In Dickinson, Texas, a Hurricane Harvey-struck Houston suburb, residents were asked to sign a form stating that they will not engage in boycotts of Israel in order to receive state aid to rebuild their homes.
In May, the state of Texas passed a law banning state entities from contracting with companies that boycott Israel or West Bank settlements. 21 similar laws have passed around the United States in the last few years, with more initiatives on the way. The Israel Anti-Boycott Act, introduced in the House and Senate, mired in controversy, are a top lobbying agenda for AIPAC as well as for Christians United for Israel.
Such measures have been strongly condemned by the ACLU, who argue that such legislation are an infringement on First Amendment rights. The ACLU also recently filed a lawsuit challenging a similar law in Kansas, after a math teacher was asked to sign a similar statement in order to participate in a state program.
When pressed by Haaretz, Texas state representative Phil King said that perhaps there had been a "misunderstanding" about how to implement the bill that he had authored, which was, he insisted, intended to target companies and not individuals.
Supporters of the legislation also recognized the terrible optics of conditioning a human being’s ability to rebuild their home based on an irrelevant political opinion. However, from Israel’s consul general in Houston, to the ADL and Boston JCRC, they maintain that what happened in Dickinson is a mistake, or to use King's phrasing, a "misunderstanding", but not a sign of the injustice of the legislation itself.
Misunderstanding or not, this development in Texas should make up us sit up and pay attention. What is so alarming is its consequences for freedom of speech and protest in America, and no less concerning, because of the broader implications of where the anti-BDS movement is taking us, both in the U.S. and in Israel.
First of all, what this tells us - once again - is that to its defenders, Israel and West Bank settlements are one and the same enterprise. Far from posing a threat to the project of Jewish statehood, the settlements are a core expression of their Zionism.
By targeting those who are inclined to a partial – settlements-only – boycott, with Israel-as-a-whole boycotters – all differences and borders are erased. While defenders of Israel often decry those who conflate Israel and the occupation, perhaps they should take a look in the mirror; no one is doing that more effectively than they are.
But that is not news to those paying attention. Just last month the Israeli government hosted an official celebration of 50 years of settlement and Netanyahu promised he will never evacuate settlements.
The anti-BDS movement is trying to make the U.S. a place where those who dare to protest Israel are treated the same way Israel treats its dissidents - as traitors.
In recent years, the Netanyahu government has escalated its crackdown on opponents of the occupation. From non-violent protests in the West Bank, to diplomatic initiatives in the UN and non-violent called for boycotts, any form of Palestinian resistance is branded as violent terrorism, anti-Semitic, and a threat to the very existence of the state.
And the crackdown on Israelis is severe as well. From branding dissidents as traitors, to banning even a call for boycotting settlement products, Israel is doing all it can to formally outlaw, and publicly malign, all resistance to the occupation. Just this week, there are reports that a bill is in the works to officially outlaw Breaking the Silence - former IDF soldiers who share testimonies from the territories, weilding the most deadly weapon of all: their truths.
Israel likes to boast about its freedom of speech. But the truth is that, in Israel, speech is only free if it does not challenge the domination of the state.
Never mind all of the internal problems in Israeli society, the corruption allegations against Netanyahu, the millions of Palestinians living unable to move freely in the West Bank or without drinking water and electricity in Gaza. How could Israeli Jews possibly be able to even consider give rights or dignity to any other people living amongst them when evil enemies, some of whom are even Jewish themselves, are trying to destroy them from abroad?
And the branding has worked. The Israeli government pushes the anti-BDS campaign, the Jewish establishment proudly amplifies it, and their Christian Zionist allies are all too happy to fulfill God’s will, the Bible's word and support the Jews.
Though supporters of anti-BDS legislation claim they seek to do so without impinging on First Amendment rights, that is exactly what they are doing. And they are doing the very thing they claim to oppose, "singling out" critics of Israel for punishment above all else.
Last I checked, the Jewish Federations and AIPAC weren’t pushing legislation to curtail the rights of Nazis to receive public services and benefits.
The Dickinson story - bizarrely rating an individual's right to a home according to their opinion on Israeli government policy - is surely twisted and horrifying. But it is the inevitable result of a concerted campaign by Israel's government and its American Jewish propagandists to equate supporting Palestinian rights with anti-Semitism at all costs, to portray BDS supporters as worse than literal Nazis.
For decades, we have averted our gaze from Israel’s denial of rights from millions of people, and from what that indifference has done to Israeli society. Now, we have lost the ability to even tell that the same injustice has poisoned ours.
Our community’s obsession with stopping the BDS boogeyman has gone off the rails, and this is a taste of what's to come, if people of conscience don't stand up to this madness.
If it was not clear before, this moment should be a wakeup call. We need to choose sides.
In one camp are people who believe in human rights for all. Some believe in boycotting the state of Israel or companies that profit off the occupation. Some believe in transforming Jewish community institutions to support more responsible policies. Some believe in investing in Israeli progressive civil society, in co-resistance and shared-society initiatives with Palestinians.
And on the other side you have defenders of the status quo. They believe that Israeli citizens should not have the right to call for boycotts inside their own society. They believe that critics of the Israeli state and the occupation should not have the right to visit the country. And they believe that citizens of the United States of America should also be criminalized if they dare to vocalize dissent.
If you don’t believe in BDS, then don’t participate in it. That is your right. Pursue another strategy. But contributing in any way to the demonization of non-violent protesters is supporting an environment in which non-violent boycotters can be criminalized. To their credit, J Street, the Reform Movement, and T’ruah have all condemned these anti-BDS bills. But this moment demands more.
It demands we stand up to organizations like AIPAC, the ADL, the Jewish Federations and Christians United for Israel who are pushing these dangerous laws across America and threatening our freedoms.
Perhaps these laws are so absurd they won't stand up to more intensive legal and constitutional scrutiny. Perhaps, years from now, we will remember this as the inflection point when defenders of the occupation ran out of strategies to justify and protect the unjust and immoral oppression and dispossession of the Palestinian people.
But if the political disasters of the last year has taught me anything, it is that we should not take our freedoms for granted. We can’t count on responsible adults in government to stand up for our rights. We have to protect and assert them with all we have.
If you're worried about the future of American democracy, don't make an exception for Israel.
Simone Zimmerman is an organizer and activist from Los Angeles and a founding leader of IfNotNow, a movement to end the American Jewish community’s support for the occupation. Twitter: @simonerzim
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