A law being proposed in New York would create an official blacklist of supporters of the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.
Legal experts and activists say the measure is reminiscent of the McCarthy era and could have drastic consequences for individuals, organizations or firms who engage with the campaign to pressure Israel to respect Palestinian rights.
Anti-BDS legislation was also introduced this week in California.
Two New York bills — one introduced in the state senate and another in the assembly — would require the state government to “develop, using credible information available to the public, a list of persons it determines boycotts [sic] Israel.”
Individuals or entities included on the state’s blacklist would be barred from partnering with state agencies unless they can demonstrate in a written statement that they are “not engaged in boycotting Israel.”
State pension funds would also be prohibited from investing in institutions that have divested from Israel.
Activists with the Palestine Solidarity Collective in New York are collecting signatures for a petition to lawmakers against the bill.
Nearly two dozen North America-based activist organizations are opposing the legislation.
The New York bills are “the most egregious, most McCarthyite, most obvious violations of people’s First Amendment rights,” Josh Ruebner, policy director for the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, told The Electronic Intifada.
If passed into law, the measure could hit local organizations that provide essential community services. Church groups, for example, that may belong to denominations which have passed boycott or divestment resolutions, often receive state funds to provide social programs such as homeless shelters and soup kitchens.
“Does that mean that all these churches will become ineligible to feed the hungry?” Ruebner asked.
A separate resolution pending in New York, HR-567, would condemn the European Union’s decision to accurately label goods produced in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank and Golan Heights.
Last year, Illinois adopted a first in the nation an anti-boycott law that established a screening mechanism to compel the state’s pension board to exclude foreign corporations that have adopted BDS guidelines.
Ruebner said that the Illinois law is now a nationwide model for anti-BDS legislation.
Boycotting the boycotters
In California, financial planner turned ultra-conservative Republican legislator Travis Allen introduced legislation on Monday that seeks to punish businesses that engage with the boycott of Israel.
One bill, AB-1551, explicitly targets the BDS movement and would in effect impose a state boycott of businesses or financial institutions in retaliation for any boycott of Israel.
State pension funds would also be required to pull investments from companies that divest because of human rights concerns.
The second bill, AB-1552, does not mention Israel by name but would prohibit any public entity from entering into a contract unless the contractor agrees not to boycott a member state of the World Trade Organization.
Allen’s anti-BDS bill labels boycotts as “discriminatory business practices,” echoing claims used by the Israeli government that the BDS movement singles out Israel.
In fact, boycott has been used as a tactic against many countries as well as within the United States. The US Supreme Court found in a landmark 1982 ruling on a case dating from the Civil Rights era that the right to use economic boycotts to pursue political ends is free speech protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution.
In a press release announcing the introduction of his bills, Allen praises the “unique bond” between the US and Israel.
He also notes that “California is home to an estimated 2,000,000 Jewish residents,” in effect conflating Jews with Israel.
Allen made Israel advocacy a major part of his campaign for a California state assembly seat in 2012.
He traveled to present-day Israel and the occupied West Bank where he affirmed his Christian Zionist belief that Israel has “a divine right to the whole land, which includes Judea and Samaria” — the term Israel uses for the West Bank.
Claims of anti-Semitism
An anti-BDS resolution that passed in Florida last month — which was backed by a major Christian Zionist organization — claims that the BDS movement “is one of the main vehicles for spreading anti-Semitic perspectives and advocating the elimination of the Jewish State.”
A similar resolution passed in Indiana last year claimed that BDS promotes a climate of “hatred, intimidation, intolerance and violence against Jews.”
As of September 2015, more than two dozen anti-BDS bills and resolutions had been introduced at the local, state and federal level, according to Palestine Legal.
“Stigmatizing and suppressing”
Israel has made it no secret that it views BDS as a major strategic threat, and the scale of the pushback by its allies in the US is one indicator of panic about the growing momentum of this grassroots movement.
But activists from California to New York are already organizing to oppose this kind of legislation.
“Essentially, these bills are more in a series of measures of all sorts — by legislatures, on campuses, elsewhere — to try to undermine meaningful opposition to Israeli policies and US support for them by stigmatizing and suppressing speech and nonviolent action in support of Palestinians’ rights,” David Mandel, a member of the National Lawyers Guild and activist with Jewish Voice for Peace, told The Electronic Intifada.
“It’s not saying that you can’t speak freely, or that you can’t boycott — it’s saying that if you do, then you’re going to be penalized by not getting the benefits of economic relationships with the state or its pension funds or other affiliated institutions,” Mandel said.
This legislation is an attempt to “burden free speech,” Mandel added, which is something that activists and constitutional rights attorneys will challenge.
The laws being passed or proposed cannot directly prevent people from taking action or exercising speech on Palestinian rights issues, Mandel stressed.
“The First Amendment is fortunately still pretty strong, and none of this can or should deter individuals from speaking out and organizing or being active on a policy level or promoting boycotts or divestment,” he said.
Josh Ruebner of the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation sees the alarm shown by Israel lobby groups and their legislative supporters as “recognition of just how much of an impact this movement is having.”
“I take it as a sign that the BDS movement is on the right track and is gaining traction — and is being taken seriously by policy elites in this country,” Ruebner added. “Clearly the authors of these resolutions are fearful of the boycott movement because they understand the writing on the wall.”
Nora Barrows-Friedman is a staff writer and associate editor at The Electronic Intifada, and is the author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine (Just World Books, 2014).