When I Published My Book About Palestine This Year, I Learned How Death Threats and Abuse Became Normalized
Ben Ehrenreich’s critically acclaimed book, The Way to the Spring: Life and Death in Palestine, was published in June 2016.
Earlier this August, Donald Trump dragged American political discourse to what most pundits agreed was a new low by suggesting that “Second Amendment people” would know what to do if Hillary Clinton were to impose rigorous controls on gun ownership. The threat was implicit but very clear. Americans were duly outraged—threats of violence, the consensus has it, should have no place in our political discourse. Writing in the New York Times, Tom Friedman made the link to the only mildly subtler smear campaign against Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in the months before his assassination by a right-wing extremist. A week later, Rabin’s son appeared on CNN to urge American politicians to show “restraint,” because, as he put it, “Words do kill.” What neither he nor Friedman mentioned was that in one contested corner of American political discourse—the conversation about Israel’s occupation of Palestine—threats and intimidation have long been the norm.
I learned this through the conventional method: by speaking out until the threats poured in. I spent most of June traveling the country and talking about my book, The Way To The Spring, which compiled my reporting from the West Bank, where I lived in 2013 and 2014, and where I had been working since 2011. I was encouraged: nearly every venue was full and my audience was enthusiastic. More than anything, I was heartened by the mood of the people I encountered. Despite a rash of recent attempts on American college campuses to shut down critical discussions of Israeli violations of human rights, and to tar a nonviolent boycott movement as antisemitic, it was abundantly clear that people all over the U.S. were ready—hungry even—for the kind of critical and honest conversation about Israel that has for too many years been absent here.
Not all of my interlocutors agreed with me about everything, but we were in almost every case able to speak and listen to one another with openness and respect. You don’t have to pay close attention to debates on Israel and Palestine in this country to know how remarkable that is. It meant that despite everything I know about the grim situation in the Middle East, I was able to end every talk I gave on a note of optimism that was sincere—the fact of our conversation, of people’s eagerness to participate, demonstrated that it was becoming more and more possible to discuss the undiscussable. That alone gave me genuine hope. As a nation, it seemed, we had quietly turned a corner.
But some realities have not gone away. On the question of Palestine, we still let extremist scare tactics define the contours of the mainstream. I cannot think of anyone in the U.S., whether Jewish or Palestinian or neither, who has written critically about Israel who has not been publicly smeared as an antisemite and an apologist for terror. And I have met no one who has achieved any prominence while speaking out against injustices perpetrated by the Israeli state who has not received death threats. Out of stoicism, stubbornness or shame, very few talk publicly about the threats they receive, but intimidation of the crudest sort forms the backdrop to the entire conversation about Israel and Palestine in U.S. media. It marks and enforces the boundary line of what is permissible to say. If anyone does not know where that boundary lies, they swiftly find out. Any serious attempt to represent Palestinian realities is met with unrelenting threats and defamations. They represent a consistently brutal attempt to intimidate opposition into silence, and they are effective.
The crazy thing is that this is normal, and has been for years. In the chapters of my book in which I wrote about the West Bank city of Hebron, I spoke about the strange idea of normalcy that reigns in that city, where having rocks and worse thrown into your home by settlers counts as “normal,” where beatings in the street by Israeli soldiers are entirely “normal” too. I referred to the city half-seriously as “Planet Hebron” because the norms of behavior there are so alien to the usual terrestrial expectations. But this twisted sense of normalcy extends far beyond the extremist settler enclaves of Hebron, to Tel Aviv, Los Angeles, New York, Washington, any place where critical political discourse can be counted on to be met with naked threats and campaigns of intimidation.
In the past week, I was called a Jew-hater more times than I can count, as well as a terrorist and a murderer. It was suggested to me that I should, and may, suffer a terrorist attack. I was told that “sick, twisted people” like me “should not be allowed to write” and informed that I will “someday” answer for the acts of terror I allegedly support. I was wished a painful death and promised that I will “get what is coming” to me.
I am not complaining; I knew what I was getting into. Others have endured, and will continue to endure, far worse harassment than this. But these tactics must be exposed. The climate of fear that they create must not be allowed to stand.
It’s not just crazies on social media. Efforts to intimidate critics of Israeli policies lately often bear official stamps. The governing body of the University of California recently attempted to categorize opposition to Zionism as a form of hate speech. Professors assigning Edward Said or Noam Chomsky to their students or inviting Palestinian speakers to campus would have risked their jobs and reputations. In a March speech before AIPAC, Hillary Clinton associated the movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions, or BDS—an explicitly nonviolent campaign to exert economic pressure on Israel in order to end the occupation—with global antisemitism and “efforts to malign…the Jewish people.” Many of BDS’ strongest supporters, it must be said, are Jewish.
This did not stop New York Governor Andrew Cuomo from signing an executive order in June that would punish any group that shows support for BDS, effectively creating a blacklist of companies and organizations forbidden from doing business with the state. The New York Civil Liberties Union described Cuomo’s order as “an affront to free expression.” Similar bills are pending in more than a dozen other states. They should be seen for what they are: not brave attempts to combat antisemitism, but a desperate and futile effort to silence valid criticism.
The truth is that in a real sense we have turned a corner. The daily injustices of the occupation are too grave and too widespread to conceal. Our government’s continued support for them is too hypocritical to be sustained. I feel quite safe in predicting that, like Trump’s crudely veiled threat, these efforts at intimidation—both official and freelance—will not be met with passivity. They will not work anymore. Too many of us refuse to be silent.