at the University of Illinois in the summer of 2014. During that summer he watched, horrified, Israel’s devastation of Gaza and tweeted about it. Two weeks before he was due to take up his post, he received an email from the Chancellor telling him not to bother because he would not be accepted by the Board of Trustees. The professor and his family were thus left without jobs, an income, health insurance and a home.

Salaita lost his job due to a self-declared Zionist, who’d been following his tweets. These were published on the right-wing blog, Legal Insurrection. Professor Salaita was also targeted by the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, the Jewish Federation and the Anti-Defamation League. Also, wealthy donors to the uni threatened to withdraw their money. The Chancellor and the Board later stated that they withdrew his job offer based on those tweets, which they considered uncivil, and anti-Semitic. LaHood states that accusations of anti-Semitism is commonly used to silence criticism of Israel. Christopher Kennedy, who led the Board’s rejection of Salaita, was later given an award by the Simon Wiesenthal Centre.

CCR sued the university, the trustees and top administrators. The court found in his favour, and the Chancellor resigned a few hours later the next day, and the Provost resigned a few weeks later. LaHood states that last autumn (2015) Salaita became the Edward Said Chair at the American University of Beirut, and settled his case for $875,000 against the university. LaHood paid tribute to the immense grassroots support for Salaita, with thousands signing petitions, five thousand professors boycotted the university, and 16 U of I departments voted ‘no confidence’ in the administration. The American Association of Professors also censured the university. Salaita went on to talk about his experience to more than 50 unis, and his works on Israel and settler colonialism are more popular than ever.

The Olympia Food Co-op is a local food co-op in Olympia, Washington; a non-profit organization, it has been very involved in social work and political self-determination. It has adopted a number of boycotts, and in 2010 the board voted by consensus to boycott Israeli goods. Five of the co-op’s 22,000 members voted to prosecute the 16 board members, who’d passed the vote, over a year later. Six months before the lawsuit was filed, the Israeli consul general to the Pacific northwest, based in San Francisco, travelled to Olympia to meet the co-chairs of Stand With Us Northwest, the lawyer representing those suing, and some Olympia activists. Stand With Us is a non-profit organization supporting Israel around the world. It is one of the groups trying to suppress free speech on Israel in the US. It maintains dossiers on Palestinian rights activists. The five issued a letter to the board members telling them to rescind the boycott or else they would be sued and held personally accountable. They were accused of violating the co-op’s governing principles, and the board asked their accusers how they had done this, and invited them to put their proposal to a membership vote, according to the co-op’s bye-laws. The accusers refused to do so, and went ahead and filed the suit. After they did so, Stand With Us put it out on their website that they had brought the suit in partnership with the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, spearheaded by the Deputy Foreign Minister, Danny Alon. Alon admitted that the Israelis were behind the lawsuit, and using it to amplify their power.

CCR then sued, using an anti-SLAPP motion. SLAPP stands for ‘Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. Half the states in America have legislation to deter the abuse of laws to chill free speech. The trial court dismissed the case as a SLAPP, held the Board had the authority to initiate the boycott, and awarded them each $10,000. The accusers launched an appeal, this was turned down, and they then appealed to the Supreme Court. The Washington Supreme Court turned down the anti-SLAPP motion, and referred the case back to the trial court. The CCR’s motion to dismiss the case again was denied. The case goes on, and the board members, most of whom are no longer in their post, have been subject to discovery and intimidation. The boycott of Israeli foods continues, however.

LaHood states that these are not isolated incidents, but only two of numerous cases where those, who speak out on Palestine are attacked. In September 2015 the CCR and their partner, Palestine Legal, issued a report, The Palestine Exception to Free Speech: A Movement Under Attack in US, documenting the increasing attempts in the US to silence and punish advocacy in favour of Palestine and speech on Israel, including BDS. The report details to the tactics and many cases studies, and is available on both of the organisations’ websites. In 2015 Palestine legal dealt with 240 cases of suppression, including false accusations of terrorism and anti-Semitism. 80% of those incidents were against students and professors at 75 campuses, and this is only the tip of the iceberg. She talks about some of these tactics and cases, such as that of the Irvine 11, who were criminally prosecuted for walking out of a speech by the-then Israeli ambassador to the US, Michael Oren. Several schools have been given complaints by the Zionist Organisation of America, claiming that advocacy on campus for Palestinian rights creates a pro-anti-Semitism atmosphere on campus. Even though these complaints are unconstitutional, universities respond by investigating those accused and cracking down on speech.

These complaints are not only brought by the Z of A, but also the Brandeis Centre, the Ampline Centre, Sheriat Hedin, the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, the Anti-Defamation League amongst others. Netanyahu has launched a full attack on BDS, which Israel has declared to be the biggest threat it faces. Movements to divest from Israel across America have been accused of being anti-Semitic. The American Studies Association was received death threats when they voted to endorse the call to boycott Israeli academic institutions. Sheriat Hedin, the Israeli law centre, threatened to sue them if they didn’t end the boycott. Sheriat Hedin admits that it takes advice on which cases to pursue from Mossad and Israel’s National Security Council. Also in response to the ASA’s decision, legislatures around the country voted on bills to withhold state funding from colleges that used any state aid to fund academic organisations advocating a boycott of Israel. Mobilisation of public opinion prevented these bills from being passed, but now 15 states have introduced anti-boycott legislation. Some states have also passed non-binding resolutions against the BDS, but those have no legal effect. Last year (2015) Illinois passed a law demanding a black list of foreign companies that boycott Israel and compelled the state pension fund to divest from those companies. Florida passed a similar bill in 2016, which also outlaws state contracts with such companies for amounts over a million dollars. New York has even worse legislation pending.

The US Congress has introduced legislation to protect these state laws from federal pre-emption challenges, but these cannot prevent challenges under the First Amendment. Anti-Boycott provisions were introduced into the Federal Trade Promotions Authority Law, making it a priority to discourage BDS from Israel and the Occupied Territories. More information can be found about anti-BDS legislation at righttoboycott.org. Anti-BDS isn’t confined to the US. Israel has anti-boycott damages legislation and France has criminalized BDS. And people have been arrested for wearing BDS T-shirts.

She states that these laws are an extension of Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians. They have no defence, so they attempt to stop the debate. Free speech and free inquiry is essential to the functioning of democracy, especially at universities, and open debate helps shape public attitudes. Campus opposition helped turn the tide against the Vietnam War, Apartheid in South Africa and will eventually do the same against Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians. The mounting opposition to people working against the occupation and other violations of international law shows how strong the pro-Palestinian movement is, and how it will eventually win.

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