israel-hamas war

The Suppression of Israel’s Critics Bolsters the Case for Free Speech

Photo: Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Israel’s campaign against Hamas has already killed thousands of Palestinian civilians and dozens of relief workers. Its siege of the Gaza Strip has rendered 12 of that region’s hospitals nonfunctional and triggered a fuel shortage so acute that the United Nations may soon be forced to suspend its aid operations. As the bombardment and blockade erode sanitation and clean-water access, there is a burgeoning risk of a major disease outbreak exponentially increasing the civilian death toll.

Some may insist that these are the tragic costs of a just war. But even supporters of Israel’s campaign should be able to recognize that policies with harms this profound warrant open debate.

Yet in the United States, critics of Israeli policy are finding their speech increasingly suppressed. On Tuesday, Florida banned the pro-Palestinian activist group Students for Justice in Palestine from its public university campuses. The Jewish American writer Nathan Thrall, who just published a book about Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, has had his speaking events abruptly canceled, while American public media has pulled all advertisements for his book.

Last Friday, the Manhattan literary venue 92Y canceled a talk from the novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen in apparent retaliation for his having signed an open letter opposing Israel’s bombardment of Gaza. Michael Eisen, the editor-in-chief of the journal eLife, was fired for retweeting an Onion article headlined, “Dying Gazans Criticized for Not Using Last Words to Condemn Hamas.” Eisen subsequently clarified that he was “horrified and traumatized by what Hamas did” but also “horrified by the collective punishment already being meted out on Gazans, and the worse that is about to come.” The Boston Palestine Film Festival canceled its live screenings, while a Houston Hilton backed out of hosting a conference for the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights, citing security concerns. Billionaires and nonprofit organizations are explicitly trying to ruin the careers of law students who signed an open letter that claimed Israel was entirely responsible for the October 7 attack (a malign position that is nevertheless distinct from an affirmative defense of terrorism).

The suppression of pro-Palestinian advocacy in the United States is not new. Universities have been trying to block the formation of Students for Justice in Palestine chapters for years. Thirty-five U.S. states have passed laws deterring participation in boycotts of Israel. Still, efforts to police speech on Israel-Palestine have intensified in recent weeks. This is a lamentable development for the health of American civil society. It is also an awkward one for some of our nation’s culture-war coalitions.

In recent years, social-justice activists have made a practice of seeking to deplatform or punish speech on the grounds that it (1) causes emotional (or theoretically physical) harm to oppressed groups or (2) is motivated by bigotry. Others on the left have argued that organizations and institutions canceling speakers or refusing to platform certain perspectives was itself an exercise of First Amendment rights worth defending: The “freedom of association” entitles Americans to form collectives that dissociate from some forms of speech.

Anti-woke types of the center and the right, meanwhile, tended to decry such censoriousness as an illiberal bid to impose orthodoxy on others through emotional blackmail and institutional capture. And they were also inclined to emphasize that “free speech” is not just a matter of constitutional law but a civic ethos. Sure, activist groups have a right to pressure a hotel into canceling a rival political movement’s conference, and that hotel also has a right to comply. But whether they should exercise those rights — or, more to the point, whether it is healthy for democratic life if the practice of deplatforming controversial groups becomes widespread — is a separate question.

The Israel-Hamas war has flipped the ideological valence of these positions. Now, many on the right are fighting to suppress Palestinian speech on the grounds that it is motivated by antisemitism and emotionally harmful to Jews (i.e., members of a historically marginalized group). And these conservatives are leveraging the institutional power of Israel hawks in order to deplatform their adversaries. Meanwhile, social-justice activists have taken to condemning the deplatforming of pro-Palestinian speech as a threat to America’s civic health.

All this will lead some to conclude that appeals to “free speech” are invariably opportunistic. But it isn’t true that everyone is a hypocrite on these questions. Many critics of the left in general — and of pro-Palestine activists in particular — have condemned the suppression of anti-Zionist speech. And many progressives have consistently defended liberal speech norms over the past decade, even when that has meant tolerating the platforming of right-wing speakers.

The “pro-free speech left” is now claiming vindication. In their account, the suppression of pro-Palestinian speech illustrates the vitality of the liberal norms that censorious progressives have been blithely eroding. For it is the marginalized — not the powerful — who are easiest to silence in the realms that actually matter. Progressive students may have the power to browbeat university administrators into inhibiting right-wing speech (the customer is always right, after all). But in the wider world, norms that rationalize the suppression of controversial perspectives will be leveraged most effectively by those with economic, social, and political power. Thus, by embracing various tactics of speech suppression, social-justice activists undermined proponents of Palestinian liberation.

I’m sympathetic to this outlook. In general, I think that norms of free and open debate are in the best interests of groups with limited social power. This said, I’m not sure it’s actually true that left-wing activists might have averted the current crackdown on pro-Palestinian speech if only they hadn’t done so much “deplatforming” over the past decade.

It seems possible that, if everyone on the American left had unanimously agitated for liberal discourse norms in recent years, pro-Israel groups might find it a bit more difficult to deplatform authors, disemploy editors, and shutter student groups today. But it also seems possible that none of that would have made much difference. After all, we don’t live in a world where powerful interest groups or politicians feel constrained by nonbinding social norms or allegations of hypocrisy. Would Ron DeSantis really have hesitated to shut down Students for Justice in Palestine if college students hadn’t been doing things like, say, canceling a guest lecturer for agreeing with a majority of Americans about affirmative action? It seems to me that literary venues and public radio stations would still have an incentive to avoid platforming pro-Palestinian speech in that alternate universe simply because America’s pro-Israel constituency is well organized and well resourced and pro-Israel views are fairly popular in the United States.

Nevertheless, I think the “pro-free speech” left’s broader point stands: The suppression of pro-Palestinian voices underscores the value of upholding liberal speech norms — less because doing so will necessarily safeguard the free expression of the marginalized than because it protects one’s own intellectual integrity.

Human cognition is riddled with systemic biases. We are all inclined to see our existing beliefs confirmed, particularly when those beliefs are integral to our social identities. Our default mode is therefore to screen out, belittle, or rigorously scrutinize information that contradicts our core beliefs, while gravitating toward (and uncritically accepting the validity of) information that confirms our priors.

These tendencies may have an evolutionary basis. Seeking out the objective truth about abstract questions with little direct bearing on daily life, without any concern for the core beliefs of one’s community, probably wasn’t conducive to survival during our species’s formative years. People who avoided developing ideas that would enrage their clan probably had more reproductive success than those who were inclined to make observations like “The evidence for the existence of the yam gods seems weak.”

But even today, the costs of recognizing a political truth denied by one’s social group tend to outweigh the personal benefits of being right. For an American Jew whose closest friends and family are all right-wing Zionists, recognizing the injustice of the West Bank occupation might threaten their most important social relationships. By contrast, realizing that Palestinians in the West Bank live under apartheid rule would have not only no personal benefits for that individual, but also no actual impact on Israeli policy. The incentive to screen out information about Israel’s mistreatment of the Palestinians — or else to find rationalizations for it — would therefore be very strong.

In any event, anyone who is familiar with the rudiments of social psychology, or who has changed their mind about something and retrospectively recognized that they had been willfully ignoring discomfiting facts, knows that we are all subject to motivated reasoning and identity-protective cognition. Given that reality, we are inclined to seek rationalizations for refusing to engage with ideas that threaten our core beliefs.

One potential rationalization for shutting out a threatening idea is to observe that it is popular with bigots. And yet, as anyone with left-wing views on the Israel-Palestine conflict recognizes, the fact that many bigots like an idea does not mean that it is wrong. There is no question that some critics of Israel are motivated by antisemitism. But just because an antisemite says that Israel is showing a callous disregard for innocent life in Gaza doesn’t make it untrue.

Similarly, many critics of Harvard’s consideration of race in admissions were surely motivated by anti-Black animus. Yet the fact that some bigots accused Harvard of systematically discriminating against Asian applicants did not make that claim untrue.

If our core beliefs are informed by historical injustices committed against our ethnic group, we’re liable to cling to those beliefs even more fiercely. And we might well have a strong, negative emotional reaction to seeing those beliefs challenged, especially if we have some cause for thinking that the people challenging them are motivated by prejudice. But the fact that the descendant of a Holocaust survivor might feel emotionally rattled by a pro-Palestinian speaker does not invalidate that speaker’s point-of-view.

Therefore, in the context of Israel-Palestine, it’s clear that an idea can be popular with bigots, offensive to members of a historically oppressed group, and nevertheless still true. And I think that insight should lead free-speech-skeptical progressives to recognize that the same can be hold in other contexts. This reality, combined with the fact that we all have an inclination to ignore or disqualify information that challenges our core beliefs, should lead us to set a high bar for what forms of speech warrant suppression. After all, if we police speech too aggressively, we may end up trapping both ourselves and society more broadly in grave political or moral errors.

Matthew Yglesias illustrated this point well in a recent column about the suppression of speech critical of Israel:

[Irish entrepreneur] Paddy Cosgrave had to step down from running Web Summit after saying Israel was committing war crimes in Gaza. People were mad, presumably, because they don’t think anything Israel did deserves that label. But suppose you’re not an Israel-hater and don’t spend your time plugged into anti-Israel content and your general inclination is to have confidence in the IDF’s ethics. Well, how would you know if you ever turned out to be wrong about this and Israel did commit war crimes? Presumably someone who is not you would notice the war crimes and point them out, and you’d hear about it second-hand and be skeptical at first and then hear about it from someone else and look into it in more detail and find out that the person you heard about it from was right. This doesn’t work very well if everyone’s understanding is that talking about Israeli war crimes is a career-ender.

None of this means that hotels, literary venues, social-media companies, and universities should place no boundaries on the types of speech they will platform. It does not degrade our collective epistemic health to marginalize speech that promotes dangerous, debunked conspiracy theories or that is explicitly hateful. But the distinction between speech that is manifestly bigoted and speech that is implicitly bigoted, in the subjective view of someone who disagrees with it, is an important one. Preventing someone from calling for the extermination of all Israeli Jews at 92Y does not impair a healthy debate over U.S. policy toward Israel. But preventing someone from criticizing Israeli war crimes because their focus on those war crimes arguably betrays an antisemitic double standard isn’t conducive to a healthy democratic discourse.

Some may counter that there are many ideas that are not explicitly hateful but that have the potential to harm vulnerable groups nevertheless. And sometimes, imposing a high social cost on those who voice such ideas is a more effective way of minimizing harm than trying to “win the debate.” I think this is a serious objection. But I suspect that trying to protect vulnerable groups through speech suppression will only ever be of partial or temporary efficacy, as such groups by definition have limited power to dictate the bounds of acceptable debate throughout a society, even if they may have the influence to do so within discrete institutions or subcultures. Weighed against the hazards of insulating our own bad ideas from edifying criticism and undermining norms that constrain (however partially) the censoriousness of reactionary interests, I don’t think the progressive case for suppressing (non-hate) speech is compelling.

All of which is to say: Those who claim to value an open discourse should fight the suppression of pro-Palestinian speech. And those who support the Palestinian cause should value an open discourse.

The Israel-Palestine Conflict Makes the Case for Free Speech