Rain and a canceled Fort Worth City Council public comment meeting did not stop about 20 community members from gathering in front of City Hall to show solidarity with Palestinians.
The group, which referred to itself as a collective and is active on Instagram, read a proclamation Oct. 24 to let elected officials know that they stand in support of the Palestinian community. The gathering occurred after Fort Worth City Council member Elizabeth Beck presented a proclamation to the Council in support of Israel to the Jewish Federation of Fort Worth and Tarrant County.
“We want our Tarrant County community to know that we are acting in solidarity with the Palestinian resistance and liberation. We demand a free Palestine. We will not be silenced. We want everyone to know that there is a community of people here in Tarrant County who is fighting and will continue to fight for a free Palestine,” the proclamation read.
Those in attendance refused to reveal names, citing fear of retaliation for speaking in support of Palestinians or pushing back against Israel’s ongoing siege of Gaza.
This latest escalation between Hamas, a militant group overseeing the 140-square-mile enclave known as the Gaza Strip, and the Israeli government began Oct. 7. While Hamas has been the governing political party of Gaza since 2007, Israel has overseen all boundaries and movement of goods and the over 2 million residents for the past 16 years.
Since the start of the conflict, more than 8,000 Palestinians have been killed, according to the Gazan Ministry of Health. There have been many calls around the world for a ceasefire.
William White, executive director of the Houston chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said government and media rhetoric on the issue has created a culture of fear around expressing support for Palestinians.
America’s foreign policy has been to support Israel — including recent statements made by President Joe Biden — since the early 1950s, White said, and that the dialogue surrounding Palestine has become increasingly one-sided.
“Then you add on Islamophobia and anti-Muslim rhetoric, anti-Muslim policies, but also xenophobia, anti-Arab policies on top of that. And what you have is a perfect concoction for keeping people silent. And not only keeping people silent but establishing a base of fear whenever you want to speak out,” White said.
Moujahed Bakhach, an imam with the Islamic Association of Tarrant County, said the Muslim community is concerned about the current events in the Middle East and pushback against those who speak in support of Palestine.
Bakhach said speaking in support of Palestinians does not also mean support for innocent deaths on the Israeli side.
“We are not supporting any human to be killed innocently,” Bakhach said. “We cannot ignore what’s going on there. And not only there — it’s affecting our own life (here).”
The Fort Worth Report reached out to local leaders of the Jewish community in Fort Worth who declined to comment on the subject.
Judith Norman, a member of Jewish Voice for Peace and a philosophy professor based in San Antonio, said the environment in Texas is very unfriendly when it comes to having a “reasonable conversation about what’s going on in Palestine.”
“I have found a lot of the statements in support of Israel have demanded a lack of context as a condition for sympathy and in that rhetorical environment, we can’t make sense of opinions that say Palestinians are suffering,” Norman said.
CAIR has received 774 reports nationwide of anti-Muslim, anti-Arab, and anti-Palestinian hate crimes and incidents since Oct. 7, White said. That is an increase not seen since Sept. 11, 2001. Current FBI crime data on hate crimes are not yet available.
The number of incidents reported nationally “dwarfs any number that we’ve seen in any quarter of collecting (reports) in the past 29 years that CAIR has been in existence,” White said. “After Sept. 11, the number only went up 1,200 in a month and (now) we’re looking at a barrel of 800 within two to three weeks.”
Palestine Legal, a nonprofit organization that provides legal advice for students, activists and community members who claim their rights were violated for speaking out in support of Palestinians, reported over 260 incidents of backlash against Palestinian supporters over the past two weeks.
These include reports of people losing their jobs for sharing or posting on social media or signing statements in support of Palestinians; students being doxxed or harassed; and increased violence against people of Palestinian, Arab or Muslim origin.
In Chicago, the suspect accused in the recent death of a 6-year-old Muslim Palestinian boy has been charged with a hate crime, among others.
A number of incidents have been reported in Texas. According to White, many of these are cases of employees being doxxed.
“They expressed support for Palestine, and their public information, their address, their phone number, where they work and their pictures are all immediately shared online. That’s not acceptable for anybody. And the fact that that’s what’s happening just goes to show that this is not something that is universally seen as freedom of speech,” White said.
Bakhach, who has been an imam in Tarrant County since 1982, said it’s not the first time the Arab and Muslim communities have suffered from similar fear, especially after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Bakhach said he has been talking with the attendees at the mosque about reacting to the ongoing events in a way that will not “lead even our neighbor to misunderstand us.”
“I tell the community, ‘Be aware of what you talk about in front of your children’ because the children may be asked by the teacher ‘What’s your parents’ opinion about this?’ And if a Palestinian, especially, is going to say ‘Israel this, Israel that,’ that will put the parents in trouble innocently because this is a normal reaction. … ” Bakhach said.
Hate crimes have been on the rise since the start of the Israel-Hamas conflict.
In an Oct. 16 statement, President Joe Biden said that the Department of Homeland Security has been alerted to look for threats that could harm Jewish, Muslim or Arab Americans as a result of current events in the Middle East.
The FBI reported that hate crimes based on race, ethnicity and ancestry represented 59% of all 2022 incidents. Religion and sexual orientation followed at about 17% each. Antisemitic crimes accounted for 29% of all incidents, the highest of all categories, including a hostage crisis at Colleyville’s Congregation Beth Israel.
Speaking out against Israel can also prevent companies from doing business in Texas.
The state passed a law in 2017 that prevents companies from doing business with government agencies if that company boycotts Israel, commonly referred to as anti-BDS law. In 2019, the law was amended after a federal court found the law violated the First Amendment; it now excludes individual contractors and only applies to businesses with 10 or more full-time employees and for contracts of $100,000 or more.
What is the Boycott, Divestment, Sanction or BDS? Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) is a Palestinian-led movement inspired by the South African anti-apartheid movement and calls on companies to divest from their investments in Israel as a way to pressure the country to end its occupation of Palestinian territories and comply with international law.
Thomas Buser-Clancy, senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union, said when the law was originally passed, it showed the state was willing to dictate what speech individuals contracting for the government can engage in. That is unconstitutional, he said.
“I definitely think that having the law on the books in some regard, even within a narrowed scope, still, unfortunately, sends the message that Texas disfavors certain speech and favors other speech,” Buser-Clancy said.
The law was back in court in January 2022 after an engineering firm was unable to renew a contract with the city of Houston after it asked to remove a clause in the contract that the company would not boycott Israel. It was ruled again that the law violated the First Amendment.
Attorney General Ken Paxton appealed the ruling with the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals and the court of appeals dismissed the case based on technicalities, Buser-Clancy said.
Thirty-seven states currently have anti-BDS laws.
Franz Schemmel is the board president of Texas Impact, an interfaith group that works on issues that impact vulnerable people in Texas. While Texas Impact has not taken a stance on the current events in the Middle East, Schemmel said the amplification of extremist views on both sides is coloring the conversation with misinformation and fear.
“Turn off the news a little bit and try to think in a more humane and reasonable way about the folks in the region,” Schemmel said. “Dehumanizing, that’s like one of the first things that starts to happen (during wartime). And that’s kind of what we struggle with. It’s trying to humanize rather than dehumanize the way that we communicate about this.”
As for the Palestinian supporters in front of City Hall, sheltering from the rain with umbrellas and raincoats, the grim weather did not stop them from doing a few loud and proud chants like “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”
Sandra Sadek is a Report for America corps member, covering growth for the Fort Worth Report. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.