Florida law suppresses anti-Israel campaigns

An anti-Israel protest at Carnegie Mellon University campus in Pittsburgh.
An anti-Israel protest at Carnegie Mellon University campus in Pittsburgh. AP

Florida lawmakers recently passed a bill, which Gov. Rick Scott has just signed into law, that is intended to suppress boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaigns related to Israeli human-rights abuses.

Whatever your views on Israel and Palestinians, all Floridians should see this new law as a threat to our constitutional rights to engage in boycotts and other economic acts of conscience in support of social-justice and human-rights causes.

The new law calls for the creation of a list of companies that abide by BDS campaigns and bars the state from doing business with them. It also includes “Israeli-controlled territories” in its provisions, in an attempt to legitimize Israeli settlements built on occupied Palestinian land in violation of longstanding U.S. policy and international law. This means that companies can be prohibited from doing business with the state of Florida for actions consistent with official American policy going back almost 50 years.

For almost half a century, Palestinians in the occupied territories have suffered under a discriminatory Israeli military that denies them the most basic of rights, including the right to protest peacefully, that steals their land for settlements, destroys their homes and crops, restricts their movements and inflicts countless other abuses.

Inside Israel’s pre-1967 borders, Palestinian citizens of Israel, who make up about 20 percent of the population, endure second-class status, including dozens of laws that discriminate against them, and Palestinian refugees are denied their internationally recognized legal right to return to lands from which they were expelled from during Israel’s creation.

Inspired by the U.S. civil-rights and South African anti-apartheid movements, the grassroots Palestinian-led BDS movement for freedom, justice and equality, seeks to use economic leverage to compel Israel into respecting Palestinian rights. In recent years, BDS campaigns have grown across the country as Americans have become increasingly fed up with the United States’ unconditional support for Israel. They reject the oppressive status quo and are looking for alternative ways such as BDS to secure positive change.

Mainline churches like the United Methodists, the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the United Church of Christ have all voted to endorse aspects of BDS, as have numerous academic associations, university student governments, labor groups and others.

In response, the Israeli government and its supporters have increased their efforts to suppress BDS, including through a wave of bills in Congress and more than two dozen states across the country, including Florida.

In working to suppress BDS, legislators are increasingly out of touch with American public opinion. A poll conducted in November 2015 by the University of Maryland’s Shibley Telhami found 49 percent of Democrats support imposing economic sanctions against Israel over settlement building, while a similar poll conducted in November 2014 found 39 percent of all Americans agreed.

Even Republicans aren’t nearly as supportive of Israel as many believe. The same November 2015 poll found just 45 percent of Republicans want the United States to side with Israel diplomatically versus the Palestinians.

Freedom of speech is a fundamental right in any democratic society, one often taken for granted. We must be vigilant in protecting our rights from those who seek to undermine them, including the sponsors of Florida’s new law to suppress Palestinian human-rights activism. We urge state representatives to repeal this unjust law and to listen to the growing number of ordinary Americans who support BDS as a way to help bring about a brighter future where both Israelis and Palestinians can live in peace, freedom and security.

Ahmad Abuznaid is a Palestinian-American attorney and a co-founder and COO of the Dream Defenders. Audrey Bomse is a member of Jewish Voice for Peace and co-chair of the National Lawyers Guild Palestine subcommittee. Susanne Hoder is co-chair of the United Methodist Kairos Response.