USA: Anti-BDS laws extended to serve the most reactionary causes

In the United States, as in Europe now, many laws against BDS are being passed to protect Israel from that grass-roots movement demanding concrete measures against the occupation of Palestine. A recent documentary examines the anti-BDS campaign and indicates how it is being extended to ban boycotts of the armaments industries, manufacturers of harmful substances, or clinics that refuse to perform abortions.

Demonstrators gathered outside New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office on 9 June 2016 to denounce his executive order targeting the BDS movement

This well-informed and insightful documentary can be watched on various streaming platforms. Boycott1 was directed by Julia Bacha, a Brazilian who lives and works in the United States, with a special interest in the Middle East. It premiered at the Doc NYC festival at the end of 2021. The flm relates both the history and the consequences of the anti-BDS legislation and executive orders introduced across the United States. Failing the power to simply make a federal offence of calling for the boycott of Israel as advocated by BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions, a campaign launched in 2005), hostile politicians intend at least to penalise in one way or another (financially) the call to boycott Israel and the people who support it, by adopting various laws and executive orders at State Legislature level.

Defending freedom of speech

Alan Leveritt, editor of The Arkansas Times has experienced this firsthand. After having put through the Senate of this Midwestern State, a law (adopted unanimously) making it illegal to prone the boycott of Israel, the Governor, Asa Hutchinson, sent him an injunction demanding that he sign an oath to abstain from publishing any mention of BDS in his newspaper. In the event of a refusal, the State of Arkansas threatened to deprive the paper of any advertising from its administration or other public body. In short, the paper would be financially punished. Leveritt sued. In the film he speaks in the name of nearly all the plaintiffs who reject the injunctions included in the anti-BDS laws: ‘We are not going to court to support or oppose the boycott of Israel. We are suing to defend freedom of speech.’

In court, his lawyer referred to the First Amendment which guarantees free speech and to a famous Supreme Court ruling which dates from 1982 and which states that ‘a consumer boycott was protected political expression, resting on the highest rung of the hierarchy of First Amendment values’. But the local judge saw things differently. ‘Boycott is not protected by the First Amendment’ he ruled without further ado. Leveritt appealed the decision and ultimately won his suit. He had been supported, among other dignitaries, by the rabbi of the B’naï Yisrael synagogue in the Arkansas capital, Little Rock.

In May 2017, the Republican governor of Texas, Greg Abbott also had an ‘ant-BDS law’ passed which now figures in section 2,270,001 of the Texas civil code. ‘Texas stands with Israel. Period. An anti-Israel policy is an anti-Texas policy,’ he declared. In Austin, the state capital and site of a major university, Behia Anawi, a young children’s speech therapist of Palestinian descent, found herself obliged by her employer, a public institution, to sign an oath never to join a call to boycott Israel, ‘either now or in the future so long as she held this job.’ She refused. She was not fired and continued to work without pay until the end of the lawsuit she brought against the State. She finally won her case three years later. Her judge, one Robert Pitman wrote: ‘The anti-BDS law threatens to manipulate the public debate through coercion rather than persuasion. This the First Amendment does not allow.’ She was paid her back salary and, above all, signed a new contract which did not include the ban against boycotting Israel.

Flabbergasted by what they saw on the West Bank

In Arizona, an anti-BDS law was even passed unanimously by the State Legislature without a debate. Mik Jordhal, who lives there (in the town of Sedona) discovered one fine morning that the contract for the renewal of his job contained, under the innocent title ‘employment verification’ a tiny new detail: a commitment to never call for the boycott of Israel. The man is a legal expert by profession. He is not Jewish but his wife is. They had gone on a vacation in Israel and come back flabbergasted by what they had witnessed on the West Bank. ‘After that, I couldn’t possibly accept the ban on a boycott,’ he says in the documentary. He too would go on working without pay until the court where he had brought suit handed down its verdict. His son had been convinced he was going to lose. ‘That [pro-Israel] lobby is probably as strong as the NRA’ he said. Yet Mik won his suit too.

The film focused largely on these three cases, representative of the judicial and political battles waged in the USA since 2015, when the state of Illinois was the first to pass an ‘anti-BDS law.’ It might have dealt with other cases which the US press has written up here and there. For example, that of Steven Feldman, a North Carolina dermatologist, invited to lecture at Arkansas University at the beginning of this year and who, just as he was being paid his fee (500 dollars) was asked to sign an oath not to join any boycott – which he refused to do. The film also includes statements by human rights activists who are increasingly concerned to defend BDS. Attorney Brian Hauss belongs to the American Civil Liberties Union, the oldest US organisation of its kind, founded in 1920 and which played a key role in the struggle against racial segregation. He declares in Boycott: ‘If people understood the real implications of these laws, there would be a huge scandal.’

Laws in the service of the military industrial complex

A scandal because they would realise that the consequences of these laws have more to do with the defence of the most harmful economic interests than with the coercive protection of Israel’s public image. In the documentary, Hauss refers to a lobby named Alec (for American Legislative Exchange Council) duly registered with Congress as all lobbies must be and which is very active in the propagation of ‘anti-BDS laws.’ Under its seemingly anodyne name, according to Bill Meyerling, one of its organisers, Alec represents a quarter of all the members of both houses of Congress. What he fails to specify, however, is that almost all of these are among the Nation’s most conservative lawmakers. The lobby’s acknowledged objectives are to impose politically the most anti-democratic interpretations of the US constitution and economically the most libertarian.

Founded in 1973, Alec’s motto is ‘Limited government, free markets and federalism.’ A few years ago, the lobby was delighted to discover the potential benefits to be gained from those ‘anti-BDS laws’ to expedite its own objectives: weakening the role of the federal government, deregulating as much as possible the financial markets, and increasing the powers of the States to the detriment of Washington. The men in charge of this lobby and the corporations which finance it quickly realised how useful it would be to ‘metastasise’ these laws into other areas. In their draft model law, often identical from one state to another, it is enough to replace the words ‘State of Israel’ by ‘arms sales’ for instance, and Bob’s your uncle! Alec, which boasts of having pushed through the legislatures of all 50 States, 200 pieces of legislation and executive orders in the past year alone, offering them ‘a draft model patterned after the anti-BDS type’ aimed at preventing the boycott … of various products or types of activity which have nothing to do with Israel or Palestine. Thus, in 2021, Texas was the first state to add to its legal arsenal a law punishing anyone calling for the boycott of arms dealers. More recently, lobbyist Jason Isaac has tabled in the State House of Representatives a motion intended to extend that ban to any boycott aimed at the fossil-fuel industry. To defend their text its authors have publicly declared it to be ‘based on the anti-BDS legislation supported by Alec with regard to Israel.’ Soon afterwards, Texas also passed a law forbidding companies that had contracts with the State of Texas from boycotting firearms. Since then other states have followed suit. Similar draft laws have been tabled in 13 other legislatures. And at least 10 other States are discussing draft laws based on the same principles as the ‘anti-BD laws’ to deny freedom of speech to people who advocate boycotting health centres which refuse ro accept women for abortions. Tomorrow, Brian Hauss fears, the supporters of Black Lives Matter will find themselves forbidden from criticising policemen, members of Planned Parenthood from boycotting anti-abortion laws and environmental organisations from criticising the industries guilty of the most dangerous pollution.

‘They’ve given up trying to sway public opinion’

These developments have had only a faint echo in the USA where the BDS campaign is active only on college campuses. The anti-BDS laws have been greeted enthusiastically by Republican politicians and by many Democrats too, with the result that 35 States have passed ‘anti-BDS legislation’. However, the judges have been far less enthusiastic, as is the case in Europe as well. Most court cases are won by BDS. And most important of all, the multiplication of these laws helps to further tarnish the overall image of Israel, associating the country with the most reactionary politicians, in the United States and elsewhere.

The woman who directed the documentary, Julia Bacha, is optimistic. The battle waged against BDS is, in her words, ‘an attempt to stop the progress of the debate’ on Palestine in the USA. "By resorting to the courts [people who support Israel], she continues, ‘show that they have given up trying to sway public opinion with arguments. They admit that they are losing the debate.2 In her film, Brian Hauss, the ACLU attorney, reminds us that in the seventies and eighties, US champions of the rights of Black people in South Africa coined the slogan ‘Apartheid is a crime, protesting it is not.’

1Boycott by Julia Bacha, produced by Just Vision, distributed in 2022, may be seen on Vimeo, Prime Video, Apple TV and Google Play.

2Amos Brison, ‘How U.S. Conservatives Use BDS Boycott Laws to Target Other Progressive Causes’, Haaretz, June 1st, 2023.