When a delegation of pro-justice activists and community leaders met with Washington state governor Jay Inslee in 2017, to urge him not to endorse the “Governors United against BDS” letter (which, sadly, he signed onto, like every single US state governor, as well as the mayor of Washington, DC), he spoke of it as a foreign policy matter. I strategically “corrected” him, pointing out that the right to boycott was not a foreign policy issue, but one of American free speech. As a member of Washington Freedom to Boycott (which we have since renamed Washington Advocates for Palestinian Rights), I helped circulate the following call to action to thousands, asking them to tell Inslee that “whatever your views on Israel, Palestine, or the BDS movement, anti-BDS legislation is anti-freedom of speech…”
Organizers in other states (Maryland, Virginia) had done the same; indeed, we had named our own coalition after Maryland’s and Virginia’s “Freedom2Boycott” groups, with whom we had consulted before our own state-wide call to action. During one of their meetings with legislators in 2015, Maryland’s Matthew Nephew of the Montgomery County Civil Rights Coalition had warned:
“The point is simply that once Maryland is in the business of ruling thumbs up or down on one kind of political boycott or divestment campaign, it opens the floodgates for trying the same with others. Environmental, immigration, LGBTQ and labor movements (to name a few) have all turned to boycotts and divestment as nonviolent means of making their points — and making America, and the world, a better place. Unless you prevent it, efforts to stigmatize or penalize BDS will serve as an instruction manual for well-heeled or well-connected lobbyists to do the same again and again with other peaceful exercises of free speech.”
The strategy, presenting support for the BDS movement as a facet of American constitutional rights, seems to have worked, as today, S.1, the bill to criminalize BDS, is being shut down because it is viewed as an attack on free speech and the much-cherished US freedom of expression and association. Its timing is particularly revealing of its sponsors’ misplaced priorities: the bill was dropped during a partial government shutdown over failure to fund President Trump’s wall with Mexico, at a time when there are immediate American needs, such as paying federal employees their salaries. As the ACLU tweeted:
It's as if the Senate doesn't have other matters to address — like a government shutdown.
We urge Senators to stay strong in defense of the First Amendment and continue to vote no. https://t.co/FM5uvnuqaT
— ACLU (@ACLU) January 10, 2019
Of course, as much as I cherish my freedom of political expression, my own BDS organizing, like that of most of our allies, does not stem from concern over freedom of speech. It is rooted in our desire to hold Israel accountable for its crimes, and to achieve justice in Palestine. And at this moment of national conversation around Palestine, it is important not to lose sight of the goals of BDS: the human rights of the Palestinian people.
The focus on American freedom of speech, and American freedom of expression, worthy as it is, should not distract from the cause we are defending, with our free speech and political expression. That strategic focus has helped us a lot so far, in that it has brought into the struggle allies who would not otherwise organize for Palestinian rights. Even the ACLU, which has proven to be a very solid ally, maintains, in almost all its statements, that their support of BDS stems strictly from their support of freedom of speech, not any pro-Palestine perspective. Wording such as “While we take no position on Israel boycotts, the BDS movement, or Israel-Palestine, we do maintain that states should not be sanctioning business on the basis of First Amendment-protected expression and association” appears in almost all their statements denouncing and opposing anti-BDS legislation, including their most recent one (as of time of writing).
We must now use the national platform we have, as the Senate debates anti-BDS legislation, to make the case that solidarity with Palestine, and heeding the call for a global campaign to boycott, divest from, and impose sanctions on Israel, are the moral thing to do, regardless of whether they are a form of free speech or not. The backlash will be immense, as is obvious, for example, from the recent smear attacks on civil rights icon Angela Davis, whose activism for Palestine was never overshadowed by an overblown concern for freedom of speech. As she wrote in her eloquent statement on the indivisibility of justice, upon learning that the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute had rescinded her award: “Although the BCRI refused my requests to reveal the substantive reasons for this action, I later learned that my long-term support of justice for Palestine was at issue.” But there has always been a high cost for American support of justice for Palestine, and still we have persisted, risen above the censorship, the distortions, and the Israel Lobby’s relentless smear attacks and attempts to criminalize us.
Today, with “Palestine in the House,” with Congresswomen Betty McCollum having introduced, in 2017, a bill to protect Palestinian children’s human rights, and Rashida Tlaib being sworn in in her traditional thobe, after announcing she will be leading delegations to Palestine, to counter AIPAC’s junkets, and Ilhan Omar speaking directly about Palestinian rights, as all our senators and members of congress debate the impact of the Israel lobby’s demands on American constitutional rights, we can be ever more pointed in our own statements.
The fight to block the criminalization of BDS should go beyond the focus on making it a matter of American freedom of expression, and American citizens’ constitutional rights. It is a matter of solidarity with an oppressed people, suffering under brutal occupation, a genocidal siege, and apartheid. The Israel lobby threatens American constitutional rights, while Israel violates the human rights of millions of Palestinians. We must use the political opportunity offered us by the national discussion, the outrage over the attacks on Marc Lamont Hill and Angela Davis, the new energy in Congress, and the growing denunciations of Israeli apartheid, to say “this is about justice in Palestine.”
We have the mic. We need to redirect the conversation, towards our ultimate goal. Yes the cause of Palestine impacts American rights. But it should matter, even if it did not.