US surveillance of pro-Palestinian speech has a direct line to the 1960s | Chip Gibbons

On Monday, 13 May, the Israeli historian and professor Ilan Pappé landed in Detroit, Michigan. Upon his arrival, agents from the US Department of Homeland Security detained and interrogated him for two hours. According to Pappé, DHS asked him whether he was a Hamas supporter, whether he believed Israel was committing genocide and what his “solution” to the Middle East conflict was. Agents also reportedly asked him to identify “his Arab and Muslim friends in America”.

During his interrogation, DHS agents held a long phone conversation, which Pappé speculated may have been with Israeli officials. Pappé was eventually admitted to the US, but only after DHS copied the entire contents of his cellphone. (Initially, Pappé reported he had been interrogated by the FBI; he has since clarified that it was agents of the DHS.)

Pappé is a respected academic known for his scholarship arguing that the expulsion of Palestinians during the Nakba was a deliberate act of ethnic cleansing central to Israel’s creation. Pappé is also known for his anti-Zionist politics. There is nothing to suggest any connection between Pappé and Hamas.

In the US, however, counter-terrorism authorities are often deployed to surveil political speech. Opponents of Palestinian rights both within and outside government frequently conflate political views they dislike with terrorism. This demonizes supporters of Palestinian rights in the public sphere and paves the way for the type of government harassment to which the DHS subjected Pappé. Such actions are part of both the McCarthyite atmosphere those with pro-Palestinian politics face and the broader history of political policing in the US.

During the first half of the 20th century, a political policing apparatus crystalized in the US. Local police developed anti-communist “red squads”, the FBI developed a sprawling domestic intelligence program targeting “subversives” and congressional committees investigated “un-American activities” and threats to “internal security”. Many of these bodies predated the cold war, but their brand of zealous anti-communism received a tremendous boost thanks to the cold war.

Red-hunters cast wide targets. J Edgar Hoover’s FBI claimed its mandate against subversives gave it the authority to track those who might be merely influenced by subversives. The FBI justified its vicious campaign against Martin Luther King on the basis that the agency needed to monitor potential communist influence on the civil rights movement.

By the mid-1970s, counter-subversives, however, found themselves on the defensive. Millions of Americans of many political stripes had participated in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movements that counter-subversives had spied on in the name of domestic security. Richard Nixon, an alumnus of the House Un-American Activities Committee, was forced to resign the presidency due to a domestic spying scandal. And opposition to the Vietnam war produced skepticism of the security state writ large. Congress investigated the intelligence agencies, checks were placed on political spying, and Huac was abolished.

But as soon as these checks were put in place, counter-subversives discovered a new raison d’être: terrorism. Everything from the FBI’s surveillance of leftwing groups to reviving Huac were rebranded as counter-terrorism necessities. The McCarthyites-cum-counter-terrorism proponents initially focused much of their ire on the same groups they had previously fixated on as “subversives”. They also increasingly set their eyes on pro-Palestinian activists.

Opponents of civil liberties claimed that Palestinian rights supporters, or even those just engaged in humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian people, had turned the US into a hotbed of terrorism. Protections designed to prevent the abuses of the Hoover era were blamed. The FBI stepped up surveillance of pro-Palestinian activists. Just four years after the 1975 Church committee, the FBI was conducting a sprawling international terrorism investigation into the General Union of Palestinian Students.

The investigation found no evidence of terrorism, but the FBI continued for 10 years to monitor purely political speech. During the first Gulf war, the FBI visited Arab Americans to interview them and reportedly ask their views on Palestine. Throughout the 1990s, the FBI used its foreign counterintelligence powers to surveil American supporters of the Palestinian cause.

To this day, the US has continued to surveil speech in defense of Palestine using counter-terrorism as a pretext. While there has long been a “Palestine exception to free speech”, since the launch of Israel’s latest war in Gaza the situation has escalated dramatically. Pappé is far from the only critic of Zionism to be stopped at the US border to be asked about their views on Palestine or have their phone searched. Palestine Legal has reported an uptick in FBI questioning of pro-Palestinian activists.

Members of Congress in both parties have called for the surveillance of pro-Palestinian activists, demonized them as terrorists or the agents of foreign governments, and abused Congress’s oversight powers to conduct their own inquisitions of pro-Palestine activism.

Pappé’s account of his DHS questioning is chilling. Congress has long held that “unjustified investigations of political expression and dissent can have a debilitating effect upon our political system”. Pappé’s temporary detainment and interrogation is unfortunately nothing new: it’s part of a longer history of political policing and intimidation of pro-Palestinian speech.

Chip Gibbons is the policy director of Defending Rights & Dissent. A journalist and researcher focusing on the US national security state, Gibbons is currently working on The Imperial Bureau, forthcoming from Verso Books; based heavily on archival research and documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, it tells the history of FBI political surveillance and explores the role of domestic surveillance in the making of the US national security state

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