The movement to boycott Israel poses one of the biggest threats to free speech today, according to the Free Speech Now! campaign’s latest monthly report.
Free Speech Now!, an international campaign run by the online magazine spiked, collects stories about censorship from across the globe. The campaign’s August report reveals 21 instances in which debate, discussion and protest concerning the Israel-Palestine conflict has resulted in serious clampdowns on free speech. spiked editor Brendan O’Neill isolates the censorious atmosphere around the conflict as a key threat to free debate.
‘What we have seen over the past month is the way in which seemingly radical political boycotts can be used to censorious ends’, says O’Neill. ‘In modern history, boycotts have often been used in the pursuit of progressive ends, but more recently the boycott seems to have become a tool of those keen to silence their opponents.
‘So in July and August, we saw numerous boycotts in the West aimed at anyone remotely related to Israel, not simply Israeli politicians, but also artists, academics and authors who happen to receive funding from the Israeli government or have Israeli citizenship.’
The 21 instances of Israel-related censorship include a musical by a Jerusalem-based theatre group being shut down at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival when it was targeted by pro-Palestine protesters; the Tricycle Theatre in London refusing to host the Jewish Film Festival on the grounds that some of its funding came from the Israeli Embassy; and student leaders in Ontario, Canada voting unanimously to join the BDS movement, becoming the latest Western academic entity to refuse to engage with its Israeli peers.
Even simply expressing support for Israel was enough to prompt censure, something American comedienne Joan Rivers discovered when she found herself the target of a 12,000-strong petition demanding that one of her shows in England be cancelled. Alarmingly, even simply being Jewish was enough to be censured, as the Turkish-Jewish novelist Mario Levi discovered when he was the subject of an attempted boycott.
O’Neill says Israel-related censure create a powerfully illiberal climate. ‘It isolates Israeli academics, freezes out Israeli artists, and chills debate about Israel and Gaza’, he says, ‘which is all antithetical to the ideals of openness and freedom’.
The report also shows that the censorious instinct works the other way, with pro-Palestinian people also being targeted for censure. In the US, an academic had a job offer revoked by the University of Illinois over his anti-Israel tweets. In Britain, George Galloway was subjected to a police investigation after he said he wanted to make Bradford, where he is an MP, an ‘Israel-free zone’.
‘It seems both sides want to shut down their opponents rather than take them on’, says O’Neill. ‘The lesson we should learn from this is that censoriousness never casts light on an issue it merely obfuscates, promoting intellectual cowardice over rigorous debate. Our response is this: Let all speak, and let everyone challenge them.’
Read the full report here: