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The irony: Israel's supporters use ‘woke’ playbook to censor Palestinian voices

April 17, 2024 at 4:22 pm

Activists take part during a silent demonstration at the Capitol Building stairs in Washington D.C., US to demand a ceasefire and an urgent humanitarian action for Gaza and the Palestinian people on November 8, 2023 [Mostafa Bassim/Anadolu via Getty Images]

In recent years, a new line of attack has emerged from many pro-Israel groups, conservative commentators, politicians and activists – the idea that “wokeness” and oversensitivity to giving offence are threatening free speech. According to this argument, left-leaning activists and their allies are trying to shut down any speech they disagree with by claiming it is offensive or hurtful. In the name of protecting marginalised groups, the reasoning goes, the “woke mob” wants to “cancel” anyone who challenges their orthodoxy. This is the basis of the moral panic gripping the right, a panic so preposterous as to suggest that all our institutions have descended into the abyss and the entire Western civilisation is on the brink of collapse because of the “woke mob”.

However, while the right-wing claims to be the victim of cancel culture and de-platforming, the reality is that the most significant silencing and censorship is being directed at pro-Palestine activists and critics of Israel. From academic institutions to political circles, those who speak out against the Israeli government’s policies and human rights abuses are facing unprecedented levels of suppression and harassment.

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The latest example is the case of Asna Tabassum, a first-generation South Asian-American Muslim, who was set to deliver her valedictorian speech at the University of Southern California’s (USC) graduation ceremony on 10 May. However, due to a campaign of racist hatred and security threats from pro-Israel critics, USC decided to cancel Tabassum’s speech. In an official statement, the University cited safety concerns, stating, “While this is disappointing, tradition must give way to safety.”

Tabassum, who has been an outspoken advocate for human rights for all, expressed her shock and disappointment at the University’s decision, saying, “I am surprised that my own University—my home for four years—has abandoned me.” This incident is the latest of many, demonstrating that the so called “woke” playbook, which the right claims it is the main victim of, has in fact been weaponised against critics of Israel.

Like Tabassum, former Greek Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis, faced censorship and suppression last week when he was banned from entering Germany to attend a three-day Palestinian Congress in Berlin. The conference, which aimed to discuss the ongoing struggle for Palestinian rights and Israel’s genocide in Gaza, was shut down by German police just moments after it began. Additionally, several speakers, including Palestinian cartographer, Salman Abu Sitta, were prevented from addressing the conference, even remotely.

Another prominent Palestinian, Dr Ghassan Abu-Sittah – nephew of Salman Abu Sitta – who had also flown into Germany to speak at the Palestine Congress, was denied entry into the country. Upon arrival, the recently appointed rector of Glasgow University, was stopped at the German passport office. Abu-Sittah was then escorted down to the basement of the airport, where he was questioned for around three-and-a-half hours and then told he would not be permitted to enter German soil. Abu-Sittah was also warned that if he attempted to link up by Zoom or FaceTime with the conference, or send a video message, even if he was outside Germany, that would constitute a breach of German law.  Abu-Sittah was threatened with fines or even up to a year of prison.

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In an interview with Democracy Now, Varoufakis shed light on the disturbing reality behind the suppression of the Palestinian conference in Berlin. He pointed out that the organisers, including progressive Jewish activists, were unjustly dismissed as Islamists. “They do not want a congress like ours, especially one that includes progressive Jews. That is the main thing that they detested, that they were Jewish demonstrators, Jewish activists, Jewish intellectuals, Jewish speakers with us, with one voice, saying one thing, one thing alone: equal political rights, civil liberties, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea,” Varoufakis said, highlighting the unified call for justice and equality that advocates of Israel are seeking to silence.

Varoufakis, who identifies as neither Jewish nor Palestinian, emphasised the universal obligation to demand equal political rights for all people in the region. “I think every single human person on this planet has an obligation — not a right, an obligation — to demand, from the river to the sea, equal political rights. And the German political establishment does not want to listen to this,” he asserted.

Furthermore, Varoufakis argued that the crackdown on pro-Palestine voices is part of a larger sacrifice of democratic principles in order to enable Israel’s actions. “The bourgeois, liberal, democratic rights and principles have all been sacrificed on the altar of enabling Israel to complete the genocide which is carrying out — that it’s carrying out not just in Gaza but, as we heard before in the news bulletin, in East Jerusalem and in the West Bank,” he said. Drawing parallels to the moral imperative to support Jews during the Nazi era, Varoufakis stressed that we have a similar duty today to end the genocide in Palestine.

A blood thirsty Israel continues to suck the blood of the Palestinians – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/Middle East Monitor]

The silencing of pro-Palestine voices is not limited to academic institutions and conferences. In the US, the House of Representatives, this week, passed a resolution condemning the chant “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” as anti-Semitic. The resolution, introduced by Rep Anthony D’Esposito (R-N.Y.), passed with a 377 to 44 vote, with most Democrats supporting the measure and progressives opposing it.

The examples cited above, from Tabassum’s cancelled graduation speech to the shutdown of the Palestinian conference in Berlin and the House resolution condemning pro-Palestinian chants, all occurred within a single week, underscoring the relentless nature of the attacks on pro-Palestine voices, and silencing of speech critical of Israel. They lay bare the hypocrisy of right-wing commentators who have long railed against “wokeness” and over-sensitivity to giving offence against the left.

The hypocrisy of the right wing’s claims about cancel culture and free speech becomes even more apparent when contrasted with their own efforts, which are more vicious and more successful, in suppressing pro-Palestine voices. While they decry the supposed over-sensitivity of the left and the dangers of “wokeness”, they actively participate in the de-platforming and cancellation of those who speak out against Israel’s human rights abuses.

Moreover, the silencing of pro-Palestine activists is not merely a matter of hurt feelings or political disagreement. It is a systematic attempt to erase the voices and experiences of Palestinians, who have endured decades of occupation, dispossession and violence at the hands of Israel.

It is crucial that we recognise and resist the weaponisation of discourse that has evolved to defend the rights of the marginalised to support an occupying power and perpetrators of genocide. Accusations of “offence”, “hurt feelings”, “safe spaces” and anti-Semitism must not be exploited to silence pro-Palestine speech. We must demand that academic institutions, political bodies and society at large uphold the principles of free speech and open debate, even when it comes to controversial and sensitive issues like the Israel-Palestine conflict.

The silencing of pro-Palestine voices is not a matter of over-sensitivity or hurt feelings, but rather a concerted effort by the establishment and the right wing to suppress dissent and maintain the status quo on Israel-Palestine. By exploiting accusations of anti-Semitism and the language used by marginalised groups to defend themselves against social injustices, they seek to censor and de-platform those who challenge Israel and advocate for Palestinian rights. It is our responsibility to resist this silencing, stand up for free speech and amplify the voices of those who are being suppressed.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.