California State Assembly Seeks to Stifle Debate on Israel

The California State Assembly has just passed a bipartisan resolution (HR 35) by voice vote which constitutes a serious attack on academic freedom and the rights of students and faculty to raise awareness about human rights abuses by U.S.-backed governments. While purporting to put the legislature on record in opposition of anti-Semitism on state university campuses, it defines anti-Semitism so widely as to include legitimate political activities in opposition to Israeli government policies.

The resolution was opposed by a wide variety of groups, including the Center for Constitutional Rights, the Asian Law Center, Jewish Voice for Peace, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations, yet the Republican-sponsored measure received wide bipartisan support in the Democratic-controlled legislature.

The non-binding resolution – which was sponsored by 66 of the 80 members of the lower house – demands that what it calls “anti-Semitic activity” should “not be tolerated in the classroom or on campus, and that no public resources be allowed to be used for anti-Semitic or intolerant agitation.”

The resolution lists a number of examples of genuine anti-Semitic activities, such as painting swastikas outside Hillel offices. However, much of the text is focused upon criticism of the state of Israel. Among the examples given of “anti-Semitic activities” included in the resolution are:

accusations that the Israeli government is guilty of “crimes against humanity”
This would mean that a speaker from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other reputable human rights groups which have documented such violations of international humanitarian law by the Israeli Defense Forces could not be provided space or honoraria to talk about their research.

accusations that Israel has engaged in “ethnic cleansing”
This would mean that Israeli scholars who have studied and published documents from Israeli archives pertaining to the 1947-49 conflict in Israel/Palestine which demonstrate that there was a calculated policy of ethnic cleansing against the Palestinian population in some regions would similarly be barred.

“student and faculty-sponsored boycott, divestment and sanctions campaigns against Israel”
This would prohibit efforts to boycott goods made in illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank, support international sanctions on Israel over its ongoing violations of a series of UN Security Council resolutions, or have the university divest from its endowment stock in companies supporting the Israeli occupation.

The resolution also declares a number of other political activities that, while clearly objectionable – such as disrupting a speech by a supporter of the Israeli government – as “anti-Semitic,” based on the assumption that hostility toward such a speaker is not based on opposition to policies of Israel’s right-wing government, but because the country is Jewish.

Indeed, throughout the resolution, opposition to Israeli government policies is equated with bigotry towards Jews. There’s no question that some pro-Palestinian activists do sometimes cross the line into what could reasonably be called anti-Semitism, which should indeed be categorically condemned, as should all manifestations of prejudice. Unfortunately, this resolution makes no distinction between this tiny bigoted minority and the majority of activists who oppose the Israeli occupation and other policies of that country’s right-wing government on legitimate human rights grounds.

Not only does this constitute an attack on academic freedom, it compromises legitimate efforts against the scourge of anti-Semitism which – while not as widespread a phenomenon on California campuses as the resolution implies – is still very real.

College campuses, particularly those in California’s large public university systems, have long been a center of agitation for human rights and in opposition to U.S. policies which support violations of human rights, whether it be the war in Vietnam, investment in apartheid South Africa, intervention in Central America, or support for Israel’s wars and occupation.

This bipartisan effort appears to be an attempt to stifle this tradition. Indeed, if the California state legislature succeeds in shutting down debate regarding U.S. policy toward Israel and its neighbors, it will only be a matter of time before debate on other aspects of U.S. foreign policy will be suppressed as well.

U.S. Shares Responsibility for Rachel Corrie’s Death

On August 28, an Israeli court rejected a civil lawsuit against Israeli occupation forces for the 2003 murder of Rachel Corrie, a 23-year old American peace activist killed in the Gaza Strip, upholding a severely flawed internal Israeli military investigation.

Amnesty International strongly condemned the decision, noting how “the verdict continues the pattern of impunity for Israeli military violations against civilians and human rights defenders in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). The verdict shields Israeli military personnel from accountability and ignores deep flaws in the Israeli military’s internal investigation of Corrie’s death.”

By contrast, a State Department spokeswoman said that the administration understood the Corrie family’s disappointment, but—despite direct questioning from reporters—declined to say whether they were also disappointed at the dubious vindication of a foreign soldier from responsibility for murdering an unarmed American civilian. This came despite the U.S. ambassador to Israel’s acknowledgment that the Israeli investigation was not “thorough, credible, and transparent.”

Getting Away with Murder

On March 16, 2003, in the Rafah refugee camp in the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip, Israeli forces were planning to destroy the home of a Palestinian pharmacist and his family. Rachel was among a group of international observers who stood in front of the bulldozer as a form of nonviolent intervention against the home’s destruction. Initial claims by the Israeli government and some of its U.S. supporters that the home was being used to smuggle arms into the occupied Gaza Strip from the nearby Egyptian border were found to be false.

According to both Palestinian and American eyewitnesses, Rachel was standing in plain sight of the bulldozer’s driver. She was wearing a bright fluorescent orange jacket and had engaged the driver in conversation to try to convince him not to destroy the house. Nevertheless, after an initial pause, the bulldozer—a custom-designed, U.S.-supplied Caterpillar D9—surged forward despite cries from Rachel’s colleagues, trapping her feet under the dirt so she could not get out of the way before running her over. The bulldozer then backed up, running Rachel over a second time, mortally wounding her. She died in a nearby hospital a short time later.

The United States shares responsibility for Corrie’s death in a number of ways.

Rafah was supposed to be under the exclusive control of the Palestinian Authority, according to a series of disengagement agreements brokered by the U.S. government following the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords. Though the United States was supposed to be the guarantor of the accords, and though UN Security Council Resolution 1435 had explicitly called upon Israel to withdraw to its September 2000 zones of control, the Bush administration blocked enforcement of the resolution and refused to insist that Israel end its re-occupation of Rafah and other parts of designated Palestinian territory. Israel finally withdrew from the Gaza Strip on its own the following year, but it continues to raze thousands of homes in the occupied territories in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits the destruction of civilian property unless required by military necessity.

Four months before Rachel’s murder, the United States vetoed a UN Security Council resolution criticizing Israel for the killing of three United Nations workers in two separate incidents in the occupied territories in December. Among these was British relief worker Iain Hook, who was assisting in the reconstruction of Palestinian homes destroyed during an Israeli military offensive the previous spring. This veto likely gave the Israelis the confidence that they could literally get away with murder, even if it involved a U.S. citizen.

A Question of Priorities

This follows a pattern of U.S. support for repressive allied governments, even when they murder U.S. citizens.

For example, President Jimmy Carter, despite claims of supporting human rights, dramatically increased military aid to the murderous junta in El Salvador just six weeks after its forces, under direct orders from top military officers, raped and murdered three American nuns and an American Catholic lay worker in December 1980.

In a similar fashion, President Ronald Reagan increased support for the Nicaraguan terrorists known as the Contras not long after their April 1987 murder of Ben Linder, a young American engineer who was assisting a rural Nicaraguan village in a micro-dam project that would for the first time bring electricity to its residents.

In 2010, Israeli commandos murdered Furkan Dogan, a 19-year-old U.S. citizen living in Turkey, when they attacked a humanitarian aid flotilla in international waters. According to a UN investigation, based on eyewitness testimony and analysis by a forensic pathologist and ballistics expert, Dogan was initially shot while filming the assault and then murdered while lying face down with a bullet shot at close range in the back of the head. The United States was the only one of the 47 members of the UN Human Rights Council to vote against the adoption of the report, and a bipartisan majority of the House and Senate signed letters defending the Israeli action, which also killed eight other passengers and crew. The Obama administration never filed a complaint with the Israeli government, demonstrating its willingness to allow the armed forces of U.S. allies to murder American citizens on the high seas. And soon thereafter, the administration increased U.S. military aid to Israel over the objections of Amnesty International and other human rights groups.

In short, it appears that both Republicans and Democrats believe that the lives of Americans who work for peace and justice in conflict areas are secondary to ensuring the profits of American arms merchants and the pursuit of narrowly defined strategic objectives. Perhaps the best thing we can do in memory of Rachel Corrie, Furkan Dogan, and the others is to expose and challenge the politicians in this country who helped make their deaths, and those of the far greater number of other civilians who do not have the privilege of a U.S. passport, possible.

The Reality of Western Sahara

Earlier this year, Global Post ran an article by Jordan Paul, executive director of the Moroccan American Center for Policy, a registered foreign agent for the Moroccan government, which funds, supervises, and coordinates the group’s activities. The article contained a series of demonstrably false claims attempting to rationalize for Morocco’s illegal occupation of its southern neighbor, the country of Western Sahara.

In 1975, the kingdom of Morocco conquered Western Sahara on the eve of its anticipated independence from Spain in defiance of a series of UN Security Council resolutions and a landmark 1975 decision by the International Court of Justice upholding the right of the country’s inhabitants to self-determination. With threats of a French and American veto at the UN preventing decisive action by the international community to stop the Moroccan invasion, the nationalist Polisario Front launched an armed struggle against the occupiers. The majority of the indigenous population, known as Sahrawis, went into exile, primarily in Polisario-run refugee camps in Algeria.

Thanks to U.S. and French military support for the conquering Moroccan forces, Morocco was able to hold on to most of Western Sahara. Yet the Polisario achieved a series of diplomatic victories that generated widespread international support for self-determination and opposition to the Moroccan takeover. In 1991, the Polisario agreed to a ceasefire in return for a Moroccan promise to allow for an internationally supervised referendum on the fate of the territory. Morocco, however, recognizing they would almost certainly lose such a plebiscite, refused to allow the scheduled vote to move forward.

French and American support for the Moroccan government blocked the UN Security Council from providing the necessary diplomatic pressure to force Morocco to allow the promised referendum to take place. The Polisario, meanwhile, recognizing its inability to defeat the Moroccans by military means, decided against resuming the armed struggle. As a result, the struggle for self-determination shifted to within the Moroccan-occupied territory, where the Sahrawi population has launched a nonviolent resistance campaign against the occupation, which – despite widespread Moroccan repression – has sporadically continued.

In an effort to justify their ongoing defiance of the international community for their illegal occupation, the autocratic Moroccan monarchy has redoubled its efforts to discredit their opponents, such hiring people like Paul to write articles like those that appeared in the Global Post in March.

Among Paul’s more bizarre claims is that the Polisario Front has links to Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM.)

In reality, though Sahrawis are virtually all Muslims, they historically practice a decidedly liberal interpretation of the faith. The Polisario has since its founding been a secular organization, based on the belief that religious faith is between the individual and God, not a government or other temporal organization. Women have taken prominent positions in leadership. Meanwhile, radical Islamists in Algeria have condemned them for their secular ideology and even attacked Polisario offices.

Even during the twenty years of armed struggle, the Polisario never engaged in terrorism or any kind of deliberate attacks against civilian targets. And there has been none since.

Furthermore, the autocratic Algerian regime controls security around the refugee camps, which are located in the heavily-militarized region of Tindouf. After surviving a bloody decade-long civil war against Islamist extremists, the idea that the Algerian government would allow any group collaborating the AQIM to operate in such a sensitive area is pure fantasy.

While there are some legitimate concerns regarding some of the practices of the Polisario leadership in the camps, no credible independent analysts have documented Paul’s claims that the Polisario has been involved in “arms and drug trafficking, armed incursions into Mali, fighting as Gaddafi mercenaries in Libya, and kidnappings for AQIM in the Sahel.”

Contrary to Paul’s claim, the Polisario Front is not a “separatist” group. It is the ruling party of the nation of Western Sahara – known officially as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic – which has been recognized by over 80 countries and is a full member state of the African Union. Western Sahara is recognized by the United Nations and virtually the entire international community as a non-self-governing country under foreign belligerent occupation.

And, contrary to Paul, the Polisario does not “force” the refugees to live in the camps. As someone who has visited both the camps and Moroccan-occupied parts of Western Sahara, it is clear that they are there to escape Moroccan repression in their occupied homeland, repression that has been well-documented by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and other reputable human rights groups.

As with Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, and Iraq’s short-lived occupation of Kuwait, there are those who will try to justify illegitimate foreign occupations by making up such bizarre stories. However, it doesn’t mean they should be taken seriously.