March 2, 2023, Washington, D.C. – The D.C. Superior Court yesterday dismissed a lawsuit against the American Studies Association (ASA) and some of its former leaders for a 2013 resolution endorsing the academic boycott against Israel. The court found that the claims primarily arose from advocacy on an issue of public interest and were not likely to succeed. Those targeted by the suit included Dr. Steven Salaita, an advocate for Palestinian rights represented by the Center for Constitutional Rights, which secured dismissal of all the claims against him under a D.C. law to deter SLAPPs, or Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation.
“I welcome the judge’s decision to dismiss this long-running lawsuit as a waste of time and money,” said Salaita. “I am happy to finally be freed of this burden and hope that the ruling will deter pro-Israel outfits with no means of winning a debate beyond harassment and defamation from trying to impoverish those of us committed to the wellbeing of the Palestinian people.”
In 2013, two-thirds of ASA members voted to join a boycott of Israeli academic institutions as part of the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement that seeks to generate opposition to Israel’s subjugation of Palestinians. Four professors originally sued the ASA and some of its leaders in federal court, claiming that the vote had violated the group’s by-laws and that its officers had breached their fiduciary duties. In 2018, they amended the suit to add several defendants, including Salaita, even though he had joined the ASA board two years after the vote.
A federal court dismissed the lawsuit in 2019, and the plaintiffs promptly filed a nearly identical complaint in the D.C Superior Court. The court initially denied the anti-SLAPP motion, but in response to an appeal by Salaita and the other defendants, the D.C. Court of Appeals ordered the court to reanalyze the case, resulting in yesterday’s ruling.
The purpose of anti-SLAPP laws is to deter lawsuits that target people who speak out on matters of public concern. Often, the goal of plaintiffs in such cases is not to win in court but simply to harass and intimidate advocates. Under the D.C. anti-SLAPP law, once the defendants show that the lawsuit is based on protected advocacy, plaintiffs must show that they are nonetheless likely to prevail in court; if they cannot, the suit is dismissed as it was in this case, and defendants may collect attorney’s fees from the plaintiffs.
“This ruling should send a clear message to those trying to silence advocates speaking out against Israel’s human rights abuses: boycotts are legally protected, and attempts to stifle such advocacy through the misuse of courts will not be tolerated,” said Astha Sharma Pokharel, a staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights. “These lawsuits will face strong opposition that will only grow the movement for justice and freedom in Palestine.”
The Center for Constitutional Rights also represented Salaita in his case against the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which unlawfully fired him in retaliation for his criticism of Israel’s 2014 assault on Gaza. The lawsuit against him and the other academics is part of a broader nationwide effort to suppress speech critical of Israel, advocates say. The Center for Constitutional Rights and Palestine Legal have documented censorship efforts on college campuses and at other institutions.
Defendants Lisa Duggan, Curtis Marez, Neferti Tadiar, Sunaina Maira, Chandan Reddy, John Stephens, and the American Studies Association were represented by Whiteford, Taylor & Preston L.L.P., and defendants J. Kehaulani Kauanui and Jasbir Puar were represented by Mark Allen Kleiman and Richard Renner.
For more information, visit the Center for Constitutional Rights’ case page.
Proposed resolution targeted Palestinian rights advocacy
In January, we sent letters urging the American Bar Association (ABA) to remove its reference to the “International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism” in its proposed Resolution 514, explaining that rather than fighting antisemitism, the controversial IHRA definition is used to silence Palestinian rights advocates. In a victory for human rights and free speech, the ABA decided to drop the definition in passing its resolution.
Meanwhile, we continue to fight the use of IHRA as it is being pushed through in various arenas to suppress Palestinian voices. Virginia legislators are considering HB 1606 which would adopt IHRA, including its contemporary examples related to Israel, as a tool and guide for recognizing and combating antisemitic discrimination and hate crimes in Virginia. We joined Palestine Legal and other groups in a letter to legislators explaining the dangers of the definition, and how it has widely been used to suppress criticism of Israel, not to combat antisemitism. The bill passed out of committee on Friday, and the fight continues.
Blocking the former head of Human Rights Watch stirred debate over academic freedom and donor influence
Kenneth Roth, the former director of Human Rights Watch, in New York last April. The Harvard Kennedy School recently reversed its early decision to reject his fellowship application because of his criticisms of Israel. (Todd Heisler/The New York Times)
Jennifer Schuessler and Marc Tracy, New York Times, Jan. 19, 2023
The Harvard Kennedy School reversed course on Thursday and said it would offer a fellowship to a leading human rights advocate it had previously rejected, after news of the decision touched off a public outcry over academic freedom, donor influence and the boundaries of criticism of Israel.
The controversy erupted earlier this month, when The Nation published a lengthy article revealing that last summer, the school’s dean, Douglas Elmendorf, had vetoed a proposal by the school’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy to offer a one-year fellowship to Kenneth Roth, the recently retired executive director of Human Rights Watch. At the time, Elmendorf told colleagues that he was concerned about perceptions that Human Rights Watch had a bias against Israel, according to two faculty members.
The revelation prompted sharp rebukes from prominent free expression groups; a letter signed by more than 1,000 Harvard students, faculty and alumni criticizing what it called “a shameful decision to blacklist Kenneth Roth”; and private complaints from faculty.
In an email to the Kennedy School community on Thursday, Elmendorf said his decision had been an “error” and the school would be extending an invitation to Roth.
Elmendorf, an economist who served as director of the Congressional Budget Office from 2009 to 2015, also pushed back against the charge that donors had influenced his initial decision, which was suggested in the Nation article and reiterated in public statements by Roth.
“Donors do not affect our consideration of academic matters,” he said in the statement. “My decision was also not made to limit debate at the Kennedy School about human rights in any country.”
He did not specify why he had rejected Mr. Roth’s fellowship except to say that it was “based on my evaluation of his potential contributions to the school.”
As for Roth, who after Harvard’s about-face accepted an offer from the University of Pennsylvania, where he is now a fellow at Perry World House, Elmendorf said, “I hope that our community will be able to benefit from his deep experience in a wide range of human rights issues.”
Roth, reached by phone after the reversal was announced, said he was pleased by the decision, which he attributed to “overwhelming” concern from the faculty, and that he would use the fellowship to work on a book about his decades of human rights advocacy. But he also called for more transparency.
“Dean Elmendorf has said he made this decision because of people who ‘mattered’ to him at the university,” Roth said, referring to published accounts by faculty members. “He still refuses to say who those people who mattered to him were.”
And he called on Harvard to make a stronger commitment to academic freedom, including for people who aren’t in a position to mobilize public opinion.
“Penalizing people for criticizing Israel is hardly limited to me,” he continued. “What is the Kennedy School, and Harvard more broadly, going to do to show this episode conveys a renewed commitment to academic freedom, rather than just exceptional treatment for one well-known individual?”
The incident was the latest flare-up in the ongoing debate about when criticism of Israel shades into antisemitism, and when charges of antisemitism, in turn, are used to shut down criticism.
In interviews (and on Twitter), Roth, a Jew whose father fled Nazi Germany as a child, said that Elmendorf’s initial decision reflected the influence of those who seek to delegitimize Human Rights Watch, which has monitored abuses in more than 100 countries, as an impartial observer on Israel. And he has described it as a case of “donor-driven censorship,” though he said he had no proof.
Confronts Challenge to Human Rights Advocacy
Last week a U.S.-based Palestinian rights organization asked the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals to uphold the dismissal of a lawsuit brought by the Jewish National Fund and several U.S. citizens who live in Israel. Citing the speech and expressive activities of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, including its support for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, the lawsuit had argued that the group provided “material support” for terrorism.
In dismissing the suit in March 2021, the lower court said the arguments were, “to say the least, not persuasive.” The suit is part of a broader effort to criminalize and silence the political activities of supporters of Palestinian rights, advocates say.
“The worldwide movement for Palestinian freedom is growing,” said Ahmad Abuznaid, Executive Director of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights. “USCPR’s work to advocate for Palestinian human rights is a critical part of that freedom struggle, or else right-wing forces allied with the Israeli government would not be repeatedly trying to silence us. All the more reason to keep up our work to build toward justice for all.”
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One of the primary tactics opponents of the movement for Palestinian freedom have used to silence political debate is the branding of all support for Palestinian rights as anti-Jewish. Roughly half of the incidents of suppression Palestine Legal responds to each year include false accusations of antisemitism, totaling 895 incidents from 2014 to 2020.
In an effort to add legitimacy to this tactic, Israel lobby groups have employed a distorted definition of antisemitism that encompasses virtually all criticism of Israel and have attempted to entrench this definition through policy changes and legislation.
This page tracks the evolution of the cynical ways Israel lobby groups have abused the definition and the definition’s impact on advocates for Palestinian rights.
We invite you to explore the following components:
2004 – 2008
After decades of attempting to smear Palestine advocacy with false antisemitism accusations, Israel lobby groups develop a new Israel-centered definition of antisemitism. It is adopted by an EU body, and the U.S. State Department cites it in a report.
The European Union Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) begins working with the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and other Jewish and Israel advocacy groups to expand the definition of antisemitism. The AJC encourages inclusion of criticism of Israel in this redefinition.
At the same time, Israeli politician Natan Sharansky creates the “3Ds Test” which defines “delegitimizing,” “demonizing” or “applying double standards” to Israel as examples of antisemitism.
Complaint from Israeli lawfare group prompts investigation over student group challenging Zionism
MICHAEL ARRIA, MONDOWEISS, DECEMBER 16, 2022
The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has announced that it’s launched a probe into the University of California’s Berkeley Law School. According to an email obtained by Jewish Insider the investigation will determine whether the school acted appropriately in response to a complaint “from Jewish law students, faculty and staff that they experienced a hostile environment at the law school based on their shared Jewish ancestry.”
This past summer, the campus group Law Students for Justice in Palestine developed a bylaw in support of Palestine, which called on other student organizations to refrain from inviting Zionists speakers to the school or holding events “in support of Zionism, the apartheid state of Israel, and the occupation of Palestine.” Nine groups immediately signed onto the pledge.
The effort was immediately mischaracterized by pro-Israel groups across social media and even mainstream outlets. Kenneth Marcus, Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights chairman and assistant secretary for civil rights under former president Donald Trump, published an Op-Ed in Jewish Journal op-ed made the spurious claim that Berkeley Law was establishing “Jewish free zones.” He also asserted that anti-Zionism of any kind is antisemitic.
“Anti-Zionism is flatly antisemitic,” reads the article. “Using ‘Zionist’ as a euphemism for Jew is nothing more than a confidence trick. Like other forms of Judeophobia, it is an ideology of hate, treating Israel as the ‘collective Jew’ and smearing the Jewish state with defamations similar to those used for centuries to vilify individual Jews.”
The “Jewish free zones” lie also found a home in Newsweek, where Toronto-based writer Laura Rosen Cohen inexplicably claimed that they are becoming a “new progressive trend.” Cohen warns of a “civilizational decline” if Palestine campus activism continues.
“Is it any surprise that law students think it’s ok to bar Jewish speakers when a member of Congress feels comfortable doing the same thing for the progressive movement writ large?,” reads that article. “This isn’t something progressives are ashamed of, but something they are proud of. Which is why society more broadly must firmly reject this discrimination when it comes for Jews.”
The phony narrative was even embraced by some liberal celebrities on Twitter. Singer and actress Barbra Streisand tweeted the Marcus op-ed with the caption, “When does anti-Zionism bleed into broad anti-Semitism?” Comedian Sarah Silverman shared it and wrote, “9 student law groups from UC BERKELEY Ban any Jews who believe Israel should be able to exist. Even those (MOST JEWS) who are against occupation and who fight for a two state solution. This is just the beginning. PLEASE help fight anti-Jewish racism.”
In August, Berkeley Law School Dean Erwin Chemerinsky sent an email to student leaders expressing concern about the bylaw and pointing out that he was a supporter of Israel, but he dismissed the allegations of “Jewish-free zones” as ridiculous.
“The Law School’s rules are clear that no speaker can be excluded for being Jewish or for holding particular views,” wrote Chemerinsky in The Daily Beast. “I know of no instance where this has been violated..Ironically, most students and faculty in the Law School were unaware of this controversy or paid little attention to it. After the first couple of weeks of the semester, it was virtually never mentioned. But some media outlets have brought it worldwide attention.”
In October, over two dozen pro-Israel groups (including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Democratic Majority for Israel, and Christians United for Israel) wrote a statement calling for the school to be sanctioned. “Jewish faith and identity for millennia have been anchored by the desire to restore sovereignty in our indigenous homeland, the core idea of Zionism,” it reads. “Like observing Shabbat and kosher dietary laws, Zionism is vital to the consciousness of many, if not most, Jews.”
The Department of Education’s investigation comes in response to a complaint filed by pro-Israel, right-wing lawyer Gabriel Groisman and International Legal Forum CEO Arsen Ostrovsky. The International Legal Forum is an anti-BDS group based in Tel Aviv and funded by the Israeli government.
On November 15, the Arizona Palestine Solidarity Alliance (APSA), Black Lives Matter (BLM) Phoenix Metro, Mijente, and Puente continue their fight against the corporate-led American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in the Arizona Supreme Court. The groups will join the Center for Consitutional Rights and the Peoples Law Firm for oral argument in court.
Our lawsuit argues that the lawmakers, who together make up a quorum of several Arizona legislative committees, have violated Arizona’s Open Meeting Law by meeting behind closed doors at a private ALEC gathering in Scottsdale, Arizona, in 2019. A closed meeting of a quorum of an Arizona legislative committee where members debate, discuss, deliberate, or otherwise work is a violation of the Arizona Open Meeting Law. In a major victory in the case, on February 15 this year, the Arizona Court of Appeals ruled that we may continue to pursue the lawsuit against 26 Arizona lawmakers who attended ALEC’s closed meetings in 2019. The court said the legislature cannot exempt itself from its own Open Meeting Law, rejected all of the defendants’ other arguments for dismissal, and sent the case back to the trial court.
The initial filing in 2019 came after the Center for Constitutional Rights, Dream Defenders, Palestine Legal, The Red Nation, and the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights together released the report “ALEC Attacks: How evangelicals and corporations captured state lawmaking to safeguard white supremacy and corporate power,” which examines the harmful impact of ALEC laws on people of color.
ALEC provides a ‘pay-to-play’ membership system in which its corporate members pay high fees in return for closed-door meetings with lawmakers to deliberate, draft, and vote on “model bills,” which are later introduced by ALEC-affiliated state lawmakers across the country. ALEC boasts that approximately one third of all state lawmakers are members. They are required to sign “loyalty oaths” to “put the interests of [ALEC] first.”
Between 2010 and 2018, ALEC’s “model bills” were introduced nearly 2,900 times, and more than 600 became law. The Arizona groups leading this fight point out that marginalized communities, particularly communities of color, have been disproportionately harmed by laws produced by ALEC. These include Stand Your Ground laws, voter ID laws, legislation targeting the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement supporting Palestinian human rights, and “critical infrastructure” laws that criminalize protests by Indigenous people and other activists against oil and gas companies.
At ALEC’s 2009 meeting, anti-immigrant former state senator Russell Pearce introduced to ALEC members what would later become Arizona’s infamous SB 1070. The law granted authority to law enforcement to racially profile Latinx people in the state. Similar laws were soon adopted in Utah, Georgia, Indiana, Alabama, and South Carolina.
Today across Palestine, we’re witnessing the Palestinian people rise up united once again. It is a moment in which our people declare we will not die quietly at the hands of Israel’s massive violence, but we will resist, and keep resisting, until Palestine is free.
Palestinian people on the ground are on a general strike today. The youth of Shuafat refugee camp called for the strike after Israel killed 17 Palestinian people in October alone, including Odai Tamimi yesterday, and after a series of violent attacks by Israeli settlers and soldiers.
At the same time, we’re nearing the one-year mark since the Israeli government attacked six Palestinian organizations to stop their essential human rights work, on Oct. 22, 2021. Israel wants to shut down the #StandWithThe6 organizations, and we can’t let that happen.
Israel’s brutal violence and repression of Palestinian human rights defenders is part of its all-out assault on the Palestinian people, especially anyone who dares to challenge the colonial Israeli regime.
Today, prominent supporters of Palestinian human rights like Dr. Cornel West and Rep. Rashida Tlaib are speaking up to #StandWithThe6, and you can join them.
"Stand for the six. Stand for all whose dignity is being violated daily in the West Bank." —@CornelWest#StandWithThe6#IfWeDisappear pic.twitter.com/62sTbcC0F6
— #DefendMasaferYatta USCPR (@USCPR_) October 20, 2022
The #StandWithThe6 organizations are currently facing Israel’s continued repression, from the shuttering of their offices this past August to Israel’s imprisonment of Palestinian human rights defender Salah Hammouri of Addameer without charge or trial.
Today, they’re asking: What happens #IfWeDisappear? Who will hold the Israeli government accountable for its brutal violence, as Israel continues to kill Palestinian people every day?
Watch and share the videos now.
Palestinian people on the ground are creating bold new ways to resist Israel’s colonial violence day by day, and we must defend their rights as we all push toward liberation.
Just Vision, 10/20/22
Moments ago, the ACLU petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to hear a case of national significance on the right to boycott. It’s a case with massive implications for First Amendment rights.
As you know, we’re tracking the spread of anti-boycott legislation sweeping state houses in the United States – and with great alarm. Our latest documentary, Boycott, follows plaintiffs in Texas, Arizona and Arkansas as they take on tremendous risk by suing their states over the constitutionality of these laws. One of those plaintiffs, Alan Leveritt, is at the center of the case now in front of the Supreme Court.
If you’re new to this story, here’s the gist: anti-boycott laws, now passed in 34 states, require public contractors to sign a pledge promising that they do not, and will not, boycott Israel for the duration of their contract. Several Americans have challenged these laws, suing their respective states for violating their First Amendment rights. In almost every case — from Texas to Arizona to Kansas to Georgia — the plaintiffs won, with courts finding the anti-boycott laws unconstitutional.
But this past summer, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Alan’s case that boycotts are not protected by the First Amendment, a shocking break from Supreme Court precedent. The Eighth Circuit determined that boycotts, even when politically motivated, are strictly economic activity and not a form of expression.
As a news publisher, Alan believes the court is dead wrong. As he wrote in a New York Times Op-Ed: “We don’t take political positions in return for advertising. If we signed the pledge, I believe, we’d be signing away our right to freedom of conscience. And as journalists, we would be unworthy of the protections granted us under the First Amendment.”
As the Supreme Court weighs whether to hear the case, we’re bracing ourselves for the implications. It’s become clear that these laws target more than just those advocating for Palestinian rights. Israel-focused anti-boycott laws have already been used as a template to ban boycotts on several other issues. There are now copycat bills, using nearly identical language, targeting boycotts of fossil fuels, firearms and other industries. (See our legislative tracker for what’s currently in play around the country and to see if your state is impacted.)
It’s not only advocacy for the environment, gun safety and Palestinian rights that stands on the line — but the very right to wield boycotts as a form of political expression. We’re also fully aware that anti-boycott laws are the tip of the iceberg: across the country, states – backed by corporate lobbyists and right-wing coalitions – are passing anti-protest laws designed to punish and, in some cases, criminalize political organizing and dissent.
We’re watching this story carefully, whether the Supreme Court hears it or not. But we’re also clear-eyed – the power to affect real, tangible change lies not in the courts, but in the hands of the people. We will continue to amplify those at the front lines, to ensure that our right to voice dissent is sacrosanct and fully protected.
Executive Director & President, Just Vision