Activists and lawyers in the state of Washington are challenging several bills which attack free speech rights and smear Palestine solidarity activists.
Meanwhile, a Virginia lawmaker attempted to classify Palestine advocacy as discrimination.
The barrage of legislation is part of a growing wave of laws aimed at punishing and silencing activists across the US involved with the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign to pressure Israel to respect Palestinian rights.
In the past week, Palestine Legal, along with the Center for Constitutional Rights and the Bill of Rights Defense Committee/Defending Dissent Foundation, sent a memo to Virginia state lawmakers urging them to oppose a bill that would categorize Palestine advocacy as discrimination.
The bill was killed in committee on 8 February.
The bill, which would have amended the Virginia Human Rights Act, sought to codify the US State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism. That definition is based on a discarded and discredited definition of anti-Semitism published, but never adopted, by a European Union agency.
Kenneth Stern, the lead author of the anti-Semitism definition used by the State Department, has himself opposed its adoption into legislation, warning that it would be used by Israel advocacy groups to police speech.
Stern warned in December that doing so would be “unconstitutional and unwise” and would “actually harm Jewish students and have a toxic effect on the academy.”
In a letter to the House Judiciary Committee, Stern urged US lawmakers not to advance a similar piece of legislation in Congress, the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act, that would incorporate the definition into law.
That bill sailed through the US Senate but stalled in the House. It could be resurrected this year under the Trump administration.
Because religious discrimination is already prohibited by state and federal law, this amendment didn’t add any new legal protections to Jewish people in Virginia, Rahul Saksena, staff attorney with Palestine Legal, told The Electronic Intifada.
But it “would essentially classify Palestine advocacy as unlawful discrimination – in employment, public accommodation and educational institutions,” he explained.
The bill “makes a mockery of the state’s [established] Human Rights Act by punishing, rather than uplifting, human rights advocacy,” Saksena added.
Saksena pointed out that sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression are not covered by the Virginia Human Rights Act.
“So if there’s actually an attempt to expand anti-discrimination laws in Virginia in this political climate – because we’re seeing a rise in hate crimes across the country – then instead of punishing Palestine advocacy, they should be expanding the roots of the anti-discrimination law,” he said.
Palestine Legal noted on Wednesday that “after intense pressure from Palestine solidarity and free speech advocates, HB 2261 died in committee. It will not be considered during the 2017 legislative session.”
The primary sponsor of the Virginia bill, House of Delegates member Dave LaRock, bullied student organizers of the National Students for Justice in Palestine conference which was held in the state at George Mason University last October.
An assistant to the lawmaker told the right-wing publication Algemeiner that LaRock has since been “working with different organizations to formulate legislation” on the issue of anti-Semitism, attempting to link SJP groups with anti-Jewish bigotry – a common smear tactic used by anti-Palestinian organizations to discredit student activism and distract from Israel’s human rights abuses.
In February, activists from a broad coalition in Virginia were able to successfully beat back an anti-BDS bill that would have required the state to compile information on the boycott Israel movement.
The bill could have also led to a McCarthyite blacklist of companies that don’t do business with Israel. It was tabled – effectively set aside – in a unanimous vote by the state senate, but could be brought back this year.
Banning free speech in Washington
Meanwhile in the state of Washington, organizers are mobilizing against several legislative attempts to punish human rights activists.
Anticipating these types of attacks on their BDS campaigns, activists formed Free Speech Washington, a group to defend the right to boycott.
Introduced in January, House Joint Memorial 4004, and an identical bill, House Joint Memorial 4009, are nonbinding resolutions. But both conflate the BDS movement with anti-Semitism and call on top governmental leaders of the US and Israel to condemn the boycott campaign and human rights activists.
The bills are sponsored by Republican and Democratic state lawmakers.
The bills also support Israel’s “right to self-defense” and, ignoring the evidence to the contrary, asserts that “the people of the state of Washington” condemn the BDS movement.
The measures are now in committee but no hearings have yet been scheduled.
“We’re focusing on this as a speech issue,” said Cindy Corrie of the Olympia-based Rachel Corrie Foundation and of Free Speech Washington. “In whatever form they take, all of these efforts are intended to stop speech on this issue and to limit our ability to utilize BDS as a response to injustices that we’re seeing.”
The text of the bills “really misrepresents BDS and the people who support it,” Corrie told The Electronic Intifada.
She noted that in 2016, the Democratic Party of Thurston County, where Olympia, the state capital, is located, adopted support for BDS in its platform. “It passed resoundingly, but it took work,” Corrie said. “We have our state legislature moving in one direction, but our county Democrats saying yes, this is our right to [engage in BDS campaigning].”
Activists are hoping the legislation won’t get a hearing. The bills “are clearly there because opponents want to fight BDS as an approach to challenging Israeli policy,” Corrie said. “No matter how people feel about Israel-Palestine and BDS, this is a speech issue and an affront to our First Amendment rights.”
The free speech coalition is also pushing back against a governors’ statement alleging that BDS activists “malign” Israel, which is “forced to defend itself against repeated and ongoing attempts to annihilate it.”
Corrie said that she hoped Washington Governor Jay Inslee would not sign on, noting that when he was a member of Congress, he had supported an investigation into Israel’s 2003 slaying of her daughter Rachel Corrie in Gaza.
Suppressing student activism
Meanwhile, a Washington state senator is preparing to introduce a bill that would clamp down on student activism in support of Palestinian rights.
Michael Baumgartner, a Republican, announced in late December that he is “troubled” by growing support for the BDS movement on campuses and promised to introduce legislation that would “block universities from engaging in divestment or boycotts targeted at the state of Israel.”
The bill would withhold state funds to institutions if they participate in “boycott activities.”
Baumgartner pointed to the passage of a divestment vote by students at Evergreen State College in Olympia in 2010, remarking that universities should be focused on education, not becoming “distracted by political correctness run amok with absurd and amateurish causes.”
Baumgartner claimed that public universities are being “used in misguided diplomatic attacks on Israel,” and cited his “experience on the ground in the Middle East” for his expertise on the claim that Palestine solidarity activism seeks to “wipe” Jewish people “off the map.”
The state senator’s experience in the region seems to refer to his previous role as an administrator, and later civilian contractor, with US occupation forces in Iraq. He also worked for the crown prince of Dubai and lobbied for Saudi businesses and US firms doing business in Saudi Arabia.
“Student activists learn through their activism – they have a constitutional right to engage in human rights boycotts,” Palestine Legal’s Rahul Saksena said.
With the senator introducing a bill to effectively prohibit students from engaging in their constitutional rights, “he’s taking away from one of the most important learning opportunities that prepare students to be fully engaged members of society,” Saksena added.
Cindy Corrie said she was shocked by Baumgartner’s disrespect toward students, but not surprised by his legislative plans.
She said that Free Speech Washington activists learned how to strategize in anticipation of anti-BDS legislation from meetings with activists in Virginia and Maryland, where anti-BDS bills were derailed due to sustained pressure from human rights activists and civil rights groups.
“It can be overwhelming, but it also makes us realize we really have to all step up and challenge these things and be heard,” Corrie said. “In this increasingly repressive environment, it’s more important than ever to do that.”
An earlier version of this post was published before the Virginia bill died in committee. It has been updated to reflect the bill’s current status.