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Report: Anti-Palestinian Racism & Islamophobia in Gaza War Coverage

Published on 20 Nov 2023

In November 2023, the Center for Security, Race and Rights at Rutgers University published a comprehensive report called “Presumptively Antisemitic: Islamophobic Tropes in the Palestine-Israel Discourse,” which examines how anti-Palestinian racism and Islamophobia have been used to shame and silence critics of the Israeli government. 

The report’s executive summary notes that 2023 has become the deadliest year ever for Palestinians, with leading genocide scholars, international law experts, and global human rights organizations warning that the world is “witnessing a genocide, unchecked war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity” by the right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu.

“If there is a hell on earth today, its name is northern Gaza,” according to UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) deputy spokesperson Jens Laerke. Neither Benjamin Netanyahu nor his right-wing political allies have hidden their “genocidal intent” against Palestinians which has been recorded for posterity’s sake throughout the 2023 Gaza war. For instance, Israeli president Isaac Herzog brazenly claimed that there are “no innocent civilians in Gaza” while Netanyahu’s defense minister Yoav Gallant said Palestinians were “human animals” when he promised to cut off food and water to 2 million Palestnians in Gaza after the horrific October 7 Hamas attacks. Israel’s Heritage Minister Amichai Eliyahu was suspended indefinitely after he said in an interview that dropping a nuclear bomb on the Gaza Strip was “one of the possibilities.” Additionally, former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations Dan Gillerman blithely called the Palestinian people “horrible, inhuman animals” as a whole during a TV interview and former head of Israel’s National Security Council (Major General Giora Eiland) publicly said that “Gaza will become a place where no human being can exist.” 

During a press conference, Benjamin Netanyahu himself brazenly referred to all Palestinian people as the people of Amalek from the Old Testament (where God commanded King Saul in the first Book of Samuel to kill every single man, woman, and child in Amalek, a rival nation to ancient Israel). Former information minister Galit Atbaryan said that they should erase “all Gaza from the face of the earth” and Israeli politician Moshe Feiglin told television audiences; “Do not leave a stone upon stone in Gaza. Gaza needs to turn to Dresden. Complete incineration. Annihilate Gaza now!” Despite these vocal statements calling for the wholesale deaths of millions of Palestinians, no western elected official or mainstream media network have accused these individuals of anti-Palestinian racism and/or Islamophobia.

The November 2023 Rutgers report focused on three key areas where anti-Palestinian racism  and Islamophobia currently informs Western foreign policy. First, the researchers focused on restrictions placed on free speech when it comes to questioning America’s unconditional political support for Israel “notwithstanding documented and systematic violations of international law” by the Israeli government against Palestinians. Second, the authors note that there is a perpetuation of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim racist tropes in the global media and Western political circles, claiming that Muslims and Arabs innately hate Jewish people. Finally, the report states that this anti-Muslim and anti-Arab racism results in “discrediting the Palestinian people from realizing their full civil, political, national, and human rights.”

The authors of the report provide solutions to these issues. Firstly,  to combat misinformation, the report states that Western foreign policy development and mainstream media must include the lived experiences/perspectives of Palestinian, Arab, and/or Muslim American voices. Even as Palestinians are the victims  of military bloodshed, political racism, and military occupation for nearly half a century, many Western governments (especially the United States) have treated Palestinians as “inferior and dangerous people who are undeserving of the same international rights” accorded to Jewish Israeli citizens. Even when Netanyahu’s far-right administration officials frequently subject Palestinians to degrading, dehumanizing, and even genocidal rhetoric, many Western governments often choose to criticize both sides as equally culpable in the public arena.

In July 2021, Jewish Currents editor-at-large Peter Beinart wrote a column titled “It’s Time to Name Anti-Palestinian Bigotry” because, he argued, “anti-Palestinianism is as ubiquitous as it is invisible.” Beinart wrote that the term “anti-Palestinianism” does not really exist in our global lexicon mainly because “almost everyone in Congress would be guilty of it” and further noted that across American college campuses, university administrators frequently cancel lectures, classes, professorships, and even entire student organizations, simply because they publicly support human rights for Palestinians. The November 2023 Rutgers report also highlighted this phenomenon and stated that Western colleges and universities must preserve the academic freedom and free speech rights of students and faculty engaged on Palestinian human rights. 

Another important distinction made by the Rutgers researchers included parsing the differences between Islamophobia, anti-Arab racism, and anti-Palestinian racism. They explain that although anti-Arab racism is separate from Islamophobia, the two forms of bias often overlap. A sizable minority of Arab Christians (including nearly 200,000 Palestinian Christians) are not Muslim, but often experience Islamophobia because Americans incorrectly conflate all Arabs with “being Muslim.”

In the US, the first and only Palestinian-American Muslim woman in Congress, Representative Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), has been one of the main targets of both Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian racism in recent times. In September 2021, Congresswoman Tlaib voiced her opposition for additional US military funding for Israel’s Iron Dome defense system, noting that “Israel is an apartheid regime — [these are] not my words, but the words of Human Rights Watch and the words of Israel’s own human rights organization B’Tselem.” It did not take long for Republicans like Congressman Chuck Fleischmann (R-TN) to denounce her immediately saying that “she opposes this because they have a vocal minority in the majority party that is anti-Israel, that is anti-Semitic.”

On November 8, 2023 during the midst of Israel’s ongoing bombardment of the besieged Gaza strip, the U.S. House of Representatives officially voted 234-188 to publicly censure Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib over her “comments critical of Israel and in support of Palestinians” amid the 2023 Gaza War, according to CNN. There were 22 members of her own Democratic party who joined the Republicans in backing a resolution that claimed Tlaib had been “promoting false narratives” and “calling for the destruction of the state of Israel”. In response to her censure, Congresswoman Tlaib publicly stated that her criticism had always been directed towards the Israeli government and its leadership under Prime Minister Netanyahu. “It is important to separate people and government,” Congresswoman Tlaib publicly said after the censure vote. “The idea that criticizing the government of Israel is anti-Semitic sets a very dangerous precedent. And it’s been used to silence diverse voices speaking up for human rights across our nation.”

Throughout her career, Congresswoman Tlaib’s Palestinian Muslim identity has made her a frequent target of political attacks based on the “dual loyalties” trope, which is found in both antisemitism and Islamophobia. In 2019, a Fox News host alleged that Congresswoman Tlaib had a “Hamas agenda,” intentionally referencing a group that would bring violent imagery to the minds of its audience. A few months earlier in January 2019, Republican members of Congress accused the only (and first) two Muslim women U.S. Representatives- Rashida Tlaib and Minnesota congresswoman Ilhan Omar (D-MN)- of antisemitism on account of their support for Palestinian rights and criticism of Israeli government policies. “This portrayal of Muslims as loyal to terrorists and presumptively antisemitic is a well-worn image that, as these examples demonstrate, inform public discourse and public policy,” noted the November 2023 Rutgers report.

A 2019 media study of over 100,000 headlines in major U.S. newspapers found over four times more Israeli-centric headlines than Palestinian ones and that overall coverage around the issue spiked during periods of escalated violence. The study also analyzed 50 years of news headlines on the Israel-Palestine conflict from five major American publications — the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal — employing Natural Language Processing (NLP) techniques to analyze the massive database. “The findings demonstrate a persistent bias in coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian issue — one where Israeli narratives are privileged,” one of the study’s authors told The Intercept. “It calls to attention the need to more critically evaluate the scope of coverage of the Israeli occupation and recognize that readers are getting, at best, a heavily filtered rendering of the issue.”

In the United States, the overall implications for this escalation in anti-Palestinian racism and Islamophobia over the past few weeks has led to employment terminations, school expulsions, and even hate crime murders. Most recently in Illinois, a young 6-year-old Palestinian-American Muslim boy named Wadea Al-Fayoume was brutally murdered on October 14, 2023 after being stabbed 26 times by his family’s 71-year-old landlord. The assailant apparently shouted  “You Muslims must die!” during his murderous hate crime rampage against the young boy and his Palestinian mother, who was critically injured in the attack.

In an October 2023 piece for The Nation, reporter and author Spencer Ackerman wrote about the increased discrimination and fear targeting Pro-Palestine voices (both Muslim and non-Muslim). Ackerman explained that in the past few weeks, individuals who have expressed support for Palestinian human rights have lost jobs, had job offers revoked, been threatened by former-and-possibly-future president Donald Trump with deportation, and been the subject of Senate condemnation. The Pulitzer-prize winning reporter also noted that Florida Governor and presidential candidate Ron DeSantis suddenly became “fond of cancel culture” banning the college group Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) from the state’s public university system.

Ackerman further highlighted that the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) along with the Louis Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law recently sent an “urgent” open letter to over 200 college campuses, urging university administrators to “immediately investigate” their campus chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) for “potential violations of the prohibition against materially supporting a foreign terrorist organization.” “The bottom line has been that the ADL has decided to prioritize its pro-Israel work at the expense of any contribution it’s made in the civil rights space for some time now,” according to Maya Berry, Executive Director of the Arab American Institute (AAI). “From redefining anti-Semitism as anti-Zionism in May 2022 to weaponizing the charge of material support now and the policies of the ‘War on Terror’ against students they disagree with, it’s an extraordinary leap, and one that’s harmed my community for decades, before 9/11 and after,” she continued.

In light of the recent spike in harassment, censorship, abuse, and discrimination targeting individuals supportive of Palestinian human rights, many have drawn attention to similarities between this period and that of post-9/11. “What we’re seeing are McCarthyesque tactics, like those used post-9/11,” said Malak Afaneh, a law student at the University of California–Berkeley. Dima Khalidi, director of the civil rights legal defense group Palestine Legal, also pointed to the likelihood of “surveillance, infiltration, and investigation” of pro-Palestinian speech and association on campus. “These hysterical reactions to students who are taking a political stand in support of Palestinian rights and pose zero threat other than to the notion that we should all toe the dominant line…and dehumaniz[e] Palestinians…is dangerous on many levels, not least of all the potential for criminalization of speech activities,” Ms. Khalidi told The Nation. “This affects all of our fundamental rights to dissent.”

The November 2023 Rutgers University report from the Center for Security, Race and Rights (CSRR) concluded that the misuse of the label of antisemitism- coupled with normalized Islamophobia in American society- has muddied the waters of the 2023 Gaza war coverage. To rectify this, the researchers  recommend that 1) Palestinian voices must be represented in foreign policy development, 2) colleges/universities must preserve the academic freedom and free speech rights of students and faculty engaged on Palestine, and 3) governments must hold Netanyahu’s right-wing government accountable for violations of Palestinians’ human rights.

The late Palestinian academic giant Edward Said once wrote that, “I have not been able to discover any period in European or American history since the Middle Ages in which Islam was generally discussed or thought about outside a framework created by passion, prejudice and political interests.” With over 11,000+ Palestinians killed (alongside around 1,200 Israelis) during this latest horrific disproportionate bombardment of Gaza, the global community continues to witness the price of collective dehumanization and punishment of Palestinians. From the halls of government to television studios worldwide, the current reality is that anti-Palestinian racism and Islamophobia are alive and well, and playing a role in justifying the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent Palestinians (both Muslim and Christian) in the bombed ruins of the Gaza Strip.