McCarthyism’s New Face: Blacklisting Boycotters of Israel
BY: Nisreen Eadeh/Staff Writer
On Monday, Virginia’s General Assembly passed by for the day joint resolution HJ177 – a bill which opposes any attempt to economically or politically boycott Israel, including its economic, academic, or cultural institutions. Virginia is the most recent state to introduce a bill that officially condemns people, companies, schools, and other organizations that partake in the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, a movement that has gained significant momentum in 2015, particularly across college campuses and within religious organizations. Other states that have introduced or passed anti-BDS bills include in addition to Virginia: Florida, California, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Indiana. Ohio and South Carolina.
Historically, Americans have used boycotting as a strategy for spreading awareness and intolerance of certain political conditions. The struggle against Israel should not be differentiated from boycott movements that took place in the United States against racial segregation laws of the mid-twentieth century, the apartheid regime of South Africa, the 1980 Olympics, and many others. States passing legislation that criminalizes pro-Palestinian activism are in defiance of the Supreme Court’s precedent set by NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware Co.
There, the Supreme Court ruled that boycotts “clearly involved constitutionally protected activity” when participants “sought to bring about political, social, and economic change.” The Supreme Court concluded that boycotts constitute a form of political expression that “occupies the highest rung of the hierarchy of First Amendment values.” Not only are free speech rights being violated by these bills, but American principles are also being overtly devalued in order to appease Israel.
Signatories of HJ177 claim that the BDS movement is “inherently antithetical and deeply damaging to the cause of peace, justice, equality, democracy, and human rights for all peoples in the Middle East.” The bill’s language is manipulated to make unaware readers believe that BDS is an injustice toward Israel; in reality, the BDS movement condemns Israel’s government, companies, and institutions that violate international laws and United Nations resolutions by continuing the illegal occupation and displacement of Palestinian people, as well as the building of Jewish-only settlements on occupied land.
The BDS movement also seeks to end Israel’s undemocratic practices of racially discriminating against Israeli Palestinians and other minorities who are denied full rights under the state’s laws. Ironically, both BDS and HJ177 support freedom, equality, and human rights for the people of the Middle East, yet it is the freedom to boycott against the unlawful and discriminatory practices of Israel that Virginians will no longer have the right to do if the bill becomes legislation.
In 2015 alone, at least twenty-two anti-BDS bills were introduced in state legislatures across the United States, all of which were at least in part written and promoted by pro-Israel lobbying groups. While Virginia is the most recent state to pass an anti-BDS bill, it is not the most consequential of the copycat bills emerging this year.
In New York, the state Senate quickly passed bill S6378A last week, which follows the lead of Illinois in creating a “blacklist” of individuals, nonprofits, and corporations that partake in boycotting Israel. Any person or group on the list is legally restricted from conducting business with the State of New York, and the state may not contract or invest in any company on that list.
Various attorney, civil rights, and Arab American groups are joining Palestine Legal – a civil and constitutional rights organization protecting the rights of people who bolster solidarity with Palestine – in their efforts urging lawmakers to oppose anti-BDS bills. These groups are referring to BDS blacklists as a McCarthy-era tactic used to “deny the right to earn a livelihood to those who express controversial political views.” Blacklists are an antiquated tool used to publicly shame supporters of political movements. In this case, blacklisting activists in favor of a free and equal Palestine is further aiding Israel’s oppression of Palestinians, and making Israel’s violations of international and American laws acceptable.
While people may have differing opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is not the role of the government to reprimand or publicly blacklist any person for his or her political opinions. Boycotting is a peaceful and historically successful strategy to raise awareness for injustice, and it pressures corporations to achieve a level of social responsibility that is in tune with the level of human rights the international community has built. Suspending such progress is adverse to the equality, peace, and justice that Virginia bill HJ177 seeks in the first place.
Virginia state lawmakers have undermined democracy and free speech for a bill that Virginians did not ask for. Compared with a myriad of issues currently facing taxpayers in the United States, from outdated infrastructure to the high cost of health care, this bill should not have been a priority for the beginning of the year. Furthermore, restricting political speech creates a chilling effect within public spaces and diminishes the ability of Americans to openly seek reform.
If Virginia’s General Assembly is overwhelmingly concerned with peace and human rights in the Middle East then it should find itself on the side of the boycotters of Israel, instead of protecting a country that consistently violates peace agreements, basic human rights, and American values.