When Hurricane Harvey ploughed into the Texas coast in September, causing more than $150 billion in damage and leaving tens of thousands homeless, one of the hardest hit locales was Dickinson, a town of about 20,000, 48km south-east of Houston. Residents of Dickinson are applying for funds from the state of Texas’ Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund to help them rebuild their lives.
The funds are available to any resident who suffered losses from the storm. There is, however, one condition: To be eligible for state funds, individuals must declare that they do not and never will boycott Israel. The application to receive financial assistance states it clearly: “The Applicant verifies that the Applicant: (1) does not boycott Israel; and (2) will not boycott Israel during the term of this Agreement.”
The fact that victims of one of the worst natural disasters in US history cannot receive assistance from their state government unless they pledge support and allegiance to a foreign government may be shocking but in Texas — and many other states as well — it’s the law.
In the case of Texas, the law in question was signed in May by Republican Governor Greg Abbott. It declares that no one can receive assistance from or do business with the state of Texas without first vowing not to boycott Israel. When he signed the law, Abbott declared: “Anti-Israel policies are anti-Texas policies.”
Legislatures in 34 out of the 50 US states have introduced some form of similar legislation since the first measure was passed by Illinois in 2015. Illinois’ law requires a pledge not to boycott Israel, establishes a black list of foreign companies that do boycott Israel and requires the state’s pension fund to divest from those companies. Florida’s law features a similar blacklist.
When proposed not-boycott- Israel legislation failed to pass the state legislature in New York, Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order implementing many of the failed law’s provisions. Dozens of local US jurisdictions, such as counties and cities, have passed resolutions, which don’t have the force of law, critical of what is known as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, a global campaign launched in 2005.
The Texas law, like those in many other states, is a response to the growing support for the non-violent BDS movement, which opposes the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories and argues that only sanctions against Israel will bring about a change in policy.
While the BDS movement originated in the Palestinian territories, where it is led by Gandhi Peace Award-winner Omar Barghouti, many of the strongest advocates for BDS in the United States are progressive anti-occupation Jewish groups. They include Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) and IfNotNow. They have joined with Palestinian-American organisations to advocate for non-violent sanctions against Israel.
Rising support for BDS, especially on US university campuses, has made the movement a target of pro-Israel groups, including the major mainstream American Jewish community organisations as well as evangelical Christian churches, which are among the Jewish state’s most vocal proponents in the United States. Various state-level anti-BDS laws are the result of their intensive lobbying. They have, predictably, termed the BDS movement “anti-Semitic.”
In March, the US Congress joined the fight when Senator Benjamin Cardin, a Democrat from Maryland, proposed a bill that would essentially criminalise support for BDS. Cardin’s bill was quickly endorsed by 50 other senators and avidly supported by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the Anti-Defamation League.
Significantly, Cardin’s bill forbids support for boycotts against “entities organised under the laws of Israel,” which means that even Israeli settlements would be defended against BDS actions.
Cardin’s proposed bill, however, sparked resistance from civil libertarian groups, such as the powerful American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which claimed that it amounted to an attack on free speech, a right guaranteed by the US Constitution. MoveOn, a progressive activist organisation instrumental in mobilising votes for Barack Obama in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, opposed Cardin’s bill for not making a distinction between Israel and Israeli settlements.
The push-back against Cardin’s bill slowed its momentum and led one initial supporter — New York’s Democratic US Senator Kirsten Gillibrand — to reverse her position. The bill has been referred to a Senate committee but no further steps have been taken.
The slew of anti-BDS laws and proposed laws will most likely face court challenges at some point. Before that can happen, however, a plaintiff must show evidence of “damages” — for example, a resident of Dickinson, Texas, could sue the state if he is denied necessary assistance due to refusing to sign the pro-Israel pledge. Such a court challenge probably would focus on the issue of free speech, a sacrosanct right that is widely supported by both American conservatives and liberals. Many legal experts doubt that anti-BDS laws — at least the most extreme ones — could withstand such a challenge.
In the meantime, however, pro- Israel forces will continue working to squelch the growing popularity of the BDS movement.
Mark Habeeb is East-West editor of The Arab Weekly and adjunct professor of Global Politics and Security at Georgetown University in Washington.
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