How grassroots activists defeated anti-BDS legislation in Maryland

Activism
on 25 Comments

Monday, April 10, 2017, marked a significant victory for social justice activism in the state of Maryland. After a vigorous and well-organized campaign, anti-BDS legislation was roundly defeated for the third time in four years.

Like similar legislation that has been enacted in states across the U.S., Senate Bill 739 and House Bill 949 would have denied public benefits and state contracts to businesses, organizations, and individuals who participate in the boycott of Israeli entities. The legislation would have created a de facto blacklist for those who choose to exercise basic first amendment rights. Though the bills are notoriously unconstitutional, it hasn’t stopped pro-Israel leaders and politicians from trying to push them onto the books across the country.

This time they lost. Again.

The battle in Maryland started back in 2014, following the landmark decision by the American Studies Association (ASA) to endorse the BDS movement. Under the sway of the influential Baltimore Jewish Council, scores of delegates and senators in the Maryland General Assembly co-sponsored bills that would have cut funding from Maryland universities and institutions that had any affiliation with the ASA or other groups that endorse BDS.

Grassroots organizers immediately began the work of educating elected officials and building a network of activists. That network has grown in the past four years. The original 2014 coalition, Keep Free Speech in the Free State, now Freedom2Boycott, includes hundreds of people from a broad range of organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace, Baltimore Palestine Solidarity, ACLU of Maryland, the Maryland chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, various faith groups, and members of the Green Party which recently endorsed BDS at the national level.

Lawyer Chip Gibbons, the policy and legislative counsel for Defending Rights and Dissent and one of the founders of Freedom2Boycott emphasizes that a key factor in this recent victory is the experience gained from the two prior campaigns. Despite a formidable pro-Israel climate in Maryland with powerful outspoken anti-BDS advocates like Dennis Ross, Governor Larry Hogan, and Senator Ben Cardin, Gibbons says that most of the opposition to the bills came from the grassroots. “It was incredibly inspiring to see all of this people power.”

As soon as the bills were announced in January, Gibbons sent a pre-emptive letter to both branches of the General Assembly outlining the most salient legal arguments against the anti-BDS legislation. And he wasn’t the only one to do so. Ajmel Quereshi, a board member of the ACLU of Maryland sent a legal briefing and testified at the hearings held in February. Taking no official position on BDS, he approached the question from a purely constitutional perspective. Pointing to the decision in NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware Co. that establishes boycotts as protected speech, Quereshi says, “the legal arguments are very strong, even clear cut, that these types of bills are unconstitutional.”

Saqib Ali, a former Maryland delegate and another key organizer of the Freedom2Boycott campaign gives a lot of credit to the civil libertarians, but also to the hundreds of ordinary citizens who went toe to toe with paid professional lobbyists. “People stepped up. They wrote letters and emails, called their representatives, went to lobby night, wrote op-eds and letters to the editors, they took off from work to testify at the hearings in February.”

According to Ali, these strategies had an impact on elected officials. “Suddenly you have people showing up and making a lot of noise at town halls, and the politicians are thinking: why do I need this?” Many elected Democrats just didn’t see the benefit of being thrust into the midst of Middle East politics when there are so many critical issues facing the state. In the Trump era, he says, democrats didn’t want any hint of a division within the party. “It would be different if it were an issue they really cared about.”

One of the many people who made it difficult for legislators to pass the bill quietly was Susan Kerin, an American BDS activist whose husband is Palestinian. She is a member of Pax Christi, a Catholic group whose Washington-Baltimore chapter endorsed BDS last year. She testified at the hearings specifically as a member of a faith community, and was happy to help educate people about the issues. “In a way they really did us a favor by proposing this bill,” she says. “The hearings became like an Occupation 101 teach in, and we did change some hearts and minds, especially with the African-American legislators.”

One such legislator is delegate Mary Washington, a progressive Democrat and sociology professor from Baltimore City who was one of the co-sponsors of the original anti-BDS House bill proposed in 2014. When activists and colleagues met with her to clarify the issue, she immediately withdrew her support and switched sides, even speaking on the floor in defense of ASA’s academic freedom. While Washington hasn’t publicly endorsed BDS, she has participated in economic boycotts herself (she cites the United Farmworkers grape boycott, among others), and believes that boycott is an important and legitimate form of non-violent protest against injustice and discrimination.

For Washington whose partner happens to be Jewish, the visible and vocal presence of Jewish activists in this campaign was extremely helpful. In the past, she says, support for the state of Israel “was constructed as the only way to support Jewish interests or the Jewish community.” She is glad that this has changed, and is pleased that supporters of Palestinian rights can no longer be dismissed as anti-Semitic.

Washington cites the influential and helpful work of JVP, mentioning her important discussions with Jodie Zisow-McClean, one of many JVP members who helped bring media attention to the issue. Washington says she encouraged Jewish activists to speak out and explain to their legislators that “there is not just one Jewish position on this.”

Maryland Delegate Jimmy Tarlau. Organizer Saqib Ali calls Tarlau “a champion.” (Photo: Kim Jensen)

Like others in this campaign, Washington applauds the pivotal role played by her Jewish colleague in the House, delegate Jimmy Tarlau, a former labor organizer who is also a member of JVP. Washington says that he worked hard to inform people about the dangers of this bill. “He made it very clear to the leadership that there was not going to be a single Jewish voice on the floor on this issue.”

Like Washington, Tarlau believes that boycotting is a legitimate, non-violent tactic to pressure the state of Israel to change its discriminatory policies. He is in favor of political boycotts and took it upon himself to ask scores of his colleagues in the General Assembly to oppose this anti-BDS legislation. Tarlau acknowledges that Israel is “definitely close to an Apartheid reality,” and he believes that “a large minority” of Jewish legislators in Maryland do not like Netanyahu nor the Israeli government’s policies.

Delegate Tarlau becomes very passionate when he speaks about these questions. He says that one thing that makes him very angry is the term “self-hating Jew.” “It’s asinine. I’m Jewish. I’m proud of being Jewish. My grandfather was a rabbi. My great grandfather was a member of the Austrian House of Parliament. I am proud of being Jewish, but that doesn’t mean that I’m proud of the policies of the Israeli government.”

It is those oppressive policies that are at the heart of the work of so many involved in this effort. Reverend Marvin Silver, Associate Conference Minister Justice & Witness Ministries of United Church of Christ, is one of those activists who wants people to understand exactly what is at stake: Palestinian human rights.

Silver traveled with his church’s delegation to Palestine in February and was hurt and angered by what he saw. “I had never seen so much oppression in my life,” he declares. “As an African American male in the US where we struggle to have our lives matter, I couldn’t help note the similarities, and how oppression is engrained into our everyday lives. The way the settlers treat the Palestinians is absolutely related to the way that white racists here treats African Americans and every other non-white ethnic group.”

Silver and his colleague Rev. Alex Vishio sent briefings and testified in the hearings in the House and the Senate. In his testimony he called the legislation “McCarthyite” and explained that his church’s ministry in the Central Atlantic Conference, which endorsed a limited form of BDS in 2014, would be negatively affected by the passage of these bills. The grants that the ministry receives from the State of Maryland for emergency and transitional housing and services programs could be in jeopardy if this bill is ever enacted.

“This is a threat to all of our work to bring freedom and justice to our country,” Silver contends. “We have to hold our elected official accountable to serve the interests of their constituents, not a foreign country’s lobby.” Silver hopes that there will be legal challenges at the national level to the laws that have already been passed in other states.

Sammy Alqasem, a Palestinian-American and an active member of JVP, Baltimore Palestine Solidarity, and Freedom2Boycott wholeheartedly agrees. He hopes that the connections and alliances that have been forged here in Maryland can be used to help defeat the national anti-BDS bills. He articulates a few of the key lessons for other activists learned from this victory:

  • Start early and don’t procrastinate.
  • Work with a wide variety of groups, regardless of ideological or tactical differences.
  • Set up effective communication networks.
  • Find allies with inside knowledge of the legislative process.
  • Have many talking points from a diversity of perspectives.

In his statement before the House, Alqasem testified on behalf of the Palestinian people and his own family who have suffered under Israeli rule, having been forced out of their homes in 1948 and never allowed to return. He told the committee that his family faces severe restrictions on their movement, access to clean water, and electricity. Their homes have been raided and they have endured harassment and torture.

He also spoke on behalf of other Palestinian Americans “who are afraid to publicly testify for fear of being harassed, detained, and denied entry into Israel.” He added that he himself was taking a risk in speaking out because he is supposed to travel to Palestine this summer for a wedding.

It is a risk that he and many other courageous activists in Maryland have been willing to take.

About Kim Jensen

Kim Jensen (www.kimjensen.org) is a Baltimore-based writer, poet, and educator who spends a great deal of time in historic Palestine. Her books include a novel, The Woman I Left Behind, and two collections of poems, Bread Alone and The Only Thing that Matters.

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25 Responses

  1. Ossinev
    April 24, 2017, 1:34 pm

    “Despite a formidable pro-Israel climate in Maryland with powerful outspoken anti-BDS advocates like Dennis Ross, Governor Larry Hogan, and Senator Ben Cardin”

    It speaks volumes for the extent of the sinister influence which Zionists and the pro-Israel Lobby have in America and the levels to which so called US politicians State Governors , Senators , Congressmen etc have sunk that they are prepared to piss all over the US Constitution in homage to the Ziodollar.

    • festus
      April 24, 2017, 4:55 pm

      Shouldn’t there be a penalty for these groups constantly bringing up this anti BDS legislation when they lose in court? Seems they just bring it up again or bypass and pressure the governor and state legislatures to enforce anti BDS moves anyway.

      • JeffB
        April 24, 2017, 6:42 pm

        @festus

        They haven’t actually lost in court. Groups like Palestine Legal have claimed they would lose in court, but it hasn’t been tested. Moreover actually defeating these cases in court will put progressives in a terrible quandary because defeating these bills likely opens up the door for all sorts of other civil rights laws to be taken down.

        To pick a simple example, it’s going to be very difficult to argue that Cuomo can’t prohibit NY State from contracting with BDS companies; while at the same time Obama can issue an executive order banning the Federal Government from contracting with companies that practice anti-LGBT discrimination. Both orders ride on essentially the same argument.

        And not distinguishing is assuming the states don’t argue they have a compelling interest in insuring protection against discrimination on the basis of national origin. Once it becomes legal for private businesses to discriminate on the basis of national origin, and the state to contract with them regardless, a ton of civil rights laws could fall. You could easily have the equivalent of White Citizens Councils arguing they are just discriminating against people descended from these 43 African nations, which is now (after the BDS bills are overturned) perfectly legal. Or to pick a more modern example, think about the possibilities with the states that outsource the production of IDs for voting, and voting suppression campaigns if it is perfectly legal to hire companies that discriminate on the basis of national origin.

        Alternatively this complex argument could be avoided if the states argue (and the facts would back them up) that these laws have little or no practical effect and thus are symbolic acts of the legislature to express political opinion, which is protected speech.

      • JWalters
        April 24, 2017, 9:09 pm

        JeffB,

        Your argument requires classifying Israeli land thieves (aka “settlers) in the West Bank as victims of discrimination. That is absurd, based on the overwhelming facts of the case.

        For new readers, JeffB thoroughly shredded his credibility, unable to deal honestly with facts or logic, in the extended discussion here:
        http://mondoweiss.net/2015/05/times-rudoren-selma

      • DaBakr
        April 26, 2017, 2:23 am

        Jeff
        . Recognize you have succeeded. Your adversaries are grasping at such splintered and rooted straws they can barely keep their true believing snouts out pic the bull Shang . You won. Give it a rest. There are literally Dozens upon dozens of anti bds bills dealing with federally funded institutions.bds it’s losing most of them. Relax

  2. Kay24
    April 24, 2017, 5:16 pm

    Mislabelling products are not only in Israel but in the Trump WH too.

    Did Jared Kushner, who supports the illegal settlements, teach his wife Israel’s old tricks?
    Devious.

    Then
    “Patience Runs Out
    EU To Crack Down on Israeli Settlement Products
    Israeli settlers living in the Palestinian terroritories often deceptively give their products a “Made in Israel” label. The European Union wants to move soon to end the practice and appears to be set on a collision course with the country.” Spiegel on line

    Now
    Ivanka Trump’s Brand Was Purposely Mislabeled Under Another Name At Stein Mart
    This legal-but-weird practice is raising eyebrows.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/ivanka-trump-mislabeled_us_58fe2e0be4b00fa7de166ab0?43f&ncid=inblnkushpmg00000009

    • Marnie
      April 25, 2017, 1:37 am

      The tRUMPs/Kushners have no shame or credibility and for more information and a lot of laughs, which we all need

      Ivanka & Jared: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO) – YouTube

      • Kay24
        April 25, 2017, 7:01 pm

        Thanks for that very interesting episode. John Oliver is right, everyone should be very much afraid that Ivanka and Jared are both unqualified and inexperienced, and it is scary to think they have the authority to do whatever they wish, as Trump, equally inexperienced, seems to delegate his responsibilities to family. It is like giving a child the pilot’s seat in a large passenger aircraft.

      • Maghlawatan
        April 26, 2017, 12:59 am

        Masha Gessen of the New York Review wrote around the time of the election that with autocrats everything comes back to the family. They are the only ones who can be trusted. And they run the money scams. The Philippines had Imelda Marcos and her shoes. The US now has the Trump’s and the cashflow from Mar a Lago.

  3. JWalters
    April 24, 2017, 8:51 pm

    “the legal arguments are very strong, even clear cut, that these types of bills are unconstitutional.”

    To Israel, the US Constitution is as disposable as a Palestinian. Sadly, the same is true for many of Israel’s financial puppets in US legislatures and media.

    My profound thanks to the people of Maryland who stood up for freedom of speech, and to their legislative representatives who listened to them rather than to wealthy foreign criminals.

    I also appreciated Kim Jensen’s clear and fascinating account of how this battle for justice was waged and won.

  4. JeffB
    April 25, 2017, 1:10 am

    @JWalters

    No it just requires classifying Israelis as a national origin. BDS proclaims itself as ntending to discriminate on the basis of national origin. You provide a reason “they are land thieves” but the courts traditionally haven’t tried to evaluate the reasons behind discrimination. There is no reason to believe the courts would find some special argument that claiming discrimination is legal on the basis the group engages in land theft, would be the court’s ruling. Even if the courts were to segregate land theft, as allowing for ethnic discrimination, just about any group could be classified as a land thief so that still opens the door to just about any form of racial or ethnic discrimination. This loophole your propose could extend to sex discrimination, many men claim that women stole their homes in divorces and thus women collectively could be discriminated against under your “land thief” exemption. It still punches the same holes in pretty much all civil rights laws.

    As for your comment at the end. The facts 2 years later proved my points in that thread. It shows nothing more than I accurately predicted what MP Shaked herself said, that you were mischaracterizing her views and statements.

    • echinococcus
      April 25, 2017, 8:02 am

      Discrimination based on national origin?

      Congratulations, Ziogenius : you just argued that all US economic sanctions against Iran, Russia and any other countries are illegal.

      Interesting, though: they still used to have a couple intelligent Zionists some 10-20 years ago.

      • JeffB
        April 25, 2017, 2:21 pm

        @echinococcus

        The state is allowed to permit discrimination, permit violations of what would normally be covered by civil rights, if they have a compelling interest. In the case of Iran or Russia the state has a compelling interest.

        BDS is claiming they aren’t a compelling interest, after all BDS is not law, but a matter of freedom of political discourse. Compelling interest is an entirely different standard. Not the same thing remotely. The correct analogy with Israel is if there were sanctions passed as a matter of law against Israel then a business complying with those sanctions would not be a violation of civil rights law.

      • echinococcus
        April 25, 2017, 3:15 pm

        “Compelling” for whom? Not me. No legal declaration of war. No judiciary decision. Just a government preference… doesn’t cut it, no reason yet to bypass the constitution. Have it out with moron lawyers.

    • Talkback
      April 25, 2017, 4:11 pm

      I think that JeffB wants to tell us that the Jewish Boycott of Nazi Germany was an act of discrimination.

      • Mooser
        April 25, 2017, 5:45 pm

        “The state is allowed to permit discrimination, permit violations of what would normally be covered by civil rights, if they have compelling interest…

        Sure, “JeffB”, and everything Hitler did was legal, too.

      • JeffB
        April 25, 2017, 9:37 pm

        @Talkback

        The Jewish boycott of Nazi Germany likely would have violated today’s civil rights statutes. I ain’t the one who made those laws.

      • Talkback
        April 27, 2017, 4:39 pm

        The Jews weren’t boycotting Germans for being German.
        Neither does BDS target Israelis for being Israelis or moslty Jews.

        In both cases the target war/is a discriminating state policy. That someone like you wants to see portrait this as discrimating and inherently more unacceptable is the usual perversion of human values and the reason why Israel is amongst the top most hated countries.

    • JWalters
      April 26, 2017, 8:43 pm

      JeffB,

      “BDS proclaims itself as ntending to discriminate on the basis of national origin.”

      The well-known purpose of BDS is to protest illegal murders and land thefts, not national origin. You are trying to distract attention from serious crimes with half-baked logic and shifty word games. Perhaps you have been dispatched to give young Zionists who stumble onto Mondoweiss a slender thread to believe there are seemingly reasonable objections to the overwhelming facts and logic they enounter at Mondoweiss.

      Your point regarding the debate at the above link
      http://mondoweiss.net/2015/05/times-rudoren-selma
      is irrelevant, because that debate revolved entirely around what YOU said. You are trying to steer people away from reading that debate using a dishonest tactic. Once again you show that your purpose is not to clarify, but to obfuscate and cover up.

      As for your take on MP Shaked, I encourage readers to read that full discussion for themselves and make up their own minds about your moral compass.

      • JeffB
        April 26, 2017, 10:42 pm

        @JWalters

        It is not the purpose that would be the problem it is the means. You aren’t allowed to discriminate even for a supposedly good purpose unless it is business essential. For example a company that refused to hire women because they want mothers to spend more time with their children would still be engaging in discrimination.

        @echicnoccus

        Typical Zionist, can’t see the difference between national origin and being part of, or subject of, a given state. So much for your chewing law. –

        The law doesn’t care. Either one is national origin discrimination.

      • echinococcus
        April 27, 2017, 9:50 am

        Jeff,

        Completely in affabulation now. How does a call to boycott cover ex-citizens of “Israel”, or expatriate ones doing business strictly within the framework of the US in businesses without “Israel” capital? It doesn’t, because boycott is not based on national origin. It only hits institutional ties to a given state.
        Get us somebody with at least minimal understanding.

      • Mooser
        April 27, 2017, 11:02 am

        I don’t see what “JeffB” is talking about. Where’s the “discrimination”? Everybody, in every country, has the right not to buy stuff from Israel, on whatever level they purchase. No discrimination at all involved.

      • Talkback
        April 27, 2017, 4:46 pm

        JeffB: “You aren’t allowed to discriminate even for a supposedly good purpose unless it is business essential. For example a company that refused to hire women because they want mothers to spend more time with their children would still be engaging in discrimination.”

        Or a state that claims that some citizens belong to the nation of the state and the rest doesn’t because of their faith/heritage.

        Of course you immediately realized that this time I wasn’t talking only about Nazi Germany, too, didn’t you?

  5. echinococcus
    April 26, 2017, 1:01 am

    Jeff,

    That answer (to Talkback) is enough to establish what a shrunken head your shoulders have to bear. Typical Zionist, can’t see the difference between national origin and being part of, or subject of, a given state. So much for your chewing law.

    Of course: you Zionists have neither a common national origin nor any other common trait, except the fact of belonging to the illegal Zionist entity (or pretending not to be a citizen and still belonging to and working for the Zionist entity.) No wonder you don’t get something that damn simple.

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