The 'A' word: Is Israel's censorship strategy sustainable?

The 'A' word: Is Israel's censorship strategy sustainable?
Comment: Israel and its allies will need to engage in ever more outrageous censorship to keep a lid on the burgeoning criticism of it, writes Hilary Aked.
4 min read
23 Mar, 2017
An activist at Israeli Apartheid Week, at the University of Johannesburg, March 7, 2017[AFP]

The resignation of UN official Rima Khalaf over the removal of a report accusing Israel of practicing "apartheid" was just the latest, albeit one of the most high-profile, in a long history of pro-Israel censorship rows.

While these activities have been going on for decades, a recent uptick points to the increasing panic of Israel-advocates over the ever-louder calls for boycotts of the country until it ceases to violate international law.

Israel has committed some of the most egregious crimes of the current era against Palestinians, including ethnic cleansing, occupation, and – as the report which UN Secretary General helped to censor outlined - apartheid (according to its legal definition: "Inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them").

But overseas the Israel-Palestine question is a free speech issue too. Those who speak out against Israel's impunity, like Khalaf, are very often forcefully silenced.  

This happens in major international institutions, like the UN, but also at the grassroots of civil society. For instance, students in UK universities organising "Israeli Apartheid Week" in February were subjected to several censorship attempts, some successful.

Palestinian student activists in the UK, like Malaka Mohammed, have faced a barrage of personal attacks. This is a reminder of the thread of continuity between Israel's direct repression of Palestinians - including the recent arrest of Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) activist Omar Barghouti on trumped-up "tax evasion" charges - and pro-Israel actors secondary silencing efforts overseas.

Those who speak out against Israel's impunity, like Khalaf, are very often forcefully silenced

But is Israel's censorship strategy sustainable? It would be tempting to declare that such coercive, strong-arm, draconian tactics - even when coupled with more subtle ways of undermining the Palestinians' story - will be counter-productive for Israel.

However, attempts to expose the tactic date back to the 1970s, if not before. Yet liberals, who become so shrill about freedom of expression when, say, a fascist is "no-platformed", have long been curiously silent when it comes to Palestine, even when academic conferences are shut down.

  Read more: Deja vu for a South African in Palestine

Indeed, several western governments including in the UK are actively working to censor, outlaw and repress criticism of Israel/Zionism and the BDS movement. The British government has sought to legitimise a "definition" of anti-Semitism which protects Israel form criticism and also imposes the Prevent "counter-extremism" agenda which has had a major chilling effect in many arenas of society.

Sadly then, there is no reason to believe that censorship efforts will automatically backfire. On the other hand, Israel's institutionalised system of discrimination is becoming increasingly clear, and ever more outrageous censorship may be required to keep a lid on the burgeoning criticism, found even in unlikely quarters.

Also, as in the case of Khalaf, pro-Israel silencing can actually end up backfiring by drawing more attention to the "apartheid" critique.

Israel's institutionalised system of discrimination is becoming increasingly clear

There is a stark choice for western governments, universities and UN agencies and all other actors to make; they can either defend freedom of expression, the right to criticise Israel and to engage in BDS, or undermine the very values they profess to stand for, to shield Israel from accountability.

At some stage, something must give.

Currently, the UK, USA, France and Canada are among those moving in the wrong direction, eroding democracy and their own citizens rights, in order to protect Israel.

But meanwhile, the Irish, Dutch and Swedish governments have all made clear their belief that calls for boycotts are a legitimate form of political speech. And civil society actors such as Amnesty International have stuck by their principles and criticised Israeli threats towards Omar Barghouti merely for advocating BDS, a non-violent strategy for change.

It is not clear which trajectory will prevail. But the contention will undoubtedly intensify. The decisions made by those actors faced with this choice in the coming months and years will help determine whether - or for how long - Israel is able to hold back the tide of boycotts and suppress the 'A' word now, that the genie is out of the bottle.

Hilary Aked is an analyst and researcher whose PhD studies focus on the influence of the Israel lobby in the United Kingdom.

Follow her on Twitter: @Hilary_Aked

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.