Indiana lawmakers seek to silence critics of Israel

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As readers of this site know, the international movement to boycott, divest from, and sanction the government of Israel, or BDS, is a non-violent campaign based in international law that seeks to grant Arab and Palestinian citizens living under illegal Israeli occupation their full human rights.

The BDS movement targets the Israeli state, not its citizens, or Jewish people, by pursuing three simple goals: 1) an end to the state’s illegal Israeli occupation of Arab lands and the granting of  equal rights to all Arab citizens; 2) the removal of the “apartheid wall” that currently segregates Palestinians and Israelis; 3) respect by the Israeli state for United Nations Resolution 194 guaranteeing the “right of return” of exiled Palestinian people to their historic homeland.

The success of the BDS movement can be measured not only in locales such as Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles, but also here in Indiana.

Since the 2014 Israeli war in Gaza, more than ten different groups across the state have endorsed BDS, including veterans, religious groups, and campus activists.[1]

This is not the only measure of BDS success in Indiana. Another is the well-coordinated, well-funded effort of BDS opponents to eliminate the movement.

In Indiana, as in other places, the weapons of these opponents are the same: pass anti-BDS bills in the state legislature (in Indiana, this bill was HB 1378), attempt to limit public discussion of BDS, and smear BDS proponents as anti-Semites.

The debate in statehouse over HB 1378 revealed the inner workings of this effort. Sponsored by House Speaker Brian Bosma, the bill requires state pensions funds to divest from any organization or company that observes the boycott against Israel and Israeli settlements in the West Bank. At the hearing on the bill, no one was invited to testify against it. Instead, three proponents linked the BDS movement to Islamic terrorism and anti-Semitism, and warned of its growth on Indiana’s college campuses.[2]

During the testimony, one sleepy legislator asked, “I’m sorry. What is BDS?”

The bill passed unanimously, and went on to the Senate, where only three Senators voted against it. It is now law.

Why would state legislators who know little about the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, spend time on this issue during a short session of the General Assembly, especially when Indiana’s roads are falling apart?

The simple answer: because this legislation is a relatively easy way to pander to pro-Israel special interests in the state, a coalition that has deep roots not just among Jewish Americans but also among many Christians.

The bill will do little to affect the growth of BDS and will be challenged in federal court on constitutional grounds. According to the Supreme Court’s decision in the 1982 NAACP v. Clairborne Hardware case, the right for a person to boycott is a fundamental component of the First Amendment.

Was the bill’s constitutionality considered during the legislative process?

Such questions are beside the point. The legislative victory was symbolic, a gift from the legislators to critics of the BDS movement who argue that any criticism of the Israeli state is equal to being anti-Jewish.

The absurdity of this claim is easy to refute.  The BDS movement, for example, has many Jewish supporters, including the national organization Jewish Voice for Peace, the famous feminist scholar Judith Butler, the International Anti-Zionist Network, and some citizens of Israel.[3]

In fact, it is because of the growing support for BDS among both Jews and non-Jews that supporters of Israel have attempted to silence or ostracize groups that support the boycott.

In Indiana, the Indianapolis Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) and its allies have led the way.

In 2015, when historian Ilan Pappé was scheduled to give a talk at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), the JCRC met with school leadership and asked that the administration intervene. When it did not, the JCRC issued a public statement claiming that the talk would create an atmosphere conducive to anti-Semitic attacks on Jewish students—a line that the JCRC repeats every time anyone questions Israeli policy.[4]  Yet Pappé is himself Jewish, and one of the most respected Israeli historians in the world.

The director of the JCRC is also the chair of the Center for Interfaith Cooperation, which refused to allow a pro-BDS group, Christians for Peace and Justice in the Middle East, to participate in its 2015 Festival of Faiths.[5]

More recently, the JCRC, with the Jewish Federation of Greater Indianapolis, has supported the birth of a Students Supporting Israel group at IUPUI, holding private, invite-only dinners to preach against BDS, and seeking to convince Hoosiers that BDS is nothing but a veiled attempt to attack Jews.[6]

Critics of the BDS movement are also resorting to more desperate measures.

When supporters of BDS held a talk recently at the IUPUI Campus Center, opponents of BDS littered the entire building with pamphlets and sent photographs of pro-BDS faculty to an Israel-based group that opposes BDS. The Israeli group subsequently tweeted the pictures from Israel and asked the faculty to stop supporting BDS.[7]

No matter who was responsible for the incident–the IUPUI student affairs office is still trying to figure out who was involved–it is clear that the nature of anti-BDS rhetoric has now changed to include wild and false accusations against its supporters.

In perhaps the most extreme example to date, the Students Supporting Israel group at University of Minnesota released a slick graphic replacing the olive branch of another campus group’s flier supporting the boycott movement with a swastika. [See update below]

Swastikas have also appeared on the campuses of Purdue and the University of Indianapolis and been blamed on pro-BDS forces. The JCRC Director tried to blame the swastikas on pro-boycott students and faculty, including one of us.

Her accusations appeared in a story written by an advocacy journalist for the Observer, a tabloid-style entertainment newspaper owned by Donald Trump’s son-in-law.  It included fabricated charges against pro-BDS faculty with links to documents that contradicted charges made in the piece.[8]

Such shoddiness, smears, and vindicativeness are too often part of the record of response of critics of BDS and its advocates.

This misdirected blame is unfortunate.  Anti-Semitism is a heinous social prejudice, and should not be indiscriminately used to target political opponents. Doing so trivializes real, documentable cases of hate speech against Jews.

The anti-Semitic allegations also represent a willful failure to recognize BDS’s core commitment to fighting racism and anti-Semitism.  On many college campuses, Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions faculty and students lead the fight against anti-Semitism and racism of all forms.

In the case of the swastikas appearing on Indiana campuses, for example, it was Students for Justice in Palestine chapters and other BDS supporters, who led responses to criticize manifestations of anti-Semitism.

BDS activists have also made continuing alliances with African-American, Latino, and LGBTQ groups to discuss the negative effects of social discrimination.

BDS, in short, has become part of a widespread rebirth of civil rights activism in the U.S. and around the world.

It is for this reason that a wide range of human rights and civil rights activist–from Nobel Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu, to novelist Alice Walker, to physicist Stephen Hawking, to Pulitzer Prize winning author Junot Diaz—have come out to support BDS.

Like the campaign against South African apartheid on which it is based, the non-violent BDS movement will persist in its efforts until equality and justice come to Arab and Palestinian citizens of Israel/Palestine.

Opponents of BDS should cease their baseless smears and join us in a quest for justice.







[6]; Letter obtained from invitee, available on request.

[7] Tweets, photographs, and IP addresses available upon request.


Update: Sami Rahamim, the president of Students Supporting Israel at the University of Minnesota, writes to us to say that the group did not distribute a flyer with a swastika image:

SSI categorically denies the allegation in your article as we had absolutely no involvement in the creation or the dissemination of this highly offensive and completely inappropriate graphic.  A fact we made clear directly to UMN Divest, and to the broader University of Minnesota community in a public March 7th Facebook post from UMN United, the umbrella organization opposing the divestment campaign led by UMN Divest.

In light of what we can only assume is new information, we respectfully request that you update your article to correct the incorrect assertion that SSI had any involvement in the creation or distribution of this repugnant image….


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Now that it’s Indiana law, will government pension investments discriminate against any entity associating itself with BDS in any way?

re: “Opponents of BDS should cease their baseless smears and join us in a quest for justice.” Indeed they should, but I don’t expect they will. Actions like this, and words like those from Obama and Biden recently described here (effectively equating BDS with anti-semitism) are depressing. I suspect that most members of the Indiana legislature who voted for this are motivated mainly by fear of what would happen if they voted no, or even… Read more »

Obama and Biden …very disappointing.

Mondoweiss is heroic.. Thank you for this.

Just remember that the Indiana Legislature once took several steps toward rounding off “pi” from 3.1416….. to 3.2 and see this effort in that context. They like things simple…no extraneous expenditure of intellectual energy to understand the issues….it’s not that they hate Palestinians.
It’s a genetic thing.
What other explanation can there be?