Still Recovering From Harvey, Texas Hit With 'Hurricane Israel' Over anti-BDS Provision

Mayor of Dickinson says residents are angry, upset and confused that hurricane relief grants included a provision forbidding aid-seekers from boycotting Israel

People are rescued by airboat as they evacuate flood waters from Hurricane Harvey in Dickinson, Texas August 27, 2017.
People are rescued by airboat as they evacuate flood waters from Hurricane Harvey in Dickinson, Texas August 27, 2017. RICK WILKING/REUTERS

Hurricane Harvey left the Houston suburb of Dickinson, Texas, devastated; as city residents try to recover, they are now dealing with what Mayor Julie Masters half-jokingly called “Hurricane Israel.”

Dickinson made international headlines on Friday, as news spread that the application for relief grants “from funds that were generously donated to the Dickinson Harvey Relief Fund” included a provision that those seeking aid vow they will not boycott Israel. 

The American Civil Liberties Union called the boycott provision unconstitutional and a violation of free speech. 

Earlier this month, the ACLU earlier filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of a public school math teacher challenging a Kansas law that bans state business with companies supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, or BDS, against Israel.

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Dickinson's mayor said that some residents are angry, while most are simply confused as to what Israel and BDS have to do with their hurricane relief.

Dickinson has a population of about 20,000 people, and is home to a large Christian base. Prior to Hurricane Harvey and recent outrage over the Israel provision in the relief grant application, Dickinson was just another small, quiet city, Masters said.

“We have a lot of Christians and I think they’re upset,” she said. “I don’t think they realize that we were compelled by law to put that in there, so I think they’re a little upset with us.”

The section of the application, titled “Verification not to Boycott Israel,” reads: 

“By executing this Agreement below, the Applicant verifies that the Applicant: (1) does not boycott Israel; and (2) will not boycott Israel during the term of this Agreement.”

The Israel section of the application raised eyebrows among members of the Dickinson City Council when they first read it, Masters said.

“When we read the application—‘we’ being the city council—we all questioned why this language was in there,” Masters said, adding that the city attorney, David Olson, told them about Texas’ recently passed “anti-BDS law” and recommended including the passage.

“We felt compelled to do that because it’s in the state law,” Masters said. “So, we did it.”

“The city in no way advocates on behalf of the underlying political issue, but we’re doing everything in our power to follow state law,” Olson told NBC News on Friday. 

Gov. Gregg Abbott signed legislation in May declaring that, “anti-Israel policies are anti-Texas policies.” The state’s so-called anti-BDS law took effect on Sept. 1, shortly after Hurricane Harvey hit southern Texas on August 25.

That law blocks state agencies from contracting or investing in companies that boycott Israel.

The city of Dickinson has turned to state officials for clarification, and Masters said they hope to be able to modify or remove the Israel provision from the grant application.

“I’m hoping, I’m praying they are looking into the way the statute is written and can clarify that it really doesn’t include all governmental entities,” Masters said. “I think we’re kind of waiting to see if there’s going to be some clarification that will omit any governmental entity below the state level.”

According to the ACLU, however, Americans right to boycott is protected by the Constitution. 

“The First Amendment protects Americans’ right to boycott, and the government cannot condition hurricane relief or any other public benefit on a commitment to refrain from protected political expression,” ACLU of Texas Legal Director Andre Segura said in a statement. 

“Dickinson’s requirement is an egregious violation of the First Amendment, reminiscent of McCarthy-era loyalty oaths requiring Americans to disavow membership in the Communist party and other forms of ‘subversive’ activity,” the statement continued.

The ACLU, as a matter of policy, could not comment on whether Dickinson residents have filed complaints regarding the provision. 

However, Staff Attorney Brian Hauss said the ACLU believes that the requirement is unconstitutional. “We are urging anybody who is being affected by it, anybody asked to sign the certification, to contact the ACLU of Texas.”

Hauss added that anyone forced to sign such a certification regarding their First Amendment protected beliefs, expression, and association “has had their constitutional rights violated” regardless of whether or not they actually support the boycott of Israel.

As government officials weigh what to do about the Israel provision, Dickinson residents continue to pick up the pieces in the wake of the destructive hurricane. 

Most of the city’s debris has been collected, but the people of Dickinson still have a long way to go before they fully recover. “We still have a lot of displaced people, you know, a lot, probably close to half of our population,” Masters said.

Meanwhile, Jewish nonprofit T’ruah on Friday said it was “extremely concerned” by the incidents in Texas and Kansas.

Similar anti-BDS measures have been proposed in other states across the country, and Dickinson isn’t the only city in Texas to have an anti-BDS requirement in official contracts. Galveston now requires potential contractors to vow they do not boycott Israel, and Galveston police recently told contractors for new police uniforms to “verify under oath” that they do not boycott Israel.

“As an organization led by rabbis and cantors committed to Israel’s long-term security and democracy, we do not advocate for or participate in boycotts of Israel,” the T’ruah statement wrote.

“We do, however, affirm that free speech is an essential element of democracy. As a sovereign nation, Israel does not constitute a protected class subject to anti-discrimination laws. We have long been concerned that the spread of state-based anti-BDS laws would threaten the exercise of free speech. These two incidents in Texas and Kansas unfortunately represent the fulfillment of this concern.”