Ending the Unconstitutional Assault on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) Movement: A Call To Action

Mona Alsoraimi-Espiritu I Politics & Government I Commentary I July 26th, 2016

As an educator at an urban core institution I readily accept the responsibility of teaching social justice themes in my courses. As students begin to understand the injustices that shape their own worlds, they crave solutions. "So what can we actually do?" "Have our idealistic teachers been lying to us about being able to change the world?" As they learn tools to change their realities, they become empowered. But what happens when politicians take those tools away from activists? Recent legislation designed to "chill" activism undermines the work of social justice educators, parents and activists everywhere. It sets a precedent in which a small group of politicians decide what we can't boycott based on their own political or religious ideologies.

I recently watched Jamila Raqib's TED talk titled " The Secret to Effective Nonviolent Resistance ." Raqib acknowledges that street protests alone will not create change and highlights the importance of employing methods of political and economic protest such as boycotts. The Harvard Law Review tells us "Since the outset of the civil rights movement in the 1950s organized economic power has become an increasingly important and powerful tool for advocates of social change." The civil rights movement successfully used bus boycotts in Montgomery, Alabama as a form of economic protest and changed the course of history as a result. The grape boycotts in the 70s led by Cesar Chavez changed field worker conditions forever. The South African apartheid boycott and divestment campaign in the 80s contributed to their liberation and ended apartheid.

We are now faced with the very real possibility that our right to boycott and divest as a form of peaceful resistance to oppression may be curtailed by state or federal government legislation, such as AB 2844. AB 2844, similar to legislation that is being proposed and pushed through in New York, Georgia, Florida, Illinois, South Carolina, Indiana and Arizona, seeks to prohibit all state-affiliated institutions from engaging in contracts with businesses boycotting Israel. In real life it could look like this: I run a business that sells office supplies to a state agency, and I, a small business owner and activist, am against the occupation. I choose to boycott Israeli products that I feel are unethical. Under this legislation, the state agency can no longer do business with me or I must choose to give up boycotting unethical businesses.

Equally important, AB 2844 will impact student bodies who have resolved to divest, including UC Berkeley, UCSD, UC Davis, and UC Irvine. This means that student bodies who strongly oppose the unethical elements of the occupation, including illegal Israeli settlements which force Palestinians out of their barely visible territory, will lose their voice. These students, who in an effort to create change peacefully, clearly stated that their tuition should not be contributing to illegal occupation and human rights violations. In a democracy as great as ours, student bodies must be able to exercise their right to boycott and divest from governments that even the United Nations have cited for continued human rights violations.

The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and target of this legislation has organized large scale divestment and boycott campaigns in an effort to end illegal Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory and human rights violations of Palestinians. In 1948, a portion of Palestine, a land inhabited continuously for millennia was simply given to European Jews by Great Britain - this began a 65-year process of ethnic cleansing. Millions of Palestinians have been displaced and thousands have been killed. BDS and other boycott campaigns against illegal and inhumane Israeli government practices have recently gained popularity as legitimate, peaceful forms of resistance to the occupation and as powerful alternatives to violence. But AB 2844 and the politicians behind it seek to silence BDS and shut down their efforts.

There are those, specifically Israeli lobbyists and Christian Fundamentalists, who say that boycotting Israel is discriminatory and anti-Semitic. This argument is a gross oversimplification. These accusations are problematic in that they imply that opposing the Zionist right-wing government of Israel is the same as opposing Judaism. Obviously this is not the case. Jewish Voice for Peace in the Bay Area urges citizens to "Tell our state legislators that our tax dollars should not be used to defend Israel's abuses and they should not be bullied by the Israel lobby to defend Israel's abuses." The goals of boycotting are not in conflict with Jewish beliefs, but rather, extreme Zionist beliefs.

Anti-boycott legislation of this type is dangerous for a number of reasons. The first amendment gives us the right to organize peacefully to petition our government. Limiting this first amendment right creates an environment of fear and powerlessness for those who seek to create change. In a letter to Richard Bloom, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) states that "This bill is suspect because it evidently seeks to burden and deter constitutionally-protected speech…" If we can't engage in this type of peaceful resistance, what can we do? As I consider this, I think about suicide bombers, snipers, and other who have committed horrendous acts in a botched attempt to seek liberation from oppression or make a statement about injustice. As an educator and activist I wonder, what happens when we limit the use of powerful tools for nonviolent resistance? How can we tell students that they can change the world when legislation like this makes us question that belief?

On August 1, 2016 the California Senate Appropriations Committee is scheduled to vote on AB 2844 and I hope, for the sake of all of our first amendment rights, that the committee will do the right thing and vote no. Contact CA Senate Appropriations Committee Members at (916) 651-4101. Urge them to vote NO on AB 2844, a bill to chill speech, punish dissenters, and silence the debate on Israel and Palestine.

Mona Alsoraimi-Espiritu is a community college professor and has been a social activist for 15 years. As a former Peace Corps Volunteer that lived both in Mongolia and Jordan, she currently works with Pillars of the Community, a nonprofit based in Southeast San Diego. She is one of the editors and a contributor for Reclaiming our Stories, an anthology of powerful narratives of injustice and resilience in the community that will be released in fall 2016. She has also published a work on whiteness in TESOL that can be found here: http://newsmanager.commpartners.com/tesolicis/textonly/2015-03-04/3.html