It seems everyone is tweeting about freedom of speech. So let me tell you a story about freedom of speech and the exceptional case of Palestine.
In the days leading up to Israel’s proposed annexation of the West Bank, and in the shadow of Australia being one of only two countries to vote against a UN Human Rights Council resolution condemning the illegal annexation of significant parts of the occupied Palestinian West Bank by Israel, I was scrolling through my Twitter feed. I wondered why those who profess to care about racism, oppression and injustice rarely dare to tether their politics to Palestine. I can name countless public figures, public intellectuals, academics, artists and activists who have been rightly vocal about a long list of global human rights violations and social and racial justice struggles but have never once spoken up in defence of the rights of Palestinians.
In his ground-breaking book Silencing the Past, Michel-Rolph Trouillot argues that the West’s failure to acknowledge the Haitian Revolution—the most successful slave revolt in history—‘shows us that history is not simply the recording of facts and events, but a process of actively enforced silences, some unconscious, others quite deliberate’.
Those of us who are committed to racial justice as an ongoing global project rooted in an understanding of the imperial and settler colonial matrix of power are more than aware of those who approach issues of justice as though they were selecting individual dishes from a smorgasbord. Yes, we see you. In the instance of Palestine, we are sensitively attuned to our erasure in the global human rights industry; to the way in which intersectionality is reduced to a framework for understanding how individuals navigate their local life-worlds across multiples sites of oppression, but rarely scaled up to understand how individuals are implicated in and impacted by the violent politics of Western empire.
What does anti-racism as practice—not a timeline of online platitudes and curated bursts of outrage—actually mean to the many academics, artists and public figures who are vocal about fighting settler colonial and racist violence, but scatter in the dust when anyone mentions Palestine? It was this question that prompted me and my fellow Palestinian sisters and activists, Sara Saleh (human rights advocate and poet) and Micaela Sahhar (poet and researcher) to write an open statement demanding the Australian government publicly oppose the Israeli government’s annexation plans and cease greenlighting Israel’s violations of human rights and fundamental principles of international law. The statement called on academics, artists and activists to support the Palestinian people in their struggle for self-determination and their aspirations for freedom, justice, dignity, and equality for all.
We sent the statement far and wide. The response took us completely by surprise.
Within two days, more than seven hundred had signed the statement. The honour list of signatories includes prominent Indigenous leaders, Elders, artists and writers, most of whom signed on within the first few hours of the statement’s life. Signing on alongside First Nations peoples were some of the most prominent academics and artists in the country, the diversity reflecting a truer picture of the nation. This coming together to express collective solidarity for Palestine is unprecedented. As one Arab Australian activist and academic put it: ‘The signatories are a story in itself’. This was, for us Palestinian Australian activists, a historic moment of hope and affirmation.
There is something quite majestic, irrepressibly moving, about the list of signatories. Scrolling down the page, each name represents more than a mere number in a tally of supporters; a casual gesture of support. To publicly associate one’s name with Palestine is to choose principle over fear. It is a declaration of support that can often have material consequences. We know this personally. And we also know this because academics and artists privately reached out to us to express their support for the statement, but explained that they could not sign because they risked their jobs, they feared a backlash, they did not want to be smeared with accusations of anti-Semitism.
We believe this statement of solidarity is significant not only because of the impressive list of signatories, but because it reckons with settler colonialism, Western imperialism and state-sanctioned racism as a global project that foregrounds First Nations peoples in solidarity with Palestinians. In doing so, it crystallises what it means to truly practice anti-racism in a world where the ongoing impacts of settler colonialism are lethal.
We started the process of approaching media outlets, armed with countless precedents of open letters and statements being published in The Guardian, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Saturday Paper. Overland Journal, with its established track record for platforming marginalised voices, instantly agreed to publish the statement. The statement was also picked up and reported on in the London based The New Arab.
We refused to stop there. We wanted to publish in Australia’s establishment media. The statement was not an opinion piece that could be subjected to editorial scrutiny. We were not requesting a journalist write up a story about the statement. This was not even a request for printed space. It was as simple as publishing a statement online.
As Palestinian Australians, we are accustomed to fighting for a public platform. We are used to being warned to ‘tone it down’, ‘not get emotional’, ‘be civil’, edit our words, amend our arguments, adjust our language, rely on ‘human stories’ over legal arguments, ‘find the local angle’. We are used to our emails being ignored, our calls going to message, switch-desks refusing to give us the names of editors. We are used to our articles being held up, only to be rejected as no longer ‘newsworthy’. We are subjected to unethical practices such as our articles being edited by Zionist political lobby groups—without our consent or knowledge— resulting in requests for our articles to be amended based on the feedback given by lobbyists.
We are familiar with all the strategies of silencing, invisibilising and stonewalling.
To reckon with apathy, double standards or pushback is one thing. But to confront deliberate erasure is another. We were—and are still—being met with a concerted strategy of disappearing and silencing Palestine in public discourse.
In a political climate in which people of colour are demanding a right to public space, challenging systemic and institutional racism and protesting against racial injustice and state violence, we believe this statement speaks to the moment. Instead, we are met with an actively enforced silence.
The kind of silence that is rendered visible because of the number of attempts we made to elicit a response. The responses we did get included irritated defensiveness; we were made to feel like we were hustling, unreasonable in our polite requests for updates and explanations. How ironic that the same day this particular exchange was playing out on social media with an editor at The Saturday Paper, the same paper published an open letter addressed to the City of Sydney requesting the relocation of the Captain Cook statute at Hyde Park to a public museum. Virtue signalling at its finest. Statues are a safe bet, but opposing settler colonialism, land annexation and apartheid in Palestine is a bridge too far for The Saturday Paper.
To date, our efforts to publish the statement in establishment media have been met with silence, stonewalling and obfuscation. The rhetorical shields and strategies deployed to deflect, block and censor Palestine and its supporters constitute a form of violence against colonised peoples who are fighting both physical erasure in Palestine and erasure from public discourse here.
In April this year, Guardian Australia published an open letter from over 100 of Australia’s arts organisations imploring the Federal government act to protect the industry from the impact of coronavirus. Last month The Guardian published an open letter from artists, venues, festivals, music industry professionals urging a rescue package for the music industry. In September 2019, The Guardian published an open letter from over 250 academics declaring support for climate rebellion. In the same month it published an open letter signed by 40 law academics pledging to support transgender students. In October 2019, an open letter by 240 leading scientists calling on Scott Morrison to stem the extinction crisis affecting Australian native species was published.
In response to this statement signed by over 700 academics and writers, including First Nations people and people of colour, The Guardian’s response was: ‘We don’t have capacity to take the story at the moment’.
What does ‘capacity’ mean? Was it about space? The Guardian is an online platform so ‘space’ is not an issue. Was it staff labour? All that was required was to publish an existing statement. When I pressed the editor for clarification, I was told that she had taken it as far as she could in her position and that she had ‘no say in our coverage of global politics’. Notice the rhetorical shield here, the attempt to excise the statement of solidarity to the global domain: in other words, your statement is unconnected and irrelevant to us here. And yet this was a statement by First Nations peoples and Australians calling the Australian government to account for its track record of complicity in enabling the Israeli state to suppress the aspirations of the Palestinian people to self-determination. It was ‘timely’ and easily ‘hooked’ by the Australian government’s vote at the United Nations. It was also a statement that explicitly drew connections between the local and the global, grounding the call to action in current global justice movements and the global and interconnected struggles against state-sanctioned violence.
Palestine is an unfailing litmus test of freedom of speech. It is a test so-called progressives fail over and over again. This week has offered a litany of examples demonstrating Palestinians are the exception in ‘free speech’ debates. This week, Harper’s Magazine published an open letter by some of the English world’s most powerful writers, journalists and public intellectuals claiming that ‘the free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted’. Palestinians on social media were quick to point out what so many others either failed or did not care to notice. The list of signatories bemoaning ‘the restriction of debate’ included Cary Nelson, who supported the firing of Palestinian academic Steven Salaita from a tenured professorship at the University of Illinois for his tweets condemning Israeli war crimes, Bari Weiss who has a long history of involvement in numerous campaigns to vilify and ruin the careers of several Arab and Muslim professors due to their criticisms of Israel, JK Rowling, who, long before her transphobic tweets, responded to a call for a cultural boycott of Israel by signing a counter statement against the boycott of Israeli products, and Margaret Atwood, who responded to an open letter from Gaza students asking her to reject a million dollar prize from Israel with ‘we don’t do cultural boycotts’. As social media was abuzz with debate about the Harper’s Magazine letter, over on Instagram, model Bella Hadid’s story posting a photograph of her Palestinian father’s passport with the caption ‘I am proud to be Palestinian’ was removed by the platform ‘because it went against the platform’s community guidelines’. Here was social media’s annexation of Palestinian identity, expression and agency on show for all to see.
And the most recent, the Sydney Morning Herald published a statement signed by 27 artists and film industry professionals criticising anti-racist activists for ‘tearing down’, ‘public shaming’ and ‘burning down’ the film industry. The letter read like a watering down of radical activism. As somebody who has been burnt by the film industry and felt herself suffocated by the constricting, censorious whiteness of its structures, I was disappointed. I wondered why this letter justified a place in the opinion pages of The Sydney Morning Herald when our statement had been ignored.
Censoring Palestine is an effective way to elide the deeper political and historical causes of global injustice, the interconnections and global intersections of state violence. When Palestine is suppressed, so-called progressives can comfortably posture as progressive without having to complicate their politics by interrogating their complicity in whitewashing crimes against Palestinians. We have a name for this. PEP. Progressive Except Palestine.
If solidarity is a moral imperative, and not performative selective posturing, it must be uncompromising, reflexive and honest. In a time of social media, where Israeli war crimes and human rights violations are exposed online, there are no longer blind spots, pleas of ignorance or ‘it’s complex’. Whilst the statement was deliberately stonewalled by mainstream Australian media, it remains a powerful affirmation that colonised people will stand together despite attempts by powerful institutions to stifle and undermine this kind of collective solidarity.
Randa Abdel-Fattah is an internationally award-winning author, former lawyer and a human rights and anti-racism advocate. She is currently a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Sociology at Macquarie University where she researches race, Islamophobia and the war on terror.