Activists in Massachusetts successfully pressured state lawmakers to stop a bill on 8 February that would have classified the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign for Palestinian rights as “discrimination.”
The bill requires 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 on the person’s “race, color, creed, religion, sex, national origin, gender identity or sexual orientation.”
It has no chance of being passed this session as a key committee declined to advance it.
The campaign to defeat it was successful, Elsa Auerbach of Jewish Voice for Peace - Boston told The Electronic Intifada, “after the legislators understood that the framing of the bill was deceptive and posed a threat to the constitutionally protected right to free speech.”
The bill was endorsed by by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Boston, a communal organization that has an active Israel lobby wing.
Though the bill’s wording did not explicitly mention the BDS movement, the JCRC assured its supporters it would extend to the Palestinian rights campaign and prevent the state from awarding contracts “to those who boycott Israeli businesses and goods” manufactured in Israel, claiming the boycott is discriminatory against the “national origin” of Israeli business owners.
Legal groups point out that Massachusetts already has strong anti-discrimination laws, and that human rights boycotts do not constitute national origin discrimination.
As it offers no new civil rights protections, the bill’s real aim is to punish supporters of the BDS campaign, the groups assert.
Furthermore, it would violate the Constitution “if applied to deny state contracts to persons or entities engaged in BDS and will have a chilling impact on constitutionally protected speech,” Palestine Legal, the Center for Constitutional Rights, the National Lawyers Guild and Defending Rights and Dissent said in a joint letter to lawmakers.
Lawyers with the American Civil Liberties Union and other legal experts testified against the bill at a hearing in July.
“We are very pleased that our lawmakers understood the long-term implications of attempting to remove the First Amendment right to free speech through boycott action – a peaceful, tried and true expression of dissent,” said Sara Driscoll of the Alliance for Water Justice in Palestine.
The Jewish Community Relations Council of Boston conceded that it was “deeply disappointed” by the bill’s failure to advance, while reiterating smears against the BDS campaign.
By omitting overt references to BDS and adopting “anti-discrimination” language, the bill indicates that Israel lobby groups may be testing new ways to advance their goal of suppressing Palestinian rights activism.
Activists say that by intentionally muddling the arguments – insisting the bill was just about discrimination, while also pledging to their supporters that it was part of a larger anti-BDS strategy – the JCRC deceived lawmakers and lost support for the measure.
A previous bill, drafted with help from the JCRC in 2016, explicitly called on Massachusetts to create a blacklist of companies that boycott Israel.
It was introduced but failed to pass following advocacy by members of the Freedom to Boycott Coalition.
“The Jewish Community Relations Council and its allies overplayed their hand” with this latest bill, Cole Harrison of Massachusetts Peace Action told The Electronic Intifada on Monday.
“By asking the state legislature to pass a bill that strikes at free speech, they forced legislators to choose between supporting Israel’s occupation and supporting free speech,” he said, calling this bill’s defeat “a grassroots organizing success story.”
However, activists feel energized by the recent ruling by a federal judge in Kansas who blocked enforcement of a state anti-BDS bill, acknowledging its constitutional violations.
Another lawsuit is pending against a similar bill in Arizona.
Auerbach said that the momentum from the Kansas ruling, along with legal support, compelling testimony from a range of experts and sustained pressure on lawmakers were key factors in last week’s victory.
She said the last thing state elected officials wanted – especially during an election year – “was to become embroiled in a contentious battle with grassroots organizations about the right to boycott.”