Preserve freedom to boycott

Richmond Times-Dispatch

Posted: Monday, February 8, 2016 10:30 pm

Our Virginia General Assembly is considering a bill, HB 1282, that would waste the money of Virginia taxpayers by requiring the secretary of commerce and trade to spend valuable time and resources compiling information on the Palestinian civil society-led campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS), a nonviolent movement for Palestinian freedom, justice and equality. Such a use of taxpayer funds serves no legitimate purpose for the people of the commonwealth.

The original version of HB1 282 would have unconstitutionally prohibited contractors with the Commonwealth of Virginia from exercising their First Amendment right to engage in boycotts related to Israeli human rights abuses, especially the boycott of goods produced in Israeli settlements, which are a violation of U.S. policy and international law. Political speech such as a boycott is acknowledged by the U.S. Supreme Court as occupying “the highest rung of the hierarchy of First Amendment values, and is entitled to special protection.”

After legislators received more than 900 letters opposing anti-BDS legislation, and following the opposition of the ACLU of Virginia, HB 1282 was watered down to remove this flagrantly unconstitutional provision.

Nevertheless, the amended version of HB 1282 is still extremely problematic and should be rejected. The commonwealth should not use its resources to compile information on the legitimate, First Amendment-protected activities of U.S. civil society. Such an intrusion of government into the affairs of civil society is anti-democratic, McCarthyist and reminiscent of authoritarian regimes.

The General Assembly is also considering HJ 177, a joint resolution condemning the BDS movement. It’s been passed in the House and is going to the Senate for consideration. As Virginia Jews, we support BDS as the most effective way to advance the Palestinians’ long-denied rights to freedom, equality and self-determination.

HJ 177 is a one-sided distortion of BDS and its goals. BDS is a human rights movement based on universal principles of freedom and equality with three clear goals: to attain Palestinians’ long-denied rights to freedom from Israeli military occupation and the theft of their land for Israeli settlements, justice for Palestinian refugees dispossessed by Israel, and equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel who make up approximately 20 percent of Israel’s population and suffer from widespread systemic discrimination.

It may come as a surprise to some but Israel has approximately 50 laws on the books that disadvantage Palestinian and other non-Jewish citizens of the state in virtually every aspect of public and private life, including land ownership and housing, family reunification, employment, education and municipal services. Israel also has more than 400 Jewish communities where Christian and Muslim Israeli citizens are legally excluded. Those claiming that Israel is a liberal, Western-style democracy like the U.S. should take a closer look. Resolutions such as this are designed to protect the status quo of Israel’s oppression of Palestinians and to deny Palestinians even peaceful avenues to achieve their rights.

In January, Human Rights Watch issued a report titled “Occupation Inc: How Settlement Businesses Contribute to Israel’s Violations of Palestinian Rights” which called on companies to stop operating in, financing, servicing, or trading with Israeli settlements in order to comply with their human rights responsibilities. The report goes on to say that “…those activities contribute to and benefit from an inherently unlawful and abusive system that violates the rights of Palestinians.”

Commenting on the overall situation, HRW said, “Israel enforces severe and discriminatory restrictions on Palestinians’ human rights, and it builds and supports unlawful settlements in the occupied West Bank. Its security forces appear to use excessive force against Palestinian demonstrators and suspected attackers, raising the specter of extra-judicial killings. It has renewed the practice of punitive home demolitions.”

Our commitment to human rights compels us as individuals and organizations to join Freedom2Boycott — VA, a diverse coalition of organizations and individuals (composed largely of Christians, Muslims and Jews) in Virginia. We are driven by our common values to recognize that Israel continues to oppress Palestinians and that the ongoing Israeli occupation of Palestine must end. We are pro-peace, pro-equal rights and committed to work for a solution that ensures full equality and self-determination for all. Some legislators might disagree with us. That is their right. However, it is not their right to suppress political speech with which they disagree. We urge members of the General Assembly and the governor to reject HB 1282 and HJ 177.

Seth Morrison of Arlington is on the national board of Jewish Voice for Peace and the steering committee of JVP DC Metro

Josh Ruebner of Arlington is the policy director of the US Campaign to End the Occupation, and author of “Shattered Hopes: Obama’s Failure to Broker Israeli-Palestinian Peace”

Nancy Wein is a longtime Richmond resident active in Richmonders for Peace in Israel and Palestine.

All the writers can be reached through the email address f2bva@outlook.com.

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