The Madison-Rafah Sister City Project

James Zogby: Silencing Debate

October 30, 2023
Dr. James J. Zogby ©
Arab American Institute

In recent years, US pro-Israel groups have been pursuing a multi-pronged strategy designed to stifle discourse about Israeli policy and Palestinian rights. They have done so because for the past three decades there has been an erosion of support for Israel, coupled with growing support for Palestinians.

Back in the bad old days of the 1970s, pro-Israel groups ruled the roost. Individuals and groups who supported Palestinian rights were excluded from political coalitions, fired from their positions, blocked from speaking at university events, and had their contributions returned by political candidates. Members of Congress who dared to speak out were smeared and targeted for defeat.  

Attitudes began to change with the first intifada, and then later with the Madrid peace process that culminated in the Oslo Accords. The power of intimidation lost steam and an open discussion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict began.  

The next three decades witnessed ups and downs (mostly the latter) in the peace process—and the debate over Israeli/Palestinian issues continued. The increasingly aggressive and brutal behaviors by and greater scrutiny of Israeli government policies resulted in a steady shift in US public opinion. Today, majorities in both parties support tying US aid to Israel to its human rights violations, and by a significant margin Democrats now have a more favorable view of Palestinians than they do of Israelis.  

This change has been reflected in an increasing number of supporters of Palestinian rights running for Congress and winning. It has also emboldened students—including Arab Americans, Black Americans, Asian Americans, Muslims, and a significant number of young progressive Jews, who cannot reconcile their faith’s values with Israel’s dehumanization and oppression of Palestinians—to engage in pro-Palestinian actions on college campuses. This shift in opinion has created a crisis for the hardline pro-Israel groups, resulting in a renewed effort to silence critics of Israel.  

Reactions to the current round of violence has exposed the depth of the divisions in attitudes toward Palestine/Israel, while adding impetus to pro-Israel groups’ efforts to silence debate. Given the widespread public outrage at Hamas’ actions, these groups saw an opportunity to accelerate their repressive agenda.   


The tactics undertaken have included the following: the expanded use of well-funded political committees to smear and defeat progressive candidates who are critical of Israeli policies; passing legislation or securing executive orders penalizing supporters of the effort to boycott, divest, or sanction Israel over its violations of Palestinian rights, and expanding the definition of antisemitism to include legitimate criticism of Israeli policies; pressuring major corporations, law firms, and universities to accept this expanded definition of antisemitism and have their employees commit to adherence to this policy; and targeting and smearing individuals and groups that have been critical of Israel or supportive of Palestinian rights.  

Within days of the Hamas attacks, colleges and universities and organizations and major corporations were pressed to denounce the attacks and to refer to them as antisemitic. Many did. Those who hesitated were denounced. As the days wore on and it became clear how many Palestinian civilians were dying from Israeli strikes throughout Gaza, some universities or organizations sought to issue more balanced statements expressing concern for both Israeli and Palestinian civilians. They were also denounced as antisemitic by pro-Israel groups for making “false comparisons.” 

When campus student groups called out repressive Israeli policies in Gaza both before and after the Hamas assaults, pro-Israel groups painted the students as pro-Hamas and advocates for terror. In some instances, the student groups were threatened with having their charters revoked and being forced to disband. And in a few well-publicized cases, law students who were identified as participating in pro-Palestinian actions were notified that job offers they had received from prominent law firms were being rescinded. There has also been activity in Congress to pass resolutions expanding the definition of antisemitism to include legitimate criticism of Israel, despite the well-founded concern that this constitutes a violation of free speech. 

There are two social forces at work here, each pulling and pushing in opposite directions. On the one hand, there is the ongoing fracturing of the US body politic’s attitudes toward Israel/Palestine.  On the other side, there is the widespread public horror over the behavior of Hamas that is being seen by some pro-Israel groups as an opportunity to advance their agenda to silence the emerging debate over Palestinian rights. 

Three weeks after the Hamas attacks, the state of play appears to be that the initial revulsion has been somewhat offset by shock as the toll of the devastation wrought by Israel’s massive retaliation against Gaza continues to grow.  

While Hamas’ massacres did not advance the cause of Palestinians’ supporters (nor has the careless and offensive language used by some of the pro-Palestinian student groups), neither has Israel’s unrelenting bombing of Gaza served the cause of stifling debate sought by Israel’s supporters.  

Despite the huge investment in resources and political capital by the pro-Israel groups, and the number of people who have been and will continue to be harmed by their assault on free speech, they will lose. They may continue, for a time, to intimidate members of Congress and silence some debate, but changes in public opinion will continue. In fact, the very heavy-handed tactics used by the pro-Israel groups are already creating discomfort with their approach to silencing debate and defending the indefensible. 

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Arab American Institute. The Arab American Institute is a non-profit, nonpartisan national leadership organization that does not endorse candidates.

Note: To discuss this column with me, please register here for my next ‘Coffee And A Column’ event Wednesday via Zoom.

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Washington, DC 20006
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James Zogby
Arab American Institute
1600 K Street, NW, Suite 601
Washington, DC 20006





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