Stealth bill targets Palestine supporters in Massachusetts

Roger Waters says that an effort to ban his upcoming show on Long Island would violate the First Amendment. (Do512)

The Massachusetts state legislature had a heated, five-hour hearing Tuesday, on proposed legislation that civil rights groups call a veiled attack on the right to boycott.

Meanwhile, a county lawmaker in New York is trying to ban a concert by prominent Palestinian rights supporter Roger Waters.

The Massachusetts bill, S.1698, purportedly targets “discrimination in state contracts.”

It would require 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 upon such other person’s race, color, creed, religion, sex, national origin, gender identity or sexual orientation.”

The bill also requires contractors to certify that they are in compliance with state anti-discrimination laws.

Israel lobby backing

While it does not explicitly mention boycotts or Israel, the legislation been promoted by lawmakers and Israel advocacy groups as a means to counter the growing boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement for Palestinian rights.

When it was first introduced in January, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Boston, a pro-Israel communal organization, declared its backing.

The group quoted Steven Howitt, a co-sponsor of the measure, saying, “this bill clarifies to businesses that either support BDS or who boycott Israeli-owned businesses and products that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts will not engage in commerce with them.”

Other Israel lobby organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and CAMERA, a group that claims to monitor anti-Israel media bias, also strongly support the bill.

“This legislation recognizes and rejects the insidious and destructive nature of BDS campaigns,” ADL regional director Robert Trestan said.

The Jewish Community Relations Council has likened the bill to other more overtly anti-BDS laws that have passed in states across the country, but so far not in Massachusetts.

Last year, Massachusetts failed to pass a bill which the Jewish Community Relations Council had helped lawmakers draft. It would have blacklisted individuals and businesses that engage with the Palestinian-led boycott of Israel from contracting with the state.

Some of the sponsors of the failed bill are now backing the repackaged “anti-discrimination” bill, including Democratic state senator Cynthia Creem and Republican representative Howitt.

At Tuesday’s hearing, Creem testified that the only reason people support BDS is discrimination against Israel, according to Boston’s Jewish Voice for Peace chapter, which live-tweeted the hearing.

Immediately after the “anti-discrimination” bill was proposed in January, the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts warned that “an anti-boycott motivation calls into question the constitutionality of the legislation, even if it is neutral on its face.”

The law could have a “chilling effect” on the right to boycott and would be unconstitutional if used against peaceful political boycotters, the civil liberties group said.

Standing up for human rights

Earlier this month, a coalition of civil rights groups, including including Palestine Legal, the Center for Constitutional Rights and the National Lawyers Guild, sent a legal memo to state legislators warning about the pitfalls of the proposed Massachusetts law.

“Given that this law is redundant, that it creates no new civil rights protections, and that its supporters have been clear that its purpose is to combat BDS campaigns, we believe that it is intended to punish and chill the speech of advocates for Palestinian human rights,” their memo states.

It notes that a 1982 US Supreme Court ruling found that boycotts that aim to “bring about political, social and economic change” are a protected form of political speech under the First Amendment.

“A human rights boycott does not constitute national origin discrimination,” the memo states.

“Such boycotts do not target individuals due to national origin, but instead target a state because of human rights abuses, as well companies and institutions because of their complicity in those abuses.”

In a separate development this week, the ACLU’s national office wrote to US senators urging them to oppose the federal Israel Anti-Boycott Act, which would make it a felony for companies to participate in an international commercial boycott of Israel.

Those found guilty could potentially face $250,000 to $1 million in fines and 20 years in prison.

Shutting down Roger Waters

New York is one of 20 states to have adopted anti-BDS measures that aim to stigmatize or penalize people or organizations for participating in BDS.

Last June, New York governor Andrew Cuomo signed a decree ordering the state to divest from companies and institutions that are involved in BDS.

Anti-BDS laws have also been passed at the local level.

Now, a lawmaker in Nassau County, just outside New York City, is arguing that Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, a vocal proponent of BDS, should not be permitted to perform at a Long Island arena owned by the county.

Waters is scheduled to appear at the Nassau Coliseum in September. County lawmaker Howard Kopel says his performance violates an anti-BDS ordinance that Kopel sponsored last year. The law bars the county from working with a company that boycotts Israel.

The Tel Aviv newspaper Haaretz reports that Kopel posted on Facebook that Rogers is a “notorious front man for the BDS movement and virulent anti-Semite.”

Kopel said that the Nassau County Attorney confirmed that Waters’ performance is a violation of the law.

Kopel is calling on the Nassau Coliseum to cancel Waters’ performance and on the county to enforce the anti-BDS law.

On 15 July, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) hosted a live video discussion between Waters and Omar Barghouti, co-founder of the BDS movement.

Waters said he thinks the effort to have his show banned will fail.

For the cancellation to happen, Waters said, “you would have to tear up the Constitution of the United States of America, particularly the First Amendment, and throw it into the Hudson River, or the East River if that’s closer.”

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Comments

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In light of his bold stance on "dialogue" and his principled opposition to what he regards as restrictions on free speech, I wonder whether we'll hear from a certain Radiohead frontman on this occasion.

Ali Abunimah's picture

Good question. The law includes a provision exempting anyone who is engaging in a boycott as part of US-government ordered sanctions. So basically, only the US government may decide who is good and bad.

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Charlotte Silver

Charlotte Silver's picture

Charlotte Silver is an independent journalist and regular writer for The Electronic Intifada. She is based in Oakland, California and has reported from Palestine since 2010. Follow her on Twitter @CharESilver.