All Hands On Deck! Anti-BDS Laws Have Hit the Fan

by M. Theresa Basile

Nov 8 – Updates on this article:
A full page ad was published in the Kansas City Star on Nov 7th, a statement calling on Americans to protect free speech and the right to boycott, signed by by MFSA, UMKR and dozens of other faith-based organizations.

The day before, an open letter was sent to Congress by 20 top leaders of national Christian organizations, opposing the "Israel Anti-Boycott Act."

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Esther Koontz, Mennonite schoolteacher, has filed suit against the Kansas Commissioner of Education (Photo: ACLU/via aclu.org)

What does a schoolteacher in Kansas seeking a job have in common with survivors of Hurricane Harvey in Texas needing disaster relief? And what could either of those situations have to do with Israel?

Both the schoolteacher in Kansas and residents of Dickinson, Texas have been denied equal access to state benefits and opportunities, if they will not guarantee they do not support a boycott of Israeli products.

As absurd as that may sound, it is really happening in America today.

Something called “anti-BDS legislation” has been enacted in recent years in over twenty states. Reminiscent of the 1950’s, when people were asked to certify they did not belong to the Communist Party, Americans today are faced again with McCarthyist discrimination, this time in the Orwellian guise of opposing discrimination - that is, discrimination against Israel, with which the US has a “special relationship.” Special indeed, when it is used to penalize Americans who participate in a boycott that addresses injustice.

Imagine our citizens being punished for boycotting businesses that discriminate against African Americans. Oh wait, that did happen, in Mississippi! In the NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware Co., the U.S. Supreme Court made clear that such a boycott is a form of speech protected by the First Amendment.

BDS stands for the quickly growing Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement that started with a call from Palestinians in 2005. The 2009 Kairos Palestine Document - the Palestinian Christians’ powerful statement that has mobilized advocacy in dozens of denominations - echoes the appeal for nonviolent economic action and challenges Christians around the world: “Can you help us get our freedom back? For that is the only way you can help the two peoples attain justice, peace, security and love.”

Global BDS actions are making an impact on companies that support and profit from oppression of the Palestinian people, which frightens those who want to maintain the status quo in the Holy Land. That is the reason for the well-organized and well-funded campaign to spread anti-BDS legislation across the U.S. It has come to the halls of Congress too. The Israel Anti-Boycott Act, currently in the House and Senate, may be the worst manifestation of this repression; it could turn support for some BDS campaigns into crimes punishable by fines up to $1 million and 20 years in prison.

Thousands of United Methodists across our global Connection and hundreds of thousands American citizens support the BDS movement. Trade unions, professional associations, student bodies, and many churches, including The United Methodist Church, have called for boycotting products exported from the illegal Israeli settlements, the cornerstone of the Israeli military occupation.

Many faith communities, including The United Methodist Church, have implemented screens that bar investments in some companies because they are support violations of Palestinian human rights. Of the 19 congregations – and counting – that have pledged to be HP-Free (due to HP support for the Israeli occupation), nine are United Methodist churches.

United Methodists’ faith-guided decisions could be subject to penalties in many states now, along with members of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the United Church of Christ, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Mennonite Church USA, and others. We are in good company! Right now, in many states, an individual who supports the boycott of settlements products or divestment from the Israeli occupation could face the same penalties as Esther Koontz in Kansas or the citizens of Texas.

Esther Koontz has been a math teacher and curriculum coach in Wichita, Kansas for about 10 years, and she wanted to participate in a state program to train other math teachers. But she found out she would have to sign a document certifying she does not participate in a boycott of Israel. She is a Mennonite and has answered the call in her church to boycott in support of Palestinian human rights, so she could not in good conscience sign that document. Therefore, she could not have that job.

Residents of Dickinson, Texas flee rising floodwaters (Photo: Yi-Chin Lee/Houston Chronicle)The citizens of Dickinson, TX have to fill out a form to receive disaster relief; that grant application includes a prohibition on boycotting Israeli products. The city included that because of state legislation adopted this year that requires any state contractor, including disaster relief recipients, to certify that they are not participating in boycotts of Israel. The ACLU says that Galveston, San Antonio and Austin have all implemented this law. It is no coincidence that Texas is Israel’s largest trading partner in the US.

What has happened in Texas and Kansas are flagrant violations of Americans’ right to have equal access to state employment, contracts or benefits, regardless of our political beliefs and affiliations. Thankfully, the ACLU has stepped in, filing a lawsuit in Kansas and raising the alarm about the egregious violations of rights in Texas.

We should also be thankful for United Methodist delegates and activists in our own Western Jurisdiction. When resolutions were being prepared and submitted for General Conference 2016, anti-BDS legislation was not yet high enough on justice advocates’ radar to warrant a resolution. But by 2016, the writing on the wall was clear: the threat posed by speech-limiting, fear-enhancing legislation was sweeping the country.

In July 2016, the Western Jurisdictional Conference unanimously adopted the resolution, “Protecting the Right to Peacefully Address Injustice through Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions.” Since then, that resolution has served as a template for church legislation adopted in 2017 in seven annual conferences, which, together with the WJC, represent over 1 million United Methodists. Those resolutions have helped to educate thousands of church members and resulted in many letters to state and federal legislators across the US.

And none too soon - for the proverbial excrement has certainly hit the fan this year and the obnoxious stench produced by legislation that violates our constitutional rights will be blowing throughout our country for some time to come. These cases in Kansas and Texas will not be the last we hear of penalties imposed on those who withhold financial support from state-sanctioned ethnic cleansing in Israel/Palestine.

Marlyand Gov. Larry Hogan, left, signs executive order to block BDS action (Brian Witte/AP)On October 23rd, after the cases in Kansas and Texas had become international news stories, the governor of Maryland ignored his own legislature and implemented anti-BDS legislation by executive order. Church and secular activists in Maryland had successfully curtailed such legislative action with intensive work throughout their state. In many other states, activists have worked hard to inform their fellow citizens and their legislators. In some cases, they succeeded in stopping anti-BDS legislation, in several others, not.

Was their work to no avail? On the contrary, it has laid a valuable foundation that we can build on now. What Gov. Larry Hogan has done in Maryland - and NY Gov. Andrew Cuomo with a similar executive action in 2016, and all those state legislators who ignored civil rights organizations and their own citizens in order to satisfy lobbyists with campaign funding and business contracts - all these attempts to stifle free speech will backfire. They have created a political crisis that can lead – if we make sure it does – to many more Americans learning about the reason BDS action is needed: the crimes against humanity that are daily reality for Palestinians and have been for decades.

But we cannot be complacent about this opportunity. All hands are needed on deck to clean up this mess and all our voices must be raised.

Palestinian rights is not one of your primary causes? That’s alright. Hopefully we are multi-issue advocates, and we can lend support to more than one cause at a time. Doing that can be as simple as supporting united online actions within our denomination and with our faith partners. Please do something simple today: join UMKR’s mailing list to receive monthly action alerts. Each one is an opportunity to take action with thousands of other advocates in the UMC and other denominations. You can sign up here, and you’ll be glad you did something concrete today to further the cause of global justice.