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July 1, 2013

Banned in Phoenix:
How the Arizona State Bar Association considers analysis
 of international law in the Middle East too controversial?

By Stephen Zunes

The  Arizona State Bar Association (SBA) last month held its annual convention.  It appears that the ban on my participation is still in effect. 

It was exactly ten years ago that the session in which an academic paper I was scheduled to present on the application of international law in conflicts in the greater Middle East was abruptly cancelled just two weeks before its scheduled presentation at the 2003 convention.  No one in the organization’s leadership could explain anything objectionable in the paper, which they acknowledged they had not actually read, but were apparently convinced by a right-wing campaign that I was “anti-Israel” and “anti-American.”  

They have refused to allow me to give the paper at any of their subsequent annual meetings, including the one last month (June).  It is highly disturbing that the level of intolerance and censorship in the post-9/11 political climate is still so strong that even a state bar association actively suppresses scholarly analysis that raises legal questions regarding the policies of the United States and its Middle East allies.

The Initial Banning

In December 2010, I was invited by Steve Doncaster, chair of the World Peace through Law section of the SBA, to present a paper for their panel at the SBA’s annual convention in June the following year on the topic of the application of international law to contemporary conflicts in the greater Middle East, which I accepted.  As a political scientist specializing in international relations of the Middle East, I have put considerable attention on important questions of international law in that volatile region.  

I became aware late that spring that some right-wing ideologues in Arizona started spreading – through e-mail and other means – the false accusation that I was somehow "anti-Israel" and should therefore not be allowed to present my paper at the SBA.  (Concern was also expressed about another participant on the panel, Palestinian-American attorney Joseph Abooleely, who was preparing a paper regarding Israeli violations of international humanitarian law in the occupied territories.)  I did not respond, however, since the charges against me were so ludicrous that I did not imagine that a prestigious body like the SBA could possibly take them seriously.

I was apparently wrong, however.  Rather than bringing these concerns to my attention and inviting me to respond, it appears that outgoing SBA president Ernest Calderon blindly accepted these preposterous charges as true.

Just two weeks before the scheduled convention, Mr. Calderon demanded that the panel be reconstituted to include, in his words, at least two “pro-Israeli” speakers.  Mr. Doncaster – in consultation with other members of the WPTL section – refused, noting that it was never the intent of the program to be focused on a debate about Israel to the exclusion of the many other important issues that were to be addressed.  No one I have contacted at the SBA has been able to tell me of any other time when an SBA president has demanded that a section leader reconstitute a panel on political grounds.

In response to Mr. Doncaster’s refusal to politicize the panel, Mr. Calderon cancelled the panel.  This was after I had bought my plane tickets, arranged accommodations and significantly altered my summer schedule in order to take part.   The SBA board approved the president’s decision the following week, so I was unable to present my paper at the SBA, for which I had taken many hours out of my busy schedule to prepare.

The charges that I was “anti-Israel” seemed rather bizarre since I had long supported Israel's right to exist in peace and security with its neighbors.  A simple search of the Internet would have revealed that I have been frequently subjected to criticism by individuals who really are anti-Israel and I have even been heckled at speeches and lectures by those who accuse me of being a “Zionist.”

My paper prepared for the SBA convention did identify violations of the Fourth Geneva Convention as well as non-compliance with a series of UN Security Council resolutions by the government of Israel in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.  However, the paper also identified similar violations by Moroccan occupation forces in Western Sahara, Turkish occupation forces in northern Cyprus, and U.S. occupation forces then occupying Iraq.  The section on Israel was no more than 20% of the paper and it addressed the issue solely from the perspective of international law, not of the controversial political or ideological questions regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

There are certainly differing interpretations of international law as there are of Constitutional law or anything else, but my analysis was well within the mainstream of international legal opinion.  Despite this, they were apparently were convinced it would be some kind of anti-Israel polemic. The only written work of mine regarding Israel of which the SBA leadership was apparently aware when they decided to bar me from speaking was a small excerpt from an analysis on U.S.-Israeli relations that someone circulated as supposed proof of my “anti-Israel bias” in which I noted the growing controversy over U.S. support for the Israeli government in the face of well-documented violations of international humanitarian law.  In that same article, I discuss Israel's legitimate security needs and ways to more effectively counter the threat from terrorism, yet this was not mentioned in the email circulated among the SBA leadership.

Anyone familiar with my work knows that I do not single out Israel for criticism on the subject of international law or anything else.  I was then completing my book on Morocco's illegal occupation of Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony and the subject to a landmark 1975 decision by the International Court of Justice.  I had recently had chapters included in two edited volumes on the subject of Indonesia's brutal 24-year occupation of East Timor and I had organized a major conference on the topic in San Francisco in 1997. I had recently spent time in Cyprus and was well aware of the humanitarian impact and legal implications of that island's partition by Turkish occupation forces.  Just months before that year’s SBA convention, I was the keynote speaker at the annual meeting of the Tibet Justice Network, a San Francisco-based organization led by human rights attorneys, where I addressed the importance of international solidarity for those struggling against China's oppressive occupation of that Buddhist nation.

I have no bias against Israel or any other country.  I do admit, however, to a bias in favor of international law and in opposition to the invasion, occupation and colonization of one country by another.  That would not seem to be an unusual or inappropriate bias to have for participants in a panel organized by the World Peace through Law section.

The SBA’s Rationale

The SBA justified banning me from speaking at their annual convention on the grounds that its by-laws state that section panels must not be “political or ideological in nature.”  However, despite subsequently sending copies of my paper to the SBA board and officers and repeated requests for feedback, no one in the SBA has ever been able to cite anything about it that was political or ideological in nature. It is also important to note that it was the SBA president who demanded that the WPTL panel be reconstituted to include additional participants whose roles would be not to analyze the application of international law in Middle Eastern conflicts, but to defend the policies of a particular government.  In other words, it was the SBA that insisted the panel become politicized, not me.

The SBA’s acting executive director Robert Van Wyck told me that their cancellation of the seminar was “not meant to imply anything about the nature of your planned presentation, your credibility or your scholarship."  This fails to explain, however, why the SBA president insisted that the panel add at least two "pro-Israel" speakers to the panel.  Since the third panelist, Professor Leslie Rose of the Golden Gate University School of Law, was presenting a paper on Afghanistan and did not even mention Israel, that left only Mr. Aboleely and me.  If Mr. Aboleely's presentation was the only problem, and the SBA was really concerned about “balance,” Mr. Calderon could have insisted upon Mr. Doncaster adding only one “pro-Israel” speaker to the panel.  

In response to the criticism following the cancelling of my presentation, the SBA claimed it was because I had not submitted by support materials for my paper prior to the deadline.  However, at no point did I receive any indication that not getting my support materials in sooner would prevent me from speaking at the conference.  Indeed, I was explicitly told that the only implication of turning them in late was that I would be responsible for copying and distribution.  In any case, to my knowledge no other speaker at any SBA convention has been barred from presenting their paper because they submitted their support materials late.  

In the period between Mr. Calderon’s initial decision to bar me from speaking and the meeting of the executive committee of the SBA board reviewing the decision, I sent a detailed letter to the board members outlining my paper and challenging accusations that I was anti-Israel and that my presentation was political or ideological in nature. The SBA board, however, like the SBA president, apparently was not interested in what I was actually planning to say at the panel, but simply wanted to take the word of some right-wing zealots who falsely claimed that I would be giving some kind of anti-Israel polemic and voted to bar me from speaking.

The World Peace through Law Section ended up renting a room in the resort complex where the convention was being held, but the SBA director informed me that my presentation could have no affiliation with the State Bar or the World Peace Through Law Section, that the SBA would not cover my airfare or other expenses and that I had to clearly state that the presentation was not affiliated in any way with the State Bar and the World Peace Through Law Section.  Under such conditions, I refused to take part.   


Each year subsequently, I have requested that I be allowed to finally present my paper, or an updated version thereof, but to no avail.  The SBA only allows presentations under the auspices of recognized sections, however, and the chastened World Peace through Law section apparently now considers me too controversial to include in their seminars.

It appears, then, that the State Bar Association of Arizona has effectively determined that it cannot tolerate any speakers at its annual conventions raising legal questions regarding the policies of the United States or its allies in the Middle East.  A precedent has now been established that individuals with a right-wing ideological agenda can launch a campaign to defame a scheduled panelist at a state bar association convention and the bar will accept their characterization of the participant and his/her presentation without giving the target of such attacks an opportunity to respond.

It is extremely disturbing that a state bar association, which presumably has an interest in defending the right of free expression, would prevent me and the other panelists from presenting our papers at its convention because of their presumed political content.  For if raising legal concerns about certain policies of Israel’s right-wing government can be interpreted by a prestigious body like the State Bar of Arizona as being "anti-Israel," it would follow that raising legal concerns about certain policies of the of U.S. administrations would therefore be "anti-American."  In other words, the justification for canceling this panel is based upon the false presumption that challenging the legality of particular policy decisions by a government is rooted in an ideologically-driven bias against the country and its people as a whole.

Indeed, one of the e-mails circulated about me just prior to the SBA’s decision to ban my participation quoted some excerpts from a commentary I had written for an on-line publication expressing my opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq and challenging the official rationales from the Bush Administration.  The e-mail demanded that I or another panelist be replaced by someone who can "explain why the United States fully complies with international law" or otherwise supports U.S. foreign policy.

This raises the possibility that the decision by the SBA to ban me from speaking at their convention was not because of anything I might say that would be “anti-Israel,” but that by allowing a paper to be presented where the analysis was based on objective international legal criteria, the fallacies and double-standards utilized by the Bush Administration and, subsequently, the Obama administration, in their attempts to legally justify its policies and the policies of its allies would become apparent.  Perhaps the SBA felt it was important to make sure that the legal community in Arizona not be exposed to information that might question the legal basis for U.S. policy in Middle East.

Even more disturbing is that when the SBA president cancelled the panel and prevented me from giving my paper, he told Mr. Doncaster that he was doing so in response to demands from the “Jewish community.”  Ironically, I have given a number of talks before “the Jewish community” at meetings of national and local Jewish organizations, in synagogues, and campus Hillel chapters, and have generally been well-received.  I am on the advisory board of the predominantly Jewish Tikkun community, have led workshops on combatting anti-Semitism, and have been invited by a number of prominent rabbis and other Jewish leaders to speak before Jewish audiences.

This raises the rather disconcerting possibility that the SBA is falling into the old anti-Semitic tactic of “blaming the Jews” rather than take responsibility for its decision to ban a paper because it raises questions regarding the legality of certain policies by the U.S. government and its allies.

Those who are uncomfortable hearing about violations of international law by the United States and its allies in the Middle East should work to convince these governments to change their policies, not silence those who point them out.  Otherwise, it is simply a case of “killing the messenger” to ban those who want to analyze important contemporary issues of international law.  These need to be part of the public debate within the legal community, even if some people with ideological affinities toward certain right-wing governments do not like these questions being brought out into the open.

[Stephen Zunes is a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco.]