A May 19th Boston Globe full-page ad from the AJC Global Jewish Advocacy, an organization claiming to “advance human rights and democratic values in the United States and around the world,” has used a photo of an ill child and worried parent to undermine BDS, the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement for Palestinian human rights. The dramatic visual asks “could an academic boycott put a child’s life at risk?” The advertisement uses fear and misinformation to oppose the growing international academic boycott of Israel and the more immediate state and national legislation to criminalize the call for boycott under the accusation of anti-Semitism and delegitimization.
An anti-BDS bill masquerading as an “anti-discrimination bill” will soon have a hearing in the Massachusetts legislature. The Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), an umbrella organization consisting of independent groups including the AJC, just sent out an urgent action alert in support of the bill, and their own lobbyist described it as an “anti-BDS legislation” needed to “support Israel.”
Bill S.1689/H.1685, “An Act Prohibiting Discrimination in State Contracts,” purports to target discrimination, but actually is intended to penalize BDS activism. Republican Sponsor Steven Howitt said “this bill clarifies to businesses that either support BDS or who boycott Israeli-owned businesses and products that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts will not engage in commerce with them.” The JCRC action alert states: “The S.1685/H.1685: Act Prohibiting Discrimination in State Contracts bill prohibits the state from contracting with companies that are engaged in discrimination, including those that boycott Israeli businesses solely based on their nationality. Singling out and refusing to deal with a business owner based on an immutable characteristic —national origin in the BDS context— is a form of discrimination and taxpayer funds should not be used to subsidize this conduct… This bill echoes similar anti-BDS laws passed in several other states as well as an executive order in New York and underscores the strength of the Massachusetts-Israel relationship.”
However, the bill is likely unconstitutional as the right to engage in peaceful boycotts for political purposes is protected as a form of free speech under the First Amendment.
Equally problematic is that neither the advertisement nor the bill is accurate. Many Israeli universities and businesses are complicit in Israeli policies because they are involved in developing weapons systems, military doctrines, and moral frameworks for the Israeli occupation; are often located on stolen Palestinian land; and have aided policies that violate human rights and international law. Such policies include continued settlement growth in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, extra-judicial killings of Palestinians, a brutal siege of Gaza, and a host of other serious concerns. Palestinian civil society organizations have called upon the academic world to boycott Israeli academic institutions to focus attention on these issues, to counter normalization efforts (which lull the international community into accepting the unacceptable), and to pressure the Israeli government to change its policies.
The call for boycott explicitly rejects censorship and supports the universal right to freedom of expression; this is not a boycott of individuals, but a boycott of institutions complicit with Israeli occupation and human rights violations. Individuals who are recruited as part of an effort to “rebrand” Israel (the multibillion-dollar Israeli hasbara campaigns) or who have agreed to act as a representative or cultural/academic ambassador of the state (and thus have promised not to criticize state policy) are also subject to boycott as they are actively part of the problem, rather than part of the solution.
There is no question that “[Israeli] life science and healthcare academics engage in life saving research that drives medical breakthroughs,” as the advertisement explains. The problem with this statement is with the politics behind it: Who benefits from these breakthroughs? Why are children hungry, dying, and desperately in need of medical care just miles from these medical miracles? Why are Gazans asked to be collaborators in exchange for permits to receive medical care in Israel? Why are health care professionals who are so concerned with health not concerned with the lack of drinkable water in Gaza, the contamination of Gazan agricultural land by a host of newly tested Israeli military armaments, the chronic malnutrition due to the siege, the fruits and vegetables rotting in the sun at Israeli checkpoints, and the women giving birth and sometimes dying at checkpoints? Surely these are major health issues that cannot be ignored.
And what about “delegitimization?” How do countries acquire legitimacy? Do countries have a “right to exist”? Countries exist due to a complex coalescence of military might, aspirations, mythology, and historical movements. Legitimacy is derived from the behavior of the state. The real question is: What is tarnishing the reputation of Israel as a Western democracy with aspirations for acceptance in the modern world (not that Western-style democracies are doing that well either)? What does it mean to be a Jewish state? What happens to the 20% of the population who are not Jewish and the millions living under an endless military occupation? Can a Jewish state ever be democratic if, by definition, Jewish exceptionalism, chronic wars with neighbors, and suppression of indigenous Palestinians are part of the very foundation of the state?
A growing number of academic associations, faculty unions, and student governments are finding the boycott to be a powerful strategy. If academics involved in the life sciences and health care are really so concerned with lifesaving research and academic breakthroughs, then they need to be equally concerned with the political context in which they work. They need to be championing the cause of Palestinian academics in the West Bank and Gaza who struggle to obtain grants, scientific materials for research, permits to bring in visiting professors, and permits for themselves to travel to outside scientific meetings.
The AJC advertisement cites a letter that was signed by more than 100 prominent life science and health care academics. This letter worries that the academic boycotts “single out one nation, Israel, while overlooking all others.” Israel is being singled out partly because Palestinian civil society has called for an international boycott in response to longstanding egregious and anti-democratic behavior. Israel is also singled out because it occupies a unique position in the universe: the country receives billions of dollars in military aid and for years the US government has bowed blindly to the pressures of the pro-Israel lobby, providing Israel with political cover at the UN despite its serious violations of international law. So yes, Israel is a special case and deserves special attention. The fight for Palestinian human rights is also central to resolving many of the conflicts that now roil the Middle East and beyond, and there is a desperate need for creative nonviolent strategies like BDS to address these problems.
The AJC letter ends: “Without offering an opinion on any given conflict or political debate, we believe that academic boycotts aimed at advancing narrow political interests do great harm to the work we do and the integrity of the institutions that we serve.” Fighting a 50-year-old occupation is not a “narrow political interest.” Academics need to consider the individual and public health of Palestinians with the same urgency and passion as the health of Jewish Israelis and the institutions that serve them. Palestinians need human rights as desperately as they need medical care.