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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:

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.

About Nada Elia

Nada Elia is a Palestinian scholar-activist, writer, and grassroots organizer, currently completing a book on Palestinian Diaspora activism.

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15 Responses

  1. Naftush
    Naftush on January 16, 2019, 8:10 am

    This isn’t about anyone’s rights. These bills do not impact Americans’ constitutional rights because making foreign-trade policy is not one of those rights. As for Palestinians’ rights, BDS champions only the national right, specifically the right to resist the national enemy, and maintains airtight silence on the withholding of personal rights in the Palestinian-administered territories. Even the right to life, say in the Syrian camps, is of no concern to BDS.

    • JWalters
      JWalters on January 16, 2019, 7:43 pm

      Boycotting a foreign country to protest its political policies is an American right under the 1st Amendment of the US Constitution. It’s been settled at the Supreme Court. If Israel wants to change that it will need to arrange another amendment to the Constitution.

      Your poor logic reflects either low intelligence or duplicity. Most likely you’re working for one of those secretive Israeli propaganda groups covered in The Lobby. There they brag about creating exactly your sort of distractions. Your writing is a bit too literate for you to be so stupid.

      • RoHa
        RoHa on January 16, 2019, 9:29 pm

        JWalters, I’m pretty sure the US Constitution is anti-Semitic.

      • JWalters
        JWalters on January 17, 2019, 8:01 pm

        RoHa, you have a good point there. Since the US Constitution does not recognize any religion as superior, and actually prohibits recognizing any as such, it therefore does not recognize the Jews as God’s Chosen People, superior to all others, commanded by God to invade lands and slaughter the people there. But that is the view of the Israelis, for whom anti-Israel equals anti-Semitism. So in their view, by explicitly rejecting core Israeli values the US Constitution would thus definitely be anti-Israel, and hence anti-Semitic.

        Thus it would make sense that the Israelis would want to attack the US Constitution.

        On that point, I understand why Nada Elia, as a Palestinian, would want to direct the conversation away from Americans’ freedom of speech and toward justice for Palestinians. But let me add some context.

        The freedom of political speech enshrined in the US Constitution was won by a very bloody war against an empire. It was a landmark step forward for the human race, a marker of freedom toward which all people aspire.

        Israel’s attack on the US Constitution shows vividly that Israel is a danger not only to Palestinians, and Iraqis, and Iranians, and Lebanese, and potentially the whole Middle East. It shows Israel directly attacking the US at its foundation.

        This is every bit as much a direct attack on the USA as Israel’s attack on the USS Liberty. This reveals Israel’s character to Americans in a way that is relevant to Americans. It is an opportunity for Americans to see the common cause they share with Palestinians. To ignore the significance of this attack on America, and focus just on the Palestinian case, would be a huge tactical error in the battle for American understanding, it seems to me. This Israeli attack on America should be hammered.

  2. echinococcus
    echinococcus on January 16, 2019, 11:03 pm

    Congratulations on getting wide support for the right to boycott, and let’s hope the renewed assault on it, once the seasonal gov’t shutdown is over, will also fail.
    What’s this article here trying to say, exactly? That, while you owe the wide support you got to constitutional freedom of speech, you deplore the fact? Also, do you think it was a smart move to rename “Freedom to Boycott”, a shingle attractive to large numbers of people (even to those who hate it but must pay lip service to it) “Advocates for Palestinian Rights”, a title that appeals to a small minority only, in the current climate?

    • annie
      annie on January 16, 2019, 11:51 pm

      What’s this article here trying to say, exactly? That, while you owe the wide support you got to constitutional freedom of speech, you deplore the fact?

      she didn’t say she deplored the support for free speech, she said “worthy as it is” it “should not distract from the cause we are defending, with our free speech and political expression. ”

      as for what this article is trying to say, imho:

      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.

      it means while this bill is in the spotlight is also a good time to emphasize rejecting it is not only, constitutionally, the right thing to do, it is the moral thing to do. it’s a time to educate people about palestine.

      “Advocates for Palestinian Rights”, a title that appeals to a small minority only, in the current climate?

      polls do not support the notion palestinian rights only appeal to a small minority, particularity for people who are registered as democrats.

      but i think your question about changing the name is valid. if the intent it to attract more people or get more attention “Washington Freedom to Boycott ” is a little vague but provocative, it might motivate people to question what Washingtonians are boycotting. the other does risk only attracting those who are already active advocates.

      might be a toss up. but in my mind, there’s a difference between active advocates and those for whom palestinian rights appeal to them. if everyone to whom palestinian rights appealed also became (active) advocates, that would change the landscape.

      • echinococcus
        echinococcus on January 17, 2019, 2:22 am

        Thanks Annie, put that way it’s clear.

      • gamal
        gamal on January 17, 2019, 9:20 am

        Hey Annie,

        Jamie Stern-Weiner has done some work on Labour Anti-Semitism from 2017, which if you haven’t seen you may find interesting:

        “Labour conference or Nuremberg rally? Assessing the evidence”

        “For Stephen Pollard, Labour was ‘now the party of bigots and thugs, where Jew haters are cheered’. Senior Conservative Party officials got in on the action, with Environment Secretary Michael Gove announcing that ‘anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism’ and Secretary of State for International Development Priti Patel describing Labour as ‘the most antisemitic party . . . in generations’.[2]

        The tenor of these attacks was so hysterical, the political agenda behind them so transparent, and the manipulation so blatant—to give one representative example, when Corbyn declined to attend the Labour Friends of Israel event, the Sun headline blared: ‘New Jew snub row’[3]—that one might have hoped they would discredit themselves. But the depiction of Labour’s conference as a Nuremberg rally was given weight by less overtly partisan sources. The Board of Deputies of British Jews lamented the ‘ugly scenes’ and ‘disgraceful anti-Jewish incidents at the Conference’. The chairman of the Jewish Leadership Council claimed that ‘anti-semitism . . . continues to engulf the party’. The chief executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust was ‘shock[ed]’ to see ‘antisemitism rearing its head at a mainstream party conference’. Most astonishingly, the head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission declared that, ‘the Labour Party needs to do more to establish that it is not a racist party’.”

        http://spinwatch.org/index.php/issues/politics/item/5981-labour-conference-or-nuremberg-rally-assessing-the-evidence

        with extensive footnotes.

      • Keith
        Keith on January 17, 2019, 11:30 am

        GAMAL- “Jamie Stern-Weiner has done some work on Labour Anti-Semitism from 2017….”

        And what is clear is the extent to which bogus charges of anti-Semitism are being used to divert the discussion from the serious problems caused by neoliberalism. As Norman Finkelstein indicates here http://normanfinkelstein.com/2018/08/25/finkelstein-on-corbyn-mania/ , British Jews on average are a very affluent group. They are using charges of anti-Semitism to attack someone who may possibly be a threat to their wealth and power. Unfortunately, Corbyn seems to be a very weak leader. Rather than call them out on their neoliberal policies, he retreats into defending against these bogus charges. As a consequence, these fat-cat Zionist Jews have effectively taken neoliberal policies out of the discussion! I have lost a lot of respect for Corbyn over this. No one ever won a fight by refusing to throw a punch.

      • gamal
        gamal on January 17, 2019, 11:47 am

        “Corbyn seems to be a very weak leader”

        It’s bloody Michael Foot all over again..whenever there is a real chance of a ‘Socialist’ (welfare capitalist) victory they pillory the left faction to death but the left in the UK is lead by apologetic weaklings, can we have Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar.

  3. Boomer
    Boomer on January 17, 2019, 11:37 am

    Meanwhile, the Texas State Attorney General defends the “right to boycott the boycotters.”
    The Zionists have their problems, but they are never at a loss for words, or politicians to mouth them:

    http://www.kut.org/post/ken-paxton-says-texas-has-right-boycott-boycotters-israel

  4. Jon66
    Jon66 on January 17, 2019, 8:38 pm

    Ms. Elia doesn’t support free speech. She only supports free speech that she approves of.
    “The other significant victory was the shutting down of the scheduled Milo Yiannopolous talk at the University of California in Berkeley. Anyone who would blame the protestors for “violence,” rather than resistance, is assuming that the promotion of hatred is non-violence. But that assumption, quite simply, is wrong. There is no such thing as “non-violent hate speech.” Hate speech has direct consequences, all of which are violent. ”https://mondoweiss.net/2017/02/cannot-protect-ourselves/

    There is no first amendment exception to “hate” speech. By her standards, Congress could label BDS as “hate” speech and ban it, Free speech means freedom of others to express ideas that you may not like. She has no understanding of the first amendment.

    • Talkback
      Talkback on January 18, 2019, 4:22 am

      Jon66: “There is no first amendment exception to “hate” speech. By her standards, Congress could label BDS as “hate” speech and ban it, Free speech means freedom of others to express ideas that you may not like. She has no understanding of the first amendment.”

      Where did she call for the violation of the first amendment? That’s the standard of the violent violator of international and human rights who has officially legalized Apartheid towards Palestinans and who globally attempts to lobby all goverments into criminalizing the call for justice and equality and restoration of rights for Palestinians even if such a criminalization would violate their own constitution.

      • Mooser
        Mooser on January 18, 2019, 1:38 pm

        “Talkback”, at this point, I don’t even raise my eyebrows at check-out stand magazine stories like: “Surgeon Amputates Own Hand, Instead of Patient’s”.
        Apparently, it happens.

    • echinococcus
      echinococcus on January 18, 2019, 7:09 am

      No use reminding Zio-Johnny that he is supporting an obscurantist, lawless, ochlocratic, genocidal military dictatorship with no tolerance for any speech at all, except for the Herrenrasse-member invader riffraff and only if Zionist-friendly. Speak and get tortured or murdered is the rule in Zioland. No use reminding him that those who put free speech first, unlike his Zionazi *$$, are allied to other people who do not value it as a main priority… so what? Every little bit helps.

      I suggest opening a book, betting on how many times Johnny will repeat his litany no matter what, every time he gets stuck on one particular detail and can’t stop.

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