The Meaning of Free Speech During Genocide

As of Nov 10, 2023, over 11,000 Palestinians have been killed by the Israeli government. Israel says that this is in response to the terrorist attack carried out by Hamas on Oct 7, 2023, which was said to have taken the lives of 1,400 Israeli civilians, a number that has now been backtracked and reduced to 1,200 casualties. There is plenty of historical context behind these events, from the 1948 Nakba to Israel’s continued mistreatment of Palestinians.

While this apartheid regime has existed for the past 75 years, and these atrocities for even longer, it has failed to gain adequate coverage by the mainstream media. The main reason for this is that of Israel’s creation, where a UN resolution gave Israel its own state, disregarding and displacing the Palestinian people who resided on the land. Israel is much richer than Palestine, and, however disheartening it may be, standing by Israel is more advantageous for governments across the world for many reasons, including the power of Israel’s financial allyship. Because of this, it is far more uncommon to see a major publication or news outlet throw its support behind the Palestinian people, who have been subject to ethnic cleansing for the past 75 years.

Now, as the world begins to understand the gravity of the genocide that is occuring in Palestine, governments are also beginning to crack down on any criticism of the state of Israel. 

While governments have expressed unwavering support for the Israeli government, despite the war crimes that are being committed daily, it becomes clearer every day that these countries’ populations do not agree. From Yemen to the United Kingdom and the United States, pro-Palestine protests have garnered millions to support their cause. However, as people begin to express their discontent with government support for Israel, these governments are limiting the right to protest and free speech. 

For example, in Germany, a country which outlines that, “every person shall have the right freely to express and disseminate his opinions in speech writing and pictures … There shall be no censorship,” the government is directly opposing what is stated in the country’s legal code. Currently, Germany is banning a number of pro-Palestinian demonstrations, with police attacking citizens for simply wearing a keffiyeh, a traditional Palestinian scarf. These are not only horrifying attacks on free speech, but in direct opposition of what the German government claims to stand for. Germany has justified its actions as combating antisemitism, but it is abhorrent and dishonest to Jews and Palestinians alike to claim that standing up against Israel’s apartheid regime is an antisemetic act.

Germany is not the only country where this is happening, though. Austria, Hungary and Switzerland have all attempted to enact similar bans, while France continues to ban these protests on a case-by-case basis. 

Unsurprisingly, protest is also being heavily suppressed within Israel. In a country that is often lauded as the only democracy in the Middle East, its government is restricting the right to express any disagreement with its current actions. Not only is Israel arresting dozens of its Arab citizens for suspicions of terrorist sympathy, but is also treating social media posts with the Palestinian flag as hate speech. 

Seeing this, a clear act of anti-Arab sentiment and proof that Israel does not see Palestinians as equals, makes me wonder if Israel really has “the most moral army in the world” as it claims. If a global power who arrests citizens for sympathizing with innocent civilians is considered moral, the state of the world is worrisome.

The United States, a country that constantly boasts about its First Amendment rights and the right to free speech, is certainly not exempt from this hypocrisy. Some of the most elite universities in the country, which often pride themselves on being free-thinking and allowing of political speech, are among the harshest opposition to pro-Palestinian speech. 

Columbia University has suspended both JVP (Jewish Voice for Peace) and SJP (Students for Justice in Palestine) over claims that both groups are supporting hate speech. The idea that JVP, a Jewish activist organization with over 700,000 members, is antisemetic is not only laughable, but an insult to every Jewish person who stands against Israel’s crimes. Brown University is yet another example of this, arresting 20 Jewish students for asking that Brown consider a divestment resolution.

It is important to note that free speech within the United States is limited to the prohibition of government retaliation, meaning that groups not associated with the government are free to respond to speech as they wish. This is a bit of a difficult area to navigate, but it is crucial to remember that free speech does not signify speech without consequence. Speech that one simply disagrees with should not be a punishable offense, but speech that is hateful in nature and threatens violence must be addressed. Free speech does have consequences and it has limits, yet the Israeli occupation of Palestine continues to prove that governments will only acknowledge the right to free speech when it suits them. 

A prime example of this within the United States is the censorship of Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib. Tlaib was censured for defending the use of the slogan “from the river to the sea,” which is not violent, despite what Zionists may claim. What this statement means is that Palestine will be a free state for all to exist in, regardless of religion — it is not calling for Jewish genocide as many Zionists choose to believe. While Tlaib, the only Palestinian-American member of Congress, faces a completely unjust censure for this statement, government officials who have called for violence against Palestine have not faced similar repercussions. 

Representative Max Miller has gone so far as to say “I don’t even want to call it the Palestinian flag because they’re not a state, they’re a territory, that’s about to probably get eviscerated and go away here shortly, as we’re going to turn that into a parking lot.” 

This statement is unquestionably violent and does not begin to acknowledge the fact that Palestine is made up of innocent civilians, with half of Gazans being children. Yet, he has not faced any repercussions while Tlaib is censured for speaking on behalf of a country that endures genocide. The double standard here is astounding, and I am ashamed to be represented by those who silence voices advocating for equality while simultaneously failing to condemn others who wish violence upon innocent civilians.

The other side of the coin here is the individuals who are not receiving any repercussions for their actions. While free speech is a cornerstone of democracy and something that must not be taken away, it is important to consider that the right to free speech includes the ability to retaliate. 

While people are free to express themselves in a manner that you choose, they are equally able to respond, whether in agreement or not. And, as explained by UN Secretary-General António Guterres, “addressing hate speech does not mean limiting or prohibiting freedom of speech. It means keeping hate speech from escalating into something more dangerous, particularly incitement to discrimination, hostility and violence, which is prohibited under international law.”

Everyone should unequivocally condemn the vitriol that is being spewed, that which is antisemetic as well as that wishing violence on Palestinians. The University of Southern California has its own issues with this, specifically regarding Professor John Strauss, who was taped on video saying, “I hope they all are killed,” as he walked passed an event held to mourn the thousands of Palestinian lives lost to Israel’s genocide. Not only is his speech not protected from consequence by the First Amendment, but it is in direct contrast with USC policy against hate speech. 

I must add that I do not have faith that USC will uphold what it claims to stand for and unequivocally condemn this violent speech, but I hope that I am wrong. 

Globally, we have been subject to a media campaign to support Israel and suppress any opposition to the Israeli government, labeling the fight for Palestinian liberation as antisemitic. However, it is clear that people across the world do not stand with our respective governments, and it is crucial that we continue to oppose Israel’s violent settler-colonial apartheid regime by using our right to free speech, regardless of the attempt to take it away from us.

The views expressed in opinion pieces do not represent the views of Glimpse from the Globe or its editorial team.