Activists push back against New Jersey anti-BDS bill

New Jersey lawmakers are set to vote Monday on a bill that seeks to punish activists and businesses that engage with the boycott of Israel to support Palestinian human rights.

But there has been significant pushback. The bill has already been “watered down as a result of activist pressure,” according to Palestine Legal.

These bills are part of a growing wave of legislation promoted by state and federal lawmakers – and encouraged by Israel lobby groups and the Israeli government – to suppress activism related to the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign.

Leading civil liberties groups and legal organizations have condemned such legislation as violating free speech rights protected by the Constitution.

Bill A925/S1923 would require New Jersey to create a blacklist of companies that boycott Israel or Israeli businesses. State pension and investment funds would be barred from investing in companies on the list.

The legislation “would unconstitutionally penalize people for what they think and say,” the ACLU wrote in a 6 June letter to state lawmakers. “Assessing people’s intent and political positions would necessarily include scrutiny of their speech and writings.”

The ACLU added that “the government cannot institute regulations based on the desire to punish First Amendment activities intended to influence public opinion or public policy.”

Outrage over the unconstitutional nature of the bill prompted activists and legal groups to pressure lawmakers.

Last week, Palestine Legal said the bill was amended “in an apparent effort to alleviate constitutional concerns with the bill.”

However, they add, the amendments “did not overcome [the bill’s] constitutional problems.”

“Favorable turf”

The New Jersey bill is one of more than two dozen pieces of anti-BDS legislation introduced in at least 21 states.

Earlier this month, New York’s Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo signed an executive decree ordering state agencies to divest from companies and institutions that boycott Israel and Israeli businesses.

The move, which was swiftly condemned by civil liberties organizations as an attack on free speech rights, prompted a “salute” from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“Acknowledging the rapid growth of BDS activism, particularly on college campuses, Israel advocacy groups are turning to ‘more favorable turf’ for their efforts to suppress criticism of Israel: politicians,” notes Palestine Legal.

Suppressing student speech

A separate bill in New Jersey’s assembly, A2940, prohibits the use of public funds for colleges and universities “to support, directly or indirectly, any entity or association that publically expresses as a policy, the boycotting, divesting, blacklisting, sanctioning, condemning or otherwise opposing of businesses, institutions, academic personnel, public officials or actions of the state of Israel.”

This means that academic associations which have endorsed BDS, or potentially even merely criticized Israeli abuses of the rights of Palestinian academics, such as the American Studies Association, as well as student groups including Students for Justice in Palestine, would lose their funding.

A2940 was introduced into the state assembly in February and is still pending.




As a member of Jewish Voice for Peace, Northern New Jersey chapter, I'm happy to say that our group has been among the outspoken opponents of these measures. And we're getting some results. The Newark Star-Ledger, a major New Jersey newspaper, has editorialized against the bills, comparing them with McCarthyism. The legislature is trying to slip a bill through quickly to avoid a public response. We and others are trying to stop them.

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).