Right to Remain Silenced

Over fifty years ago, a local branch of the NAACP began to boycott white-owned businesses in Clairborne County, Mississippi. The goal of this boycott was for white merchants to meet the NAACP’S demands advancing racial justice and equality. In response, many of the white business-owners banded together and sued the NAACP and other participating individuals and organizations for the loss in revenue. The case ultimately went to the Supreme Court which held that boycott constitutes a form of protected free speech.

Except in the case of Palestine

Today, we see the right to boycott routinely undermined in the case of individuals who participate in the Boycott, Divest, Sanctions (BDS) movement. Self-described as a “Palestinian-led movement for freedom, justice and equality,” the BDS movement “upholds the simple principle that Palestinians are entitled to the same rights as the rest of humanity. “Inspired by the South African anti-apartheid movement, the BDS call urges action to pressure Israel to comply with international law.”

About a month ago, a small town in Texas made hurricane relief conditioned on beneficiaries verifying that they do not boycott Israel. Dickinson, Texas is requiring individuals applying for grants to help rebuild homes and businesses damaged by Hurricane Harvey to pledge that they will not boycott Israel for the duration of the grant. Dickinson is not alone in taking anti-BDS action. The state of Texas passed a law earlier this year that forbids the state from contracting with any entity that boycotts Israel. Other major cities in Texas have followed suit. Those contracting with the City of Austin must provide written certification that they are not boycotting Israel. Those contracting with Galveston for neighborhood projects must verify that they are not boycotting Israel. Those contracting with the Early Childhood Education Municipal Development Corporation for the City of San Antonio must provide written certification that they are not boycotting Israel.

Kansas has made similar moves, passing a law that requires all government contractors to provide written certification that they are not participating in boycotts against Israel. Esther Koontz, as recently become a victim of this law. Encouraged by members of her church, the Mennonite Church USA, Ms. Koontz began to boycott companies operating in illegal settlements in Israel. As a result, Ms. Koontz, a curriculum developer and math teacher, is unable to obtain a contract with the state to train teachers, a position for which she is qualified. The ACLU view this law as a clear violation of the First Amendment and has filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Ms. Koontz earlier this month.

Magically, BDS seems to be the one thing that both Democrats and Republican can agree on. All 50 U.S. governors and the mayor of D.C. have signed onto the “Governors Against BDS” initiative. Meanwhile, Congress has introduced a bipartisan federal bill that would make it a felony for Americans to support boycott of Israel. The Israel Anti-Boycott Bill (S. 720, HR.1697)  will make the minimum civil penalty a $250,000 fine. The maximum criminal penalty is $1 million and 20 years in prison. The bill is supported by 50 senators and 266 representatives.

The criminalization of those boycotting Israel and expressing political support for Palestine is a pervasive problem in the United States. The Center for Constitutional Rights and Palestine Legal in September 2015 released a report documenting the widespread incidences of political suppression of those advocating for Palestinian human rights. Of the 300 incidents investigated between January 2014 and June 2015, 85% targeted students and professors on over 65 campuses. Universities, government institutions, Israel advocacy groups, and other entities use tactics including “event cancellations, baseless legal complaints, administrative disciplinary actions, firings, and false and inflammatory accusations of terrorism and antisemitism.” One of the most intense examples of intimidation is Canary Mission, an anonymously-run website solely dedicated to blacklisting activists who participate in Palestinian human rights advocacy such as BDS. This makes lists of over a thousand individuals, posting their names, pictures, extensive biographical data, screenshots of their twitter accounts, links to their websites, blogs, etc. Canary Mission ensures that whenever any of these individuals are googled, e.g., by a potential employer, their name will be found on this list accusing them of “promoting the hatred of the USA, Israel, and Jews.”

This year seems set on becoming the year that the United States will take this suppression above the level of civil society, private institutions, and universities to the level of the government. This move is deeply troubling. And the lack of outrage in response to an extreme degradation of one of our core civil rights? Even more troubling.

Let us not forget the significance of boycott as a tool of political action. Boycotts have been crucial in advancing racial justice. Boycotts were crucial to the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. Boycotts have been critical in our own history with the struggle for racial justice. After all, the legal constitutional right to boycott was established in a case where the NAACP was struggling against racism. Boycott was central to one of the most famous U.S. civil rights campaigns, the Montgomery Bus Boycotts. Boycott in addition to being a fundamental right, is indispensable in the fight for justice. Now, we are witnessing this right being increasingly violated and deteriorated by our government. We cannot afford to stand by idly.