Christian leaders urge Congress to reject Israel Anti-Boycott Act

Christian leaders are speaking out against legislation designed to censor support for Palestinian rights.

Friends of Sabeel North America

Dozens of American faith-based organizations have endorsed a call to defend the First Amendment rights of Americans who want to hold Israel accountable for its violations of Palestinian rights.

Three Christian denominations – the Alliance of Baptists, the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the United Church of Christ – are lead signatories of the call, which was published as an advertisement in The Kansas City Star this week.

“As faith leaders, we have long used the nonviolent instruments of boycott and divestment in our work for justice and peace,” the faith groups say. “These economic measures have proven to be powerful tools for social change, from strengthening labor rights for farm workers to ending apartheid in South Africa.”

Congress is currently considering the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, a bill that could impose prison and heavy fines on organizations or their personnel that participate in a boycott of Israel or its settlements called for by an international organization.

Obstacles to peaceful action

The Israel Anti-Boycott Act currently has 268 sponsors in the House of Representatives and 50 in the Senate, but has faced stiff grassroots opposition.

AIPAC has made the bill one of its top legislative priorities, as part of the effort by the powerful Israel lobby group to thwart the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign for Palestinian rights.

This week, leaders representing 17 Christian organizations sent a letter to every member of Congress calling on them to oppose the bill.

“This legislation, if adopted, would put legal obstacles in the way of nonviolent peaceful action meant to bring about social change, and would legislate against the freedom to make choices in the stewardship of our financial resources,” the letter tells lawmakers.

As a result of grassroots campaigns, several major US Christian denominations have divested assets from companies involved in Israeli military occupation and settlements.

“Dangerous precedent”

So far 21 states have already adopted laws or executive orders targeting the BDS movement.

Last month a city in Texas made national headlines when it required residents to sign a pledge not to boycott Israel as a condition for receiving hurricane relief aid.

The Kansas department of education used its state law to bar math teacher Esther Koontz from working as a contract trainer unless she repudiates the boycott of Israel.

In August, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Koontz.

“This is a dangerous precedent that threatens to extend repression of Palestinians living under Israeli military rule by muzzling the right of Americans to free speech,” the denominations and faith groups say of the Koontz case in the The Kansas City Star ad.

“We call on all Americans to join us and the ACLU in defending our First Amendment right to freedom of speech,” they add. “Urge state legislators and members of Congress to reject anti-BDS legislation as an infringement on the rights of American citizens.”

Koontz is a member of the Mennonite Church USA, which in July adopted a policy to divest from companies that profit from violations of Palestinian rights.

Tarek Abuata, director of Friends of Sabeel North America, the ecumenical group that sponsored the ad, said: “We unequivocally oppose any attempts by our state or federal governments to deny us the opportunity to express our faith-inspired convictions that Israeli settlements built on occupied Palestinian land in violation of longstanding official US policy and international law, its destruction of Palestinian homes, severe restrictions on Palestinian movement and other human rights abuses are morally wrong and a major impediment to peace.”


Tamara Nassar

Tamara Nassar is an assistant editor at The Electronic Intifada.