Journalist and author Ramzy Baroud reports on the aggressive legal targeting of pro Palestine activists that is currently taking place in the United States.
Bahia Amawi is a U.S. citizen and Texas-based language specialist who helps autistic and speech-impaired children overcome their impairment. Despite the essential and noble nature of her work, she was fired by the Pflugerville Independent School District, which serves the Austin area.
Every year, Amawi signs an annual contract that allows her to carry on with her tasks uninterrupted. This year however, something changed.
Shockingly, the school district decided to add a clause to the contract that requires teachers and other employees to pledge not to boycott Israel “during the term of their contract.”
The “oath” is now part of Section 2270.001 of the Texas Government Code, and it is stated in the contract with obvious elaboration so as those wishing to work, or keep their jobs with the Texan government find no loophole to avoid its penalties:
“‘Boycott Israel means refusing to deal with, terminating business activities with, or otherwise taking any action that is intended to penalize, inflict economic harm on, or limit commercial relations specifically with Israel, or with a person or entity doing business in Israel or in Israeli-controlled territory ..”
The fact that Texas considers unacceptable even the boycott of businesses operating in the illegal Jewish settlements in the Occupied West Bank puts it at odds with international law, and, subsequently with the vast majority of the international community.
But don’t rush to judgement yet, condemning Texas for being the infamous and stereotypical “Wild West,” as portrayed even in the United States’ own media. Indeed, Texas is but a small facet in a massive American government campaign aimed at stifling freedom of speech as enshrined in its country’s own constitution.
Twenty five US states have already passed anti-boycott of Israel legislation, or have issued executive orders targeting the boycott support networks, while other states are in the process of following suit.
At a federal government level, the Congressional Israel Anti-boycott Act, which is being received with enthusiasm among US legislators, vows to fine and imprison those who boycott Israel.
While there is strong civil society opposition to such obvious violations of the basic tenets of freedom of speech, the pro-Israel campaigners are unhinged.
Texas – which has passed and enacted laws criminalising support for the boycott of Israel, as championed by the Palestinian Civil Society Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) – continues to lead the way for other states.
In the Texan town of Dickinson, which was devastated by hurricane Harvey last year, hurricane victims were asked to sign a pledge not to boycott Israel in exchange for life-saving humanitarian aid.
It must have been a complete shock for displaced residents of the town to learn that the meagre supplies they were about to receive hinged on their support of the far-right government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
But this is the sad state of democracy in the U.S. at the moment, where the interests of a relatively small, distant country are made the centrepiece of U.S. government policies, at home or abroad.
Israel’s wealthy supporters are working hand in hand with Israel’s influential lobby groups in Washington DC, but also at state, and even city levels to make the boycott of Israel punishable by law.
Many U.S. politicians are answering the unreasonable lobby call of criminalising political dissent throughout the country. While in reality many of them could care less or even truly understand the nature of the debate concerning BDS, they are willing to go the extra mile (as in violating the sanctity of their own democratic system) to win lobby favours, or to, at least avoid their wrath.
The anti-BDS campaign started in the US in earnest a few years ago, and, unlike BDS’ own tactics, it avoided grassroot efforts, focusing instead on quickly creating an official body of legal work that places boycotters of Israel in the dock.
Although the hastily composed legal language has been bravely challenged, and, at times, reversed altogether by civil society lawyers and organisations, the Israeli strategy has managed to place BDS supporters on the defensive.
That limited success can be accredited to powerful friends of Israel who have generously and forcefully responded to Tel Aviv’s war drums.
Las Vegas gambling mogul, Sheldon Adelson, took the helm of leadership. He moved into action, establishing the “Maccabee Task Force”, which raised millions of dollars to fight against what Israeli officials define as an existential threat to Israel and the delegitimisation of the country as a “Jewish state.”
A major strategy that the Israeli camp has advanced in the discussion is themisleading notionthat BDS calls for the boycott of Jews, as opposed to the boycott of Israel as a state that violates international law and numerous United Nations resolutions.
A country that practices racism as a matter of course, defends racial segregation and builds Apartheid walls deserves nothing but complete boycott. That is the minimal degree of moral, political and legal accountability considering that the U.S., as other countries are obligated to honour and respect international law in that regard.
The U.S. however, encouraged by the lack of accountability, continues to behave in the same manner as countries that Washington relentlessly attacks for their undemocratic behavior and violation of human rights.
If such bizarre happenings – firing teachers and conditioning aid on taking a political stance – took place in China, for example, Washington would have lead an international campaign condemning Beijing’s intransigence and violation of human rights.
Many Americans are yet to fathom how the United States’ submission to Israel’s political will is affecting their everyday life. But with more and more such legal restrictions, even ordinary Americans will soon find themselves fighting for basic political rights that, like Bahia Amawi, they have always taken for granted.
Sure, Israel may have succeeded in coercing some people not to openly vow support of BDS, but it will eventually lose this battle as well.
Muffling the voices of civil society rarely works over long periods of time, and the anti-BDS campaign, now penetrating the very heart of U.S. government, is bound to eventually resurrect a nationwide conversation.
Is protecting Israeli Apartheid more important to Americans than preserving the fundamental nature of their own democracy? That is a question that every American, regardless how they feel about a supposedly distant Middle Eastern conflict, must answer, and urgently so.
Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and editor of Palestine Chronicle. His latest book is The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story (Pluto Press, London, 2018). He earned a Ph.D. in Palestine Studies from the University of Exeter and is a Non-Resident Scholar at Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies.