Intimidation, doxing, blacklists, cancellations. In the wake of the Hamas attack on Israel and Israel’s retaliatory bombardment of Gaza, a wave of extreme intolerance towards speech critical of Israel and supportive of Palestine has swept across cultural and educational institutions. In the United States and Europe, students and professors are being penalized, writers canceled, and artists censored for expressing views critical of the Israeli government’s actions. 

At New York University, the president of the student bar association was removed from the position after issuing a statement of support for Palestine, and their post-graduate employment offer at a law firm was promptly rescinded. Elsewhere, student protests at universities have been met with hostility and reflexively labeled antisemitic.

Faculty members who support Palestinian human rights or have Middle Eastern backgrounds are especially vulnerable to the current intolerance. A Stanford University instructor was recently suspended from teaching while the school reviews how he approached a classroom discussion about the conflict. Other professors have been condemned by their institutions (Cornell); placed on leave (Emory) or removed from editorial responsibilities (Michael Eisen/eLife) because of political comments they made or shared on social media. In contrast, student group petitions to fire an Israeli adjunct professor for publishing online a satirical video about what she sees as the academic left’s support of Hamas, were met with assurance on part of the university that she’s keep her teaching position.

The atmosphere in cultural institutions outside of academia is just as repressive. The publishers of Artforum, one of the top art magazines in the world, fired its editor-in-chief for the decision to post an open letter supporting Palestinian liberation signed by thousands of artists, academics and cultural workers. 92NY (formerly the 92nd Street Y), a leading New York cultural and community center, canceled a reading by Pulitzer Prize winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen because he joined more than 700 other writers in signing an open letter published in the in the London Review of Books calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. El Museo del Barrio, long known for its focus on activism and its work on behalf of the marginalized, rejected a previously commissioned art installation because of its inclusion of the Palestinian flag. Many artists who have signed petitions for a ceasefire or in support of Palestine are reportedly being pressured by collectors and galleries to retract their signatures.

While the views targeted for suppression vary widely, the broad sweep of cancellations does not spare perspectives that offer a nuanced understanding of the politics and lived realities of the Middle East. 

Such work includes Nathan Thrall’s “A Day in the Life of Abed Salama,” a look at Israel’s occupation of the West Bank; book promotion events in London, New York, Los Angeles and Washington have been postponed or canceled. Or Palestinian author Adania Shibli’s book Minor Detail (2017), which recounts the true story of the 1949 rape and murder of a young Bedouin woman in Palestine. The book was to receive an award by the literary organization Litprom at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Instead, the ceremony was canceled. 

Each day brings a new cancellation: a concert of young Palestinian musicians was indefinitely postponed in London; the Boston Palestine Film Festival decided not to hold live screenings and went online; the upstate New York’s Witness Palestine Film Festival has been postponed “due to safety concerns.” Also citing security risks, the University of Vermont canceled a lecture featuring Palestinian poet Mohammed El-Kurd. 

The current backlash against pro-Palestinian voices is often justified as an issue of timing: when people are grieving and angry in the wake of a terrorist attack,  it is difficult and perhaps insensitive to have any conversation  that doesn’t just condemn the violence. Yet there is nothing radically new about efforts to suppress voices that reflect the Palestinian perspective on the conflict in the Middle East. For many years, respected institutions have stifled conversation about Israel and Palestine when it leaves the narrow parameters of the permitted. 

Indeed, a current example speaks eloquently. The University of Pennsylvania now faces extreme pressure from donors—many of whom are calling on the institution’s president to resign—for having hosted a festival showcasing Palestinian art and culture. The festival, however, happened in September, before the Hamas attacks, and was even then subject to complaints from local Jewish organizations. The festival focused on literature, poetry and crafts, though it also had included political discussions. That kind of discussion was targeted as unpalatable long before the events of October 7th.

A student petition at Columbia University echoes events of twenty years ago. The petition, which has gathered around sixty thousand signatures, demands the removal of a tenured professor of Middle Eastern studies because of an article he published about the Hamas terrorist attack. This may feel like deja vu to the professor, Joseph Massad. Almost twenty years ago, Massad, was the subject of complaints by students who claimed he intimidated them for their pro-Israel views. Then United States Representative Anthony Weiner had then called on Columbia to fire Massad for “antisemitic rantings.” A committee appointed by the university to investigate the complaints dismissed the allegations. 

However, not all professors are lucky enough to withstand the repercussions of expressing their political views on the Middle East. Back in 2014, the University of Illinois rescinded a tenure offer to Steven Salaita, a Palestinian-American professor, following a campaign by pro-Israel students, faculty members and donors upset about Salaita’s Twitter comments on the bombardment of Gaza. In spite of winning a legal case against the university in 2017, Salaita left academia because no institution would hire him for full-time work. 

The current tragic events have only amplified the divisions in the already-polarized echo chambers to a point where nuance is entirely lost and concern for Palestinian people or protest directed the political status quo is immediately conflated with antisemitism, condemned as support for Hamas and terrorism – and penalized as such. 

Surely, when positions are deeply entrenched and political passions inflamed, reasoned debate may be nigh-on impossible. Some groups in any conflict will never allow empathy for what they see as an existential enemy. I remember some years ago the words of a museum director, who, in response to my suggestion that the institution could host a town hall and invite local interested parties to discuss a controversial exhibition by a Palestinian-American artist, replied: you don’t understand, getting these people to talk to each other is impossible, it would be a disaster.

However, years of avoiding and suppressing difficult conversations about Israel and Palestine have only exacerbated hostilities. As cultural institutions are struggling over the acceptability of speech, there has been a sharp rise in antisemitic and Islamophobic incidents of harassment, vandalism, and assault in the United States, as reported by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). These are times that test our commitment to free speech principles. Cultural institutions are failing that test.

As this is an ongoing issue, we will be adding more cases of censorship related to the war in the Middle East as they happen.

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