Legislation Penalizing Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) Undermines First Amendment Protections
In an ecumenical statement on November 14, 2018, sixteen U.S. Christian leaders outlined developments in U.S. policy toward Israel/Palestine since the beginning of the Trump Administration, noting the negative impacts on Palestinians and on prospects for peace in the region. The statement was sent to all members of Congress and to President Trump. It was also sent again to the new 116thCongress and the White House in January 2019. These Christian leaders lament the current context saying,
“Forty years ago, the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel were signed and 25 years ago, the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) were signed. For many, these two events offered hope of movement towards a peaceful resolution of the conflict between Israelis, Palestinians, and other neighboring countries. While we recognize these anniversaries, the current situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories for most of the inhabitants is one of shattered hopes.
The leaders note detrimental shifts in U.S. positions on Israeli settlements, Jerusalem, and Palestinian refugees. They further outline U.S. government measures taken against Palestinians, including cuts to funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and to other Palestinian aid. They state,
“While President Trump’s administration is not the first to show its favoritism of Israelis over Palestinians, we are deeply troubled by its attempt to pursue a sweeping and coordinated set of policies designed to punish Palestinians and take away their human rights, dignity, and hope. By promoting these policies, the Trump administration makes it harder for peace to be realized and increases the chance that there will be new violence.
The statement includes a call to people of faith to support human rights for Palestinians and Israelis, and urges the Trump administration to restore humanitarian aid to Palestinians and “to pursue engagement in honest, credible, and serious efforts with Palestinians, Israelis, regional parties, and the international community, to seek a just resolution to the conflict.”
Unfortunately, included in the first piece of legislation passed by the U.S. Senate in 2019, was the Combatting BDS Act (CBA).
The CBA supports a range of laws that have been passed in U.S. states aimed at suppressing the supporters of the grassroots boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign for Palestinian rights. The CBA and the various state laws have been condemned by civil liberties groups, including the ACLU, as an infringement on the First Amendment right to freedom of speech. Many churches and other faith groups that have adopted boycotts, divestment and/or ethical investment screens to avoid being complicit in the suffering of Palestinians are also speaking out against these unjust laws.
The Stated Clerk of the PC(USA) General Assembly spoke out when this legislation passed,
“It’s unfortunate that one of the first things the Senate has done following the government shutdown is pass a law that threatens the constitutionally-protected right of Americans to engage in boycotts in support of human-rights causes… A growing number of churches and other faith groups, including the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), have endorsed time-honored tools like boycotts to avoid profiting from injustice. In passing the [Combatting BDS Act], the Senate is condoning attempts by politicians at the state level to suppress our efforts to be true to our faith and avoid being complicit in the suffering of others. This legislation may prompt resistance, including civil disobedience, from the faith community, as well as numerous lawsuits.
The legislation will now head to the House of Representatives. At the current time, it seems unlikely to pass in the House. But it is important to continue to speak out against this unjust legislation and for a more just approach to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.