What You Can’t Say About Israel (with Marc Lamont Hill)

There are signs that U.S. opinion might be shifting on Israel and Palestine, but defenders of the Israeli government aren’t backing down. What’s the price of criticizing Israel in the U.S.?

Photo illustration: Soohee Cho/The Intercept, Getty Images

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There are signs that U.S. opinion might be shifting on Israel and its illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories. Democrats and younger U.S. voters, including young Jewish voters, are shifting to a more pro-Palestine position, according to recent polls. There are now two members of Congress — Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar — who openly support the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement against Israel. At the same time, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in Alabama, under pressure from local pro-Israeli Jewish groups, recently rescinded a human rights award they’d bestowed on civil rights icon Angela Davis because of her support for BDS. In November, Dr. Marc Lamont Hill was fired from CNN because he gave a speech at the UN calling for a free Palestine “from the river to the sea.” On this week’s Deconstructed podcast, Lamont Hill and Mehdi Hasan discuss the de facto censorship that surrounds discussions of Israel in the U.S. The two are joined by Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace.

Marc Lamont Hill:
There is a very narrow framework that we’re allowed to use to engage in conversations about the question of Israel and Palestine. But do I stand by what I said? Absolutely, I think I was right.

[Music interlude.]

Mehdi Hasan: Welcome to Deconstructed, I’m Mehdi Hasan. Today, the debate over Israel and its occupation. Why is it so difficult in the United States to criticize Israel? And are defenders of the world’s only Jewish state correct to suggest that much of the opposition to Israel stems from anti-Semitism?

MLH: The idea that BDS isn’t anti-Semitic is to me, almost self-evident. Having a boycott, divestment, sanction movement against a particular nation-state is not anti-Semitic. It’s a critique and it’s a response to Israeli policy.

MH: That was Marc Lamont Hill, who was fired by CNN for supposedly crossing a line in terms of his criticism of Israel. Just the latest public figure to run afoul of the unwritten codes that govern discourse on this contentious subject here in the United States. But whatever happened to free speech and the right to offend? I’m delighted to say that Marc’s my guest on the show today, as is Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace and a friend of Israel—though a critical friend.

Lara Friedman: Let’s examine what they’re saying. It’s anti-Semitic to say that some people are not having democracy and that they should. That’s actually holding Israel to a lower standard.

MH: So, this week on Deconstructed, what can’t we say about Israel?

In a world in which it often seems like we can never run out of hot takes and insta-comments, Michelle Alexander’s op-ed in the New York Times this past weekend surely merits the title of must-read, stand-out comment piece of 2019 so far. If you don’t know who Michelle Alexander is, number one, shame on you, and number two, she’s an academic, activist, lawyer and of course author of the acclaimed and searing 2010 book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” She was hired by the New York Times to be an opinion columnist last summer — the first woman of color to make it onto the op-ed pages of the Times, and it’s pretty shameful it took the Times so long to make that hire.

On Sunday, on the eve of Martin Luther King day, she published an op-ed in that paper headlined “Time to Break the Silence on Palestine,” in which, after referring to Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous opposition to the Vietnam war which cost him a great many liberal friends and allies, Alexander wrote, and I quote: “I am left with little doubt that [Dr. King’s] teachings and message require us to speak out passionately against the human rights crisis in Israel-Palestine, despite the risks and despite the complexity of the issues.” She continued: “If we are to honor King’s message and not merely the man, we must condemn Israel’s actions.” And she went on to add: “It seems the days when critiques of Zionism and the actions of the State of Israel can be written off as anti-Semitism are coming to an end. There seems to be an increased understanding that criticism of the policies and practices of the Israeli government is not, in itself, anti-Semitic.” End quote.

And she’s right. The tide is turning on Israel and its illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories, its control over 4 million Palestinian people, its colonial-style settlement program, its siege of Gaza. Democrats and younger U.S. voters, including young Jewish voters, are shifting to a more pro-Palestinian position, according to all the recent polls. You now have two members of Congress — Rashida Tlaib, my guest on last week’s show, and Ilhan Omar — who openly support BDS, the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel. That wouldn’t have been possible a few years ago. The Times itself would never have published an op-ed’s like Alexander’s a few years ago. It would have been unthinkable. I often joke that you get more debate about Israel’s crimes and misdeeds in Israel’s own parliament, the Knesset, than you do in the United States Congress. You get more open and honest discussions about the occupation and settlements and apartheid on the op-ed pages of Haaretz, Israel’s main liberal newspaper, than you do on the op ed pages of the New York Times.

But the defenders of Israel, they’re not just going to give up without a fight. They’re not gonna roll over. The pro-Israeli ADL, the Anti Defamation League, called Alexander’s piece “dangerously flawed.” The American Jewish Committee, the AJC, accused Alexander, a black woman by the way, of “shameful appropriation.” Ha! And using MLK to take “potshots” at Israel. Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. and now deputy minister in the Israeli prime minister’s office, tweeted: “By equating support for Israel with support for the Vietnam War and opposition to MLK, Alexander dangerously delegitimises us. It’s a strategic threat and Israel must treat it as such.” A strategic threat? It’s a fricking newspaper op-ed. I hope Michelle Alexander has no plans to visit any Israeli consulates anytime soon, thank you very much, Michael Oren.

But here’s the thing: Alexander might be right to be optimistic about the direction of travel on this long-contentious issue but that does not mean critics and opponents of Israel aren’t still getting targeted and censored and punished for their views, for calling out Israeli apartheid, for example. As Alexander herself mentioned in the piece, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in Alabama, under pressure from local pro-Israeli Jewish groups, just recently rescinded a human rights award that they’d bestowed on civil rights icon Angela Davis, because of her support for BDS.

Prior to the Davis affair, there was Marc Lamont Hill, who’ll be joining me on this show in a moment. Marc, a brilliant, eloquent academic and journalist, was fired by CNN, where he’d been a paid contributor, an on-air pundit, because he gave a speech at the UN calling for a boycott of Israel and said:

MLH: We have an opportunity to not just offer solidarity in words but to commit to political action that will give us what justice requires and that is a free Palestine from the river to the sea. Thank you for your time.

MH: He was gone within 24 hours.

Richard Gizbert: When you boil it down he was fired for using the following six words: “From the river to the sea.” That was deemed anti-Semitic.

MH: By the way, former Republican Senator Rick Santorum, who’s on tape basically erasing the existence of the occupied Palestinian people:

Rick Santorum: All the people that live in the West Bank are Israelis. They’re not Palestinians. There is no Palestinian.

MH: He’s still employed by CNN as a paid contributor, unlike Marc Lamont Hill. As a British journalist living in the U.S., I’ve always found it weird how obsessed American politicians and journalists are with defending and promoting Israel, a foreign country last time I checked. For example, the very first bill to be put forward this year, in 2019, by the Republican-controlled Senate was not a bill to improve border security or bring in tax reform or re-open a shutdown government, but a bill to protect the Israeli government, by giving state and local governments in the U.S. the authority to boycott any U.S. companies that dare to join in a boycott of Israel.

A whopping 26 states have already passed some form of anti-BDS laws, penalizing U.S. citizens for exercising their right to free speech, people like Bahia Amawi, a children’s speech pathologist in Texas, recently profiled by my Intercept colleague Glenn Greenwald, who was told that she couldn’t work with her local school district unless she signed an oath vowing not to boycott Israel:

Bahia Amawi: It infringed on all my principles and on top of that, my right to speech and also right to protest. It’s baffling that they can throw this down our throats, you know, and decide to protect another country’s economy versus protect our constitutional rights.

MH: Whatever happened to the First Amendment? Does that not count when we’re talking about Israel? And how do we get past the constant retort of, ‘That’s anti-Semitic!’, from defenders of Israel? Well, that’s our discussion today.

[Music interlude.]

MH: I’m joined from St. Louis by my friend and former colleague from our HuffPost days, Dr. Marc Lamont Hill, and here in the studio is also Lara Friedman, President of the Foundation for Middle East Peace and a former U.S. Foreign Service officer, who is a liberal supporter of Israel. I think it’s fair to say, but who has also been very active in opposing Republican efforts to basically criminalize BDS here in the United States. Marc, Lara, thanks for joining me on Deconstructed.

LF: Great to be here.

MLH: Pleasure to be here.

MH: Marc, you were fired by CNN for a speech you gave about Israel-Palestine at the U.N. A speech in which you called on countries to boycott Israel, in which you called for a “free Palestine from the river to the sea,” which many say is a Hamas slogan. It’s about getting rid of Israel. Looking back now several weeks later, do you think you crossed the line in terms of your rhetoric on Israel or do you stand by your comments?

MLH: I think both are true. I crossed the line in the sense that there is a very narrow framework that we are allowed to use to engage in conversations about the question of Israel and Palestine. And so, certainly within the boundaries of civil liberal western discourse, I certainly crossed a line. There were people who felt — there are people who think one-state solutions are crossing a line and talking about a free Palestine is crossing the line or talking about human rights violations is crossing the line. So, to that extent, absolutely. But do I stand by what I said? Absolutely, I think I was right. I think I was right to use that day and use that speech to challenge the question of human rights and raise the question of human rights and to help us reimagine a world of freedom and safety, peace and self-determination for Palestinian people and for citizens of Israel as well. You know, I don’t think they have to come at the expense of one another.

MH: Were you surprised, shocked even to be sacked as a contributor to CNN or did you see that coming? They were pretty quick about it.

MLH:  I definitely did not see it coming. Because I wrote a speech that I thought was critical but certainly honest and fair and empirically supported, because I had no intention of saying anything violent or anti-Semitic or otherwise outside what I think the reasonable boundaries of public discourse, I had no expectation. I thought people would disagree with me. There are many disagreements on this issue but I didn’t expect to be fired because I don’t think that I did anything that was wrong.

MH: What did they say was a reason for your firing?

MLH: I wasn’t really given a reason other than that the speech didn’t cohere with their values. They just said your speech didn’t match our values, didn’t reflect our values.

MH: Their values. What’s interesting about their values is you got fired for calling for democracy and human rights “between the river and the sea,” from the river to the sea whereas former Republican Senator Rick Santorum is still employed as a paid contributor, even though he says Palestinians don’t exist.

MLH: It’s a striking contrast. You know, the idea that within cable news or any form of public discourse that we can’t have disagreements or we don’t have a space for an array of opinions to me is troubling. But if we are going to close ranks around certain opinions and not others, I’d like to think that the call for democracy in the region, the call for safety and peace and self-determination again for everybody is a reasonable one. And I would think that Rick Santorum’s call for or his analysis that Palestinians don’t exist — or many of the other gross things Rick Santorum has said in public and other people — would be outside the boundaries. But in this bizarro world that we live in today, it’s the opposite.

MH: Exactly the opposite and just to be clear for our listeners, there are more than 4 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza who cannot vote for the people who basically control their lives which is the Israeli government. Lara, what do you make of Marc’s firing? What did you make of the award that was offered and then rescinded to Angela Davis? Does any of this surprise you?

LF: I wish it surprised me. I’ve been working this issue for too long really to be surprised. I’m old enough to remember Helen Thomas being essentially sacrificed over this issue. 

MH: White House correspondent. 

LF: Yes, her entire legacy as a White House correspondent effectively delegitimized over comments she made about Israel-Palestine. It doesn’t surprise me at all. I do think we’re seeing an escalation in this. I think we’re at a moment when either out of fears that at some point Israel is not going to be able to forever maintain the occupation, deny rights, maintain the status quo and the high ground. So, maybe there’s a fear of losing ground or there’s a feeling of this is a moment of opportunity that has to be seized to finally roll back everything that’s happened since Oslo and since Madrid and return us to a status quo ante where any utterance of support for the Palestinians was equated with anti-Semitism, with support for terror.

MH: So on that note about any utterance, a lot of supporters of Israel, if they’re listening to this discussion, will say that’s just not true. Israel’s attacked all the time. It’s held to unfair double standards. As someone who’s worked in this field for a while, as someone who, I think it’s fair to say, would call herself a friend of Israel, a critical friend of Israel. Where do you think the line now stands in what you can and can’t say about Israel and the occupation of the Palestinian territories? Where is it right now?

LF: Look, I think that line is moving and the fact is we live in a democracy. You can say what you want. The question is what sort of price are people going to try to exact for your utterance. On the question of you know, dual standards — I just want to say this really quick. For years, I mean, I come from a community with this great sensitivity, and the dual standard, Israel is held to a higher standard. Today, when it comes to questions of democracy, of human rights, of free speech, the demand from supporters of Israel from the right is not that Israel not be held to higher standards. The demand is that Israel be held to a lower standard.

MH: What about Saudi Arabia?

LF: Exactly.

MH: What about North Korea?

LF: There’s the ‘whataboutism’ which says well, but other people are worse. You know, why aren’t you boycotting everything? If you don’t boycott everything, then boycotting settlements is a sign that you’re an anti-Semite. And you know, the question of democracy between the river and the sea, you would think that setting aside any weighted language there— because that language itself is heavily laden with historical meaning for a lot of people — but even just the question of is it okay to call for democracy? When people say that’s an anti-Semitic call, let’s let’s examine what they’re saying. It’s anti-Semitic to say that some people are not having democracy and that they should. That’s actually holding Israel to a lower standard.

MH: Okay so in terms of where we now stand on this discussion. Marc, do you think the Michelle Alexander op-ed in The New Times, the paper of record, that liberal media bastion which has supported Israel for so long, do you think that’s a sign that the times are changing here in the United States?

MLH: Well it’ll depend on whether or not Michelle is still working there next week. She’s writing for — if her writings are only found at like MichelleAlexander.com, the answer would be no. But I think that the tide actually is turning. And I think that the fact that the New York Times printed that piece and that Michelle Alexander will continue to write provocative pieces on this issue, but many other issues as she so brilliantly has done is a sign that I think, the tide is turning that people are at least open to a conversation. Now, that said, the response to Michelle Alexander, the critics. I mean, people saying that she appropriated Martin Luther King’s legacy.

MH: Yes, the American Jewish Committee made that comment, I think.

MLH: That kind of language to me suggests that people one, don’t have a clear understanding of who Dr. King was. His comments on Israel notwithstanding which I think is a complicated question, as well. But it also means that again there are many people who are simply unwilling to call for democratic practice and democratic principles within the state of Israel. Now, I think it is important to say that Israel should not be held to a higher standard, should be held to no different standard than anyone else. But I think given the fact that our military fund our financial support of Israel is so considerable, given the fact that Israel hails itself as the only democracy in the Middle East because of this language, because of our economic, psychological, and cultural investment in the state of Israel, I think we do have a responsibility to hold Israel accountable. I think we should also have a responsibility to hold Saudi Arabia accountable. And it’s interesting because in the last six months, I’ve been holding Saudi Arabia accountable. I’ve seen you write about the Jamal Khashoggi thing so much and talk about it so much. And it’s like people forget that part and act as if we’re just obsessed with Israel, as opposed to saying hey, we need democracy in the Middle East and we need justice in the Middle East, more importantly.

MH: Well, isn’t it the case that a lot of these other oppressive countries, you know, that you and I have spoken out against, they only get mentioned by supporters of Israel as a way of ‘whataboutism’ as Lauren mentioned. It’s funny they don’t actually give a shit about what’s happening in Saudi Arabia or North Korea or Syria. It’s just a rhetorical tool used to deflect attention from their favorite cause. What was funny about the whole stand of things, something that’s always bothered me is, it’s almost as if only critics of Israel talk about Israel. And I’m always like well, if you don’t want me to talk about Israel, then why don’t you stop talking about Israel? I noticed that presidential candidates feel the need to go out of their way to say how amazing Israel is.

Just before I was recording the show, I saw a clip circulating on Twitter of Kamala Harris AIPAC in 2017, going on about how she stands with Israel. So, it works both ways. If you stop saying you’re standing with an occupier, maybe I’ll stop criticizing the occupier. Isn’t the problem here that lots of supporters of Israel over the decades have successfully in the eyes of many people both Jewish and non-Jewish conflated Israel with all Jews? And that leads to a lot of the problems when we talk about the rhetoric surrounding Israel, the criticism of Israel, the world’s only Jewish state. That’s where the — Is that fair to say that’s where all gets muddied?

LF: I think that’s part of where it all gets muddied. I think it also gets muddied since — with the fact that since 1967, a safe political space had been carved out in the community, at the grassroots level, at the political level for people to be progressive on everything except Palestine.

MH: P.E.P.!

LF: And the Trump era is closing the space for that sort of hypocrisy where that sort of, let’s call it cognitive dissonance — It’s simply no longer available and I don’t think progressive leaders overall have caught up to this. But the grassroots gets it.

MLH: Can I jump in really quick —

MH: Go on. Go, Marc.

MLH: — Because I think there’s another interesting piece here. Because I think Lara’s absolutely right with that and I think for Black activists, that understanding and that relationship and even that idea of being a progressive on every issue but Palestine, I think is even more complicated because of the particular relationship between Black American civil rights activism and Jewish American civil rights activism and solidarity practice. There has been such a strong and in many ways, healthy relationship between Black Americans and Jewish Americans on that question. When you look at the foundation or the founding, rather, of the NAACP, when you look at Martin King’s support, when you look at you know so many, so many moments in American history where Jewish Americans have been allies to Black Americans, there’s a sense that we’re in lockstep with one another and so often, we have looked at the question of Israel through the lens of the U.S. Black-Jewish relations. 

And in some ways again, that contradiction emerges but there’s also a heightened sense of how dare you, right? You know, Jewish brothers and sisters have been here for Black people in America. So, why are you criticizing the one Jewish state? And so it’s seen as a contradiction when in fact, it’s, I would argue, incredibly consistent. I think Michelle Alexander is arguing this in her New York Times piece as well, that the consistency here is not with who we ally with, it’s what values we ally with. And so, in the United States, we should be fighting anti-Semitism. We’ve been fighting anti-Semitism around the world. But we should also be fighting illiberal practice, to use large language, in Israel. And so, I think those those tensions and nuances play out in very particular ways for Black Americans.

MH: And one of the problems is, Marc, is that anti-Semitism is on the rise in the U.S. undeniably, especially since the rise of Trump. And the irony is that a lot of that anti-Semitism is coming from the far right. The attack on the synagogue which left 11 Jewish worshippers dead, brutally murdered in cold blood was from a far-right nutcase, right? And yet the response to that included people saying well this is why we need anti-BDS legislation. This is why we need to stop boycotts of Israel. And you has Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey coming out and having been opposed to that legislation, then switching saying “Well, this attack reminds us of the dangers of anti-Semitism.” And a lot of people on the left, a lot of people in the pro-Palestinian movement get very frustrated that these things are all locked together. One of the many criticisms of you, Marc and Angela Davis and others is your support for BDS, for boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel. Explain to our listeners why you support BDS and why it’s not anti-Semitic.

MLH: Well yeah, I mean one, I think the idea that BDS isn’t anti-Semitic is to me almost self-evident. Having a boycott, divestment, sanction movement against a particular nation state is not anti-Semitic. It’s a critique and it’s a response to Israeli policy and Israeli state practices. It’s not an attack on Jewish people. It’s not an attack on — It’s not even an attack on individuals. It’s not even a response to individuals. BDS, it does not attack individuals. It does not address or target individuals. It targets institutions. I think that’s an important distinction to make. I think we have to constantly make distinctions between Judaism and Israeli statecraft. I think that’s a necessary distinction to always make here. One, because Israel doesn’t speak for all Jewish people. Two, because Israel is a nation state, not a religion. And three, because I think the grand tradition of Judaism is one that promotes justice and love and healing and support for everyone. And so, I don’t want to — I wouldn’t want to attach some of the practices of the state of Israel to any religion.

MH: But on that note, Marc, you would agree that criticism of Israel can sometimes crossover into anti-Semitism, into anti-Semitic tropes about Jewish power —

MLH: Absolutely.

MH: — There are a lot of anti-Semites who hide behind the Palestinian cause in order to be anti-Jewish. I think we can all concede that.

MLH: Hey, it would be dishonest not to. I mean, again, some of the response, even people who were offering support to me at times, some of the support I was like whoa, whoa, no that’s not support, you know. That actually is anti-Semitic. What I said wasn’t but what you’re doing right now absolutely is. This idea of Jewish cabals, this idea of Jewish power, this idea of Jewish conspiracy, this idea of blood libel — all of these things are very real tropes that are deployed against Jewish people and sometimes people absolutely hide behind the question of Palestine or the question of Israel as a means by which to simply prosecute a war against Jewish people, an anti-Semitic war, quite clearly. I absolutely agree with that. BDS however, is not one of those things. Now, could there be anti-Semites in the BDS movement? Perhaps. There can be anti-Semites in environmental justice movement. I mean, again, we need to weed them out everywhere. But the movement itself is not. First of all, it’s a principled call out of Palestinian civil society. That’s an important thing to say because people say “Well why are you supporting BDS in Israel? And why aren’t you supporting it somewhere else?” These other places haven’t called for BDS. This is a call from Palestinian civil society.

MH: Good point.

MLH: Also, it’s a non-violent call. People say, oh, you know, they’re constantly talking about terrorism and the threat of violence. This is a non-violent call.

MH: The Palestinians can’t win. If they’re violent, they’re terrorists. If they’re non-violent, they’re anti-Semites. Lara, let me ask you this. Lara, let me put this to you: since I’ve been in the U.S., one of the things I follow, the BDS debate and even before, I remember Hillary Clinton writing a letter to Haim Saban, the big donor to the Democratic Party, the power-ranger billionaire — who’s really in the wrong party, to be honest — but saying I’m going to fight against BDS. She wrote a whole letter saying it’s going to be one of my big causes to stop BDS. Here in the U.S., even among some liberals, it does seem to be taken almost ipso facto BDS is anti-Semitic which I find odd. You could say there’s some anti-Semites in the BDS movement. Anti-Semites misuse the BDS — But to just smear all of these people including many Jewish voices. My Intercept colleague Naomi Klein is a very prominent Jewish supporter of BDS. I see all that and then I think wow, these guys have done a really good job in terms of smearing the pro-Palestinian movement.

LF: Yes, I mean, I think it’s a little more complicated than that. I think if you go back, the roots of this are — And let’s distinguish a little bit in terms. There are lots of people who support either support or advocate boycotts against Israel, boycotts and settlements. 

MH: Do you?

LF: I advocate boycotting settlements and I defend boycotting Israel, if people think they want to do it. I think focusing on settlements is as or more effective but that’s my personal opinion. I will go to the mat for the right of people to engage in free speech. But boycotts are constitutionally protected free speech. Full stop. But there are lots of people who advocate or support who don’t say I am a member of the BDS movement. This is a tactic and it’s a tactic again, going to the question of holding Israel to different standards. 

Political boycotts are a proven, legitimate non-violent tactic that is accepted, embraced, endorsed, praised all over the world for use on anything. In Israel, it is legal to boycott literally anything for almost any reason. You can boycott things because you’re a racist against Arabs. You can boycott things because you’re religious and hate non-religious. Only thing you can’t do is boycott settlements. That’s illegal in Israel. The idea that somehow Israel should be insulated from pressure via boycotts and we’re talking, not the Arab League boycott of Israel, which was coercive. That is not a voluntary act of free speech. This is people saying I want to vote my conscience by not buying X, or not engaging in business with Y. Israel is apparently the only country in the world that needs to be protected from this and that is holding Israel to a different standard and it makes no sense.

MH: The whole double standards argument —

LF: Exactly. 

MH: — Comes back. Let me ask you this, you’ve been writing and campaigning on this issue, how worried should we be about the legislation at a Senate level and of course, at the state level? I think 26 states, I believe, have already passed some form of legislation criminalizing BDS. How worried should we be? The Senate legislation, for example, that Marco Rubio and others have put forward and it was the first bill put forward in the new Senate in 2019. How worried should we be that that’s going to pass once the shutdown is over and some Democrats get back on board with the Republicans?

LF: Well, I think we should be worried to the extent that this is going to be a question of how much public pressure is brought to bear on members of Congress about free speech and by the way, that’s members of Congress from both parties. Conservatives claim to care deeply about free speech. Libertarians claim to care about this. This isn’t a partisan issue. I am less worried about this legislation or the other piece of legislation in Congress which is the Israeli Anti-boycott Act which is in some ways worse. I’m less worried about them today than I was a month ago because finally people are paying attention. These things have been pending for a long time and at a grassroots level there’s been work. We are finally in a moment and I don’t think it’s a coincidence. We are at a moment when the grassroots is rising up and saying hell no. Hell no to state laws that say an individual speech therapist has to sign an oath to give up free speech to practice her craft. That’s a good thing.

MH: Do you think this will be an issue in the Democratic primaries? Will people like Senator Harrison and Senator Warren and others be asked again and again to be clear that they’re not going to vote for legislation?

MLH: No.

MH: Marc, you’re saying no, it will be an issue?

MLH: It will not be an issue. It will be —

MH: You don’t think will be an issue? Oh, that’s deeply pessimistic. I was trying to be optimistic. 

LF: I think it will be.

MH: Lara thinks it will be. Marc, tell us why you think it won’t be.

MLH: I think it’s like, I think saying that you support Israel unequivocally is like kissing a baby in politics. I think everyone will say it. They’ll have their quick purity test and then we’ll move on. I don’t think there’s going to be space for nuance.

MH: In the media, yes but don’t you think the Democratic base is shifting a bit on this?

MLH: Not enough to make a demand in the primary. I don’t, I don’t imagine — Now, the one shift, the one thing that could complicate that is Bernie Sanders because he obviously, in the last election cycle, was a little more nuanced on this issue. He talked about disproportionate —

MH: And he’s moved a lot since 2016, as well. In an interview with me for The Intercept, he actually talked about making aid conditional on progress in peace and settlements which no one’s ever said in U.S. policy.

LF: I would disagree and not because I think, Mehdi, what you’re talking about the Democratic base pushing, although I think that’s part of it. I think more than that, you’re going to see the people who want to see Democrats tearing each other apart, folks from the right are going to insist on raising this. We saw this issue weaponized to effectively destroy the Women’s March. And it’s not because anyone really saw this as the number one issue. This was manufactured as an issue to take what was one of the most significant grassroots movements in my lifetime and shred it. And it was Democrats, it was progressives doing it to themselves at the behest of outside parties.

MH: But interesting on the Women’s March Linda Sarsour turns up at the most recent Women’s March and says, talks about BDS in her speech. So, in that sense, they’re not backing down. Linda’s not backing down. So, there could be a pincer movement on some of the centrist candidates where the right is demanding loyalty tests and the left is saying we’re demanding you speak for justice and equality for the Palestinians.

LF: I think you’re going to get either one of both of those and if either one of those is present, this becomes an issue not because it’s important, not because people actually care about it, not because voters are voting on it but because this is politically —

MH: And not because our politicians have a spine. Let me ask you this, Marc, before we run out of time on the subject of spines, and you’ve shown a lot of spine in recent weeks and we admire you for that — One line that jumped out to me from the Michelle Alexander op-ed in The Times on Palestine was where she wrote “Many civil rights activists and organizations have remained silent as well not because they lack concern or sympathy for the Palestinian people, but because they fear a loss of funding from foundations and false charges of anti-Semitism. They worry, as I once did, that the important social justice work will be compromised or discredited by smear campaigns.” Marc, that is the case, isn’t it, that there’s been a lot of self-censorship on this issue from progressives who might privately care about the Palestinians but don’t want to go to bat for them because they know they’ll get destroyed and a whole host of other issues? And look at you, I mean, they look at Marc Lamont Hill. They look at what happened and say “See? That’s why I keep my head down.”

MLH: Yeah, that’s exactly right. If I had a dollar for every progressive member of Congress, for every progressive faculty member, for every progressive cable news or otherwise TV commentator who sent me a private message saying I agree with you — you can almost hear the whispers in the midst — I agree with you, stay strong but this is why I don’t say anything, I wouldn’t need a TV job, I’d have so much money. I mean, it’s actually stunning to see how people have responded. And again, I think we have to be mindful of saying that this isn’t because there’s some Jewish conspiracy. It’s because there’s a very powerful political movement that supports a particular point of view and because people are worried about not just their own careers, but as Michelle said, the work of justice. You know, they don’t want to lose funding. 

You know, think about the Angela Davis invitation. They caved on the Angela Davis invitation because people were saying they’re going to not donate money anymore and they need the money to do good work in the world. And so, some of it is cowardice, some of it is pragmatism, you know, and some of it is you know, cowardice disguised as pragmatism. But all of it suggests that we’re in a moment right now where it’s very difficult to argue one’s principles on this issue. But we’re going to continue to fight and grow. And I think as we do that, people will realize that it is the principle move that ultimately history will vindicate this position and that again, we will never have a world of safety and peace and justice not just for Palestinians but also for Israelis and also, for Jewish people around the world until we figure out some solutions that work for everybody. And we can’t do that if people aren’t speaking in democratic practice.

MH: Marc, we’ll have to leave it there. Marc Lamont Hill, Lara Friedman, thank you both for joining me on Deconstructed. 

LF: Thank you.

MLH: Thank you. 

[Music interlude.]

MH: A fascinating discussion there — so much to digest — self-censorship, progressive except Palestine, PEP, BDS, the boycott movement, and the criminalization of BDS, free speech — except on Israel. I do believe the tide is turning on Isreal-Palestine in the U.S. media and in U.S. politics. I do believe that support for Israel will be questioned in these forthcoming Democratic presidential primaries, and I do believe that as more Michelle Alexanders come forward on Palestine, it’ll be harder to treat them in the way CNN treated Marc Lamont Hill.

[Music interlude.]

That’s our show. Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept, and is distributed by Panoply.  Our producer is Zach Young. Dina Sayedahmed is our production assistant. The show was mixed by Bryan Pugh. Leital Molad is our executive producer. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Betsy Reed is The Intercept’s editor in chief.

I’m Mehdi Hasan. You can follow me on Twitter @mehdirhasan. If you haven’t already, please do subscribe to the show so you can hear it every week. Go to theintercept.com/deconstructed to subscribe from your podcast platform of choice, iPhone, Android, whatever. If you’re subscribed already, please do leave us a rating or review — it helps people find the show. And if you want to give us feedback, email us at Podcasts@theintercept.com. Thanks so much! See you next week.

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