Munayyer: Israel’s supporters give up on persuasion, silence debate on Palestine
December 20 2019

President Donald Trump signed an executive order (EO) last week targeting Palestinian rights activism on university campuses in the United States. The order uses Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to purportedly combat anti-Semitism.

EO 13899 requires universities that receive federal funding to reconsider programs and activities hosted by departments or students that may subject individuals to discrimination “rooted in anti-Semitism,” and provides for these institutions to punish student activists. However, the order acknowledges that Title VI does not cover discrimination based on religion, which brings into question the possible interpretation of Judaism as a nationality. 

Trump’s EO refers to “contemporary examples of anti-Semitism” in line with the so-called working definition of anti-Semitism by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), which includes some criticism of Israel.

Palestine Square spoke with Yousef Munayyer, a political analyst and the director of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights (USCPR), to understand the implications of this executive order on Palestinian activism and criticism of Israel.

How is Trump’s executive order harmful?

First, it’s important to keep in mind that this is not an isolated event. It is coming in the context of a much broader and global campaign aimed at silencing dissent against Israel’s human rights abuses vis-a-vis Palestinians. We have seen this manifest itself in a number of different ways, including legislation trying to make boycott activity illegal, and the attempt to use anti-discrimination legislation to effectively do the same thing by expanding definitions of anti-Semitism to include criticism of Israeli policies. It is a coordinated campaign that is evident in the United States, but also in Europe and elsewhere, and has the backing and support of the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs. This isn’t something that came out of nowhere; it’s been part of a campaign to get governments in particular to use the heavy hand of the state to silence Palestinian rights activism.

The EO makes the administration’s position on anti-Semitism very clear and permits the machinery of government to run more efficiently in its effort to silence Palestinian activism through the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.

How seriously do you think this will be enforced on university campuses?

The enforcement was underway prior to the executive order. The week that this was announced, the Department of Education and the University of North Carolina (UNC) were already engaged in a negotiation to settle a complaint that was brought to the attention of the department about a Palestine solidarity event on campus. This event led the Department to open an inquiry around the practices at the university, which received threatening letters from the Department of Education and had to reply to address the concerns that they raised.

The Department of Education is a federal agency that can use the leverage of federal funding to get its way, which is what prompted UNC to negotiate and settle this claim. One of the things the university agreed to was to rewrite their anti-discrimination statement to include a definition of anti-Semitism that would meet Department of Education standards.

Currently, the federal government is sending a message that these efforts to curtail Palestinian activism are not just the result of a decision by an individual that happens to be sitting in the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights… they have the full backing of the president of the United States.

Criticism of other governments which commit human rights violations is permitted on campuses. In a way, isn’t it positive that the executive order highlights the administration’s preferential treatment of Israel?

This is not new in the United States; there’s always been a double standard when it comes to the enforcement of laws and principles regarding Israel. We often let Israel get away with things we wouldn’t let other countries get away with. But I think one of the things that this situation reflects, and it’s not just this particular order but really the strategy behind it, is this idea that the way that the Israelis and their supporters are going to succeed is if they silence debate. That tells us that they don’t want to have the debate, and they don’t want to have it because they don’t feel that they can win the debate anymore. I think that’s important, because you would not resort to authoritarian and illiberal tactics if you could succeed on a matter of persuasion. What we’re seeing increasingly is that they’re giving up on persuasion and they’re relying instead on trying to silence a discussion and a debate that they know they can’t win.

Apartheid is a very difficult product to sell; it’s not attractive, and people don’t like it. Especially people here in the United States, where we have a history of civil rights violations. So, they would rather silence the discussion altogether, because they’re unable to defend apartheid.

I wouldn’t call it positive news… but I think it tells us something important about the level of desperation in trying to maintain the apartheid system for as long as they possibly can. I also think it tells us that as apartheid deepens, and as it becomes more unacceptable around the world, these kinds of efforts are likely to escalate and they’re likely to get worse before things get better.

What is the way going forward?

I think that student activism is not going to stop. It’s very important that students feel that they have the right to express themselves and organize on campus, and I’m sure they will continue to do that. It’s also important for people to be educated about what their rights are as they face what will likely be increased intimidation and oppression, including university administrators who are looking to stay on the right side of the Department of Education.

The reason some anti-boycott legislation failed is because it hit a wall called the First Amendment. That is one of the reasons we are seeing the strategy to quash Palestinian rights activism shift towards anti-discrimination legislation.

I’m not a legal expert, but there may also be opportunities to challenge the executive order. If you have an action that punishes students for practicing their First Amendment-protected speech, there’s definitely opportunity for legal remedy.

If you want to know more about the implications of Trump’s executive order, you can read this commentary by author Saree Makdisi and this Q&A with legal expert Dima Khalidi.

(Photo Credit: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty)

About The Author: 

Laura Albast is Palestinian-American and works at the Institute for Palestine Studies. She holds a BA in Political Studies from the American University of Beirut, and an MA in International Affairs and Communication from Boston University. Her research has focused on public diplomacy, arms control, and community health work in the Middle East. She is also a professional translator.

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