Action Alert:

Anti-Boycott Legislation Threatens Free Speech

New Massachusetts state legislation – introduced by the Jewish Community Relations Council and backed by senators across the aisle – aims to penalize supporters of the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement under an anti-discrimination guise. The BDS movement uses nonviolent economic practices to protest the Israeli occupation of Arab lands and the mistreatment of Arab-Palestinian citizens, but it is often misconstrued as being discriminatory.

“An Act Prohibiting Discrimination on State Contracts” (S. 1689 / H. 1685) says that a person who would like to contract with a state agency must, under penalty of perjury, declare that “they do not currently, and will not during the duration of the contract, refuse, fail, or cease to do business with any other person when that action is based upon such other person’s race, color, creed, religion, sex, national origin, gender identity or sexual orientation.”

Statements from proponents of the bill show it targets those engaged in BDS, falsely believing the human rights movement boycotts companies based on an Israeli national origin.

“This bill clarifies to businesses that either support BDS or who boycott Israeli-owned businesses and products that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts will not engage in commerce with them,” said Representative Steven Howitt (R-Seekonk), a filer of the bill, in a JCRC press release.

In reality, the BDS movement targets companies not because of their national origin, but because of their actions and affiliations. Many targets – such as Caterpillar, G4S, Veolia, and Hewlett-Packard – are not Israeli-owned, but profit from the Israeli occupation. G4S is British-owned, but aids the occupation by running prisons where Palestinians are kept without trial and brutally mistreated, thus making it a target of BDS.

The BDS movement has three goals: to end Israel’s occupation and colonization of Arab lands, to gain recognition of the fundamental rights of Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality, and to gain respect for the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes, as stipulated by UN Resolution 194.

Despite common misconceptions, the BDS movement does not take any position regarding the two-state or single state solutions. They believe in any solution where there will be equal treatment of Israelis and Palestinians, with an end to discrimination against Palestinians. Just as the anti-apartheid movement didn’t call for a destruction of South Africa, the BDS movement doesn’t call for an end to Israel either.

With such legal, nonviolent goals and practices, the BDS movement should not be targeted by new legislation. The bill itself is constitutionally indefensible, directly negating a 1982 decision by the Supreme Court in NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware, where it was ruled citizens have a first amendment right to engage in peaceful boycotts to bring about political, social, and economic change.

The bill claims to target discrimination, but it would silence constitutionally-protected human rights movements that fight to stop discrimination overseas. With a threat of perjury – a felony punishable by imprisonment, fine, or both – the bill would also have a chilling effect. Individuals and companies who desire a contract with the state would be deterred from engaging in legal boycotts for fear of punishment.

Even those within the JCRC community recognize the threat this bill poses to free speech. Representatives of Boston Workmen’s Circle, a Brookline-based member of JCRC, have spoken out against the legislation.

“There is a fallacy promoted by the institutional Jewish community that there is a Jewish consensus on unequivocal support for Israel – regardless of its government’s policies – and against anything or anyone related to BDS,” said Boston Workmen’s Circle executive director Jen Kiok in a letter to The Jewish Advocate. “While the Boston Workmen’s Circle does not take a position on BDS, we oppose the intended application of “An Act Prohibiting Discrimination in State Contracts” (also known as the anti-BDS bill) to restrict First Amendment-protected political expression.”

Several other states have already passed anti-BDS measures across the country, but this is an undesirable trend that should be halted here in Massachusetts. BDS is constitutionally-protected free speech, and should be preserved. Advocacy groups including Massachusetts Peace Action, Jewish Voice for Peace Boston, and the Alliance for Water Justice in Palestine are organizing testimonies to object to the legislation at the State House hearing on July 18th.

To add your voice, contact any of the above organizations or call your state senators and representatives directly to ask them to oppose this bill. We still have time to convince representatives who have not declared their viewpoint on this issue.