Judge rules against Minnesota ‘Break the Bonds’ campaign

ActivismUS Politics
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Minnesota Break the Bonds Campaign, Day on the Hill, 2011. (Photo: Ziyaad)

As we filed out of the courtroom, my colleague leaned toward me and said “we have a good judge.” Nothing that I heard in that room gave me any such indication, but my friend has spent thousands of hours in front of many different judges and knew how to read them. “She asked the defense attorney about the Geneva Conventions,” he continued, “and of course the defense attorney had no good answer for that.”

Minnesota Break the Bonds Campaign (MN BBC) is part of the global Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. It is a statewide campaign to break Minnesota’s economic ties with Israel, and along with its legislative and educational work, it had filed a lawsuit against the State Board of Investment (SBI), charging that the SBI had illegally invested Minnesota’s taxpayer money in Israel bonds. The three counts of the lawsuit charged that the investments are illegal because 1) Minnesota statutes Section 11A.24, specifically prohibit investments in non-Canadian foreign government securities, 2) by investing in projects that violate the Fourth Geneva Convention Minnesota violates its own and the US Constitution, which says that all treaties ratified by the federal government are the law of the land, and 3) the investments expose Minnesota taxpayers and pensioners to potential lawsuits by individuals who have been harmed by those illegal and abusive practices. (Read the full text of the lawsuit here [PDF].)

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(Image: MN BBC)

If your eyes, like mine, glaze over when reading legal writing, it is worth it to read the stories about each of the 27 plaintiffs at the beginning of the complaint. And here are two summaries of the lawsuit written before the judge’s ruling: here and here

Although we had a solid legal case, the fact that the subject of this lawsuit is Israel means that logic and a solid legal basis get tossed out of the conversation. The only consideration is about the next election or being labeled an anti-Semite. We did not expect to win in court; we knew that struggles for human rights take many years and endure many setbacks. We were prepared for such a setback and prepared to maximize our efforts to educate as many Minnesotans as possible about Israeli human rights abuses and international law violations.

The judge’s question about the Geneva Conventions was meaningful, because MN BBC had used Israel’s violations of them and the U.S. State Department’s acknowledgment of those violations, as evidence bolstering counts two and three. The State’s defense only mentioned that foreign policy was not a State function. Asking this question made it clear that the judge understood that investments in projects that violate international treaties which the US has ratified are illegal.
With my colleague’s short declaration, I actually allowed myself to imagine that we might win this lawsuit. A victory in a courtroom would have sent a nice message to those tireless purveyors of pro-Israeli propaganda, those people who never pass up an opportunity to talk about the “only democracy in the Middle East” as though people aren’t beginning to question that statement…as though they only need to repeat it a few more times until the hypnosis takes effect again.

A victory would have been a nice message to those Israel supporters, who did a good job of packing the small courtroom… until supporters of MN BBC began arriving en masse. By the time the hearing began, MN BBC supporters outnumbered Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) supporters about two to one. The courtroom was crowded, with standing room only, and the judge allowed some of those standing in the rear to sit in the jury box.

But a victory would not have meant that we could take a break from our work. Regardless of the outcome, we must redouble our efforts with legislators, media, church groups, and school groups. We must reach out to environmental, indigenous rights, democracy advocates, and racial justice groups – just as we have been doing. A victory would have meant that there is no time to waste, since an appeal would most certainly be forthcoming from the JCRC supporters. Our legal team would have had to scramble.

A victory would have been short but sweet. Perhaps there would have been more media attention – always the difficulty in this issue. We have always had enormous obstacles when it comes to media. Although there has been a noticeable increase in coverage of the Palestinian side of the story recently, it is still a struggle to convince mainstream media to publish our stories. We have to continue these efforts.
My friend said that the judge’s request of the lawyers for the plaintiffs and the defense to prepare proposed orders for her, and to deliver them both in printed form and in Word document form, was another good sign. That meant, he said, that she was going to cut and paste her ruling from the lawyers’ proposed orders. He sounded so sure that she would cut and paste our side’s orders rather than the defense’s side.

Yet she chose the arguments of the state. The judge ruled that 1) the plaintiffs lack standing to sue; 2) that the SBI is authorized by statute to purchase government bonds, including those of Israel; 3) that the argument regarding Israel is a political one, and not for state courts; and 4) that the plaintiffs failed to state a claim of aiding and abetting human rights abuses against the SBI. These were the defense’s proposed orders verbatim, copied and pasted, without analysis or discussion.
This is the real disappointment of the ruling. We have all been working hard for justice and many of us have taken significant personal risks for this cause. Because of her question about the Geneva Conventions, the judge had seemed to show an understanding of the issues, including the oppression against the Palestinians; and she seemed to understand how Minnesota is complicit in the oppression and human rights abuses. She could have made a powerful statement on the side of justice and human rights. Yet she chose to make the politically correct career move. This choice was highlighted by some of the judge’s own past writing about judicial independence from special interest groups, and her involvement in protecting vulnerable adults (see profile). Once again we see that protection of human rights is always “safe” and “commendable” unless the human rights that one is trying to protect are those of Palestinians.

For those of us in MN BBC, the ruling changes nothing. We still enthusiastically support the 2005 Palestinian civil society call for BDS. We will continue to work for justice, and this work will continue on many fronts: legal, legislative, and educational. And we are firm in the knowledge that changes in public awareness and understanding will eventually allow more elected officials to take courageous stances in favor of human rights and justice.

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