Dear Ben Jealous,
We are writing this letter to you in regards to your campaign for governor of the state of Maryland. We are both Maryland voters and would like to talk to you about Palestine, BDS, and civil rights.
Kim is a Baltimore writer, community college professor, and Green Party activist who has lived in Palestine where much of her extended family resides. Laila is a Palestinian-American journalist, public speaker, and food ethnographer from Gaza who lives in Howard County. She has lived under the brutal Israeli occupation and has written several books that document the struggles of ordinary Palestinians surviving the blockade and siege.
We are encouraged by your stances on issues we both care about, like public education, worker’s rights, and single-payer healthcare. You have already been endorsed by Progressive Maryland, Unite Here, the CWA, and Bernie Sanders. But this isn’t enough. Your position on BDS reveals a troubling inconsistency in your platform as a progressive.
Last October Governor Hogan signed an anti-BDS Executive Order that prohibits anyone who boycotts the state of Israel from doing business with the State of Maryland. Though it failed three times to garner the support needed to pass in the General Assembly, the Republican governor circumvented democratic governance and ruled by decree.
On almost any other issue, a progressive Democratic candidate would try to distinguish themselves from the Republican position. Not so when it comes to Israel. In this case, it’s a fast and scandalous race to the bottom. Speaking on the record, and on your behalf at your Baltimore Bernie Sanders rally, your running mate Susie Turnbull made it clear that if elected as governor you will NOT rescind this order unless it faces a constitutional challenge in the courts.
This tepid position would not be a surprise coming from most Democrats in the race, but it’s almost inconceivable that the former President and CEO of the NAACP would not promise to lift this unconstitutional ban. It is especially disconcerting considering the NAACP’s legendary history of using boycotts as an effective non-violent tactic for challenging systemic racism. After all, it was the NAACP’s landmark Supreme Court victory in 1982 against Claiborne Hardware that established boycotts as a form of constitutionally protected speech.
The Palestinian people have endured more than seven decades of illegal land theft, ethnic cleansing, home demolitions, arbitrary arrests and detentions, calculated massacres and violence, and the steady erosion of hope.
There is, however, a ray of light in this bleak situation: the growing Palestinian-led BDS movement, which non-violently resists the Jim Crow policies the State of Israel. BDS is not unlike the boycotts of the Civil Rights movement, the United Farm Workers, and the cultural and economic boycott of Apartheid South Africa. The revered leaders of those movements, Dr. Martin Luther King, Cesar Chávez, and Nelson Mandela were once persecuted, demonized, and jailed, just as the Palestinian resistance is today.
Despite public displays of admiration for those freedom fighters, the political establishment, including supposedly progressive Democrats, simply refuse to connect the dots. Advocates of Palestinian rights are routinely censored, threatened, and unjustly smeared—with the help of elected US officials who have made it their business to silence dissent.
For too long, the pervasive influence of the conservative pro-Israel lobby has corrupted our electoral process. No Democrat or Republican running for office wishes to raise the ire of a powerful lobby that operates with about as much subtlety as the mob.
But why should the Palestinian people continue to pay such a heavy price for the flaws in our “pay-to-play” system? And why should lobby groups wield such inordinate force when they do not represent the views of huge numbers of people in the Jewish community, which has shifted on this, especially among the youth.
Millennials are woke, Ben, and they aren’t having it.
A lot of us older folks aren’t having it either. Jimmy Tarlau, for example. Tarlau is a Delegate in the Maryland General Assembly—a former labor organizer and a proud Jewish member of Jewish Voice for Peace, one of the organizations on Israel’s McCarthyite list. Like a growing number of progressive Jews, he believes that “it is outrageous that a majority of Democrats won’t take a principled stand on Palestine.”
Tarlau vigorously supports your campaign, but he says he is disappointed in your position on this issue and will continue to talk to you about it. He has spoken out forcefully against these anti-BDS bills and the Executive Order, and has worked hard to defeat them.
We’re asking you to listen to our mutual friend Jimmy and to the other activists from the indefatigable Freedom2Boycott campaign when they come knocking on your door. They will encourage you to be a stronger, better candidate, taking bold stands that energize voters and shake up the status quo.
Progressive values are either held up as a universal standard or they ring hollow. How can we advocate for single-payer healthcare in Maryland without recognizing that US policy directly contributes to a criminal healthcare crisis in Gaza. How can we say that Black Lives Matter, then support policies that demonstrate contempt for Palestinian lives? How can we take a stand for voter rights in the United States, but then offer political and financial backing for a state that denies millions of Palestinians a direct voice in their own governance?
In view of your history as a leader and a civil rights activist, we urge you to take these questions seriously. We hope that you will change your position on the anti-BDS Executive Order specifically, and on Palestine more broadly. If boycott was a legal tool for the NAACP, then it is a legal tool for Palestinian solidarity activists who courageously fight for a peace in Palestine based on principles of justice and equality.
Kim Jensen and Laila El-Haddad
PS: For clarity on what it looks like when a US political party stands firmly on the side of justice, see the Green Party US resolution on this issue.