Florida advances bill to shield Israel from criticism

A protester holds a sign that says Palestine will be free, support BDS.

US lawmakers continue to promote laws punishing supporters of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement for Palestinian rights. (Joe Catron)

A resolution recently introduced in the Missouri state legislature would affirm that boycotts are protected political expression.

The measure, sponsored by Black progressive lawmaker Brandon Ellington, says that “criticism of a nation by individuals, including as a nonviolent citizens’ boycott, does not constitute bigotry against the citizens of that nation.”

It upholds the constitutional right to boycott “any entity when [people] have conscientious concerns with the entity’s policies or actions,” adding that the state should not “punish individuals” for supporting boycotts by denying them contracts.

According to the resolution, boycotts are “an expression of encouraging the government of the nation to modify its policies and practices to uphold the inalienable human rights of all people within its borders.”

Though Ellington’s resolution does not name Israel, it is being introduced at a time when state and federal lawmakers are pushing laws that punish supporters of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign for Palestinian rights.

Under pressure from Israel lobby groups, many politicians claim that criticizing Israel’s human rights violations, or its state ideology Zionism, is tantamount to anti-Jewish bigotry.

Last year, during a debate on a state anti-BDS bill that ultimately failed to pass, Ellington explained that the measure “is the definition of white masculism and an example of white supremacy.”

“When we talk about Israel, we’re talking about a country that has practiced ethnic cleansing of 700,000 Palestinians,” he added.

Ellington also described Israel’s expulsion of thousands of asylum-seekers from African states as ethnic cleansing.

Meanwhile, in Florida, a bill that equates criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism advanced with bipartisan support this week.

The Florida bill has sparked free speech concerns among civil rights experts.

The measure focuses on college campuses and conflates criticism of Israel or Zionism with anti-Jewish bigotry.

It uses language similar to the so-called IHRA definition of anti-Semitism which has been pushed by Israel lobby groups.

“Applying a double standard to Israel by requiring behavior of Israel that is not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation, or focusing peace or human rights investigations only on Israel” is considered anti-Semitic, according to the measure.

“Delegitimizing Israel by denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination and denying Israel the right to exist” is also defined as anti-Semitism.

This means that someone advocating for a single democratic state in which Israeli Jews, Palestinians and all others have full, equal rights could fall afoul of the law.

The bill claims that these and other examples of alleged anti-Semitism related to criticizing Israel do not “diminish or infringe upon any right” to free speech and “shall not be construed to conflict with state or federal laws.”

But FIRE, a free speech advocacy organization, calls this caveat “an inadequate attempt to salvage the constitutionality of the bill.”

FIRE states that the bill’s “overbroad and vague definitions of anti-Semitism show that even core political speech can, and likely will, be censored by the bill based on the viewpoints espoused.”

“Silencing questions”

The legislation is related to another Florida measure, House Bill 371, that would punish organizations investigating Israel for “peace or human rights violations.”

That bill, introduced in January, would allow Florida residents to sue or file complaints against teachers or administrators who criticize Israel, according to the Miami New Times.

In defining anti-Semitism to include peace or human rights investigations only focused on Israel, the measure “lays bare what these laws are about: silencing any questions about Israel’s human rights record,” Palestine Legal staff attorney Meera Shah told The Electronic Intifada.

Florida’s US Senator Marco Rubio sponsored the AIPAC-backed Combating BDS Act, which passed through the Senate in February.

The bill would uphold the rights of states and local governments to pass measures that punish or criminalize individual contractors, pension funds and corporations that support the BDS campaign for Palestinian rights.

Rubio’s legislation faces mounting opposition in the House, where many say it will probably not pass in its current form.

Palestine Legal and the American Civil Liberties Union have warned lawmakers that the bill blatantly infringes on free speech.

These kinds of legislative attempts to police speech and suppress boycotts for Palestinian rights are “alarming on multiple fronts,” Shah said.

Not only do they trample on free speech rights, Shah said, but “they conceal the ongoing violence against Palestinians by changing the subject and they fail to provide meaningful solutions to growing threats of racism at home and abroad.”

Newspaper publisher pushes challenge to anti-BDS law

A newspaper publisher in Arkansas is pursuing his constitutional challenge to that state’s law requiring contractors to pledge not to boycott Israel.

Alan Leveritt, the publisher of The Arkansas Times, has appealed at the 8th US Circuit Court of Appeals.

The 2017 law “requires Arkansas to create a blacklist of companies that boycott Israel, and require public entities to divest from blacklisted companies,” according to Palestine Legal.

Leveritt, represented by the ACLU, filed the initial lawsuit after the University of Arkansas-Pulaski Technical College “informed the Times that it had to sign a certification that it would not engage in a boycott of Israel if it wanted to continue to receive advertising contracts” from the the university, the newspaper reported.

Leveritt declined, and the paper lost the university contract.

A federal judge threw out Leveritt’s initial case in January, ruling that political boycotts are not protected under the First Amendment.

But the ACLU says that the law clearly violates constitutional protections “by penalizing disfavored political boycotts.”

The civil rights group has appealed the case on Leveritt’s behalf.

“Allowing the government to force people to relinquish their First Amendment rights or pay a penalty for expressing certain political beliefs disfavored by the government would set a dangerous precedent,” Rita Sklar, executive director of the ACLU of Arkansas, said.

“This ‘pay-to-say’ tax is blatantly unconstitutional and we’re committed to seeing the law struck down,” Sklar added.

The ACLU and the Council on American-Islamic Relations have brought cases against state anti-BDS laws.

In Arizona and Kansas, federal judges have blocked those states’ measures, citing constitutional violations.

However, Republican lawmakers in Arizona are trying to pass another version of the state’s anti-boycott measure, which “appears to attempt to circumvent the court injunction against the current anti-BDS law,” according to the Phoenix New Times.

Brian Hauss, an ACLU attorney, called it a “transparent attempt to avoid another defeat in court by passing a face-saving measure that would narrow the law into practical oblivion.”

The proper response, Hauss added, “would be to repeal this unconstitutional law in its entirety.”

Other lawsuits have been filed against anti-BDS laws in Texas and Maryland.

To date, 26 states have passed anti-BDS measures, while federal legislation is pending.

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(1) Government has no legitimacy interfereing in Civilian Boycotts
(2) Boycotts are a Civil RIght
(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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The American people have gotten extraordinarily tired of the demands, bullying, and blackmail the American government has received from the fully nuclear armed, viciously apartheid, theocracy which is what Israel has become in the 21st century.

And we have one word for you: enough!!

We will provide you no more American military to get slaughtered or maimed for life in the process of "neutralizing" all your alleged existential threats in the Middle East. And of course, as we both know, that includes all of your neighbors in the region.

And on top of that, sir, we would appreciate it greatly if the US government immediately pull all financial and military aid from your country immediately, as all this aid is completely illegal under the Symington Amendment.

We the people would like to see this accomplished and immediately, sir. The days of the host/parasite relationship between the Us government and that of Israel may well be coming to a very abrupt halt, and it is damn well about time, sir!!!

Sun comes up, Israel demands money. Sun goes down, Israel demands money. Moon waxes, Israel demands money. Moon wanes, Israel demands money. Weather is sunny, Israel demands money. Weather is rainy, Israel demands money. I sense a pattern here!

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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).