On Friday, the U.S. Senate passed a unanimous resolution condemning what it called “anti-Israel, pro-Hamas student groups” across the country following a day of walkouts. Hundreds of students, led by Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace, walked out of classes at Columbia University, Princeton University, New York University, and dozens of other colleges in what they described as a demand for a ceasefire in Gaza and end to U.S. military support to Israel. The Senate resolution condemned student groups for ostensibly supporting Hamas as part of a broader government and corporate pushback on protests over the war.
As the conflict intensifies, disputes are spilling over from campuses and government into many workplaces as well. Recent weeks have seen pressure by government officials against student activist groups, the creation of public blacklists in multiple industries, and a wave of politically motivated firings over people’s publicly stated views on the conflict.
“We are seeing people being fired from their jobs, being investigated by HR over their social media posts or conversations with colleagues, and having job offers rescinded. There is a clear trend that people’s jobs are being targeted right now,” said Dima Khalidi, the founder and director of Palestine Legal, an advocacy organization that seeks to preserve the civil rights of supporters of Palestinian rights in the United States.
Khalidi said that her organization has dealt with roughly 2,200 cases of speech suppression between the years 2014 to 2022. Yet in the last two weeks alone, they have fielded 300 new requests for legal assistance, a figure that usually matches their level of requests during a full year. “There is an exponential increase in the need for legal support,” she said. “It is a direct result right now of the kind of incitement that our own elected officials are engaging in, as well as the failure of universities and employers to push against pressure.”
Due to the obvious religious, cultural, and ideological fault lines, the Israel–Palestine conflict has always been a wedge issue for free speech advocates in the United States. But recent events have exposed a gaping chasm in perspective as a tidal wave of speech suppression has been met with a largely muted reaction, or even active support, from elected officials who normally depict themselves as champions of free speech. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis earlier this week ordered Students for Justice in Palestine groups to shut down over recent protests in solidarity with Palestinian nationalism that he described as supporting Hamas.
A full accounting of the speech suppression across multiple industries would be difficult given the incredible scope of retaliation, which expands daily. But across the media and technology sectors, the arts, academia, and even generally nonpolitical industries like aviation and public relations, there has been an obvious effort to threaten, ostracize, and remove individuals from jobs based on their stated views on the subject.
In recent weeks, the editor-in-chief of the nonprofit scientific journal eLife, Michael Eisen, was forced to resign after sharing an article from The Onion satirizing public indifference to Palestinian civilian deaths; a top Hollywood talent agent, Maha Dakhil, was removed from the board of her company for suggesting on Instagram that a genocide was taking place in Gaza; and numerous journalists engaged in nonpolitical coverage, as well as ordinary corporate employees both in the United States and beyond, have faced reprimands and dismissals over their statements on the war.
In one of the most high-profile and egregious instances of retaliation, the head of the major global technology conference Web Summit was forced to apologize and resign after posting on X, formerly known as Twitter, that “war crimes are war crimes even when committed by allies, and should be called out for what they are.”
There have been a few cases of genuine prejudice and hate speech underlying these incidents. But the vast majority of recent retaliation appears to be based on what is considered protected speech and advocacy in normal circumstances. These attacks have extended from corporate America deep into the cultural world as well. Numerous writers have had their events canceled or been forced to shift venues based on past or present statements they have made deemed to be supportive of Palestinians or critical of Israel, including the political analyst and author Nathan Thrall and the novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen, who was scheduled to speak at 92NY.
The climate of fear in the art world has led many to wonder how to balance the pressure to take a public stand with the fear that retaliation over politics may end their careers early. Many filmmakers have reported feeling pressured to delete social media posts and Instagram accounts out of fear of surveillance from peers in their industry. On Thursday, the editor of the journal Artforum was fired after pressure over a public letter published in support of Palestinian rights.
“There is a long game that many of us minority filmmakers with a conscience are playing,” said one Hollywood filmmaker, who asked for anonymity to discuss the issue out of fear of retaliation. “Do we stay patient and put our resistance and outrage into the films which will outlast us, or do we risk losing our careers over an ephemeral social post that doesn’t save a single life in Palestine?”
The fear of adding one’s name to a public letter is particularly acute since the traditionally authoritarian tactic of blacklisting has returned with a vengeance to target critics of Israel. A number of new websites have sprung up in recent weeks listing names of university students and corporate employees accused of issuing or endorsing sentiments deemed hostile to Israel, adding to an already rich cottage industry of such sites, including the notorious academic blacklist Canary Mission.
In the context of an emotionally charged, seven-decadeslong armed conflict, the effort to ruin people’s careers or livelihoods based on public comments on the matter have antagonized some free speech advocates.
The libertarian-leaning free speech organization the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression has been among a handful of organizations to speak out directly on behalf of people targeted by recent crackdowns. “True threats, incitement to imminent unlawful action, and harassment are not protected,” the organization said in a recent statement. “But the recent calls to punish speech about the Israel-Hamas conflict extend well beyond expression that falls into one of those narrow categories.”
Others have had uncharacteristically muted reactions. The liberal civil rights advocacy organization the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism, whose mission describes its commitment to “free speech and viewpoint diversity,” did not make mention of recent speech suppression in its October 26 statement on the conflict. The group stated only that “college campuses have once again become hotbeds of protest and conflict,” and that the organization remains “committed to fostering communication across divides.”
A number of major donors to Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania have also threatened to pull funds following student protests and public statements in the wake of the October 7 attack by Hamas and subsequent bombing of the Gaza Strip by the Israeli military. The Hamas attacks killed roughly 1,400 Israelis, mostly civilians, while Israel is estimated to have killed around 7,000 Palestinians, the majority likewise believed to have been civilians, over the last 17 days, with the Biden administration’s full-throated support.
The domestic cultural war over Gaza and Israel may well become a political issue in the 2024 U.S. presidential election. In a campaign speech in New Hampshire, Donald Trump vowed to “implement strong ideological screening of all immigrants,” in reference to recent controversies over the war. “If you hate America, if you want to abolish Israel, if you don’t like our religion, which a lot of them don’t, if you sympathize with jihadists, then we don’t want you in our country and you are not getting in,” Trump said.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio also attempted to introduce a resolution that would cancel the visas of people in the U.S. deemed to be “Hamas supporters” in an effort that, for now, has been blocked by Senate Democrats.
The efforts to introduce ideological tests, which by nature tend to be highly open to interpretation when it comes to political issues, represent a dark portent for the future of speech generally in the U.S. Whereas many have noted that the private sector functions as a de facto censor by threatening individuals with financial ruin over their political views, the growing push to enact more stringent legal and bureaucratic barriers to free expression represents the culmination of what liberal free speech advocates have long feared.
Despite the growing climate of repression, legal advocates committed to defending free speech on the issue say that they will continue to promote the Palestinian perspective on the conflict with renewed urgency given current events in Gaza.
“There are many people speaking out and refusing to be intimidated by this McCarthyist-style purge,” said Khalidi of Palestine Legal. “It’s really important for people to think beyond the immediate moment and tap into our moral compass here, because we are witnessing immense war crimes, and if we don’t stand up and speak out about them, then we are also complicit.”