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.

Respectfully,

Joel

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

Joel–

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.

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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.

Rebecca

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.