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Can We Talk About Free Speech? Probably Not, But Here We Go Anyway!

Basel Abu Ramadan and family.

A month-and-a-half ago, I wrote a story about two Palestinian exchange students who’ve been hosted by Shasta County families. Ali Alijamal, 15, hails from the war-torn Gaza Strip and currently attends Redding School for the Arts. Basel Abu Ramadan, 24, also comes from Gaza and attended Central Valley High School a decade ago as an exchange student.

Basel, his mother, father and four siblings currently live in Rafah, where they’re seeking to cross the border into Egypt to escape Israel’s ongoing war on the Gaza Strip, where at least 35,000 Palestinians have been killed in the past eight months. Although internet service in entirely unreliable in Gaza right now, I’ve been able to keep tabs on Basel and his family’s flight from Gaza.

“We are still alive, it’s horrible and people are evacuating around us,” Basel said via a message on Instagram on May 8. “It’s so sad seeing those hundreds of thousands being displaced. We hope the ceasefire happens soon we desperately need it!”

 

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So far, there’s been no ceasefire, despite repeated (if insincere) requests from President Joe Biden’s administration. Former president and current Republican candidate Donald Trump has called on Israel to “finish the job” as his son-in-law Jared Kushner salivates about developing the Gaza coast.

While Ali Alijamal’s mother, father and brother have safely relocated to Cairo, Ali won’t be joining them soon. On June 6, he’ll journey to Washington, D.C. where the U.S. State Department will grant him asylum and $3000 to start over, according to Jessica French, Regional Director of International Public Diplomacy programs in the U.S. which includes running Shasta County’s exchange student program.

I had discussed this possibility with Ali when I interviewed him in March at his host family’s home, and I’m overjoyed that he’s applied for asylum in the United States. That’s because the Gaza Strip is currently the most dangerous place on earth.

Last weekend in an Instagram message, I tried to reassure Basel that the American people would demand a ceasefire, but trapped in Rafah by the latest Israeli invasion, he wasn’t buying it.

“I understand that, and I am glad that people are moving in the US towards ending the war,” Basel replied. “But Israel is going all-in and started evacuating Rafah to invade it! People are sleeping in the streets. There is no place to go.”

 

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He’s right. There’s no place to go. No one is coming to save the Palestinians. In fact, the U.S. Congress is in the process of passing a law, the Antisemitism Awareness Act, that will make complaining about Israel’s slaughter of innocent Palestinians a hate crime.

It boggles the mind. Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based news outlet, reports that more than 150 journalists have been killed by the IDF in Gaza? Israel bans Al Jazeera. Too many people post videos of Palestinians being massacred by high-tech weaponry provided by the United States on TikTok? Ban TikTok, as the United States government just did.

For me, this is all too reminiscent of Israel’s 2006 invasion of Lebanon. At the time, I was working at a major alternative newsweekly, the Sacramento News and Review. I became a pen pal with a young woman who regularly posted dispatches on the Israeli invasion from Beirut, Lebanon. I had a weekly column at SNR and for the next four years I reported on Middle East events.

The advent of the internet, cell phones and streaming video convinced me that Israel was in the wrong. When the SNR fired me in 2010, I was told by my former boss that Sacramento’s Jewish business community objected to this coverage, and that was why I was being let go.

So, I won’t go out on a limb here. Rather, let local progressive activist Jessica French, Regional Director of International Public Diplomacy programs in the U.S., explain why we must pay attention to both sides in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

“Killing innocent people, especially children, is never acceptable,” French said. “The international community has a moral responsibility to allow and even encourage discourse on such critical issues. Banning protests would not only stifle necessary debate but also hinder efforts to achieve a just and lasting peace. It’s crucial that people are allowed to voice their solidarity with Gaza and advocate for an end to the violence and suffering of innocent civilians.”

As it so happens, French is also chair of the Facebook group, Stop Shasta County Moms for Liberty. French and other members of the group, along with members of the Facebook group Thought You Should Know Shasta County, “canceled” a Moms for Liberty Shasta County event at the Redding Rancheria last month. The event was later held at the Red Lion Inn.

I asked French to square her support for criticism of Israel with her effort to ban the Moms for Liberty event in Shasta County.

“The balance between protecting freedom of speech and addressing the harm caused by certain types of speech is complex,” French replied. “While Moms for Liberty has the right to express their views, society also has mechanisms to hold them accountable and push back against speech that is considered harmful or discriminatory. In our community, there is a large group of people who oppose them, and I think I speak for us all when I say, that as long as they exist, we will continue to fight back.”

Well, that sounds exciting! The next bout takes place Tuesday, May 21 at the monthly meeting of Anderson Union High School District. According to the agenda, Moms for Liberty member and AUHSD chair Jackie LaBarbera and her MAGA school board majority will attempt to usurp control of all the district’s spending and grant decisions.

Make no mistake: This has nothing to do with trans kids. It’s a Christian Nationalist attempt to destroy public schools. If your child attends the Anderson Union High School District, make sure you turn out to represent. The meeting takes place 6 p.m. Tuesday, May 21 at the AUHSD library, located at 1471 Ferry St. in Anderson.

Free speech still exists in the United States, but only if you choose to exercise it.

 “Shasta County Unmasked” airs  live on Tuesdays at 6pm on KCNR 96.5 FM or you can find the podcast on Apple Podcasts & Spotify.

If you appreciate investigative journalist R.V. Scheide’s reporting, please consider a contribution to A News Cafe. Thank you!

R.V. Scheide

R.V. Scheide is an award-winning journalist who has covered news, politics, music, arts and culture in Northern California for more than 30 years. His work has appeared in the Tenderloin Times, Sacramento News & Review, Reno News & Review, Chico News & Review, North Bay Bohemian, San Jose Metro, SF Bay Guardian, SF Weekly, Alternet, Boston Phoenix, Creative Loafing and Counterpunch, among many other publications. His honors include winning the California Newspaper Publishers Association’s Freedom of Information Act and best columnist awards as well as best commentary from the Society of Professional Journalists, California chapter. Mr. Scheide welcomes your comments and story tips. Contact him at RVScheide@anewscafe.com..

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