A student from Fair Lawn, N.J., learned a valuable lesson this week on the arbitrary limitations of the first amendment. The amendment was designed to prevent the government from creating laws that prohibit freedom of speech, religion and the press…unless you’re talking about the state of Israel, of course.
The 16-year-old high school student was “reprimanded” by her school for remarks she made on social media that have been described as “anti-Israel.” No, she did not scream fire in a crowded movie theatre, spew hateful rhetoric against Jews or Judaism or engage in any other speech that endangered lives or spread hate against a particular minority. She simply disrupted the mainstream narrative surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
If you’re thinking she must be some disgruntled Middle Eastern refugee who is simply anti-Semitic, you’re wrong. Bethany (Benny) Koval is a teenage girl from Jersey who is not only Jewish, but has relatives currently living in Israel.
She took to twitter to express her dissent with her country of ancestral origin on the treatment of Palestinians. During an argument with a classmate, for example, Koval remarked that she didn’t think Hamas was that “extreme.”
“Hamas is just painted that way. Hateful rhetoric against Hamas is what allowed the Gaza bombing,” she said. Shortly thereafter, she was called down to the principal’s office, tweeting:
“Principal just called me down…I’m about to be exposed for being anti-Israel. Pray for me.”-
When the story broke, the hashtag #IStandWithBenny began trending on Twitter, and the school district superintendent responded in a statement:
“We stress at the outset that at no time have district officials sought to censor or reprimand any pupils for their online speech.”
A simple overreaction? Maybe the school district was just a bit overzealous? That may have been the case, until the school district took a step further. Bethany (known as Benny online) took to Twitter again to announce that her school administrators threatened to file a case.
The school was referring to one of the strictest anti-bullying laws on the books in New Jersey. Ironically, they saw no parallel between bullying and three adult administrators intimidating a 16-year-old child behind closed doors over her views about a foreign nation’s domestic policies.
In addition, they weren’t exactly thrilled when they found out that she had brilliantly recorded the conversation.
Perhaps the 6,000 tweets she received, in support of her outspoken condemnation of Israeli policy against the Palestinian population, were also an overreaction from those disgruntled anti-Semitic refugees or something. Well, perhaps that would be easier to believe if that was, in fact, what they were.
Here are some of those tweets:
Maybe it would be easier to chalk this up to an overreaction, if this was the first time the world of academia had been the target of a censorship scandal surrounding Israeli policies.
Steven Salaita, an American Scholar and former professor at the University of Illinois was allegedly fired for the comments that he made on social media during Israel’s “operation protective edge” campaign in the summer of 2014, when more than 500 Palestinian children were robbed of a future by the Israeli army.
On the upside, Benny Koval received 6,000 tweets of support and renewed my faith in humanity and the millennial generation — and I know I’m not alone.
Though Mr. Salatia did not receive an apology, let alone his job back after the incident, and Ms. Koval’s future with the Fairlawn School District has yet to be determined, they are a couple of instances in a string of events that demonstrate a changing sentiment in the collective consciousness surrounding unethical Israeli policies.
For example, this past December, a lawsuit was filed against the United States Treasury Department and the IRS for allowing alleged “non-profit organizations” to donate more than $280 billion dollars in tax-exempt donations to build illegal settlements in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza.
For those who are unaware of what constitutes an illegal settlement, it’s when the Israeli Defense Force is ordered to bulldoze Palestinian homes inhabited by Palestinian families to make room for Israeli Jewish settlers — sometimes while Palestinians are still in their homes.
Several contributors were mentioned in the suit, such as billionaire Sheldon Adelson. Shelly is not too fond of criticism against him or against Israel. The truth doesn’t attract tourists to his Las Vegas casinos or help boost Israeli tourism. In 2011, he threatened Israeli Channel 10 with a lawsuit after Shelly became upset with a particular broadcast; the news coverage questioned how he received a casino license for his Las Vegas Sands, eluding that it was the result of his “political connections.”
Did I mention Adelson is quite fond of Republican policies? So he “allegedly” uses tax shelters to funnel money to organizations that perpetuate Israeli policies, ones that have been characterized by many as “apartheid” policies– including the International Criminal Court (ICC), former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and my new favorite Jersey girl, Benny from Fairlawn.
So, when you complain about hiked tax rates and budget cuts to education, while you struggle to pay for your student loans and your rent without starving, rest assured that the Israeli occupation of Palestine is protected by our first amendment and our tax dollars.
Apparently, the $3.1 billion dollars allotted by our government annually to support the Israeli military just doesn’t cut it. According to Jeremy M. Sharp, a Middle Eastern affairs specialist who authored the Congressional Research Service’s report, “U.S. Foreign Aid to Israel,” published on June 10, 2015, that’s more than $10 million a day in taxpayer money.
In addition to that, Israel receives $1 billion dollars annually in “charitable donations” from “charitable organizations.” Sounds legal. The only problem is that the law defines charitable organizations as those that are “eliminating prejudice and discrimination” and “defending human and civil rights secured by law.” Oops, someone forgot to read the fine print or (more likely) turned a blind eye.
The laws designed to protect us from exploitation and abuse by powerful entities are now being used by those very same powerful entities to exploit and abuse us.
Israel hardly works to “defend human and civil liberties” and “eliminate prejudice and discrimination” when they exonerate a soldier for murdering a peace activist while following State orders to demolish Palestinian homes, simply because they’re not the “right ethnicity.” I’m speaking, of course, of Rachel Corrie.
Her parents still haven’t received justice for the wrongful murder of their 23-year-old daughter. Corrie was a peace activist who was crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer on March 16, 2003, in a non-violent attempt to protect the members of a Palestinian family and their home. I’m no lawyer, but that sounds like “wrongful death” to me. Those IDF bulldozers cost money, and I’m sure cleaning up human flesh costs a pretty penny.
So, in this context, is it remotely reasonable to accuse a 16-year-old Jewish-American high school girl from New Jersey of “bullying” such a powerful nation-state like Israel?
What does it say about our laws and judicial system when authority figures will exploit laws –initially designed to protect weak and vulnerable members of our society from abuse — in order to prosecute average citizens for criticizing a foreign ally, one who receives protection and billions of dollars from powerful elitists?
This isn’t just an issue of the erosion of our First Amendment rights; the laws designed to protect us from exploitation and abuse by powerful entities are now being used by those very same powerful entities to exploit and abuse us.
We live in a society where the rich and powerful are heralded as vulnerable victims and where the powerless and the vulnerable are being accused of victimizing the powerful.
It’s an Orwellian nightmare where “war is peace” and “peace is war,” a phrase I never truly understood until I witnessed the wealthiest and most influential global figures manipulate civil rights laws to shield themselves, and to imprison and silence those who oppose them.
Photo from liberationnews.org