Massachusetts activists defeat “deceptive” anti-BDS measure

Graffiti on the Israeli-built separation wall dividing the occupied West Bank city of Bethlehem promotes the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement for Palestinian rights, June 2014.

Ryan Rodrick Beiler ActiveStills

Activists in Massachusetts successfully pressured state lawmakers to stop a bill on 8 February that would have classified the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign for Palestinian rights as “discrimination.”

The bill requires anyone who enters into a contract with the state worth more than $10,000 to pledge that they will not refuse to do business with any person based on the person’s “race, color, creed, religion, sex, national origin, gender identity or sexual orientation.”

It has no chance of being passed this session as a key committee declined to advance it.

The campaign to defeat it was successful, Elsa Auerbach of Jewish Voice for Peace - Boston told The Electronic Intifada, “after the legislators understood that the framing of the bill was deceptive and posed a threat to the constitutionally protected right to free speech.”

The bill was endorsed by by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Boston, a communal organization that has an active Israel lobby wing.

Though the bill’s wording did not explicitly mention the BDS movement, the JCRC assured its supporters it would extend to the Palestinian rights campaign and prevent the state from awarding contracts “to those who boycott Israeli businesses and goods” manufactured in Israel, claiming the boycott is discriminatory against the “national origin” of Israeli business owners.

Legal groups point out that Massachusetts already has strong anti-discrimination laws, and that human rights boycotts do not constitute national origin discrimination.

As it offers no new civil rights protections, the bill’s real aim is to punish supporters of the BDS campaign, the groups assert.

Furthermore, it would violate the Constitution “if applied to deny state contracts to persons or entities engaged in BDS and will have a chilling impact on constitutionally protected speech,” Palestine Legal, the Center for Constitutional Rights, the National Lawyers Guild and Defending Rights and Dissent said in a joint letter to lawmakers.

More than 100 grassroots organizations – all members of the Massachusetts Freedom to Boycott Coalitionurged lawmakers to protect their rights to organize and use boycotts as a means of protest.

Lawyers with the American Civil Liberties Union and other legal experts testified against the bill at a hearing in July.

“We are very pleased that our lawmakers understood the long-term implications of attempting to remove the First Amendment right to free speech through boycott action – a peaceful, tried and true expression of dissent,” said Sara Driscoll of the Alliance for Water Justice in Palestine.

The Jewish Community Relations Council of Boston conceded that it was “deeply disappointed” by the bill’s failure to advance, while reiterating smears against the BDS campaign.

Testing ground

By omitting overt references to BDS and adopting “anti-discrimination” language, the bill indicates that Israel lobby groups may be testing new ways to advance their goal of suppressing Palestinian rights activism.

Activists say that by intentionally muddling the arguments – insisting the bill was just about discrimination, while also pledging to their supporters that it was part of a larger anti-BDS strategy – the JCRC deceived lawmakers and lost support for the measure.

A previous bill, drafted with help from the JCRC in 2016, explicitly called on Massachusetts to create a blacklist of companies that boycott Israel.

It was introduced but failed to pass following advocacy by members of the Freedom to Boycott Coalition.

“The Jewish Community Relations Council and its allies overplayed their hand” with this latest bill, Cole Harrison of Massachusetts Peace Action told The Electronic Intifada on Monday.

“By asking the state legislature to pass a bill that strikes at free speech, they forced legislators to choose between supporting Israel’s occupation and supporting free speech,” he said, calling this bill’s defeat “a grassroots organizing success story.”

Anti-BDS measures have passed in more than 20 states, and federal legislation is pending in Congress.

However, activists feel energized by the recent ruling by a federal judge in Kansas who blocked enforcement of a state anti-BDS bill, acknowledging its constitutional violations.

Another lawsuit is pending against a similar bill in Arizona.

Auerbach said that the momentum from the Kansas ruling, along with legal support, compelling testimony from a range of experts and sustained pressure on lawmakers were key factors in last week’s victory.

She said the last thing state elected officials wanted – especially during an election year – “was to become embroiled in a contentious battle with grassroots organizations about the right to boycott.”

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Comments

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Congratulations to everyone who took part in exposing this bill as a crass attack on the First Amendment. It's also encouraging to note that the Zionist lobby has realized that protective legislation naming Israel as the object of concern only serves to promote public discussion of human rights violations by that country. They're losing ground, and disguising the intent of these bills is an admission that their tactics aren't working.

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(1) Government has ZERO business interfering in Civilian boycotts.
(2) Boycotts are the most Democratic and PEACEFUL of actions.
(3) Boycotts are FREEDOM of SPEECH.
(4) Boycotts are FREEDOM of ASSOCIATION -- DISassociation.
(5) Boycotts are VOTING with dollars.
(6) Boycotts PEACEFULLY withhold "power/energy" from those with whom one disagrees without engaging in violence.
(7) In "Capitalism", the system we CLAIM to follow, where and with whom you spend your money is ENTIRELY up to YOU.
The Citizens United Supreme Court decision firmly established that the right to spend money is a form of free speech. That means that the right to NOT spend money is also a form of free speech. Organizing a boycott -- an act of NOT spending money -- is then protected free speech in the same way that soliciting campaign funds to spend on promoting a political candidate or partisan viewpoint is free speech.

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Thank you William for making this issue crystal clear. Boycott is free speech.

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Israel has imposed a militarized Concentration Camp on the Native People of PALESTINE ... why is the outrage?

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It is a known principle of the Jewish religion that a seemingly “minor” sin often leads to other more serious and devastating sins.

History has shown that this indeed has been the path of the Zionists. These people have started their heretical movement by rebelling against the authority of our Rabbis. It was a rebellion without using machine guns or missiles – just words of heresy and incitement.

How did they end up ? Well, we can see the fruits that the poison tree has produced: today, they are waging war against the entire world, including us – the Jewish people, betraying countries that have always been on their side such as the United States. At the same time, they also undermine basic human rights, our constitutional rights and freedoms - such as our freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

If at the beginning of their movement they only used verbal violence and tactics borrowed from the political realm to advance their ideology, later on they started using bombs and explosives to cause bloodshed and devastation (like the ones Zionist terror groups used against the British government of Palestine and the ones they used against the Jewish community in Iraq).

If at the beginning of their movement they incited Jews to be lawless and to abandon their religion, today they have become a global centre of lawlessness and militancy where women are drafted to the army by law (such laws never existed even in Nazi Germany or Stalinist USSR).

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Thank you for expressing what many do not see .We must not paint everything with the same brush as they say and it good that you speak out.
I have read the book by Alan Hart " Zionism the Real Enemy of the Jews" and it says it all.

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Just a note of deep respect and appreciation for Norah Barrows-Friedman's work. Her articles are thoroughly researched, well-organized, and well-written. They are unbiased, informative, and a delight to read. I believe she defines excellence in journalism.
Thanks, Nora!

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Nora Barrows-Friedman

Nora Barrows-Friedman's picture

Nora Barrows-Friedman is a staff writer and associate editor at The Electronic Intifada, and is the author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine (Just World Books, 2014).