Wisconsin should reject boycott bill;
it is not anti-Semitic

MJS-Leah-VukmirState Sen. Leah Vukmir (Megan Papachristou Photography)

Sandy Pasch, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Feb. 6, 2018

Legislation working its way through the state Legislature would prohibit Wisconsin businesses who sign on to the global Boycott, Divest and Sanctions (BDS) movement from receiving some state contracts.

And, unfortunately, Assembly Bill 553 and Senate Bill 450 are attracting bipartisan support because of a false conflation of BDS with anti-Semitism and discrimination.

But these bills are a mistake for Wisconsin at every level.

The bills would institute a level of bureaucracy in monitoring business negotiations in the state, constituting a dangerous erosion of democratic social control. If a company responded to a citizens’ BDS campaign to divest its interests, for example, that company would no longer be eligible for certain state contracts. And the several church synods that have elected to divest their pension funds would become ineligible to contract with the state to provide social services. These bills make the moral decisions of citizens and parishioners a barrier to free enterprise.

Historically, boycotts have been an important, nonviolent tool of dissent. A global boycott of South Africa, often compared in moral scope to the BDS movement, was decisive in ending the apartheid regime. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled decisively in NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware in 1982 that boycotts constitute protected speech, assembly, petition and association. Just last month, in the first federal test of anti-boycott laws at the state level, a federal judge ruled that Kansas’ anti-boycott law was an unconstitutional denial of free speech.

Why is the State of Wisconsin trying to pass a bill that has already been judged unconstitutional and whose true purpose is to shield Israel from criticism about legitimate human rights issues?

Introduced by state Sen. Leah Vukmir (R-Brookfield) and state Rep. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield), the bills are a product of the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council. Their bills are strikingly similar to many anti-BDS bills introduced or passed in more than half the states in the U.S. at the behest of ALEC. It makes sense, then, that politicians such as Vukmir and Kooyenga, deeply allied with ALEC and the billionaire Koch brothers, support this undemocratic legislation.

It is confusing that some progressive Democrats also support this bill. They do this because of a mistaken equivalence between BDS and anti-Semitism, equating nonviolent boycotts with disloyalty.

Support for BDS is not anti-Semitic. The Milwaukee and Madison chapters of Jewish Voice for Peace represent the growing population of American Jews who respond to the call from Palestinian civil society for a nonviolent boycott in support of the prospect of peace in the region.

These bills seek to undermine the power of people to work together nonviolently, in the interest of a just cause. No individual or company should be punished for exercising their conscience and supporting a nonviolent movement for peace and equality. As Jews and allies who say “not in our name,” we ask our fellow Wisconsinites, and state legislators, to reject AB 553/SB 450.

Sandy Pasch is a former state legislator. This commentary was co-authored with Daniel Maguire, a theology professor at Marquette University; Rachel Ida Buff, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee; Jodi Melamed, an associate English professor at Marquette; and Tsela Barr, administrative assistant and graphic designer at Edgewood College in Madison.

Kansas Doesn’t Even Try to Defend Its Israel Anti-Boycott Law

Brian Hauss, Staff Attorney, ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, November 30, 2017

 

Graffiti on the Israeli separation wall dividing the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Abu Dis reads, Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Shutterstock

Kansas officials are scheduled to appear in court tomorrow to defend a state law designed to suppress boycotts of Israel. There’s just one problem: The state quite literally has no defense for the law’s First Amendment violations.

The ACLU filed a lawsuit in October against a law requiring anyone contracting with the state to sign a statement affirming that they don’t boycott Israel or its settlements. We represent Esther Koontz, a math teacher who was hired by the state to train other teachers. Together with members of her Mennonite church, Esther boycotts Israel to protest its treatment of Palestinians. After she explained that she could not in good conscience sign the statement, the state refused to let her participate in the training program.

The law violates the First Amendment, which protects the right to participate in political boycotts. That right was affirmed by the Supreme Court in 1982, when it ruled that an NAACP boycott of white-owned businesses in Mississippi during the civil rights movement was a protected form of free expression and free association. But despite long-held consensus around the right to boycott, we were still pretty surprised when Kansas didn’t even try to argue the law is constitutional.

We asked for a preliminary injunction, which would immediately halt enforcement of the law and allow Esther to do the job she was hired for. In its response brief, Kansas doesn’t mention the First Amendment even once, even though the entire case turns on the myriad ways the law violates First Amendment rights. Instead, the government relies on a couple half-baked procedural arguments in an attempt to convince the court to leave the law in place for now.

First, Kansas argues that a preliminary injunction isn’t necessary because Esther could always receive monetary damages at the end of the lawsuit, should she win. But courts have long recognized that the government can’t use money damages to buy off the loss of First Amendment rights.

The government’s other argument is that the Kansas secretary of administration would have given Esther a waiver, had she sought one, exempting her from the requirement to refrain from boycotting Israel. But the government can’t neutralize legal challenges to blatantly unconstitutional laws by making one-off exceptions for the people who happen to file lawsuits. Even if Esther could have gotten a waiver, that wouldn’t help other Kansans affected by the law.

The Kansas law isn’t an aberration. Some two dozen states have laws or executive orders on the books designed to chill boycotts of Israel. (Two such executive orders, in Maryland and Wisconsin, were issued just this past October.) A similar law in Texas came under scrutiny when a municipality interpreted it to condition hurricane relief on a commitment not to boycott Israel. A separate federal bill threatens heavy sanctions against people who participate in certain international boycott campaigns against the country.

These laws share a common goal of silencing one side of an important political debate about a decades-old conflict. They simply can’t be squared with the right to free political expression. That must be why Kansas didn’t even bother trying.

Federal Court Strikes Down Kansas Anti-BDS Law


Israeli security forces and Palestinian protesters confront each other in Jerusalem’s Old City on Dec. 15, 2017.

Glenn Greenwald, The Intercept, January 31 2018

A federal judge on Tuesday ruled that a Kansas law designed to punish people who boycott Israel is an unconstitutional denial of free speech. The ruling is a significant victory for free speech rights because the global campaign to criminalize, or otherwise legally outlaw, the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement has been spreading rapidly in numerous political and academic centers in the U.S. This judicial decision definitively declares those efforts — when they manifest in the U.S. — to be a direct infringement of basic First Amendment rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

The enjoined law, enacted last year by the Kansas legislature, requires all state contractors — as a prerequisite to receiving any paid work from the state — “to certify that they are not engaged in a boycott of Israel.” The month before the law was implemented, Esther Koontz, a Mennonite who works as a curriculum teacher for the Kansas public school system, decided that she would boycott goods made in Israel, motivated in part by a film she had seen detailing the abuse of Palestinians by the occupying Israeli government, and in part by a resolution enacted by the national Mennonite Church. The resolution acknowledged “the cry for justice of Palestinians, especially those living under oppressive military occupation for fifty years”; vowed to “oppose military occupation and seek a just peace in Israel and Palestine”; and urged “individuals and congregations to avoid the purchase of products associated with acts of violence or policies of military occupation, including items produced in [Israeli] settlements.”

A month after this law became effective, Koontz, having just completed a training program to teach new courses, was offered a position at a new Kansas school. But, as the court recounts, “the program director asked Ms. Koontz to sign a certification confirming that she was not participating in a boycott of Israel, as the Kansas Law requires.” Koontz ultimately replied that she was unable and unwilling to sign such an oath because she is, in fact, participating in a boycott of Israel. As a result, she was told that no contract could be signed with her.

In response to being denied this job due to her political views, Koontz retained the American Civil Liberties Union, which sued the commissioner of education, asking a federal court to enjoin enforcement of the law on the grounds that denying Koontz a job due to her boycotting of Israel violates her First Amendment rights. The court on Tuesday agreed and preliminarily enjoined enforcement of the law.

The ruling is significant for two independent reasons. The first is the definitive and emphatic nature of the ruling. The court dispensed with an oft-repeated but mythical belief about free speech rights: namely, that they only bar the government from imprisoning or otherwise actively punishing someone for their views, but do not bar them from withholding optional benefits (such as an employment contract) as retaliation for those views. Very little effort is required to see why such a proposition is wrong: Just imagine a law which provided that only people who believe in liberalism (or conservatism) will be eligible for unemployment benefits or college loans. Few would have trouble understanding the direct assault on free speech guarantees posed by such a law; the same is true of a law that denies any other benefits (including employment contracts) based on the state’s disapproval of one’s political views, as the court explained in its ruling (emphasis added):

Even more important is the court’s categorical decree that participating in boycotts is absolutely protected by the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech and petition rights. Citing the 1982 U.S. Supreme Court case that invoked free speech rights to protect members of the NAACP from punishment by the state of Mississippi for boycotting white-owned stores, the court in the Kansas case pointedly ruled that “the First Amendment protects the right to participate in a boycott.” In doing so, it explained that the core purpose of the Kansas law is to punish those who are critical of Israeli occupation and are working to end it: “The Kansas Law’s legislative history reveals that its goal is to undermine the message of those participating in a boycott of Israel. This is either viewpoint discrimination against the opinion that Israel mistreats Palestinians or subject matter discrimination on the topic of Israel.”

Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a law that more directly violates the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech than one that seeks to deny people benefits for which everyone else is eligible due solely to the state’s disapproval of their political views and activism. Since that’s exactly what this Kansas law did, the court concluded that it was unconstitutional.

Beyond the court’s emphatic rationale, the decision is significant because repressive measures like this have spread, and continue to spread, far beyond Kansas. Indeed, as we have repeatedly reported and documented, the single greatest threat to free speech in the West — and in the U.S. — is the coordinated, growing campaign to outlaw and punish those who advocate for or participate in activism to end the Israeli occupation.

Numerous other U.S. states have implemented similar measures as the one in Kansas — including New York, where, as we previously reported, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order directing all agencies “to terminate any and all business with companies or organizations that support a boycott of Israel” and “requiring that one of his commissioners compile ‘a list of institutions and companies’ that — ‘either directly or through a parent or subsidiary’ — support a boycott.” As the New York Civil Liberties Union told The Intercept at the time about Cuomo’s order: “Whenever the government creates a blacklist based on political views it raises serious First Amendment concerns and this is no exception.”

Last year, a measure sponsored by Benjamin Cardin, a Democratic senator from Maryland and an AIPAC loyalist, joined by 43 other senators, went even further, purporting to impose prison sentences and large fines for anyone working with international organizations to boycott Israel. Only after the ACLU vehemently denounced the bill as a grave First Amendment attack that “would punish individuals for no reason other than their political beliefs” did several senators say they were re-considering their support.

Indeed, it’s hard to overstate how pervasive and mainstream these attempts to legally suppress criticisms of Israel have become, including in the U.S. As the legal advocacy organization Palestine Legal told The Intercept yesterday, “Since 2014, over 100 anti-boycott measures (similar to the one blocked in Kansas) have been introduced in the U.S., at least 24 of them enacted. Palestine Legal responded to 308 suppression incidents in 2017 and nearly 1,000 in the last four years.” The report issued by the group this week details just some of those efforts:

  • Hurricane Harvey victims were required to pledge not to boycott Israel to receive relief aid;
  • An NYC bookstore hid a children’s book about Palestine after calls for censorship;
  • A Palestinian American professor at San Francisco State was sued for researching and teaching about Palestine;
  • A Black student leader at the University of Wisconsin was condemned for speaking out against the connections between white supremacy and Zionism by Trump’s nominee to head the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

So widespread are attempts to punish and repress speech and activism aimed at ending the Israeli occupation that the Center for Constitutional Rights has dubbed this movement “the Palestine Exception” to free speech rights in the U.S.

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Backlash in New Orleans: vote to rescind BDS resolution set for Thursday


Dear Friend,

Last Thursday, the New Orleans City Council unanimously passed a historic human rights resolution!

The resolution, developed by the New Orleans Palestinian Solidarity Committee (NOPSC), calls on the city to avoid contracting with or investing in corporations that consistently violate human, civil, or labor rights— including Israel.

Now Jewish establishment groups are crying foul, saying the resolution unfairly targets Israel, and pushing feverishly for the council to revoke its original vote.

And it looks like the entire council is caving.

Click here to tell the New Orleans City Council they had it right the first time. Say yes to human rights here, in Palestine, and everywhere, and yes to the Human Rights Investment Screening Resolution (R-18-5).

Before last week’s vote, Council President Jason Williams said the resolution “specifically recognizes the city’s social and ethical obligations to take steps to avoid contracting with or investing in certain corporations, namely those that consistently violate human rights, civil rights, or labor rights.”

Does he now believe Israeli corporations should be exempt? Does he really think the city has social and ethical obligations to all people except Palestinians?

No matter where you live, we can make a difference speaking out as Jews and as people who love justice. Saving this historic resolution has turned into a truly uphill battle. A re-vote is planned for Thursday, and we have to make sure the City Council hears us.

Support NOPSC by telling the New Orleans City Council: don’t align yourselves with human rights violators in our name. Align your values and your investments, and uphold R-18-5.

If this resolution can withstand the backlash, it will stand as a powerful precedent in the ongoing struggle for Palestinian and truly universal human rights.

Tell New Orleans City Council you support R-18-5 now.

Thank you,
Chana Rose Rabinovitz
JVP New Orleans

Israel Publishes BDS Blacklist:
20 Groups Will Be Denied Entry

Israel’s Strategic Affairs Ministry had for months refused to divulge the list

    Blacklisted American organizations:
    ■ American Friends Service Committee
    ■ American Muslims for Palestine
    ■ CodePINK
    ■ Jewish Voice for Peace
    ■ National Students for Justice in Palestine
    ■ US Campaign for Palestinian Rights

US Campaign for Palestinian Rights (USCPR) Executive Director Yousef Munayyer said, “We wear this designation as a badge of honor. When Israel, which aims to portray itself to the world as liberal and democratic, blacklists activists dedicated to nonviolent organizing and dissent, it only further exposes itself as a fraud.

Join CodePINK in calling on Senators Chuck Schumer and Ben Cardin to denounce this outrageous ban and tell Israel to lift it immediately. These senators should stand up for the right of US citizens to criticize repressive Israeli policies, especially since Israel gets over $3 billion of our tax dollars every year.

A pro-Palestinian BDS protest in Paris, France August 13, 2015A pro-Palestinian BDS protest in Paris, France August 13, 2015 (AFP)

Noa Landau, Haaretz, Jan 07, 2018

Israel published on Sunday the full list of organizations whose activists will be barred from entering the country. The so-called BDS blacklist was released by the Strategic Affairs Ministry.

Members of the 20 organizations on the list will not be allowed to enter the country due to their support for the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel. The list primarily includes European and American organizations as well as groups from Latin America, a group from South Africa and an international umbrella organization. 

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Code Pink Update: Calling for a 16-year-old to be raped?

#FreeAhed

No one should have to live under the rule of an occupying army. No one should have to pass through checkpoints on their way to school, watch their family members be shot, or have their homes invaded in the middle of the night. Two weeks ago, 16-year-old Palestinian girl, Ahed Tamimi, couldn’t take it anymore. This time when soldiers came to enter her home, she stood up and pushed back. She screamed and slapped the soldiers.

For the damage Ahed caused to their sense of masculinity, Israel is exacting revenge. Ahed has spent the past week and a half in various Israeli prisons. Most of her time has been in a freezing cold isolation cell with a camera monitoring her every move. Tomorrow as she appears in court, we are demanding of Netanyahu that she be released immediately.

Israeli leaders want extreme punishments for Ahed. Israeli Education Minister Neftali Bennett has said she and her family “should spend the rest of their lives in prison.” Israeli journalist Ben Caspit called for her to be sexually assaulted, saying, “we should exact a price at some other opportunity, in the dark, without witnesses and cameras.” Defence Minister Avigdor Liberman said she and her family must “get what they deserve.”

The ill-treatment of Palestinian women prisoners, including various forms of sexual violence, is well documented. Now, leaders of Israeli society are publicly declaring that a 16-year-old girl should be raped! Netanyahu must release Ahed Tamimi immediately!

Twice so far, Israel has refused to release Ahed. Tomorrow she appears in court again. This time she must be set free. Please share your outrage on Twitter and Facebook and let the world know we will not tolerate such horrific abuse of power.

In solidarity,
Ann, Ariel, Brienne, Haley, Jodie, Katie, Mariana, Mark, Mary, Medea, Nancy, Paki, Robin, Sarah, Taylor, and Tighe

P.S. Young women are leading the movement for Palestinian rights. This week New Zealand pop singer Lorde cancelled her upcoming concert in response to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. Lorde called it the “right decision” and we agree! Show your support for Lorde by listening to and purchasing her fantastic music.