They Used to Say Arabs Can’t Have Democracy Because It’d Be Bad for Israel. Now the U.S. Can’t Have It Either.

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Police tear down tents on UCLA’s campus on May 2, 2024. Photo: Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times via Getty

THERE’S AN ADAGE among observers of American Middle East policy that suggests the Arab world can’t have democracy because it would be bad for Israel. Arab publics favor the Palestinians, the thinking goes, and will vote in governments that act accordingly — and that is a no-go zone.

Now, with discontent in the U.S. boiling over amid Israel’s war on the Gaza Strip, the framing might need a small update: The U.S., it seems, can’t have democracy either, lest an American democracy end its support for everything and anything Israel wants to do to the Palestinians.

Recent weeks saw violent crackdowns on protests, the passage of bills severely curtailing American free speech rights, and lawsuits seeking to effectively outlaw student groups hostile to Israel.

A serious red line has been crossed: America’s democratic freedoms, expansive on paper, will simply not tolerate serious dissent on the U.S.–Israel relationship. As criticisms of Israel have become more mainstream, the attempt to shut them down entirely has become more extreme.

Pro-Israel forces in the U.S. are attacking our own democratic freedoms in order to suppress public outcry about apartheid and potential genocide 6,000 miles away.

In pursuit of this blank-check relationship with an Israeli government that is becoming ever-more intransigent with each passing year, pro-Israel forces in the U.S. are attacking our own democratic freedoms in order to suppress public outcry about apartheid and potential genocide 6,000 miles away. And, if the recent campus crackdowns are any indication, these forces are winning their battle.

With tens of thousands of Palestinians left dead and the Israeli assault on Gaza ongoing, the U.S. protests targeting university ties with Israel over the last month — voluble and outspoken — have been overwhelmingly nonviolent.

Yet these nonviolent protests have met with the full brutal force of the U.S. security state. Dispersing the protest encampments, police have viciously beaten protestersfired rubber bullets, and enveloped students in dense clouds of tear gas.

Much of the focus has been on the crackdown in New York City, where Columbia University students established the first major encampment the day its president testified at a House antisemitism hearing — but these incredible scenes of police attacking students have played out across the country. By recent count, over 2,300 people have been arrested on campuses in the U.S. since April 18.

It’s not the Middle East, but it is the same anti-democratic suppression of dissent. And one could be forgiven for noting that the crackdown sometimes resembles the suppression in dictatorships like Egypt, Jordan, and Bahrain.

In one stateside case, the squashing of a campus protest even involved what could be called “baltagiya”: the signature Egyptian tactic where unofficial state-aligned militias armed with clubs attack demonstrators before the police swoop in.

This wasn’t, however, Cairo in 2011. It was Los Angeles. At the University of California, Los Angeles, a pro-Israel mob videotaped itself descending on a protest camp and brutally beating protesters, including journalists.

The violence at the UCLA raged on for three hours before police intervened to restore order. Roughly two dozen people were reportedly hospitalized for injuries. It is not clear whether the gangs that attacked the encampment were students of the school.

The following day, police came to tear down the protest camp, firing rubber bullets and arresting some of the same demonstrators who had been attacked by thugs the night before.

Anti-Democracy in D.C.

While brutal suppression is being carried out on the street level, the ground is being prepared for even more disfiguring restrictions on democratic freedoms in Washington.

Last week, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a bill called the Antisemitism Awareness Act. While on its face the bill simply seeks to express Congress’s view in favor of tackling anti-Jewish bigotry, in reality its provisions would encode a controversial definition of antisemitism geared at inoculating Israel from criticism.

Drawing from the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism, the bill would categorize acts of speech as antisemitism. The IHRA definition states that “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor,” “applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation”; and “drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis” are all prima facie antisemitic speech.

The vague nature of these IHRA standards, including inevitable ambiguity about the definition of “double standards” regarding the state of Israel, has led the definition to be widely condemned as a Trojan horse for defining any criticism of Israel as antisemitism.

In Europe, where there is no First Amendment, the IHRA definition of antisemitism has already been widely used to criminalize speech that is critical of Israel.

The Antisemitism Awareness Act doesn’t quite go so far as to challenge the First Amendment. Instead, the bill gives the “sense of Congress” about the IHRA language. On Capitol Hill, it is a familiar technique: Resolutions that carry no criminal weight are used to mainstream language and ideas that are later used to enact more stringent statutes.

The purveyors of the Washington IHRA bill have already suggested that the legislation is, indeed, a first step toward something more concrete. “This bill has broad, bipartisan support and will begin the process of cracking down on the antisemitism we’ve seen run rampant on college campuses across America,” the lead sponsor, Rep. Mike Lawler, R-N.Y., boasted on X.

Lawler’s legislation is only one of a number of other proposed bills that would create a new congressional body to subpoena individuals over ill-defined allegations of antisemitism, criminalize and increase punishment guidelines for engaging in nonviolent protest, force federal agencies to submit lists of employees allegedly supportive of Hamas, force colleges to adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism to receive federal funding, and bar entry or deport individuals who are even charged in connection with demonstrations deemed by authorities to be antisemitic.

Attacks on Dissent

The efforts to crush dissent on Israel aren’t limited to campuses or the halls of power in Washington. The multipronged approach is playing out everywhere: in courts, in state legislatures, and elsewhere.

In state houses, measures taken by Republican officials in states like Florida, Indiana, and Arizona have already aimed to ban the activities of pro-Palestinian activist groups on college campuses. Many of these proposals employ language that would ban funding for groups accused of antisemitism or “supporting the activities of a foreign terrorist organization,” despite criticism from educators and activists that their ambiguous language could simply outlaw any pro-Palestinian activism.

Finally, survivors and families of those slain in the October 7 attack in Israel are now filing lawsuits against the pro-Palestine activist groups.

Backed by the Big Law firm Greenberg Traurig, the plaintiffs are suing Students for Justice in Palestine and American Muslims for Palestine, accusing the groups of acting as “as collaborators and propagandists for Hamas,” demanding they pay damages to compensate for the October 7 attacks in Israel.

This sweeping crackdown on the basic rights of Americans would effectively declare public discussion of a core area of U.S. foreign policy off-limits.

SJP is one of the largest pro-Palestinian student organizations involved in the recent protests, and the lawsuit says the group is “operating and managing Hamas’s mouthpiece for North America, dedicated to sanitizing Hamas’s atrocities and normalizing its terrorism.”

Put all together, this sweeping crackdown on the basic rights of Americans to speak, organize, and freely debate would effectively declare public discussion of a core area of U.S. foreign policy off-limits.

The scenes of crackdowns on U.S. campuses have already prompted statements of concern from international human rights and civil liberties organizations that are more accustomed to condemning suppression of civil society activism in places like China and Russia.

It’s an approach that will likely become even more stringent if, as likely, and in defiance of international opinion, the Israeli government continues with its policy of annexing the West Bank or expands the present war to Lebanon.

A free and frank debate about U.S. ties with Israel in such a context is more necessary than ever. But armed with political and legal support, along with street pressure from the police and even armed agitators, it seems that holding such a debate in the U.S. may soon no longer be possible.

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Disclaimer: They Used to Say Arabs Can’t Have Democracy Because It’d Be Bad for Israel. Now the U.S. Can’t Have It Either. - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect point-of-view

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