New restrictions on the right to boycott Israel are being rolled out globally. Since 2019, 34 US states have passed laws penalizing companies that use boycotts and other nonviolent methods to pressure Israel on its human rights record and apartheid governance.
Julia Bacha’s 2022 documentary Boycott tells the story of just how these efforts to stifle dissent work.
She follows three American citizens who chose not to sign the standard clauses, or “certifications,” that they do not support BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions), as required by their employers (or, in one case, an advertiser).
What results is a compelling, uplifting and powerful documentary and an excellent example of activist filmmaking.
Refusing to sign
There are three heroes in Boycott: one in Texas, another in Arkansas and a third in Arizona.
The certification they are asked to sign does not draw much attention to itself. A contractor (teacher, editor of a local newspaper or an attorney) may never read it before signing, while others may read it and consider it irrelevant to their lives.
The certification requires that one does not engage in the boycott, divestment or sanctioning of Israel. Those who refuse to sign are in the minority. The risks they take in doing so are significant; they could lose their jobs and their livelihoods and put others’ livelihoods at risk too.
Director Bacha and producers Suhad Babaa and Daniel J. Chalfen identify three eloquent, grounded and modest heroes of 21st-century American democracy. They may not agree with BDS, but they consider the right to boycott to be an essential part of American democracy.
Alan Leveritt, publisher of The Arkansas Times, has no connection to Palestine or Israel. Yet, when one of the paper’s advertisers asked the paper to sign a certification that it would not support BDS, he refused.
By refusing to sign, the paper lost advertising revenue essential for the newspaper’s survival.
The certification in this case stems from anti-BDS legislation passed by the Arkansas state legislature in 2017. (Though an appeals court initially ruled that the legislation was unconstitutional, the law is still in effect because the court later reversed itself. The case may well go to the Supreme Court.)
Leveritt’s refusal was based on principle: “Any country that bases its founding mythology on the Boston Tea Party,” he says, should still, several hundred years later, “see boycotts as a form of political speech and therefore protected by the First Amendment.”
Leveritt, with the support of the American Civil Liberties Union, filed a lawsuit against the state of Arkansas to have the “law overturned on free speech grounds.”
The question, then, is what motivated US lawmakers to push through legislation that tampers with the very core of American democratic organizing.
“The Bible is very clear”
Bacha allows the state legislators who introduced the bills in their respective states to speak for themselves.
“The Bible is very clear,” says Bart Hester, an Arkansas state senator, who is also a supporter of anti-BDS legislation in the US Congress.
“There’s going to be certain things that happen in Israel before Christ returns. Listen to this very closely,” he tells the invisible, attentive Bacha. “There will be famines and disease and a war and the Jewish people going to go back to their homeland. At that point, Jesus Christ will come back to the earth. When the king comes, we will all go to heaven while the earth is burned with fire.”
Those who do not see Jesus at this time of Armageddon “will burn,” while the others, he indicates, “including the Jews,” will see Jesus and, as we are made to understand, be saved.
Spread of boycott bans
In addition to interviewing Bahia Amawi and Mikkel Jordahl, who also refused to sign certifications in the states where they live and went to court to challenge the anti-boycott legislation, Bacha also interviews opponents of the BDS movement, who are just as opposed to the various US laws that restrict the right to boycott in the United States.
Rabbi Barry Block, head of one of Arkansas’ largest Jewish congregations, articulates this position most cogently: “American freedoms are terribly important to American Jews,” he says. “We wouldn’t be in the magnificently enviable position in which we find ourselves were we not blessed with freedom of religion and the rights to express ourselves as we see fit.”
Boycott tells the story of resistance through the courts, traces the background of legislation and calls for action to be taken to oppose it. It provides sensitive portraits of individuals with moral courage of diverse backgrounds and motivations. It makes for essential viewing.
The film excels on many levels: research, narrative, sense of character and as persuasive political filmmaking. The cinematography and soundtrack add to the quality of this outstanding documentary.
The fight to protect the right to boycott in Western democracies is far from over, as boycott bans are being threatened in other countries, with similar provisions being introduced in the UK in recent years and further legislation being proposed elsewhere.
Boycott is an essential weapon in the armory of those who wish to protect the rights to express themselves, to resist, to oppose, to dissent, to question; rights that far too many of us take for granted.
Selma Dabbagh is a writer of fiction and a lawyer.
Boycott will be available for streaming online 1 March 2023, on Google Play, Amazon, Apple TV and Vimeo on Demand.