The Death of Debate on Palestine and Israel

Since the Hamas attack on Oct. 7 and subsequent war in Gaza, discussion of the conflict has been shut down like never before

The Death of Debate on Palestine and Israel
A protester leans from a window of Hamilton Hall at Columbia University in New York City in April 2024. (Mary Altaffer-Pool/Getty Images)

In its March 21 edition, the London Review of Books (LRB), Britain’s foremost literary journal, published a 7,503-word cover essay with a provocative title: “The Shoah After Gaza.” Its author, the Indian essayist and novelist Pankaj Mishra, cited Jewish and Israeli thinkers in an argument about the Israeli establishment’s exploitation of the Holocaust for political purposes. Mishra argued that the Shoah, the Hebrew term for the genocide of the Jews, needed rescuing for the sake of humanity, its “universalist reference points” protected.

The essay was the text of a lecture that Mishra had been scheduled to deliver at the end of February in the Barbican, the sprawling brutalist arts complex in central London. But a few weeks prior, with the Gaza conflict edging into its fifth month and the death toll climbing past 20,000 (the Gaza Health Ministry estimated the death toll at over 35,000 as of April 30), the venue backed away from hosting the event. Management blamed premature publicity and the sensitivity of the topic, claiming in a statement that it had not had enough time to “consider how to hold the events with care, or to do the preparation they would need.”

For Mishra, the truth was obvious: A “pervasive sense of fear and panic,” he told The Guardian, in a piece published Feb. 6, was closing down debate on Israel and Palestine.

Since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel and Israel’s ensuing military onslaught on Gaza, discussion and debate on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have been shut down like never before. With the war playing out on social media (also like never before), the discourse has polarized and flattened. Mutually exclusive narratives breed distrust and denialism. And in incident after incident, those who speak out — about the brutalities of the war, about starvation in Gaza, about the horrors of Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack, about Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories — face backlash, censure or worse from those who disagree with them.

The heavy-handed responses to campus protests in the U.S. are only the latest example. On April 17, students at Columbia University in the City of New York set up an encampment outside Butler Library to demonstrate against Israel’s operation in Gaza. The following day Minouche Shafik, the university’s president — fresh from testifying at a congressional hearing on antisemitism — sent in the police. Shafik said that the protest had created a “harassing and intimidating environment” for other students and accused the protesters of trespassing and refusing to leave. The NYPD entered the campus in riot gear, arresting more than 100 students. Footage swirling around social media inspired dozens more protest camps around the country, with police making further arrests at several other universities — including Yale, Princeton, New York University and UCLA. The following week saw similar protests in the U.K., inspired by the action across the Atlantic. Students are demanding a cease-fire, arms embargoes against Israel, boycotts, and divestment of endowments from companies linked to the war in Gaza. The 1968 protests against the Vietnam War are a ready comparison.

The reactions of university administrators and police is a manifestation of the vanishing space for discourse on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, mirrored online. While there have been some reports of antisemitism and support for Hamas, university administrations have not attempted to mediate or encourage dialogue within the student body. What will be the effect of this response for academic freedom beyond Gaza protests?

Dov Waxman, professor of Israel studies at UCLA, is a Jewish scholar of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; on April 27 he posted on X (formerly Twitter) that, while he disagreed with positions represented by some of the organizations involved in the protests (such as a lack of criticism of Hamas), he supported the rights of students to peaceful protest: “I do not want these protest camps to be removed by the police, whose propensity for unnecessary and excessive use of force is well-established.”

Dana El Kurd, a Palestinian-American academic currently on sabbatical from the University of Richmond, told New Lines via email that “the reactions to these protests speak to the inability of those in power to contend with the hard questions that continue to animate the violence in Israel/Palestine. They would rather crack down, or call for crackdown, on a bunch of young people than allow that conversation to take place.” Recalling a proud tradition of protest at Columbia, Palestinian-American academic Rashid Khalidi, professor of modern Arab studies at the university, said in a statement that limiting student protest is “obscene.”

This recent escalation has long roots. Mishra had never experienced any type of cancellation before the incident with his speech at the Barbican, but that “pervasive sense of panic” certainly predated Oct. 7. In response to questions New Lines sent by email, he wrote: “A cancel culture has long existed in Western institutions around the fear of hearing the truth about Israel-Palestine — about the grim facts of the Occupation, its enforcement by fundamentalists in Israel and enabling by liberal and centrist Westerners.” He added: “That culture is now more widely prevalent today, this time as a desperate and last-ditch effort to preserve the old modes of disciplining and punishing heretics.”

The very online nature of this war has changed things, too. Social media has aggravated “certain binary modes of thinking,” Mishra explained. “But the battle for intellectual hegemony is fiercer now because the Israeli regime is too obviously out of control and … we are witnessing a dramatic transformation in the way this subject is discussed and will be discussed.”

This climate since Oct. 7 is “clearly a culmination of existing dynamics,” Yair Wallach, a historian of modern Palestine/Israel at SOAS in London, told New Lines via email. In Europe and North America, “the challenge of distinguishing between diaspora Jews and Israel, and between Israelis as victims (which was very real on Oct. 7) and Israel’s military campaign, often results in shutting down discussion or in simplistic responses.”

The response to British Jewish film director Jonathan Glazer’s intervention at the Oscars is one such example. On March 10 Glazer accepted an Oscar for best international film for “The Zone of Interest” — a film about complicity in genocide, set in Auschwitz — with a pronouncement on the Gaza war. Visibly shaking, a piece of paper in one hand, Glazer, alongside a number of colleagues, declared: “We stand here as men who refute their Jewishness and the Holocaust being hijacked by an occupation which has led to conflict for so many innocent people, whether the victims of Oct. 7 in Israel or the ongoing attack in Gaza.”

With an immediacy typical of our very online era, onlookers reacted to the phrase “refute their Jewishness” practically in isolation, accusing Glazer of “refuting” his very identity as a Jew. Not long after the ceremony, more than 1,200 Jews working in Hollywood signed an open letter denouncing him. “We refute our Jewishness being hijacked for the purpose of drawing a moral equivalence” between Nazi Germany and Israel, they wrote, adding that using the word occupation “distorts history.” And the storm continued. Almost a month later, a new letter in support of Glazer was signed by more than 150 Jewish professionals in the movie industry, also calling for a permanent cease-fire in Gaza.

Less obviously political interventions have been met with furor, too. In March, a personal essay by Israeli writer and translator Joanna Chen led to as many as 15 volunteer editorial staffers resigning from Guernica magazine; in response, the U.S.-based outlet retracted the essay. In “From the Edges of a Broken World” — which was subsequently published by the Washington Monthly — Chen, who volunteers to drive Palestinian children from Gaza and the West Bank to hospitals in Israel for medical treatment — wrote about trying to find understanding with Palestinians as an Israeli Jew in the aftermath of Oct. 7. Madhuri Sastry, a co-publisher who quit the magazine over the piece, published a post on X explaining her decision: “It is, among many other things, a hand-wringing apologia for Zionism and the ongoing genocide in Palestine. I am deeply ashamed to see this piece in Guernica’s pages, and sincerely apologize to writers, readers and supporters who feel betrayed by this decision.”

The fallout continued the following month. On April 5, Jina Moore Ngarambe resigned as editor-in-chief of the magazine over the incident. “After weeks of difficult conversation, it is clear to me that Guernica’s space for writing on war, injustice, and oppression has evolved away from commitments I consider essential,” she posted on X.

The case was unusual in that the majority of the examples of silencing in the past six months have been of Palestinians or pro-Palestinian voices. Chen was aware that not everyone would agree with her views, but she was not expecting mass resignations or the “media blitz that followed,” she wrote in an email response to questions from New Lines. She didn’t take the backlash personally, she said, adding that the responses were the fallout from “tunnel vision” that affects many people on social media. This has made people “unwilling or unable to consider opinions or experiences that do not mirror their own.”

Dehumanization, a feature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, was another factor. Chen was criticized, for instance, “for expressing fear in my essay. But people are afraid. … There is so much hatred around, so much suspicion, that it’s hard to acknowledge that the other side is also in pain or experiencing severe difficulties. I’m talking less about my essay and more about the situation in general.”

In Germany, meanwhile, the country’s particular history and relationship to Israel have led to repeated cancellations of Palestinian voices or those critical of Israel. German authorities are stricter than other Western nations when it comes to the presence at protests of certain slogans and symbols deemed as inciting hatred or violence. Since November, for instance, chanting the slogan “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” at protests has been a criminal offense, a step no other Western nation has taken.

But cancellations more generally have not necessarily been linked to any lawbreaking. In October, the Frankfurt Book Fair postponed an award ceremony for the Palestinian author Adania Shibli as well as a planned discussion of her work with the German translator of her prize-winning novel, “Minor Detail.” LitProm, the literary society handing out the prize, cited “the war started by Hamas, under which millions of people in Israel and Palestine are suffering,” as the reason. The decision, announced mere days after the Oct. 7 attack, sparked opprobrium. Hundreds of writers, publishers, editors and translators signed an open letter in protest. “At a time when the fair has issued a statement saying it wants to make Israeli voices ‘especially visible at the fair,’ they are closing out the space for a Palestinian voice.”

In December, the Heinrich Boell Foundation rescinded the Hannah Arendt Award for Political Thought it had awarded to Masha Gessen, the prominent Russian-American journalist who is a staff writer for The New Yorker. The reason: Gessen had written an article that compared the situation in Gaza to the Nazi ghettos in Europe. The foundation later reinstated the prize, albeit in a scaled-down version. The debacle would remain “a stain on Germany’s public culture,” the moral philosopher Susan Neiman wrote at the time.

The open source “Archive of Silence” has cataloged 133 incidents of “cancellation and silencing” in Germany of Palestinian or pro-Palestinian voices since Oct. 7, including the two mentioned here. The archive, which is run by an independent collective, commented via email that this phenomenon has “been ongoing since way before then.” The authorities in Germany are trying to exclude terms like genocide and apartheid from the debate, said Wallach: “In the face of starvation and tens of thousands of casualties, they cancel speaker after speaker. This is unsustainable.”

As the space for discussion shrinks in Western states outside the conflict, in Israel a clampdown by the authorities is severely limiting freedom of expression. Over the past six months, it has become impossible for critics of the war to speak out, or even to express solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza on social media or at demonstrations, especially if they are Palestinian or Arab citizens of Israel.

A report by Adalah, the legal center for Arab minority rights in Israel, updated in November, details a “draconian crackdown” against Palestinian citizens in particular. Measures curtailing the right to free speech include “punitive measures” against higher education students, Palestinian workers being fired or suspended, mass arrests and detentions over social media posts, the outlawing of solidarity protests with Palestinians in Gaza, suppression of speech by Palestinian lawyers “and incitement against representatives of Palestinian political parties, and even suspensions of Members of Knesset” (the Israeli Parliament).

In Israel, academia has become fraught terrain. Adalah is representing 95 students at more than 33 Israeli academic institutions who have been subjected to disciplinary procedures over social media posts (including simply quoting verses from the Quran and prayers for peace). They are also representing some of the 150 Palestinian citizens facing criminal indictments, in cases brought by the state under Israel’s 2016 Counterterrorism Law, over social media posts.

University lecturers, Jewish and Palestinian, have also been in the firing line. In March, the tenured Hebrew University professor Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian was suspended from teaching because she made what the university terms “divisive statements,” calling for Zionism to be abolished and making remarks that were interpreted as denying that women were raped on Oct. 7. By the end of the month, she was reinstated, with the rector, Tamir Sheafer, stating that Shalhoub-Kevorkian had clarified she did not doubt the victims of Hamas’ sexual violence. On April 18 police arrested the academic on suspicion of incitement to terrorism and detained her overnight in jail, but the presiding judge at her arraignment declined to allow prosecutors to pursue her case.

One Israeli Jewish academic currently based in France (who preferred to remain nameless) told New Lines that the clampdown on pro-Palestine speech in Israeli academia is far worse since Oct. 7. They noted at least two further examples of Jewish lecturers who have been targeted by mass student petitions and protests calling for their suspension over criticism of the war and expressions of solidarity with Palestinians under fire.

In mid-November I spoke with Mohammad Darawshe, a Palestinian citizen of Israel who has spent decades working for coexistence. Darawshe’s 23-year-old cousin was killed on Oct. 7; he was a paramedic at the Nova music festival. In those early weeks of the war, Darawshe was already describing a climate of fear in the aftermath of Hamas’ attack and the silencing of the Arab population. People were losing their jobs over social media posts. “Arab citizens aren’t going to protests because they are scared, scared of this being used against us,” he told me back then. “We shut our mouths, swallow our hearts and our tongues, crying quietly about what we are seeing in Gaza.”

We spoke again in April. Darawshe was in London with his son, on a holiday to see the soccer team Manchester United in two matches. In a phone call from his hotel room, his son’s voice audible in the background, Darawshe confirmed that the “witch hunt and McCarthyism had continued” with six months of “police repression,” alongside a more general distancing between Jews and Arabs, since the war began.

Darawshe’s 21-year-old daughter is one of the students who has been victimized. Before Oct. 7, a group of Jewish students at her college in Israel had complained to the administration that she was carrying a bag decorated with a map of Israel/Palestine and the phrase “I love her” in Arabic. The students complained to the administration that they were scared the young woman might be carrying a knife. Then, in January this year, the same Jewish peers reported her to the administration for social media posts. She had posted prayers over the war in Gaza; the students alleged she might be supporting terrorism. The college administration reported this to the police. The following morning, 15 police officers came to Darawshe’s home. They searched it, “turning the place upside down,” before taking her to a police station for four hours of questioning. During the interrogations, a police officer threatened the student, who is a Hebrew-speaking native-born citizen of Israel, with inclusion in a hostage and prisoner exchange deal with Hamas that would mean her deportation to Gaza.

Darawshe’s daughter was put under house arrest for five days and kept away from college for some weeks. With legal representation the family was able to appeal and prove there was no case against her. But the criminal case is still open, he said, meaning that by law she could not, for example, work as a kindergarten teacher or a bus driver. “It was just a libel about nothing,” he said. Israeli Jews who criticize the war may face backlash, said Darawshe, but they don’t “risk any punishment, they have freedom of expression. Arabs don’t.”

We are in “a moment of utter dehumanization,” said Wallach, the professor at SOAS. It is a moment with no shades of gray. In countries like the U.K., the U.S. and Germany, people are shutting their eyes and ears to different points of view. It is a challenge to the discourse needed for healthy democracy — as well as to any future resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In Israel, the repression, particularly of Palestinian citizens, is evidence of a breakdown of the institutions of democracy, too, but here the costs for individuals are far greater. What Israel once did only in the West Bank, only to Palestinians living under military occupation, it is now doing to Palestinians who are full citizens of the state.

After the Barbican backed out of hosting Mishra’s talk, the LRB found an alternate venue. He gave his lecture on Feb. 28, and heard nothing further from the Barbican. “I suspect we are unlikely to be told the real motivation behind this cancellation,” he said. The truth would be too shameful.” As the war continues, with the death toll mounting, Palestinians starving in Gaza, more than 100 hostages still in the hands of Hamas, and conflict escalating between Israel and Iran, the space for real dialogue has shrunk so much that it has practically disappeared.

And what is the ultimate outcome of this death of debate?

On April 9, Verso, the leftist publishing house, ran an astonishing piece on its online blog, titled “Palestine Speaks for Everyone.” In a long essay, the U.S. academic Jodi Dean wrote of the “exhilarating” images of Hamas paragliders entering Israel from the air on Oct. 7. She lambasted left-wing intellectuals for not following “the leadership of the Palestinian left in supporting Hamas.” She wrote her article, and her editors published it, knowing full well the horrors that came next, in Israel, Gaza, East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Dean has since been relieved of her teaching duties while Hobart and William Smith Colleges investigate her writings. She remains on full salary as a tenured professor but still claims to be the victim of “McCarthyism.”

If debate dies, what is left but the spreading of denialism? What is left but unchallenged justifications for extreme violence?

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