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.”
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.