Why 100 Massachusetts Groups are Defending the Right to Boycott

We will continue to boycott for justice until...

This article was originally published in Cambridge Wicked Local on April 18th, 2017.

In late March, UN “special rapporteurs” Maina Kiai and David Kaye warned the U.S. that bills introduced in 16 Republican-dominated state legislatures “could result in a detrimental impact on the rights to freedom of peaceable assembly and freedom of expression in the country.”

Citing Black Lives Matter actions and presidential and pipeline protests as propelling this “alarming” trend, they submitted a report that gives a state-by-state rundown of pending “undemocratic” legislation that criminalizes dissent and subjects demonstrators to large fines and prison time — up to seven years in the case of Minnesota. Similar bills have been rejected in four states.

Their report fails to mention another well-orchestrated effort to undermine the First Amendment: the dozens of measures introduced into state legislatures across the country that condemn time-honored peaceful boycott activity if it targets Israeli practices toward Palestinians. Sixteen of these measures have been passed, and the deceptively named “Act Prohibiting Discrimination in State Contracts” (S.1689/H.1685) may soon be debated in the Massachusetts State House.

This is a curious bill. On the surface it merely underscores the legislation already on the books prohibiting discrimination. To skirt First Amendment protections, it makes no mention of its real aim: to suppress the movement for “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions,” which seeks to pressure Israel to act in accordance with international law and to recognize Palestinian human rights.

That aim is very clear in the lobbying efforts of the Jewish Community Relations Council. It urges Massachusetts lawmakers to “stand together” in support of Israel and the bill, and condemn BDS as a form of “national origin” discrimination.

But this is an entirely misleading claim. BDS targets Israeli policies that are unjust and businesses that are complicit in human rights violations, not people based on their religion, ethnicity or national origin. And just as the anti-apartheid movement ended when basic democratic reforms were initiated in South Africa, BDS would be brought to an end when the call by Palestinian civil society for “freedom, justice and equality” has been achieved.

However benign-sounding its purpose — who doesn’t want to prohibit discrimination? — the bill is in fact a sneak attack on our rights.

In a Jan. 31 briefing on the bill, the ACLU of Massachusetts expressed its concern that because it is being promoted as anti-BDS legislation, it could “frighten people, make them unsure of the scope of the law, and deter them from exercising their First Amendment rights” — producing the sort of “chilling effect” that “does serious harm to freedom of expression.” Furthermore, the ACLU states, “an anti-boycott motivation calls into question the constitutionality of the legislation, even if it is neutral on its face.”

With constitutional freedoms increasingly under threat, 100 Massachusetts groups from across the commonwealth have enlisted in a “Freedom to Boycott Coalition” to oppose this legislation.

They represent the spectrum of civil society: churches, Jewish and Muslim organizations, peace and justice groups, community empowerment organizations, women’s and LGBTQ organizations, legal associations, student and faculty groups, political organizations, and anti-racism and environmental justice groups, among others.

In an open letter to the Massachusetts Legislature, these organizations urge lawmakers to recognize BDS as “a peaceful and legitimate strategy” and “to respect constituents who — like growing numbers of Americans across the country — recognize the capacity of boycotts to bring about positive change in Palestine/Israel and the rest of the world.”

Whatever they may personally think about BDS, the 65 current co-sponsors of the “anti-discrimination” bill should consider whether they would have endorsed a more accurately titled “Act Prohibiting Dissent in State Contracts.” For that, in effect, is what they have signed onto, and if there ever were a time to stand up for the right to dissent, that time is now.

Nancy Murray, an Erie Street resident in Cambridge, is the former director of education at the ACLU of Massachusetts from 1987 to 2013.