Palestinian BDS Call is Rooted in Human Rights Law

Anti-BDS Bill Hearing, July 18, 2017
Anti-BDS Bill Hearing, July 18, 2017

Testimony presented at hearing on Anti-BDS Legislation, S.1689/H.1685, July 18, 2017

Andrea Burns

Thank you to the Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight for holding this hearing. Thank you in particular to Committee Chairs Jennifer Benson and Walter Timilty.

My name is Andrea Burns and I am a lifelong resident of Massachusetts. My grandfather was the only member of his family to escape Turkey for America during the Armenian Genocide. I was on the city council in Easthampton, MA and ran a photography business for many years. My brother is in the restaurant business here in Boston and I currently work for the City of Boston at the Elderly Commission.

The bill you have in front of you is not a bill about prohibiting discrimination and it does not serve the interests or needs of the majority residents of Massachusetts or address an economic threat to this commonwealth. Instead, it is being brought forward from powerful lobby groups who seek to restrict the rights of free speech and curtail the effectiveness of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) efforts here in Massachusetts and throughout the country.

A 2016 article in the Harvard Law Review addresses similar legislation in South Carolina:

“The fact that these laws have limited practical impact at present makes clear that their significance is mainly symbolic. State legislatures are not seeking to defend a valued ally from a fearsome, rapidly growing boycott campaign. They are announcing their disdain for a marginal political movement whose goals they strenuously oppose. The motive could not be more antithetical to the core values of the First Amendment. Fortunately, Supreme Court precedents make clear that attempts to disqualify contractors for support of BDS are foreclosed by the First Amendment. The states considering laws similar to South Carolina’s should take heed.”  

BDS has not yet succeeded in influencing the government of Israel to change its policies regarding the Palestinians in the occupied territories. However, the real fear is that the issue of Palestinian human rights is being brought into the open and is now supported by a broad coalition of grassroots groups including trade unions, faith-based organizations, and anti-racist organizations such as Black Lives Matter.  

It is important to understand why the need for BDS came about.  In 2004, the International Court of Justice ruled that the barrier wall separating Israel and the occupied territories of Palestine was illegal and construction must come to an end. However, it continued to be built, becoming crystal clear that the international community, disproportionately influenced by the United States and European partners, was failing to hold Israel accountable to international law.

A year later in 2005, after decades of occupation and dispossession, the call for a BDS solidarity movement came from Palestinian civil society, desperate for the world to know the conditions they were living in denied them their basic human rights of self-determination and severely restricted access to employment, education, medicine, freedom of movement and speech.

BDS is anchored in the 1948 International Declaration of Human Rights and rejects all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism. It targets policies, not people. A large percentage of BDS members are Jewish and there are many Jews who support BDS within Israel. It is a legitimate and important form of non-violent protest against injustice and discrimination in any country. I ask you, would this bill be brought forward if there was a call to boycott Russia or Russian goods because they interfered with our elections? Or Saudi Arabia because of the way they treat women?

In Massachusetts we have a proud history of standing up for the right to economic boycott, starting with Samuel Adams urging the boycott of British goods before the American Revolution to supporting workers who waged a successful boycott to end Polaroid’s business dealings with the South African government and the 2013 boycott against Stolichnaya to protest Russia’s treatment of the LGBT community.  

I urge the members of this committee to put the free speech rights of the citizens of this state above the powerful lobbyists of a foreign country and vote this bill unfavorably out of committee.