Even when taken at face value, the boast by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, that the Zionist state’s “relations with the Arab countries have never been better” — a boast whose invidious aim is to suggest that the Palestine question should now be a peripheral issue — does nothing to discredit the mighty strides taken by the movement known as Boycott, Divest and Sanctions (BDS) in exposing Israel around the world.
In its short history of activism over the last decade, this movement, which last Friday was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Bjormar Moxnes of the Norwegian parliament, has left Israel beside itself fighting on many fronts, worldwide, to combat a campaign whose goal is to showcase the status of Israel as an apartheid state, and thus deserving of a boycott, divestment and sanction. And for an entity so protective of its image abroad, that is more than worrisome. To be portrayed internationally as a racist polity, much in the manner that South Africa was in the 1980s, is cause for it to lash out.
And there is no other place in the world where Israel feels it can do so comfortably than in the United States. So the claws have come out, with Israel’s supporters there, who have talent to burn as peripatetic pressure groups, prepared to wage battle, beginning with branding BDS, and those who back its tenets, as anti-Semites. But dreadful though the stigma may be, that’s the least of it. These pressure groups have been so busy lately that they have reached as far as 24 state legislatures in the US, beginning with Tennessee in April 2015, whose members have passed bills rendering the act of boycotting Israel a criminal act, punishable by prison time and/or a hefty fine. In effect, making the right of citizens to express dissent an indictable offence.
Moreover, last year, the US Congress had attempted to pass a draconian bill, known as the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, drafted with the assistance of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, criminalising not only the act of avoiding the “purchase of Israeli goods for political reasons” as a felony punishable by up to 20 years in jail, but criminalising the act of being caught urging others to do the same.
Meanwhile, governors compete with each other over who can implement more extreme regulations in their states to bar businesses and individuals from daring even to contemplate the notion of a boycott. In 2016, for example, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo escalated the assault on free speech by issuing an executive order directing all government agencies in his state to terminate any and all business with companies, organisations and individuals that support a boycott of Israel. It ensures that citizens are punished through denial of state benefits that other citizens enjoy.
The order required that one of his commissioners compile a list, essentially a black list, of recalcitrant companies and institutions, including churches, for appropriate retributive measures. And to make sure that he was heard loud and clear, he later penned an opinion piece in the New York Times, tellingly titled ‘You boycott Israel and New York will boycott you’, reaffirming his intent.
But it’s all smoke and mirrors, really. The right of Americans to boycott whomever they want and for whatever reason they have is enshrined in the Bill of Rights. As this was tested in a federal court recently, all this posturing, arm-twisting and threatening were shown to be so much humbug.
Consider in this regard what happened in Kansas earlier this month. Like the other 24 states that had passed anti-boycott bills, Kansas similarly requires any person or company that contracts with the government to submit a written certification — yes, it goes to that lunatic extreme — that they “are not currently engaged in a boycott of Israel”.
Well, in the town of Wichita, a young woman named Esther Koontz, a coach who is qualified to train teachers statewide as a contractor with the Kansas Department of Education and who happens to belong to the Mennonite Church, discovered that the state wouldn’t give her any new assignment under state law because in accordance with calls for a boycott of Israel made by members of Koontz’s congregation, she had decided not to buy products made by Israeli companies and companies operating in Israeli colonies in the Occupied Territories. So, in good conscience, she refused to sign the written certification. No written certification, she was told, no job assignment.
“In its short history of activism over the last decade, the BDS movement has left Israel fighting on many fronts.””Share on facebookTweet this
So she went to court, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) took up her case, and a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction blocking enforcement of the state’s anti-boycott law, arguing that the Kansas law requiring, in this case, an educator to “certify” that she won’t boycott Israel violated that person’s First Amendment right.
“The court has rightly recognised the serious First Amendment harm being inflicted by this misguided [state] law that imposes an unconstitutional ideological litmus test”, said Brian Hauss, the ACLU attorney representing Koontz.
Over the course of the last 25 years, the Arab Israeli-conflict has fallen into a deep maze, a seemingly inexplicable labyrinth of contradictions.
The Israeli prime minister boasts that the entity he leads has never had “better relations” with the Arab countries. This is translated as the transformation of the Palestine question into a peripheral issue. And yet the moral reach of that question extends to rattling the conscience of Americans and shaking the constants in their constitutional system.
And, yes, an issue that has Israel falling all over itself, running scared, at the very thought that its racist practices will continue to rot till they stink worldwide.
Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.