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Jewish Leaders: You Fought For The Right To Boycott — Now Let People Use It

If you’ve ever been to a synagogue around MLK Day, you probably heard about the role Jews played in the Civil Rights Movement. Don’t get me wrong; I’m proud that white Jews joined Freedom Rides and marched with MLK, and I have deep respect for Rabbis in the South who risked their jobs to support bus boycotters.

The hypocrisy in all of this current celebration, however, is that Jewish leaders are taking credit for Civil Rights work while simultaneously mounting an assault on the American right to boycott — a constitutional freedom fought for during the Civil Rights movement by Blacks and their Jewish allies. Boycotts are protected under the First Amendment and were vital to ending segregation, forcing politicians and shop owners to integrate or go bankrupt. Yet today, when boycotts in the U.S. increasingly target Israeli human rights abuses, Jewish leaders have no problem unraveling Civil Rights protections by leading the political movement to boycott all boycotts.

There are now 20 U.S. states with laws and executive orders prohibiting government contracts with any entity that boycotts Israel. Lobby groups like AIPAC fund campaigns and then send politicians anti-boycott legislation to sign, blocking vital contracts like hurricane relief aid and legal work for boycotters. The national boycott environment has become so toxic that just this past week, the New Orleans City Council rescinded a human rights resolution after backlash from local Anti-Defamation League and Jewish Federation chapters, even though the measure contained no language concerning Israel.

Arnie Fielkow, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans, testifies before New Orleans City Council. Image by Chana Rose Rabinovitz

Forget for a second whether you’re ideologically for or against boycotting Israel. Jewish leaders are not obligated to support the Palestinian call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against the Jewish state, but they do have to respect the constitutional protections allowing Americans to boycott without fear of retribution from the government. Especially if these same Jewish leaders are still using Civil Rights history to gain legitimacy with young audiences. Yet in today’s world, throwing around accusations of anti-Semitism and flexing your lobbying muscles is enough to subvert the Constitution, evade ACLU Civil Rights lawsuits, and stifle boycott efforts.

This right to boycott went all the way to the Supreme Court during the Civil Rights Era, when a judge in Mississippi ordered an NAACP chapter to pay damages to white shop-owners after the chapter ran a successful boycott campaign. The NAACP appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, asking how their actions were any different from the the American colonists who refused to buy English-made goods during the American Revolution. A unanimous court overturned the Mississippi ruling, solidifying non-violent boycotts as “speech, assembly, association, and petition” protected by the First Amendment.

In line with these First Amendment protections and the history of boycotts in the Deep South, the recently overturned New Orleans City Council resolution called for a process to monitor the city’s investments in companies “whose practices consistently violate human rights”. In response to the resolution, the local Jewish Federation and ADL sent an email to Jewish groups in New Orleans calling the proposal “highly detrimental to the interests of our community”. What community are we talking about here? The diverse coalition of immigrants and city workers who supported the resolution and are most affected by worldwide human rights abuses, or the Jewish suburbanites still talking about the march on Selma while pressuring Black councilmembers to boycott boycotts?

Sorry Jewish leaders: allyship is a verb, not a history lesson. Have your feelings about BDS, but respect the constitutional right to boycott that you so proudly fought for during the Civil Rights Movement.

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