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Campaign to Demonize Palestinian Advocacy Shows Cracks at Columbia and in Courts

The double standards have become stark as leaders fail to condemn a chemical attack against a Columbia ceasefire rally.

A person speaks at a rally in support of Palestine and for free speech at Columbia University on November 14, 2023, in New York City.

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The Supreme Court quietly declined on Monday to consider a lawsuit against the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights (USCPR) brought by an Israeli Zionist group called the Jewish National Fund (JNF) and U.S. citizens living in Israel. The federal lawsuit, first filed in 2019, claimed that USCPR provided “material support” for “terrorism” allegedly linked to Hamas in the Gaza Strip, but the complaint was roundly dismissed by multiple courts in recent years for lack of evidence.

The lawsuit’s failure at the highest echelon of the U.S. legal system is a victory for Palestinian rights activists and the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, which has been legally suppressed in the U.S. for putting financial pressure on the Israeli government to end the occupation of Palestine and respect human rights. However, the lawsuit is part of a much broader smear campaign that has exploded in scope since Israel decided to wage its ruthless war on Gaza rather than negotiate a prisoner exchange with Hamas after Israeli civilians were taken hostage during the October 7 surprise attacks.

Since October, the far right Israeli government and its supporters in the U.S. have conflated a wave of pro-Palestine and antiwar protests with “terrorism,” “antisemitism” and “genocide” in what critics say is a blatant attempt to dehumanize and discredit the Palestinian cause while silencing constitutionally protected forms of activism, including boycotts and campus protests. It’s the same playbook deployed by the JNF and allied Zionist groups that filed briefs in support of the now-defunct lawsuit against the USCPR and the BDS movement back in 2019.

Ahmad Abuznaid, the executive director of USCPR, said the accusations routinely lodged by Zionists against Palestinian rights activists would almost be comical if an actual genocide were not underway in Gaza, where more than 25,000 people have died in Israel’s relentless campaign of bombing and besiegement. After all, USCPR’s mission is to end funding for genocide and secure “justice for all” in Palestine and Israel, Abuznaid said.

“Yes, we’ve seen these sorts of attacks before, since they can’t counter our arguments, which are based in facts, logic and a sincere defense of human rights, they launch attacks to stifle the debate,” Abuznaid told Truthout in an interview. “The masses reject this notion and support a ceasefire and a free Palestine.”

The JNF is a quasi-state organization that acquires and administers land for the “sole benefit” of Jewish Israelis, according to the Center for Constitutional Rights, which represented USCPR in the case. The defendants previously participated in a “Stop the JNF” campaign that highlighted the group’s discriminatory practices against Arab Israelis, but the lawsuit also attempted to shape the narrative around the Great March of Return of 2018.

The Great March of Return was a series of protests that saw thousands of Palestinians in Gaza march on Israel’s infamous border wall to demand an end to the economic blockade of the enclave and ensure the right of return for refugees who were forced from their homes by Israeli occupiers in the decades prior. The protests were largely nonviolent and unarmed, but there were reports of thrown rocks, burned tires and what the JNF calls “incendiary terror balloons and kites.”

As protests continued for weeks, a small group of protesters released balloons tied to burning rags toward Israel. The protesters called the balloons “distress signals” from inside Gaza, where an Israeli blockade devastates the economy and much of the population is trapped behind a militarized border wall with little or no freedom of movement. The balloons caused no injuries but damaged some agricultural land with apparent ties to the JNF, which is one of the largest private landowners in Israel.

In contrast, the Israeli military responded to the 2018 protests with brute and deadly force, firing tear gas, rubber-coated bullets and live rounds directly into large crowds of people. Of the more than 6,000 people who were shot, 183 died, and the number of wounded demonstrators reached a staggering 13,000. Many were women and children, and 39 journalists were shot by live fire, including two who died from their injuries, according to the United Nations.

As images of Israeli soldiers shooting at peaceful protesters demanding freedom provoked international outrage, the pro-Israel lobby and its allies in the U.S. media diverted attention with sensational reports on the so-called terror balloons that harmed no one. In the federal lawsuit, JNF accused USCPR of providing “material support” for the balloons via Hamas, citing USCPR’s support for the BDS movement and the Great March of Return. In dismissing the lawsuit in 2021, a federal judge wrote that the lawsuit’s arguments were “to say the least, not persuasive.”

“The JNF’s accusations were baseless, as recognized by the district court, the court of appeals, and now confirmed by the Supreme Court,” said Diala Shamas, a senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, in a statement. “This is an important victory, but USCPR shouldn’t have been subjected to these smears in the first place.”

The narratives behind Zionist smear campaigns — that all Palestinians are guilty of terrorism by association, and their demands for justice and freedom are inherently dangerous — was again turned on its head last week at what began as a peaceful protest at Columbia University demanding a ceasefire in Gaza. At least eight students were hospitalized after being sprayed with a foul-smelling chemical that made them sick, according to student organizers and news reports. Several other students sought medical treatment or reported damaged property after the smell remained on their clothes for days.

Some student activists believe the attackers are former Israeli soldiers who sprayed them with “skunk,” a putrid chemical irritant deployed against protesters in Palestine as a form of collective punishment. A law enforcement investigation of has yet to confirm this account but remains ongoing. Columbia administrators said on Sunday that two “alleged perpetrators” were banned from campus as the school investigates “serious crimes, possibly hate crimes.” The university did not release the identities of the alleged attackers, and New York police reportedly declined to investigate the attack as a hate crime because it occurred at a political event.

Along with other elite institutions, Columbia University became a flashpoint fueled by obsessive coverage of pro-Palestine protests in the conservative media, where student activists are routinely cast as Hamas or “terrorist” sympathizers. In November, under intense pressure from the corporate media and megadonors, Columbia administrators suspended the campus chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) for holding unauthorized protests, a move that fed the flames of the raucous national debate over “safety” and “free speech” on college campuses.

Chapters of SJP and JVP organize protests across the nation, and at Columbia, the groups reorganized under a different banner and continued holding actions demanding a ceasefire in Gaza. After being accused of “antisemitism” and endorsing the “genocide” of Jewish people for months (despite many organizers being Jewish), the students called out a “double standard” reflecting years of suppression efforts aimed at Palestinian rights activists in the U.S. In a statement on Monday following the chemical attack, the Columbia chapters of SJP and JVP wrote:

This hateful assault came after months of Columbia viciously targeting and repressing Palestinian student advocacy, contributing to a hostile environment that dangerously emboldens violent attacks like these, during a time when violent hate crimes against Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim Americans are surging. The administration must repair the damage it has done.

Meanwhile, U.S. elected officials — who were quick to haul university presidents before Congress in McCarthyite hearings intended to smear and silence Palestinian student advocacy — so far have nothing to say of the two former Israeli soldiers who just attacked dozens of U.S. students on an American college campus with an illegal chemical-based weapon. The double standard is clear. Who will protect students who are advocating for safety and freedom for Palestinians?

Abuznaid said the contradictions in the debate are obvious for anyone willing to see. When student protesters chant “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” they are accused of supporting the “genocide” of Jewish people, when in reality, he said, they are calling for an end to the Israeli police state’s occupation and equal political rights for both Palestinians and Israelis.

“[Activists] are demanding equal rights, justice and self-determination from ‘the river to the sea,’ but the only way you can defeat that argument on the Palestinian side is with allegations of hateful antisemitic aspirations,” Abuznaid said.

Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is rejecting President Joe Biden’s calls for a two-state solution and insisting that Israel is entitled to control all lands “from the river to the sea” — including Gaza and the West Bank — while his military faces serious international accusations of ethnic cleansing and literal genocide for destroying Gaza. As Palestinian rights activists often say, “Every accusation is an admission.”

“It’s a way of muddying the debate, and that is the only way the pro-Israel side is able to counter the Palestinian argument for freedom, by throwing so much mud, lies and accusations at the other side — the attempt is to make us look just as muddy as them,” Abuznaid said.

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