State Efforts to Quell Israel Boycott Movement Raise Free-Speech Objections


USCPR Executive Director Yousef Munayyer is quoted by The Wall Street Journal in their coverage of unconstitutional state legislation that aims to silence those who exercise their right to boycott for Palestinian rights.

We know that there are oppressive forces seeking to silence us, so the kinds of policies that deny Palestinians rights can remain unchallenged.

The full text of the article, which is behind a paywall, is included below:

By Michelle Hackman 

Updated May 15, 2019 2 23 p.m. ET

WASHINGTON—More than two dozen states have passed laws opposing a movement to boycott, divest and sanction Israel over its treatment of Palestinians—but federal courts are split on whether the laws violate the First Amendment.

At least 27 states, including New York, Ohio and California, have laws to curb the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, according to the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, a nonprofit focused on strengthening the U.S.-Israel relationship. This week, Florida, which is among those states, is set to enact another measure with a more expansive definition of anti- Semitism.

These laws, typically passed by large bipartisan majorities, operate in different ways. Some block state pension funds from investing in companies that are pulling out of Israel, while others require state contractors to sign agreements pledging not to support the BDS movement.

Critics of the state moves say that, in trying to suppress anti-Semitism, lawmakers are impinging on an individual’s right to free expression. Several federal courts have taken that view recently, striking down expansive statewide BDS bans in Kansas, Arizona and Texas. But another federal court upheld an Arkansas BDS ban for state contractors.

“We know that there are oppressive forces seeking to silence us, so the kinds of policies that deny Palestinians rights can remain unchallenged,” said Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights.

The bill that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, is set to sign would make his state the second after South Carolina to expand its definition of anti-Semitism in public schools and universities to include certain criticism of Israel’s government, putting such expressions on par with racist epithets.

The bill says anti-Semitism can include accusing Jews of being more loyal to Israel than to the interests of their own nation, and “holding Jews collectively responsible for the actions” of Israel.

“It’s no coincidence that as political leaders have sanctioned anti-Semitic speech, other people translate that into action,” said Florida State Rep. Randy Fine, the bill’s sponsor and the only Jewish Republican in the state legislature.

Critics say the broad definition of anti-Semitism could lead to prosecution of anyone who criticizes Israel.

The BDS movement was founded in 2005 by a group of Palestinian-Americans to increase pressure on Israel to withdraw its presence from Palestinian territories in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and afford Arab-Israeli citizens all the rights of Jewish ones.

The movement encourages individuals to boycott Israeli products and pressure governments and other institutions to stop doing business with Israeli companies. Proponents say it is the best nonviolent means possible to pressure Israel.

The movement has gained currency across parts of the U.S. and Europe, and is particularly popular on some American college campuses.

Supporters of Israel have prioritized the fight against BDS in recent years, calling the movement anti-Semitic and tying it to an increase in U.S. anti-Semitic incidents. They also say the movement unfairly singles out Israel since such criticism could be equally true of some other countries.

In 2017, the latest year for which data are available, the Federal Bureau of Investigation said anti-Semitic incidents helped drive a 17% year-to-year rise in reported U.S. hate crimes.

The question of when criticism of Israel veers into hate speech against Jews has become contentious on college campuses, where students sympathetic to the Palestinian cause have used high-profile tactics to protest Israel, and some Jewish students have reported feeling targeted.

The Trump administration underscored the issue last year when it reopened an Obama-era civil rights probe in which a pro-Palestinian student group in 2011 charged admission to an event only for Jewish students or others who backed the Israeli government.

In reopening the investigation, Ken Marcus, a prominent advocate against anti-Semitism who heads the Education Department’s civil rights office, adopted an expansive definition of anti- Semitism similar to the one in the Florida bill as possible grounds for a civil-rights violation.

In February, the U.S. Senate passed a bill with a bipartisan majority aimed at protecting the rights of cities and states to adopt anti-BDS laws and attempt to shield them from potential lawsuits.

On Wednesday, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.) introduced a petition that, if a majority of representatives sign on, would force the chamber’s Democratic leaders to bring the bill to a vote. House Democrats have so far avoided voting on the measure because of an internal split over Israel policy and comments by several freshman lawmakers that critics called anti-Semitic.

The most recent court decision on BDS came last month in the case of Bahia Amawi, a speech pathologist who made headlines last fall for refusing to sign a contract with her Texas school district stipulating that she wouldn’t boycott Israel while employed there. Ms. Amawi, a Palestinian-American, lost her job as a result.

“Anti-BDS forces are seeking to manipulate public debate through coercion rather than persuasion,” said Gadeir Abbas, a lawyer with the Council on American-Islamic Relations who represented Ms. Amawi.

In suspending the Texas law, U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman in Austin quoted a Supreme Court ruling that said “boycotts are ‘deeply embedded in the American political process,’” referring to the civil-rights movement. He also rejected Texas’ argument, common among some states, that the law was necessary to prevent discrimination against Jews.

A federal judge in Arkansas, however, upheld a law banning state contractors from supporting BDS. The judge argued in part that “Israel in particular is known for its dynamic and innovative approach in many business sectors, and therefore a company’s decision to discriminate against Israel…is an unsound business practice.”

Despite their setbacks in court, supporters of the laws say the debate has raised awareness of their cause and set back the BDS movement.

“They’re having to spend a lot more time, energy and money these days defending themselves,” said Mitchell Bard, executive director of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise.

Write to Michelle Hackman at [email protected]

Corrections & Amplifications

Kevin McCarthy is the U.S. House minority leader. An earlier version of this article incorrectly said he was the majority leader. (May 15)