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Anti-BDS laws in the US aim to control dissent in Israel

  • Wilson Dizard
  • 18 Dec 2018

What worries Israel's occupation-advocates is not what Americans think, but rather, what Israelis think.

( AP )

An American speech therapist has launched a lawsuit challenging a Texas law that prevents state employees from boycotting Israel.

The controversy displays just how much repressing advocacy for Palestinians has woven around American and Israeli politics, harming freedom of expression in both countries and promoting the toxic falsehood that dissent, in either country, has no right to exist. 

As a private citizen, Bahia Amawi avoids buying products made in Israel or the occupied Palestinians territories. Working with disabled children in a suburb of the Texas capital, Austin, Amawi lost her job after she refused to sign a pledge not to participate, or even advocate for, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign. 

BDS seeks to pressure Israel over its treatment of Palestinians, but critics charge it unfairly singles out Israel, or that it’s even anti-semitic

Amawi appealed to her supervisor, but he said it was out of his control. Unable to renew her contract, she had to give up her job. 

“I couldn’t in good conscience do that,” Amawi told The Intercept, which first reported her story. 

“If I did, I would not only be betraying Palestinians suffering under an occupation that I believe is unjust and thus, become complicit in their repression, but I’d also be betraying my fellow Americans by enabling violations of our constitutional rights to free speech and to protest peacefully.”

Her federal lawsuit questions what bearing her personal views on Israel have on her ability to help kids in need. Her specialty is working with bilingual Arabic-speaking students; a rare skill now lost to the public. 

The suit also makes a clear case that Texas’ anti-BDS law infringes on Amawi’s right to freedom of speech, guaranteed by the First Amendment to the US Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

Amawi’s lawsuit argues that Texas’ law contradicts those words. In the United States, each state has its constitution, but these individual constitutions cannot contradict the federal Constitution and its amendments. 

The First Amendment does not include an exception saying “except for Israel boycotts, those should be illegal.” 

But at least 26 states have passed laws prohibiting state funds from touching BDS, according to Palestine Legal, an advocacy group. A federal law is even in the works, which could place severe financial penalties on BDS activism. At the same time, federal courts have struck down or questioned the constitutionality of other state-level anti-BDS laws

These blatantly unconstitutional laws have come into force with the support of the American Israel Political Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the blessing of the Israeli government, too. 

But what is Israel so afraid of? How could someone's decision not to purchase a bottle of olive oil or wine made in a settlement be such an offense?

What worries Israel’s occupation advocates isn’t what Americans think, it’s what Israelis think. Despite the technical difficulties we are experiencing, with a president who may or not be literate, the United States is still the largest and loudest cultural megaphone on the planet. What worries them is that if Americans start to express their displeasure with Israel, it will encourage Israeli dissidents to express theirs, too. 

BDS might be an annoyance, but what angers the genocidal right-wing in Israel are left wing, peacenik Israelis, whom the right-wing sees as traitors. Former Israeli soldiers who speak out against the abuses of the occupation earn particular scorn and accusations of “spreading lies.”

Anti-BDS laws in the United States are a reflection of Israel’s broken charade of democracy. That these laws represent the outsized influence of the Israel Lobby in the US is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. What’s going on in Israel lies beneath the surface.

Making sure these streams don’t cross, BDS in the US and anti-occupation sentiment in Israel is a top priority for the current Israeli government. That’s part of the reason why Benjamin Netanyahu was so pleased that Donald Trump won the presidency. He’d have a hammer in the White House to beat down dissent in the US, and, by extension, back in Israel, too. 

Netanyahu’s political coalition in the Knesset is strong, for now, but a resurgence of leftist factions could break it. Even though that’s unlikely, as Israelis leave their country behind, it’s clearly what keeps Netanyahu and his Likud party leadership up at night.

And what does Israeli dissent look like? Well, it’s pretty clear-cut. There is a substantial difference in outlook between iPhone-scrolling Israelis who dine in Tel Aviv’s cafes and Uzi-armed Israelis who till the soil on West Bank settlements. To put it mildly, they resent each other quite deeply. 

Consider a recent column in the left-leaning Israeli newspaper Haaretz by Gideon Levy, a critic of the occupation, writing about settlers killed or injured in recent attacks by Palestinians, in a piece titled “I Feel No Sympathy for the Settlers.” 

“They are to blame, not I, for the fact that I cannot feel the most humane sense of solidarity and pain. It’s not just that they’re settlers, violators of international law and universal justice; it’s not just because of the violence of some of them and the settling of all of them – it’s also the blackmail with which they respond to every tragedy, which prevents me from grieving with them. But beneath the veil of sanctimonious and hypocritical unity, and the media’s fake show of national grief to advance its own commercial goals, the truth must be told: Their tragedy isn’t ours...The real pain is borne by their victims, those who moan submissively and those who take their fate in their hands and try to resist a violent reality violently and sometimes also murderously. The Palestinians are the victims deserving of pity and solidarity.”

Levy’s writing is available on the Internet, in English, for any Texas lawmaker to read. But they probably won’t. 

Netanyahu and AIPAC want lawmakers to think that criticism of Israel only comes from outside of Israel, not inside of it. Anti-BDS laws are key to keeping the false narrative of Israeli unity alive. 

Disabled Arabic-speaking children in Austin, Texas, now without their teacher, quite literally without their voice, are collateral damage for Israel, caught in the crossfire.

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

We welcome all pitches and submissions to TRT World Opinion – please send them via email, to opinion.editorial@trtworld.com

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