Last week, Congressman Keith Ellison released a statement formally opposing BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions), the global, Palestinian-led movement for freedom, justice, and equality. The statement followed the announcement of Congressman Ellison’s bid for the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee and a fairly recent campaign by pro-Israel groups to pass BDS blacklist measures in state legislatures across the United States (at least 22 state legislatures have either considered or passed BDS blacklist laws).
Ellison’s public opposition to BDS was met with confusion and shock by progressives, Palestinian rights activists, and Muslim American leaders and welcomed by the media and political establishment as a defense to a xenophobic, alt-right campaign to paint Congressman Ellison as anti-Semitic and “radical.”
But before casting judgment on Congressman Ellison’s unfortunate statement in opposition to BDS, the story of a lesser-known black Democratic elected official should be studied closely.
In October of 2015, a Florida State Senator from Miami, Dwight Bullard, voted against a measure to blacklist companies that endorse BDS. The BDS blacklist bill mirrored a former Florida legislative effort to blacklist companies doing business in Cuba, a law that was blocked by a Miami federal judge and ruled unenforceable (see Odebrecht Construction Inc. v. Secretary Florida Department of Transportation). The judge ruled that measures such as these by state legislatures disregard the Supremacy Clause, the federal government’s power to set foreign policy, in the U.S. Constitution.
Yet Senator Bullard’s reason for opposing the measure was simple; he simply could not vote to restrict the constitutionally protected rights of any group (political boycotts have time and time again been ruled constitutionally protected free speech by the Supreme Court).
A few months after Bullard’s vote in opposition to the measure in committee, the Florida BDS blacklist measure passed 38-0, with 39 of the 40 Florida State Senators sponsoring the measure, including its sole former opponent, State Senator Bullard. Senator Bullard went from being the only member of the Florida Senate to vote against the measure on the record to not just changing his vote in support of it but also being listed as a co-sponsor, something he says party leadership forced him to do.
No other bill in the 2016 Florida legislature would garner as much bi-partisan support.
Fourteen minutes before the final vote on the bill, Senator Bullard sent me a message, “I’ve been threatened over this BDS vote. I need to talk with you…”
And threatened he was.
Just over a year later, Bullard’s position on BDS and a Dream Defenders trip to the occupied Palestinian territories would be the reason his well-respected name would be slandered. Bullard was labeled a “terrorist sympathizer” by media outlets, pro-Israel groups, and by both his Democratic primary opponent and then his Republican general election opponent.
Senator Bullard eventually lost his reelection campaign earlier this month, despite being one of Florida’s few, reliable, progressive state elected officials.
In the months between Bullard’s vote in opposition to the BDS blacklist measure in October of 2015 and his reelection bid in November of 2016, the “threats” that Bullard had confided in me about only escalated.
Then DNC chairwoman and member of Congress, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, told Senator Bullard that his political future was over, he told me. Top donors to the Florida Democratic Party called Bullard personally and threatened their support for him and the Democratic Party; because of his position on the BDS blacklist measure. Zionist activists in Miami held protests outside of the Senator’s office, claiming, “[Bullard’s] message of BDS is not welcome here.”
Senator Bullard’s primary opponent, Andrew Korge, a Democrat and son of a wealthy Democratic fundraiser who is close to former presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, attempted to paint Bullard as anti-Semitic and made nefarious claims that Bullard met with “members of a terrorist organization” on his trip to Palestine. And although Bullard defeated Korge in the August 2016 primary election, Bullard’s Republican opponent, Frank Artiles, went on to echo Korge’s claims about Bullard, campaigning on the message that Bullard “made us all less safe” when he “met with a terrorist organization.”
The months of attacks Bullard endured for having the moral courage, as Dr. Cornel West says, to love both Palestinian and Israeli precious brothers and sisters and oppose injustice and inequality, triggered an important debate within Florida Democratic Party circles about the U.S. role in the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Labor unions, teachers’ groups, black Democratic activists, and progressives around the state rallied behind Bullard, and progressives in the party defended the need for a more neutral position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Even Bend the Arc, a progressive Jewish political action committee, invested in supporting Bullard’s increasingly contentious reelection campaign. But a key community was largely missing from Bullard’s reelection campaign—Palestinians.
From Bullard’s initial vote against the BDS blacklist measure to his reelection bid a year later, there was no effort from Florida’s Palestinian community to rally behind Bullard and support him, either through grassroots community organizing or political fundraising. Of the over 500 political contributions to Bullard’s reelection campaign, only two came from Palestinians, one of those two being myself. Despite Florida being home to a significant population of Palestinian Americans, there was no effort to organize volunteers to knock on doors and educate neighbors and community members on Bullard’s candidacy and the issues he fought for.
What message does this silence from Palestinians send to other elected officials who are quiet defenders of Palestinians, yet also hesitant to risk their own political future were they to publicly defend Palestinians rights?
As activists, community organizers, and leaders across the country now reflect on Congressman Keith Ellison’s opposition to BDS, important lessons should be considered from the story of Dwight Bullard.
Palestinian activism in the United States is undoubtedly repressed, threatened, and quelled. As a result, Palestinians in the United States are largely politically disenfranchised.
But recent public opinion shifts among Americans on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, especially among young Americans, with millennials now more likely to sympathize with Palestinians and less likely to sympathize more with Israel than older Americans, allow for important opportunities to organize for Palestinian rights throughout the United States.
With threats to Palestinian activism now focused on state legislatures, where grassroots organizing can have much more of an impact than in Congress, Americans committed to Palestinian rights should embrace this new political environment and engage, not continue to turn away from the political process, as they have been doing for decades.
And as legislative efforts to quell protected BDS activity increase, our resolve to undertake BDS organizing should only continue to increase as well. After all, politics are reflections of movements.
Although Congressman Ellison’s public announcement in opposition to BDS is unfortunate, Congressman Ellison is an ally to Palestinians and should not be ostracized for what I am sure was a very difficult and forced decision for him to make.
At the height of the political-slander campaign against Bullard, I myself told him that his courage on this issue was less important to me than his political future. It was Bullard himself who stood true to his democratic and extremely unpopular convictions, though the result was the loss of a valuable public official who was the sole voice in the halls of power for marginalized communities around the state—Black Lives Matter activists, environmentalists, Fight for $15 activists, teachers, the working poor, Muslim-Americans, amongst many others.
It is our responsibility to work towards a political environment that protects and uplifts public officials like Bullard and Congressman Ellison by investing in community and political organizing, and we should not lose sight of that.