The Palestinian blinkers that liberals don

Contrary to what they proclaim, they discard their belief in freedom of speech and the rule of law when it concerns either Palestinians or their supporters around the world.

Liberals believe everyone has a right to speak unless they want rights for Palestinians. They also believe in the rule of law – as long as it doesn’t get in the way of support for the Israeli state. 

Many critics of liberalism insist that it pretends to champion rights for everyone but is really a set of Western prejudices. Liberals insist they are being unfairly maligned: the freedoms they proclaim are, they insist, for everyone. Whether that is so is hotly debated. What is clear is that, right now, liberals do not much care whether these freedoms are enjoyed by Palestinians or those who support their cause. 

Freedom of speech is meant to be a cornerstone of liberalism and so is the rule of law. This does not mean that only people with whom you agree are free to speak and must be protected by the law. Rights are for everyone, whether or not we agree with them. But liberals don’t seem to mind that they are increasingly unavailable to Palestinians and their allies.

Right now, several Western countries are using the law to restrict the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which favours a boycott of the Israeli state until it recognises the rights of Palestinians. The worst example is France, which has used a 19th-century law restricting criticism of foreign governments to prosecute BDS activists (a person has been jailed for wearing a BDS T-shirt). The most active is the United States, where more than 30 states have passed anti-BDS laws. In just about all cases, they forbid the state to do business with a company or entity that supports BDS. In Britain, the government seeks to use the law to prevent elected local governments from boycotting the Israeli state.

All these measures violate liberal principles. Calling for – and working for – boycotts is a basic exercise of liberal rights. In liberals’ idea of a free society, anyone is entitled to advocate any action that does not violate the rights of others. A boycott does not violate the rights of its target, it simply advises people to take their business elsewhere. Freedom of choice in the marketplace is also a core liberal idea. We are all entitled to trade – or not trade – with whomever we choose and to urge others to make the same choice. 

Applying the muzzle

The US and UK variants don’t usually directly muzzle people, but they do, in different ways, violate liberal principles. While liberals support freedom of choice for individuals, governments are not meant to refuse to use a supplier simply because they don’t like its political opinions. In liberal democracies, it is considered corrupt for states to give business only to political allies, so why is it any less corrupt to deny it to political opponents? The British government seeks to tell an elected local government that it cannot refuse to trade with companies even if that is what its voters want.

The US measures do sometimes violate individuals’ rights. In Texas, a Palestinian speech pathologist lost her job because the local school district insisted she sign an oath promising not to boycott or inflict any harm on the state of Israel. Germany’s parliament has passed a resolution that calls on institutions and public authorities to deny funding and facilities to citizens’ groups and organisations that support BDS. In one notorious case, it was used against a group of Israelis who happened to be opposed to the ideology that underpins their state.

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There has been little resistance to this from liberals. Public interest lawyers have successfully challenged some of the US measures in court (they clearly breach the US Constitution). Some liberal politicians have been pressured to mumble that banning free speech is a problem before they turn their attention to other issues. In Germany, cultural institutions have opposed the restrictions. But there have been no great liberal campaigns for free speech and the right to trade and work for Palestinian activists and their allies. 

This is shocking but not surprising, as the liberal belief in principles such as free speech and individual rights regardless of race or religion doesn’t seem to apply to Palestine. This is certainly so in the academy, where liberals who loudly espouse human rights and free speech everywhere suspend these principles when Palestinians claim them. Liberal academics and commentators are passionate about democracy and liberty in many parts of the world, but not for Palestinians.

Would liberals support laws that outlawed campaigns against Iran or China? Would they be comfortable if local governments were forced to do business with both countries, and companies were barred from doing business with the state if they did not want to buy Iranian or Chinese goods? Obviously not. But liberals don’t seem to mind if laws like this protect the state of Israel and so side with it against Palestinians.

Blind spot

In this country, there are no attempts to ban free speech on Palestine. But the liberal blind spot applies here too. South African liberals tend to support the Israeli state and suspend liberal principles to do so. Tony Leon and former DA member of Parliament Douglas Gibson have been firm supporters of Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng’s utterances in support of the Israeli state. Gibson made the strange claim that the judge had only supported Israel and not said anything nasty about Palestinians, which is a little like saying that apartheid’s fans were supporting white people, not dumping on Black people.

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It could be argued that they are supporting the chief justice’s liberal right to free speech. This would be more credible if they were defending someone whose opinions they oppose. If he had endorsed Palestinian demands, they would surely accuse him of abusing his office. But both chose to ignore his reason for refusing to retract his statement – he believes that, as a Christian, he is loyal to a higher law than that of humans. This means, of course, that he believes that the Constitution he interprets is not the highest law. How would liberals react if the chief justice insisted that Islamic shari’ah law trumped human laws?

Most liberals ignore violation of their principles by the Israeli state and its supporters because they take its side. This, on its own, could be seen as a double standard – liberals are surely not supposed to support the idea of a state for one ethnic group in a place where there are several. But it pales into insignificance next to liberal refusal to condemn violations of core liberal values such as freedom of speech and of trade. 

The whole point of these rights, liberals like to point out, is that they must be enjoyed by those with whom we disagree. There is no basis in liberal belief for bans on free political speech for those campaigning for a boycott of the Israeli state. Nor is there any liberal principle that allows judges to insist that they are loyal to a higher law than a democratic constitution. 

Liberal rights are for everyone or they are for no one. Until liberals begin defending the rights of Palestinians and the BDS movement, they have no cause to complain when they are dismissed as peddlers of a Western tribal ideology.

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