Helping Israel or Causing It Harm? In Wake of Texas anti-BDS Incident, U.S. Jewish Groups Divided Over Boycott Laws

Some are warning recent incidents are putting Israel on the opposite side of free speech

A sign calling for a boycott against Israel in Bethlehem, June 5, 2015
AFP

In the wake of the incident that took place in Texas last week, in which local residents were asked to sign a form stating that they don't participate in boycotts of Israel in order to receive aid relief after Hurricane Harvey, Jewish groups in the U.S. expressed different opinions on the necessity - and the usefulness - of new laws against boycotts of Israel and the settlements.

In recent years, state legislators all across the United States have considered or adopted laws that put limitations on boycotting Israel and the settlements. The exact language of these bills differs from state to state, but over the last two weeks, two controversies arising from such laws made it into the national headlines in the U.S. and also in Israel.

The first case happened in Kansas, where a local teacher was denied a work contract with the state because she refused to sign a form stating that she opposes boycotts of Israel. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit on behalf of the teacher, who claims to support such a boycott because of her Christian religious beliefs.

The second case took place this weekend in Dickinson, Texas, where local residents had to sign a form stating that they don't boycott Israel, in order to receive aid relief following Hurricane Harvey. The Texas state lawmaker, who authored the local anti-BDS bill, told Haaretz in an interview that the incident was a misunderstanding, and that the recently-approved bill has nothing to do with the kind of situation that emerged in Dickinson.

Still, some people who strongly support the wave of anti-BDS laws admitted over the weekend that when a headline of this kind emerges into the national discussion, the damage for Israel is significant.

Gilad Katz, Israel's consul general in Houston, told Haaretz that Israel supports Texas' anti-BDS law, and that the event in Dickinson is a result of a "wrong interpretation" of the law. "This law strengthens our relationship with Texas and shows our shared values. There was a local misinterpretation of the law in Dickinson, because the law addresses taxpayer money and over there, the story was about private funds." 

Katz added that arguments claiming that the law harms free speech and the First Amendment are wrong. "Israel opposes silencing people. We accept that there is criticism against us. We don't have a problem with that, but we have a problem with calls to boycott us and harm our economy, and we deal with that using democratic means. There was a misunderstanding here that needs to be fixed, but that doesn't mean we need to take down the entire building."

Katz was appointed to his position last year, after working for a number of years as an adviser in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office. 

Jewish groups in the United States were not quick to comment on the incident, partly because it took place over the weekend. On Saturday night, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) sent Haaretz a short statement, explaining that while the organization continues to support anti-BDS legislation, it is concerned about local officials interpreting it in ways that are "misguided."

"We were deeply troubled to learn that the city of Dickinson, Texas is requiring applicants for hurricane relief to promise not to boycott Israel as a prerequisite for receiving aid," the statement said. "This requirement is misguided and constitutionally problematic, and reveals an unanticipated and unfortunate consequence of a well-intentioned state anti-BDS law that needs further consideration."

"ADL is deeply engaged in opposing the boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaign against Israel and believes that the founding goals of the BDS movement and many of the strategies employed in BDS campaigns are anti-Semitic. That is why we have worked to promote state resolutions opposing BDS, as well as judicious, constitutionally sound legislative initiatives at the federal level."

As of Sunday morning, the ADL has been the only organization, out of those who supported the wave of anti-BDS legislation, to comment publicly on the Texas incident. Other Jewish groups, which have been less supportive of these laws, said that this incident - in addition to the Kansas one - proved why these laws can actually cause damage and embarrassment to Israel.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Reform Movement - the largest Jewish movement in North America - told Haaretz on Sunday that "the seriously unfortunate consequence of the proliferation of these anti-BDS bills and now, laws in the states, is that they have turned support for the current Israeli government policies into a litmus test, even in arenas where Israel should not be part of the discussion." 

In the instance of the new rule in Texas, Jacobs said that "immediate needs for disaster relief in the U.S. must be addressed urgently without regard to politics regarding Israel. The continued promotion of these anti-BDS bills does not help Israel; on the contrary. It alienates people who don’t understand why this is part of the debate."

Jacobs emphasized that "of course, BDS must be combatted, and we will continue to do so, but too many of the anti-BDS laws being adopted in states like Texas are blunt instruments that cause harm instead of preventing it. Also, these efforts don’t bring Israel any closer to the peace and security it needs and deserves."

The left-wing Jewish group J Street, which has long opposed some of these state laws, warned that the recent controversies are a direct result of this legislation wave. "These incidents are embarrassing and harmful to Israel, and they emphasize how foolish the strategy behind these laws actually is," said Rachel Lerner, the group's vice president for community relations.

"BDS exists, and we're fighting against it on college campuses, but the reality is that some of these laws are a solution in search of a problem," Lerner added. "There is no phenomenon in the United States of companies boycotting Israel en-masse. This is mostly about organizations that want to flex their muscles and turn this into a bigger issue than it really is, mostly so they can show their donors that they are doing something about it."

Lerner said that "the most troubling piece of this strategy is that it puts support for Israel on the opposite side of free speech, which is terrible. You should never want to put Israel in such a situation, where people associate it with attempts to limit free speech. The best way to fight against BDS is to do outreach to progressives, and advancing laws like this certainly doesn't help that kind of outreach - it does the exact opposite."

Some supporters of anti-BDS bills, however, do not view the Texas incident as a sign that the laws are flawed, but rather, as a local confusion that needs to be taken care of. Jeremy Burton, the executive director of the Boston Jewish Community Relations Council, wrote on Friday that the town of Dickinson "has clearly interpreted the Texas law incorrectly. That’s a problem and they need to correct it." Burton added that "There’s a big difference between choosing business partners in line with the state’s own values and denying vital relief aid."

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This article was amended on October 23, 2017, to clarify that residents of Dickinson, TX, were not asked to declare that they do not boycott Israeli settlements in exchange for Hurricane Harvey relief. Rather, they were asked to declare that they do not and will not boycott Israel.