Like most in the United States, I watched with a heavy heart as images of devastated communities in Texas filled our TV screens after Hurricane Harvey. I was also inspired by the widespread efforts of people coming together to first rescue those in danger and then begin the long process of picking up the pieces.
But last week I was shocked to see that political views about the Middle East were interjected into the relief and recovery process. The city of Dickinson was requiring contractors applying for relief funds to verify that they are not boycotting Israel. Standing out in the multi-page document replete with the sort of legalese you would expect in contractual agreements was item No. 11 which required the applicant for relief funds to verify they “(1) do not boycott Israel; and (2) will not boycott Israel during the term of this Agreement.”
You might ask yourself how on earth Middle East politics made their way into a contract for disaster relief in Dickinson, Texas, a town ravaged by the flooding.
Let me explain. Palestine (not the city in Texas but the actual land in the Middle East that city is named for) is where I am from. It is about 7,000 miles from Dickinson. Palestinians there endure systematic discrimination and abuse as a result of Israeli policies. Millions of Palestinians have no right to vote for the Israeli military regime that rules them and to keep this Palestinian population subjugated, the Israeli state routinely wields violent repression, arresting, injuring and killing Palestinians, seizing and destroying their land, all in contravention to international humanitarian law.
Since the international community, led by the United States and the United Nations, has failed to hold Israel accountable for denying Palestinian rights, Palestinian civil society called for solidarity from global partners through the non-violent tactics of boycott, divestment and sanctions. Such tactics have been used throughout history, from the Montgomery bus boycott to anti-Apartheid divestment, to advance much needed social change.
At first, the Israeli state laughed off grass-roots organizing aimed at holding it accountable but as these efforts grew and victories began to pile up, Israel sought to export the heavy hand of repression to other parts of the world to quash dissent.
Part of this repressive effort has been advancing legislation nationwide aimed at chilling the movement for Palestinian rights by criminalizing boycott or otherwise discriminating against people engaged in it. This is nothing less than an attack on our constitutionally protected rights. To avoid accountability for denying the rights of Palestinians, Israel would rather see the rights of Americans curtailed, and it has sadly found many American partners willing to help it. Last week the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit over a law in Kansas that would deny pay to a math teacher because she chose not to invest in the abuse of Palestinians and boycott Israel. Over 20 states have enacted such laws while many more are considering them. One law proposed at the federal level would attach criminal penalties of up to 20 years in prison for advancing efforts to hold Israel accountable.
Earlier this year, Gov. Greg Abbott signed legislation barring state agencies from contracting with entities engaged in a boycott of Israel. While doing so he proclaimed “Anti-Israel policies are anti-Texas policies.” But do Texans really support military raids ripping children from their beds at 3 a.m.? The theft of land and water from farmers? The bombardment of residential neighborhoods longing for disaster relief themselves? The denial of equal treatment to people of another religion? Because those of us calling for boycott, divestment and sanctions are calling for an end to these abuses through nonviolent means. Deep in the heart of the Middle East, Palestinians facing Israeli oppression are merely asking that we stop investing in and profiting from their abuse.
Now Americans too, even in Dickinson, will be discriminated against for their political views. No one should be denied rights for a political viewpoint, but the fact that supporting Palestinian rights disqualifies applicants from aid is not just Orwellian but suggests a deep animus toward the very humanity of Palestinians. To think that a person who wants to help residents suffering from flooding would be denied a contract just because they also want to help Palestinians suffering from Israeli oppression is not just unbecoming of Texas. It is unconstitutional and un-American.