The movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel, known as BDS, is in the news this week, thanks to a harrowing tale reported in The Intercept about a Muslim speech therapist in Austin, Texas named Bahia Amawi. Amawi was told she could no longer work in the Texas public school system unless she signed an oath promising that she does not and will not boycott Israel or “an Israeli-controlled territory.”
As Glenn Greenwald points out in his report, the oath applies exclusively to Israel.
“In order to continue to work, Amawi would be perfectly free to engage in any political activism against her own country, participate in an economic boycott of any state or city within the U.S., or work against the policies of any other government in the world — except Israel,” Greenwald writes.
In other words, Texas’s anti-BDS bill doesn’t only impinge on the free speech rights of a U.S. citizen in a bizarre attempt to “stand with Israel;” it turns every potential contractor with the state of Texas into a literalization of the anti-Semitic canard of dual loyalty. Texas citizens are now literally more loyal to Israel than they are to the U.S., insofar as they may say and do things to their own country that they may not engage in vis-à-vis Israel.
Amawi is suing the state of Texas. But Texas is not the only state to suppress its residents’ right to free speech in such a way. 26 states have enacted such laws, with 13 more pending, and an anti-BDS bill is currently making its way through Congress.
There will be more cases like Amawi’s. And the choice she was presented with, to have her free speech rights suspended only when it comes to Israel and even its settlements in the West Bank — or be denied employment by the state of Texas — is a version of a choice all Americans are being presented with: Suspend your free speech when it comes to Israel, or be condemned as an anti-Semite.
It’s a choice that American Jews must be at the forefront of resisting.
A non-violent campaign, BDS’s stated goals are ending Israel’s occupation of the Palestinians, ensuring equal rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel, and securing the right of return for Palestinians who fled in 1948.
It’s this last goal that BDS’s opponents say is anti-Semitic, in that such a huge influx of Palestinians from around the world would surely spell the end of Israel as a Jewish State, making it a Muslim-majority. Others claim that BDS holds Israel to a higher standard than other problematic states, and thus is inherently anti-Semitic.
But the Texas oath reveals that it is BDS’s opponents who want Israel held to a different standard, its own, unique, protected standard. By demanding that Israel alone be treated to its own oath of loyalty, those who promote anti-BDS laws in support of Israel are actually demanding Israel be held to a lower standard, as Lara Friedman once put it.
This is not to say that BDS is worthy of support. I, like many Jews, find BDS distasteful. I find its leaders morally unimpressive and its ranks full of anti-Semites, some of them Jews.
Even worse, Palestinian activists have been hurt by the prohibition against normalization imposed by the movement, making solidarity between left-wing Israelis and Palestinians that much harder to achieve. And by including in its goals an impossible one — the right of return — BDS has undermined the important, achievable goals of ending the occupation and equal rights for Palestinians, as well as undermining the work being done by Palestinian activists on the ground.
Despite my personal reservations, making it illegal on pain of state-sponsored penalty for an individual to organize over what they perceive to be an injustice is outrageous. The entire point of the First Amendment is to protect the speech of people we despise (you don’t need the law to protect the speech of people you like). It’s something we Americans hold dear, and something we seem to recognize as crucial to our identity in all areas but Israel. It’s nothing short of a shonda for Israel to be the one topic where Americans forget about their most dearly held values.
It’s especially ironic given that it wasn’t Iran or Hezbollah or any of the real threats Israel faces that led to this collective amnesia, but a movement that has indisputably been so far a total failure. As The Brookings Institution concluded earlier this year after an extensive study of BDS’s economic impact on Israel, “given the basic structure of the Israeli trade, the threat to the Israeli economy is a far cry from that often described by both supporters and detractors of BDS.”
Brookings went even further: “The Israeli government is thus doing itself a disservice by paying so much attention to this movement, both through its own deeds and words, as well as through lobbying with other countries to enact anti-BDS legislation.”
Like Israel’s attempt to fight BDS by barring its supporters from entering the country, these anti-BDS legislations will serve only to strengthen the otherwise ineffectual movement. Still, one can understand why Israeli Jews would vociferously oppose a campaign, however non-violent, that seeks to turn them into a pariah state. While Israel has inadvertently given the movement a huge boost by drawing attention to it, and even ridiculously comparing it to violent means of resistance, one can understand why Israeli citizens view the movement to boycott them as a threat.
And one can understand why American Jews would feel sympathetic to their Israeli brethren, and why those who seek to harm Israel, even ineffectively, might be seen as enemies of the Jews. Indeed, at a time when we are ever more divided, BDS has emerged as something still able to unite Jews. It has been Israel’s most successful export in a way, convincing American Jews that they can be great heroes on the front lines of protecting Israel from behind the safety of their computer screens.
Fighting BDS has become a vigorous exercise in virtue signaling to the right that you still care about Israel.
The problem is that American Jews aren’t only Jews. We are also Americans. And it is through America that we have chosen to seek our self-determination; granted equal rights in America, six million Jews have opted out of Jewish nationalism.
As the poster children for self-determination as a minority in a Christian majority country, American Jews cannot plausibly assert that BDS seeks to deny us self-determination, even as we continue to refuse the version of self-determination offered by Israel. BDS can at most be said to pursue a world in which American Jews would no longer have an extra source of self-determination, a backup source of self-determination, in case things go south here in the U.S.
There’s something really chilling about telling Palestinians that we Jews need two sources of self-determination, while Palestinians don’t even deserve the one.
Worse, in allowing the fight in the U.S. against BDS to escalate to bizarre oaths of loyalty, American Jews have shown themselves willing to deprive other American citizens of the civil rights protections that make this country so great, rights like freedom of expression which are surely not incidental to our choice to be American, rather than Israeli, citizens.
As Americans, we are committed to the First Amendment. And as Jews, we know that criticizing Israel is sometimes the most Jewish thing you can do.
It is we who must lead the way in rejecting the false dichotomy of being silent on Israel’s failings or belonging to BDS. It’s a choice that denies us our very identity, and we must oppose it by vociferously defending the First Amendment rights of our fellow citizens.
Batya Ungar-Sargon is the opinion editor of the Forward.