Boston, July 18 — Legislators, lawyers, faith leaders and business people testified today at a State House hearing that a proposed bill will not combat discrimination but is instead an unconstitutional attack on the right to boycott in Massachusetts. Those testifying against the legislation raised free speech concerns, explaining how the legislation would chill human rights boycotts and potentially penalize those who engage in boycotts.
“I fear that bills such as this whittle away the open society that is a requirement for democracy,” warned historian and professor Vijay Prashad. “It suggests to our students, the inheritors of democracy, that censorship is better than controversy, that silence is the best way to understand the world.”
“S.1689/H.1685 violates the Constitution by interfering with the First Amendment right to boycott, placing an unconstitutional condition on the exercise of that right, and causing a chilling effect that will deter contractors from expressing their support for BDS,” said Sarah Wunsch, Deputy Legal Director of the American Civil Liberties Union Massachusetts.
BDS, or Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, is a nonviolent challenge to Israel’s 50-year occupation of Palestinian territories. BDS supporters at the hearing pointed out that BDS does not boycott Israelis because of their nationality; rather, it seeks to motivate a change in Israel’s policies.
“The Boston Tea Party didn’t oppose George III because he was an English Protestant; the Montgomery bus boycott wasn’t aimed at white Alabamans because they were Christians,” explained Eva Moseley, board member of Massachusetts Peace Action. “So the BDS movement, and I and some other Holocaust refugees, are not critical of Israel because most Israelis are Jews but because of what Israel does, occupying and colonizing Palestinian land, and in many other ways violating both international law and Palestinian human rights.”
“The bill … will have a chilling effect on Constitutionally protected speech. This is a discriminatory bill masquerading as a protector of civil rights,” said KT Crossman, a national vice president of the National Lawyers Guild, who read a statement submitted by the NLG, the Center for Constitutional Rights, Palestine Legal, and Defending Rights and Dissent.
“I oppose hate and anti-Semitism. I also support free speech and that’s what this is about,” said Rep. Mike Connolly of Cambridge. Sen. Will Brownsberger also testified in opposition to the bill.
“As a small business that receives grants and contracts with the State of Massachusetts, my individual ability to voice my conscience on issues of moral integrity is under threat by this bill,” said Brenton Stoddart, an employee of Senscio Systems, a healthcare business in Boxborough.
“As a South African citizen, and also a US permanent resident, I certainly oppose discrimination in all its forms,” said Suren Moodliar, the Coordinator of the Color of Water Project. “But I do not believe that this legislation merely extends existing regulations. Rather, it is designed to inhibit those who may wish to exercise their right to boycott.”
Rabbi Brian Walt, a Massachusetts resident who has served as a rabbi for 33 years, statec, “Economic pressure is a nonviolent tactic that has been used widely in many countries by many groups – including Jews – to end injustice. It is simply false that BDS supporters promote discrimination against Israelis as a national group or that BDS is anti-Semitic. We simply oppose the policies of the State of Israel that systematically deny equal rights to Palestinians.” Former Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) soldier, BDS supporter, and Massachusetts state vendor Omer Hecht, added, “I hope you don’t deny me a source of income for speaking out against this injustice.”
“I was raised with a strong commitment to the Jewish values of repairing the world, loving your neighbor as yourself, and not oppressing the stranger,” explained Tali Ruskin, organizer for the Boston chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace. “What I have witnessed has led me to support the Palestinian struggle for liberation through the nonviolent means of BDS,” Ruskin continued.
“If we, the people of Massachusetts, the state that supported the BDS to end South Africa apartheid, and known for its support for Human Rights and equality, if we cannot practice this right then what other options do Palestinians have left with?” asked Nidal al-Azraq, a Palestinian-American who was born under Israeli occupation in the West Bank and is now a Massachusetts citizen.