Anti-BDS legislation violates free speech (COMMENTARY)

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(RNS) State legislatures across the country are considering a spate of bills that would blacklist companies (and, in the case of New York, individuals) that support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which tries to impose economic pressure on Israel to end its occupation of Palestinian land.

Such repressive legislation threatens the right of all Americans to engage in boycotts and other economic acts of conscience.

Churches, student and faculty groups, musicians and artists are among the groups legislators seek to silence. The United Methodist Church could find itself on these blacklists. We have advocated for BDS and four years ago our General Conference voted to boycott products made in Israeli settlements built illegally on occupied Palestinian land. Recently, the United Methodist Church divested from two Israeli banks and added three others to a no-investment list due to their ties to settlements.

READ: Anti-Semitism on campus linked to anti-Israel activity

In May, United Methodists will once again debate a resolution calling for divestment from companies profiting from Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands and other human rights abuses. Other denominations, such as the Presbyterian Church (USA) and United Church of Christ, have recently done the same.

According to the nonprofit Palestine Legal, more than 20 state legislatures have introduced bills that would punish persons, organizations and/or companies publicly supporting boycotts related to Israeli human rights abuses.

States such as Illinois, South Carolina and Florida have already passed anti-BDS bills, with Illinois recently becoming the first state to publish a blacklist.

In many cases, these bills also include clauses containing language such as “territories controlled by Israel,” in an attempt to legitimize Israeli settlements built on occupied Palestinian land in conflict with long-standing official U.S. policy, international law and United Methodist Church policy.

Churches have a long history of supporting boycotts and divestment as forms of nonviolent, moral action addressing human rights violations. I have participated in boycott and divestment actions for 40 years: against Nestle’s marketing of infant formula in impoverished communities; against companies exploiting farmworkers and companies using slave labor; against Shell oil for its violations in Nigeria; against companies profiting from apartheid in South Africa; and against companies operating in Israeli settlements. United Methodists and many others have participated in these moral nonviolent movements.

Boycotts, by definition, comprise public campaigns to urge others to join together to change behavior of companies and governments. Any given boycott is only as strong as the number of people supporting it. Boycotts embody the heart of First Amendment rights of free speech and freedom of assembly.

As more people become fed up with expanding Israeli settlements supported by unconditional U.S. military aid, boycotts of Israeli human rights abuses are gaining momentum.

Proponents of the anti-boycott bills recognize that advocating for divestment is a constitutionally protected form of free speech. Yet in a dangerous development, they seek to empower state governments to punish selectively some who exercise their First Amendment rights.

READ: Gender bias may be part of Episcopal Church firings, ex-staffer says

Years ago, Sen. Joseph McCarthy also had a list and sought to punish artists, labor leaders and public officials. Many people lost jobs and had their reputations destroyed by this anti-democratic, repressive fear campaign. The climate of fear, both in McCarthy’s day and today, is sustained primarily by the silence of the majority.

Under the proposed Pennsylvania bill, universities that endorse BDS could lose state funding. And in New York, United Methodist and Presbyterian churches may find they are blacklisted from receiving state funds for food pantries, soup kitchens and homeless shelters because their denominations support a boycott of companies operating in illegal Israeli settlements.

Similarly, people boycotting Turkey for its violations against Kurdish communities would potentially be denied state contracts.

The heart of democracy involves addressing the toughest issues of our day through contentious, sometimes raucous, free speech and not through government-imposed selective intimidation.

Perhaps even more disturbing than actual passage of bills — they are unconstitutional and could be struck down by the courts — is the willingness of many legislators to introduce and push through legislation that creates such chilling effects on free speech. With almost no debate, legislatures are adopting blacklists with the intention of silencing people speaking out for Palestinian freedom and equal rights.

David Wildman, photo courtesy of David Wildman

David Wildman is executive secretary of the Middle East, Human Rights and Racial Justice group for the United Methodist Church’s Global Ministries. His views are his own. Photo courtesy of David Wildman

It’s time for legislators to break the silence. My own congressman, Jerrold Nadler, has attacked free speech and tried to intimidate Columbia University faculty and students who advocate for BDS.

To all legislators considering repressive anti-BDS legislation, let me say this: If you insist on creating a blacklist, put my name on it. I stand with all who exercise their free speech through nonviolent actions of boycott and divestment to extend human rights.

We went through the McCarthy era once. Surely, we do not want to re-create those grim days.

(David Wildman is executive secretary of the Middle East, Human Rights and Racial Justice group for the United Methodist Church’s Global Ministries. His views are his own)


  • Garson Abuita

    Apparently you’ve never heard of sauce for the goose. You boycott us, we boycott you. It’s not surprising that you fail to mention what’s led to these bills: the intimidation and brutalization of Jewish university students by your allies like Students for Justice in Palestine. That would detract from your claims that this is somehow about bringing a peaceful end to the Israel-Palestine conflict. It’s not. BDS is aimed at delegitimizing and destroying the State of Israel.

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  • Paulie

    Free speech does not mean speech without consequences. The BDS movement is indisputably an anti-Semitic movement. It does not recognize Israel’s right to exist and calls for right of return which would be the death of the Jewish state.

    BDS legislation doesn’t thwart free speech it simply forbids taxpayers from investing in hate. Nothing more.

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  • George Nixon Shuler

    This: “The BDS movement is indisputably an anti-Semitic movement…” is not only disputable, I dispute it. It is anti-Likudnik. That is very different from being anti-Semitic, especially since Arabs are Semites as well as Jews. Criticism of Israeli governments are not and never have been Anti-Semitic.

  • Susan Stein

    Anti-Zionism doesn’t have to be antisemitic, but there is an intersectionality between the two and 98% of the time it is antisemitic.. The student president of Stanford said, ” he didn’t see anything antisemitic about saying that Jews controlled the media or the banks. That is classic antisemitism that is centuries old. Jewish students have been harassed and called “dirty Zionists”. I don’t want to get into a long debate about Zionism, but for me Zionism is the legitimate liberation of the Jewish people who discovered that they could not depend on anyone else, especially America.

    Many of the BDS people don’t think that Israel should exist at all and think Zionism is evil and racist. There is also the issue with churches that they support BDS for du;pious reasons that seem liberal, but really have to do with a long history of antisemitism and anti-Judaism in Christian churches. The Christian churches have never cared about Jews in Arab countries. It’s too late now. There are almost none left.

  • George Douglas

    Boycotts are a form of discrimination and legislative bodies have the right to enact legislation against discrimination. Such legislation is consistently upheld by the Courts. Discrimination is not protected by the first amendment and discrimination is not a free speech issue. In addition to boycotts, the BDS movement has targeted individuals because of their Israeli nationality, in violation of universal human rights principles. Human rights violations are not protected by the constitution.