Anti-Boycott legislation: A helpful or dangerous response to rising Anti-Semitism?

Bahia Amawi, a Speech Pathologist sues Texas over anti BDS clause in her contract

Incidences of anti-semitism rose by 57% in 2017 over the previous year according to a report issued by the Anti Defamation League. The most common image to flash through one’s mind upon hearing this is likely one of torch-bearing neo-nazis and white supremacists. What is notable about this report on the rising anti-semitism, however, is that it identifies that anti-semitic attitudes are also on the rise among progressives, the political left. This frequently occurs when concern for equal human rights of all occupants of the Holy Land, and opposition to Israel’s military occupation of the Palestinian Territories, morphs into generalizations and stereotypical attitudes regarding all Jews and Judaism at large.

These facts, punctuated by the recent shooting in a Pittsburgh synagogue, should cause concern and a commitment to counter antisemitism in each of us. Before anti-semitism can be accurately identified and countered, its nuances and defining markers need to be delineated. There is a danger on one hand of truly anti-semitic attitudes or rhetoric being cloaked as “justifiable critique of the state of Israel.” On the other hand, charges of anti-semitism can be weaponized in an attempt to quell legitimate critique of the actions of the government or military of Israel.  

A recent example of this tension is the suit brought against the state of Texas this week by Bahia Amawi.  Amawi is a speech pathologist, who has worked for the public school system in Texas for 9 years.  This year, she felt unable to renew her contract with the state of Texas, because of a clause that  has been added to the contract, requiring her to pledge that she will not participate in any boycott actions directed against the state of Israel.  A Palestinian American, she carries legitimate concerns for the rights of her people that live under the military occupation of Israel.  To sign such a contract would compromise her personal integrity. She has filed suit that the required pledge in her contract to work for the state school system violates her right to free speech or expression. 

A similar issue arose last year when citizens of Texas, applying for aid to recover from losses in severe flooding, were initially requested to sign such an anti-boycott clause.  Over 20 states (including PA) have passed similar laws requiring would-be-contractors with the state government to sign an oath to not participate in boycotting Israel. The Federal legislators are also considering enacting such legislation.

The anti-boycott legislation is largely in response to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement [BDS]. BDS is a “Palestinian-led movement for freedom, justice and equality. BDS 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.” Eleven years after its birth, “BDS is now a vibrant global movement made up of unions, academic associations, churches and grassroots movements across the world.” The BDS movement has been effective in bringing international attention to Israel’s military occupation of the Palestinians and the call for equal human rights for all citizens of the Holy Land. In response, AIPAC and other political lobby groups have pushed for the passing of the type of anti-BDS legislation described above. They are pushing to equate the BDS movement with anti-semitism.

I feel it is important to have Jewish voices lead this discussion on anti-semitism.  I will refer numerous times to the voice of Rabbi Jill Jacobs, @rabbijilljacobs a director of Tru’ah:The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. Rabbi Jacobs self-defines as a Zionist. I respect her voice, believing that she is transparent, attempts to be evenhanded, and unflinchingly holds forth truth in the political dynamics of Israel, Palestine, and American Judaism. She and other members of Tru’ah are staunch supporters of the Jewish nation of Israel.   Yet, they are also very vocal and active in calling out the government and military of Israel for human rights abuses.

While not participating in the BDS movement, Rabbi Jacobs helpfully articulates the legitimacy of critiquing the occupation of Palestine and the lack of equal human rights in Israel and Palestine: “Israel attracts additional scrutiny because it is a top recipient of U.S. foreign aid and the only Western nation currently carrying out a military occupation of another people. Its territory is sacred to three major world religions. The existence of a strong U.S.-based lobby dedicated to promoting the policies of the Israeli government unsurprisingly generates a counter response. And Palestinians have built a national movement over the past five decades, unlike more recently displaced people. These trends shape a legitimate political dynamic.”

Boycotting the services or products of a state can be an important tool used to pressure a government to correct perceived social wrongs, such as human rights abuses or other social injustices.  Ironically, Evangelical Christians, who often are among the strongest supporters of legislation crafted to suppress any boycotting of the state of Israel, have pushed for levying economic sanctions or boycotting products of other countries thought to be abusing human rights.  In particular, such sanctions are encouraged when it is perceived that Christians are being harassed or persecuted within a particular country. A most recent example was the push to sanction Turkey over the detention of pastor Andrew Brunson. Instituting legislation that requires the refusal to boycott a specific country before one can engage in a contract with one’s state government, is likely to be crossing the constitutional boundary preventing government from suppressing an individual’s right to freedom of expression.  This law has already been appealed successfully by a school teacher in Michigan.

So the critical issue for accurately holding persons accountable for perpetrating anti-semitism, yet allowing for legitimate political criticism of Israel’s policies is to properly define “anti-semitism” vs “anti-Zionism” or the legitimate critique of the actions of Israel. It would seem presumptuous for me, a non-Jew, to delineate anti-semitism.  So, I will refer to an article by Rabbi Jacobs, who has recently expressed why she believes such anti boycott legislation is “wrong-headed and dangerous for the state of Israel.” Following is a summary of the main points from Rabbi Jacobs article, helpfully delineating markers of actual anti-semitism. While others may wish to modify her markers, I think it is a helpful starting place:

  • Seeing Jews as insidious influencers behind the scenes of world events
    • “On the left and the right, anti-Semitism often manifests in a nefarious belief in a worldwide Jewish conspiracy that wields outsize power. On the right, it’s “globalists” and “elites” who manipulate events. On the left, it’s ‘Zionists.’”
  • Using the word “Zionist” as code for “Jew” or “Israeli”
    • “‘Zionism’ denotes a movement, forged in the late 19th century and evolving ever since, for the existence of a modern Jewish state in the land of Israel. A Zionist . . .  supports one or more of the many variations on this vision, which differ wildly in their political, religious and cultural emphases.”
    • “The ‘Zionist’ label attempts to reduce a state full of living, breathing humans to a simplistic political notion.”
    • “refusing to call Israel or Israelis by their internationally accepted names denies the very existence of the state and its people’s identities. These coy linguistic tricks are as unacceptable as the right-wing penchant for denying the existence of Palestinians and Palestinian identity.”
  • Denying Jewish history
    • “The Jewish connection to Israel goes back millennia. After their expulsion by the Romans in 70 A.D., Jews continued to pray for a return to the land and to observe four fast days each year to mourn the exile. Zionism’s revolution came not in creating a new connection between Jews and the land of Israel, but in suggesting that a return to the land could be achieved through modern political means, rather than by waiting for the messiah.”
  • Dismissing the humanity of Israelis
    • “Such lack of concern for Israeli lives is evident in failures to condemn rocket attacks against civilians, in the rejection of the term “terrorist” for anyone who acts against Israelis and in statements blaming Israelis for their own deaths. A movement motivated by concern for human rights requires caring about the dignity, well-being, concerns and self-determination of all people.”
    • “This means opposing the military occupation of the Palestinians, with its attending violence, as well as rejecting terrorism or rocket fire against Israelis. Human Rights Watch, which right-leaning groups often accuse of being anti-Israel, has modeled such an approach by regularly condemning Hamas for launching rockets at Israeli civilians. This approach also means standing with Israeli human rights leaders, who increasingly find themselves the targets of dangerous incitement by the country’s political leaders.”
  • Assuming that the Israeli government speaks for all Jews
    • “Rabbis who speak at rallies on domestic issues (the Trump travel ban, police killings, etc.) regularly tell me that audience members shout at them, ‘What about Palestine?’ An explicit disavowal of a connection to Israel shouldn’t be a prerequisite for Jewish involvement in broader social justice issues, as has become the norm on college campuses and in many progressive spaces.”
    • “Imagine assuming that all Americans support President Trump’s policies, or asking Americans to expressly disown their own country before engaging in any international human rights campaigns. Reasonable people may disagree about Israeli policy, about nationalism or about whether the solution to the conflict should involve one state or two. But Jews who care about Israel — many of whom revile Netanyahu and his politics — should not be excluded from progressive spaces based on their answers to such questions.” 
    • “Jews, along with other groups, must fight for human rights, in the United States and abroad. This work means insisting that Israel, like other countries, live up to its human rights commitments. THE CASE CAN BE MADE WITHOUT BIGOTRY AND HATE SPEECH.” he case can be made without bigotry and hate speech.” [emphasis added]

1 thought on “Anti-Boycott legislation: A helpful or dangerous response to rising Anti-Semitism?”

  1. I haven’t stated much in the piece regarding why I believe that anti-BDS legislation may be harmful. In addition to being an unjustifiable infringement on a person’s right non-violent political expression, I believe such legislation may also cause a dangerous backlash against Jews and Israel. I agree with Rabbi Jacobs’ view that such efforts are wrongheaded

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