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Pro-Palestinian views face suppression in US amid Israel-Hamas war

Widespread attempts to suppress pro-Palestinian views in the US after the Hamas attack on Israel have forced the cancellation of major conferences, prompted demands for the dismissal of workers who express support for Palestinians and led to intimidation campaigns against Arab American voices critical of Israeli policies.

Earlier this week, a leading US Jewish group forced the cancellation of a major Palestinian campaign organisation’s national conference by alleging it was a front for Hamas, which killed more than 1,400 Israelis and abducted about 200 people in its attack from Gaza.

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Palestinian American activists say television networks also have censored or cancelled interviews. Public radio in the US and the BBC pulled advertising for a widely praised new book about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict after a campaign of “listener complaints”.

The Orthodox Jewish Chamber of Commerce has declared a “victory” after pressuring Hilton hotels into cancelling the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights event in Houston later this month at which the congresswoman Rashida Tlaib was to be the main speaker.

Duvi Honig, the chamber’s founder and CEO, publicly denounced the USCPR meeting as “a conference for Hamas supporters” and called Tlaib and other speakers “notoriously proud Jew-haters”. Honig’s message was reposted repeatedly on social media –with contact details for Hilton’s president, Christopher Nassetta – where it gained traction, with the USPCR being falsely accused of supporting statements by more marginal groups praising the Hamas attack.

Ahmad Abuznaid, director of the USCPR, a coalition of more than 300 groups opposed to the occupation, said the conference venue was booked months ago and that Hilton contacted him shortly after the Hamas attack to discuss security.

“They said they were receiving a lot of calls to cancel, people pressuring them, but that the hotel takes no position on politics and just wants to put a security plan in place,” he said.

There was no conversation. They just unilaterally decided to cancel

Ahmad Abuznaid

Abuznaid said Hilton presented a $100,000 bill for security and gave the group 48 hours to pay.

“Obviously that’s an enormous amount for an organisation like ours but we were not deterred. And then the next day we got the email that they were cancelling. They just said that security was the reason. There was no conversation. They just unilaterally decided to cancel,” he said.

Abuznaid called the move unjust and discriminatory.

The chamber of commerce, based in New York, said the cancellation demonstrated the power of Jewish community groups “standing united against terrorism”.

“By raising awareness and mobilizing public opinion, they effectively conveyed the potential harm associated with hosting a group that supports terror,” it said.

The hotel did not respond to a request for comment.

Supporters of Jewish Voice for Peace stage a protest on the National Mall in Washington DC on Wednesday.Supporters of Jewish Voice for Peace stage a protest on the National Mall in Washington DC on Wednesday. Photograph: Will Oliver/EPA

The Texas governor, Greg Abbott, threw his support behind the cancellation.

“Texas has no room for hate & antisemitism like that supported by Hamas. No location in Texas should host or sponsor USCPR,” he posted on X.

The chamber is also campaigning to have Starbucks close stores and dismiss thousands of workers “who support Hamas” after their union posted a statement on X saying “Solidarity with Palestine”. The chamber has launched a boycott of the coffee chain under the slogan: “Drinking a cup of Starbucks Is Drinking a Cup of Jewish Blood.”

Starbucks said it would be illegal to close the stores in response to the post but it did agree to file a lawsuit against the union to prevent it using the name “Starbucks Workers United” and the company’s logo.

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Abuznaid said the campaign to pressure Hilton and other companies was not new but had escalated since the Hamas assault.

“This is an old playbook to attack proponents of the Palestinian cause. Accusations of antisemitism, accusations of support for terrorism, accusations of being terrorists. However, what feels different in this moment is the misinformation and attacks on activists across the US is at a heightened pitch that we have not seen in recent years,” he said.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (Cair) said it had cancelled its annual banquet in Arlington, Virginia, on Saturday after receiving bomb threats. Cair, which describes itself as the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization, said it called off the event after talks with the Marriott hotel that has hosted the dinner for more than a decade.

We will not allow the threats of anti-Palestinian racists and anti-Muslim bigots … to stop us from pursuing justice for all

Council on American-Islamic Relations

“In recent days, according to the Marriott, anonymous callers have threatened to plant bombs in the hotel’s parking garage, kill specific hotel staff in their homes, and storm the hotel in a repeat of the January 6 attack on the US Capitol if the events moved forward,” it said.

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Cair said it had secured alternative premises but was not making the location public.

“We will not allow the threats of anti-Palestinian racists and anti-Muslim bigots who seek to dehumanize the Palestinian people and silence American Muslims to stop us from pursuing justice for all,” it said.

Palestinian American activists say the cancellation of the conferences is part of a wider campaign by hardline Israel supporters, at times exploiting the extreme rhetoric of some student and leftwing groups celebrating or excusing the Hamas killings, to shut down views critical of Israel and the part its policies play in perpetuating conflict.

Pro-Palestine protesters gather outside CNN headquarters in Atlanta on Wednesday, to call for an end to the decades long Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.Pro-Palestine protesters demonstrate outside CNN headquarters in Atlanta on Wednesday. Photograph: John Arthur Brown/Zuma Press Wire/Shutterstock

Noura Erakat, a Palestinian American human rights lawyer, appeared live on CBS and ABC only to have the segments pulled from playbacks of the shows online. She said she challenged pro-Israel narratives pushed by the presenters and sought to explain the Hamas attack in the wider context of occupation and oppression.

Erakat said that when she appeared on MSNBC’s Katy Tur Reports, she was asked repeatedly about Hamas.

“I thought that it was necessary to underscore that there isn’t a military option to defeat Hamas because Hamas is not comprised of ideologues but primarily of young men who had grown up most of their lives under siege and systematic warfare who we had not been given a shred of hope,” she said.

“I received word that after the show the top executive had returned to the booking producer and said that the list of experts I was on would now be scrutinised because of the mistake of bringing me on.”

In contrast, when the head of the Anti-Defamation League, Jonathan Greenblatt, appeared on MSNBC he was permitted to make a long and unchallenged speech in which he likened discussion of the broader causes of the conflict and Israeli policies to support for terrorism. He also compared the Hamas attack to the atomic bombing of Nagasaki and criticised the network for showing “the rubble in Gaza” when he said it should instead talk to Israelis whose families have been killed or abducted.

“Who is writing the scripts? Hamas?” he said.

They want us on to cry about our dead but not to provide context or discuss responsibility

Noura Erekat

Erakat said she felt she was invited on to talk about the humanitarian situation in Gaza but avoid the wider causes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After Erakat appeared on a CBS News show, Prime Time, in which she was critical of what she saw as the pro-Israel framing of questions, her appearance was excised from the programme when it went online.

“They want us on to cry about our dead but not to provide context or discuss responsibility,” she said.

Other Palestinian American analysts have described similar treatment by television networks, including CNN. Some say scheduled appearances were cancelled after producers called before a show to ask what the guest would say and didn’t like what they heard.

Pro-Israel organisations have also targeted Palestinian American journalists.

A secretively funded rightwing pressure group, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis (Camera), which seeks to influence media coverage, accused the Palestinian American managing editor of the Los Angeles Times, Sara Yasin, of sympathy with Hamas and breaching professional ethics after she reposted an article on X written by an Israeli in an American Jewish magazine critical of the attack on Gaza and for earlier retweets.

The LA Times robustly defended Yasin.

“Any suggestion that Sara Yasin sympathizes with Hamas is inaccurate, irresponsible and reckless,” it said in a statement.

Camera, which is mostly run by Americans based in Boston, also attacks Israeli journalists and others as not sufficiently pro-Israel. The group hangs billboards on a building facing the New York Times newsroom, and on bridges and buildings across the city, accusing the publication of being anti-Israel.

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The editor in chief of Harper’s Bazaar, Samira Nasr, drew fire for an Instagram post expressing concern for ordinary Palestinians after Israel shut down essential services to Gaza, which human rights groups say is a war crime.

“Cutting off water and electricity to 2.2 million civilians … This is the most inhuman thing I’ve seen in my life,” she wrote.

After a backlash within the magazine and fashion industry accusing Nasr of minimising the killing of Israelis, she issued an apology for her “deeply insensitive and hurtful comments” and said she was “not in anyway sympathetic” to Hamas.

Palestinians inspect the destruction following an Israeli strike on Dhaheer family home in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, on Friday.Palestinians inspect the destruction following an Israeli strike on the Dhaheer family home in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, on Friday. Photograph: Ismail Muhammad/UPI/Shutterstock

An Arab American journalist, who did not wish to be named, said that there was a coordinated campaign to discredit reporters with Arab names as biased.

“This is about silencing Palestinian and pro-Palestinian voices. This is about saying there is only one legitimate way of looking at what’s happened and nothing else must be discussed,” the journalist said.

In Germany, the Frankfurt book fair was accused of “shutting down” Palestinian voices after an awards ceremony to honour a novel by the Palestinian writer Adania Shibli was called off after the Hamas attack.

More than 350 authors including the Irish novelist Colm Tóibín, the American Libyan Pulitzer winner Hisham Matar and the British historian William Dalrymple criticised the move.

The Jewish American author Nathan Thrall was scheduled to speak at an array of venues in the US and UK about his new and well received book A Day in the Life of Abed Salama: A Palestine Story, which the Guardian said “brims over with just the sort of compassion and understanding that is needed at a time like this”.

However, Thrall said several events for the book have been called off along with what he described as “very neutral advertising” for it on public radio and the BBC’s American platforms due to “listener complaints”.

“They refused to provide me with those listener complaints. I am very sceptical. I’m quite sure that a book advocating for Israel would not have had its advertisements pulled,” he said.

There’s an atmosphere that is wholly intolerant of any expression of sympathy for Palestinians living under occupation

Nathan Thrall

Among the venues to call off Thrall’s appearance alongside Abed Salama, the Palestinian whose story is at the centre of the book, was the non-profit Writers Bloc in Los Angeles. Its director, Andrea Grossman, praised Thrall’s book but said an in-person event would be difficult at this time.

“How does one promote a program on this subject to a largely Jewish audience when people on all sides are being bombed, killed and buried? The community is deeply polarised,” she said.

“I hope we can have it in person soon, when this dies down.”

Thrall said that in the UK the police “directly intervened” to advise Conway Hall in London to cancel his book talk in front of several hundred ticket holders.

“There’s an atmosphere that is wholly intolerant of any expression of sympathy for Palestinians living under occupation, any discussion of the root causes of the conflict,” said Thrall. “My book is not a polemic. It’s been praised for showing characters, both Jewish and Palestinian, in an empathetic way. For events around that sort of a book to be cancelled, and ads for that sort of a book to be withdrawn, is outrageous.”

Conway Hall did not respond to requests for comment.

Thrall said that the space for a frank discussion about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had opened up in recent years but he feared lasting damage had been done by the Hamas attack.

It is so hard to know, in the middle of all of this, what is temporary and what is not. There had been a shift in public opinion in the United States toward a more open discussion of Palestinian lives under occupation. The bar was very low but there was greater openness prior to October 7. The real question for me is whether there has been a long-term setback to that progress?” he said.

This article was amended on 31 October 2023. An earlier version said “NPR” pulled advertising for Nathan Thrall’s book, whereas it was local public radio stations, some affiliated with NPR, that did not air the advertising.