Should WHY you’re not buying a SodaStream cost you a job?

Dear Joel,

Thirty-seven Republicans and 13 Democrats have co-sponsored S.720, the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, which is part of a larger trend of hostility toward those who support using their power as consumers to be peacemakers.

The bill seeks to amend the Export Administration Act of 1979. THAT act was a response to the Arab League’s decades-long boycott of Israel (It began as a targeted boycott of the Jewish community in Palestine before Israel was a state.) and of the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries’ (OPEC) oil embargo against the US–an embargo that itself was retaliation for the US supplying Israel with weapons during the Yom Kippur/Ramadan War.

The Export Administration Act and some related laws (the Ribicoff Amendment to the 1976 Tax Reform Act), according to the Office of Antiboycott Compliance (OAC), “were adopted to encourage, and in specified cases, require U.S. firms to refuse to participate in foreign boycotts that the United States does not sanction.” The larger aim is to prevent US firms “from being used to implement foreign policies of other nations which run counter to U.S. policy.” The antiboycott laws are, in effect, about Israel, but they apply to “all boycotts imposed by foreign countries” that the US does not agree to.

This takes a rather specific shape: Since the Arab League states were boycotting Israel, they required US businesses doing business with them to provide evidence that those businesses were also boycotting Israel (a secondary boycott). US law prohibits US businesses from supplying that information and requires that, if boycotting nations where US businesses want to engage in commerce request it from a company, the company report the request for information to the OAC. US lawmakers very cleverly tied this to discrimination against people based on race or religion, arguing that US companies cannot provide foreign states with information about the race or religion of employees as a condition of participating in trade in nations where people of particular races or religions are despised. In this way, pro-Israel groups can call those who support BDS racists and religious bigots, even though no BDS supporters argue for that international trading partners should get to decide whether US companies get to hire or fire people based on their faith or skin color.

So, for the last 40 years, we’ve had a law that says that corporations cannot boycott nations that the US likes (which usually means that we see them as an economic or security partner) when those boycotts are “foreign” and, if asked to participate in such a boycott as a condition of doing trade in a foreign nation, US companies report it.

The current revision of that act–the one in the Senate right now–adds that US companies also can’t participate in boycotts “fostered by international governmental organizations” (The law specifies the UN and the EU but does not limit who is an “international government organization” to just these two groups.) when those boycotts target Israel. Additionally, it directs the Export-Import Bank of the US, a government agency that, depending on your perspective, either provides credit for international trade that is too risky for the open market to support or is the worst kind of crony capitalism, to oppose boycotts of Israel. S. 720 also says that it is revising the 1979 Act “for other purposes,” a vagueness that ought to make us all a little uneasy.


There is also a bit of confusion as to WHO this law applies to (and here is why Sixoh6 readers should pay attention). Though defenders of the law seem to suggest that only corporations are targeted here, the message from the OAC is a bit murkier:

“The antiboycott provisions of the Export Administration Regulations (EAR) apply to the activities of U.S. persons in the interstate or foreign commerce of the United States. The term ‘U.S. person’ includes all individuals, corporations and unincorporated associations resident in the United States…”

The italics are mine there.

Even if this only applies to “corporations,” what a “corporation” is is a bit unclear. Hobby Lobby is a corporation, but as a “closely-held” one, it gets to claim the “religious freedom” not to provide insurance coverage that includes some kinds of contraception. The conservative propaganda outfit Citizens United gave us “free speech” for corporations. In a time when corporations have the right of “free speech” to dump unlimited money into political races, how do they not have the right to boycott other nations?

That, to me, is the lesser worry. The greater worry is that individuals within the US, it appears, can be punished for participating in a “foreign-led” boycott of Israel.

We already have a number of states that are punishing people for exercising their right to participate in boycotts businesses that operate in beyond the green line, the border of Israel in 1949, after the Arab-Israeli War.  Of course, no one knows if your choice not to buy a SodaStream, a Stanley Black and Decker drill, or a tub of Sabra hummus is personal or political. But US companies are already being punished by individual states where they operate for their refusal to do business with companies that they see as contributing to continued strife in the West Bank. (Again, it is unclear to me how corporation can be punished for acting on its conscience in regards to peace in the Middle East but not for its refusal to provide contraceptive insurance coverage to employees.)

And we have states denying individuals operating as independent contractors the ability to work for those state governments unless they promise under oath not to boycott Israel, which is defined in Kansas, where Esther Koontz’s case is heading to court, as “the refusal to engage in commercial relations with persons and entities engaged in business with Israel and Israeli controlled territories.” Esther is an independent contractor with the state, which is why she was asked to sign this oath. But under guidance from the OAC, it’s not clear that the law only applies to independent contractors.


Did you not buy a product that you believe contributes to human suffering in contested areas of Israel as an independent contractor or as a private citizen? Did you not buy it for your office at work, your office at home, or your kitchen counter? Did you not buy it because you are trying to influence Israeli policy or because you just don’t drink carbonated beverages or because you are too cramped for kitchen space? If for a combination of reasons, how much of them have to be “I want Israel to find peace” to count as a boycott?

Since the state can’t really know if your failure to own a product made in the Gaza Strip, West Bank, or East Jerusalem is due to a “refusal to engage in commercial relations” out of political motivation or just because you’re broke or don’t want or need those things, states are requiring a pre-emptive pledge that your reasons won’t be political.

This is an absolute burden on individual conscience. For those of us who have made a reasoned, principled decision on the matter of BDS, it’s insulting.

But for those who don’t follow the politics of US-Israel relation, it’s abusive.

Take Dickinson, Texas, where residents seeking help in the face of Hurricane Harvey last month were required to sign such an oath. Imagine it: a poor, bedraggled person has just survived one of the nation’s worst natural disasters and before they can get help, they are supposed to think through whether they should sign away their right to boycott in exchange for food?

Lie–that’s what you do when you are being asked to choose between your conscience and a meal. And it’s perfectly okay, because the state of Texas was asking people for information it has no right to have, in a situation that is coercive, and you have no obligation to provide them with accurate information. In cases in which people cannot have an informed opinion because they have not done the necessary thinking to do so, they are signing the oath without their consent–and the blame for that is not on them but on those who would withhold shelter and food. While officials backed off after public outcry and state legislators said that the application this was was a “misunderstanding,” it’s also clear that we are facing a large-scale effort to intimidate people from exercising their right to boycott.



More about the politics of Israel boycotts

Dear Rebecca:

I’m agnostic on the issue of Israel boycotts. The way Palestinians are treated is awful, and I have friends who have been touched by that awfulness. But on the other hand, the people who form much Israel’s citizenry were nearly made extinct in the not-too-distant past, and I understand – even if I don’t entirely like – that a determination to avoid such a fate might motivate policies we’d normally find undemocratic and inhumane. The whole thing’s a mess, and I’m suspicious of anybody who doesn’t see the issue as a moral thicket.

I’m somebody who is alarmed at anti-Semitism — who once, as a young full-of-himself journalist, scared the crap out of some small-town City Councilmen when I protested their using the word “Jew” as a verb — but also somebody exasperated when charges of anti-Semitism are used to shut down genuine criticism of Israel’s policies.

Finally, I’m a journalist who knows there’s no way to write about the topic without enduring serious complaints. One side, or both, will always accuse you of being unfair. As an outsider to the topic, there’s just no winning.

However: This kind of behavior by American officials must be stopped:

The city of Dickinson, Texas, is requiring applicants for Hurricane Harvey rebuilding funds to certify in writing that they will not take part in a boycott of Israel. The American Civil Liberties Union criticized the city’s condition as a violation of free speech rights.

The city’s website says that it is accepting applications from individuals and businesses for grants from money donated for hurricane relief. The application says that by signing it, “the Applicant verifies that the Applicant: (1) does not boycott Israel; and (2) will not boycott Israel during the term of this Agreement.”

I don’t think it’s anti-Semitic to note that conservative Americans — especially conservative Christians — can be philo-Semitic for entirely creepy reasons. I think the spate of “don’t boycott Israel” laws that have popped in recent years are a fruit of that creepiness as much as anything. But isn’t it odd that a country where freedom to criticize the government is a cardinal  value would crack down on criticizing another country’s government? It doesn’t really make sense.

The ACLU is challenging this issue, as it should. As the organization notes: “The Supreme Court ruled decades ago that political boycotts are protected by the First Amendment, and other decisions have established that the government may not require individuals to sign a certification regarding their political expression in order to obtain employment, contracts, or other benefits.”

We’re living in weird times. Ugh.



Kansas Mennonite challenges state law demanding she sign a statement refusing to boycott Israel


Some breaking news we’re going to be talking a lot about, I suspect: A Kansas Mennonite is suing the state over her right to participate in a boycott of Israeli goods.

The issue is complex, but here is the quick version: Kansas law, like laws in twenty-other states, prohibits the state from entering into contracts with individuals or companies that participate in the boycott of Israel. Koontz, who is a friend of mine and someone I respect very much, is an outstanding public school teacher in Wichita who also works as a teacher trainer. When she recently went to sign her contract to serve as a teacher trainer, she was confronted with a requirement that she sign off on a statement that she’s not participating in a boycott of Israel.


Above, Esther Koontz, who is bringing a case against the state of Kansas for its demand that she sign a pledge that she won’t participate in a boycott of Israel. 

Esther Koontz can’t in good conscience do it. She’s a member of a Mennonite church, and her husband is a pastor. MCUSA decided at this summer’s convention to sell its assets in contested areas of Israel-Palestine. The United Church of Christ has made a similar move.

But the issue isn’t just Mennonites’ interest in peace and human rights. There is also the issue of free speech, which is the ACLU’s angle. Shares Esther:

“You don’t need to share my beliefs or agree with my decisions to understand that this law violates my free speech rights. The state should not be telling people what causes they can or can’t support….I’m disappointed that I can’t be a math trainer for the state of Kansas because of my political views about human rights across the globe.”

The central argument here is that the state can’t use its power to mandate that we engage in particular kinds of speech–or punish us for participating in others. It’s not hard to understand. We have the right to use our voices–and our voice includes our political support for BDS–without losing our ability to work for the state. We don’t have to sign loyalty oaths to the US–and certainly not to a foreign country.

The case, Koontz v. Watson, was reported in the Washington Postand it will likely earn Esther–as well as her church–hate mail and accusations of anti-Semitism that will hurt them.  I’d encourage our readers who support the right of individuals to exercise their religious conscience even through economic boycotts to write to your state representatives (especially if you are in Kansas); donate to the ACLU, which has taken up this case; and keep Esther, her family, her co-workers, and her church in your prayers.

And if you are in a similar position as Esther, consider how else you might be able to show solidarity with her.


PS. Kansas used to require that state employees sign a loyalty oath to the state, too. It was a bad idea then–and the courts called it unconstitutional. I’m hopeful we’ll see a similar outcome here.