I have been boycotting products for political reasons since 1973, when the United Farmworkers (UFW), beset by a campaign by the then totally corrupt International Brotherhood of Teamsters to challenge their union in collusion with the California grape and lettuce growers, restarted their nationwide grape boycott, eventually adding lettuce and wine producers.
I was living in New York City and volunteered in picketing stores and produce stands in Manhattan urging shoppers not to buy grapes or lettuce that didn’t come from farms with a UFW label. The NYC campaign was being headed up by Dolores Huerta, the inspirational UFW vice president under President Cesar Chavez.
Since those days, I’ve routinely boycotted products in support of political causes – Dow Chemical products because of its production of the criminal napalm bombs and hand-held napalm throwers used by American forces in Vietnam, clothing manufactured by the union-busting JP Stevens apparel company, tuna that’s caught in nets that snare and drown porpoises and so on. The list can seem endless sometimes of products that should be boycotted for important political, labor, environmental, anti-war and other reasons. (Here’s an example of a current list of products and services deserving to be boycotted for one good reason or another. Take your pick.)
Boycotts as a political act are as American as apple pie…and table grapes.
But now Congress, larded with corrupt politicians of both parties besotted by bribes called campaign contributions, and frightened by the threat of attacks by powerful entities with money to burn on negative ads against them in election years, as well as many similarly corrupt state legislatures (26 at recent count), are cravenly voting to pass legislation supported by Israel’s lobby in the U.S., the America Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). These laws criminalize the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement that is trying to pressure Israel to stop oppressing Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, Gaza and in Israel, and to stop stealing Palestinian land in the West Bank and return what’s already been stolen.
To get an indication of how serious this threat to political activity and free expression is, consider how Bahia Amawi, a public primary school special education teacher in Texas was fired from her job for refusing to sign an anti-BDS oath embedded in her employment contract. Although this American citizen had worked for the Pflugerville School District outside of Austin, TX for over 10 years as a language specialist, her refusal to sign what amounts to a required “Loyalty to Israel” oath – akin to the now discredited and unconstitutional anti-Communist USA loyalty oaths common in the McCarthy era and right into the 1960s – she was sacked by her employer, which added the clause retroactively to the contracts of its teachers in 2017 after Texas passed an anti-BDS bill banning state agencies from signing contracts with companies (or persons) that boycott Israel.
Other states with similar laws passed since 2015 include Illinois, California, New York, Massachusetts, Florida, Virginia and Washington, along with 18 others. (Some have already been ruled unconstitutional by the courts, happily.)
Now Congress is climbing on this shameless anti-Constitutional bandwagon. On Tuesday, Senate Democrats, led by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) – both Jewish legislators – blocked an amendment called the “Israel Anti-Boycott Act” that the callow and smarmy Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) tried to attach to a end-of-year spending bill. The amendment was backed 56-44, with all Republicans in favor, along with three Democrats: Joe Mancin (D-WV), Doug Jones (D-AL) and the just-elected Krysten Sinema (D-AZ). It’s not the whole story though. A number of Democrats who voted against Rubio’s amendment to a stop-gap spending bill have in the past spoken in favor of anti-Israel boycott legislation, but accepted the argument made by Democratic Party leaders in the Senate that tucking such a controversial bill into urgent spending legislation instead of having it debated on its own merits was a poor way to go. In other words, a purely anti-BDS bill criminalizing boycott advocacy could still probably move beyong obtain the 60 votes needed to avoid a filibuster and pass in the Senate. It might well pass in the Democratic House too.
Meanwhile the ACLU, like fired teacher Amawi, is decrying the anti-BDS legislative efforts and existing state laws, some of which actually criminalize simply advocating an Israel boycott, as a profound assault on the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech. The organization is suing to overturn such laws in some states.
I remember back in the mid-’70s how shocked we were when my wife, a freelance musician, went to join the Musicians Union in Los Angeles and found that Local 47’s membership application form still included the dreaded McCarthy-era clause: “I am not and have never been a member of the Communist Party.” On asking about it she was told she could ignore the pledge. Still, it was a powerful reminder of those terrible days when that clause in contracts led to the blacklisting of thousands of artists, actors, directors, teachers, journalists and other professionals too principled to sign away their political rights just to obtain or keep jobs.
We seem headed back to those dark days, this time with the spread of anti-BDS oaths pledging blind support not to just America, as in the ‘50s, but to the interests of a foreign state!
This threat to freedom seems particularly likely given the addition of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, which now is dominated by right-wing members of the Federalist Society. These are jurists for whom respect for the First Amendment is no more significant than a reflexive hand over the heart during the playing of the National Anthem at a ball game.
I am not Jewish, but my family is – my wife, and my two kids whom we sent to a secular Jewish Saturday school in Philly called the Jewish Folkshul, an institution rooted in the old socialist Workmen’s Circle established by leftist Jewish immigrants from Europe. We are all profoundly opposed to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in Israel and under IDF military control in occupied Gaza and the West Bank. So are most of our Jewish friends. For myself, speaking as a citizen and as a journalist, I don’t want any politicians telling me what I can and cannot do either in my own decisions regarding boycotts, whether of non-union goods and services or Israeli products. And I sure don’t want them passing laws at the national or state level that would require me to sign a loyalty oath to Israel in order to get a writing assignment or a job, or making me guilty of a crime for advocating an Israel boycott. We don’t need new McCarthyite-style restrictions on our Bill of Rights. Our freedoms are being weakened enough already.
AIPAC, a powerful lobby that works assiduously in the interests of Israel’s increasingly right-wing and even fascist-leaning government, and which supports that country’s brutal repression of and apartheid policies towards Israeli Palestinians and Palestinians living in occupied lands controlled by the Israeli Defense Force, is, I would argue, playing a dangerous game pushing for a purely pro-Israel legal prohibition in the US against political boycotts against that country. At some point, Americans, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, are going to get fed up with providing Israel – a first-world country – with an unneeded and totally unjustifiable $3.8 billion a year in military aid (Israel has long been the largest recipient of US military aid in the world, not because it needs the free weaponry, but because so many members of Congress love AIPAC’s campaign support).
For one thing, AIPAC’s political activities are at odds with the views of an American Jewish population that is increasingly troubled and even outraged by the over-the-top anti-Palestinian actions of the current Israeli government, and at its blatant efforts to equate any expressions even in the U.S. of anti-Zionism or even just of Israeli policies towards Palestinians with anti-Semitism. For another, polls show that the broader American population, as well as the Jewish-American minority, are both becoming increasingly skeptical of a U.S. foreign policy that for decades has been fused at the hip to the Israeli government’s irredentist and increasingly brutal politics of seeking to expropriate all occupied lands from their current Palestinian occupants, and its encouragement of U.S. wars against Syria, Yemen and potentially Iran, which are perceived to be in Israel’s interest.
As the U.S.-based Jewish Voice for Peace notes, a Brookings Institution poll conducted a few months ago found that 60% of Democrats and 46% of all Americans support U.S. sanctions against Israel because of continued expansion and creation of new Jewish settlements on Palestinian land in the West Bank. The same poll found that 49% of American Jews under the age of 30 also favor such sanctions – a trend that is likely to broaden as Israel’s expansionist and pro-war policies increasingly lose favor with American Jews along with the broader American public.
Here’s what Jane Eisner, writing in the venerable Jewish newspaper, The Forward, had to say an article headlined “Is This How We Defend Israel – By Firing Teachers, Lawyers and Repairmen?”:
“…Amawi is an American citizen who happens to be a devout Muslim and says that she and her family do not purchase goods made from Israeli companies in support of the global movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel… I’m her opposite. I don’t support BDS, and sometimes go out of my way to purchase products made in Israel. But it seems to me that it is our right as Americans to use our purchasing power to ‘boycott’ according to our beliefs. My parents wouldn’t buy cars from Germany, even though Germany was a staunch ally of the US and Israel, and a linchpin in the democratic stability of Europe. I didn’t agree with my parents, but of course that was their right, too.”
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