As a Lebanese-American born to immigrant parents, I’ve long been well-versed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and am passionate about both Palestinian justice and a peaceful end to this decadeslong conflict. So I’ve been troubled by recent efforts to silence Palestinian supporters like Rep. Rashida Tlaib, activist Angela Davis and journalist Marc Lamont Hill (which aim to stifle an important part of the national conversation on the issue) and by the spate of laws and proposed legislation against the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement (which violate Americans’ constitutional right to free speech).
BDS has three main demands for Israel: end its occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza and the Syrian Golan Heights; grant Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel full equality under the law; and establish a right-of-return policy for Palestinian refugees. Until that happens, BDS aims to pressure the Israeli government through boycotts, divestment and sanctions.
Though inspired by the South African anti-apartheid movement, BDS has American appeal, and I see the movement as one of the best ways for Americans concerned about Palestinian human rights to engage with the issue. After all, boycotts are ingrained in our nation’s history ― from the historic bus boycotts of the civil rights movement to the 2016 boycott of North Carolina over its discriminatory bathroom bill. I support BDS because it uses non-violent tactics in the pursuit of achieving clear goals, all aimed at ensuring equality and justice for Palestinians.
But while support for BDS grows, so does opposition to it. Anti-BDS laws have already been passed in 26 U.S. states, despite controversy, criticism and lawsuits. These laws generally penalize companies and sometimes individuals that support BDS ― often by requiring state pension funds to divest from them, sometimes by barring them from contracting with the state. In one case, a speech pathologist lost her job when she refused to sign a commitment binding her to Texas’ anti-BDS law. Under the same law, some Hurricane Harvey survivors were only able to receive disaster relief funds after signing a pledge to never support BDS. On Jan. 3 (amidst the longest government shutdown in American history), Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) introduced legislation that would consolidate four Middle Eastern policy bills. Among these was the Combating BDS Act, a bill that, like the already existing state laws, seeks to suppress BDS and, ultimately, criticism of Israel at the federal level.
Regardless of your opinion on BDS, these laws are disturbing and an affront to Americans’ First Amendment rights. In a democracy built upon the foundations of free speech, penalizing those engaged in peaceful protest starts us down a dangerous and slippery slope. Even Democratic senators who self-identify as fierce advocates for Israel homed in on the issue of constitutionality when rejecting Rubio’s bill.
As one of the first people in Congress to be openly supportive of Palestine and BDS (which is a game-changer in and of itself), Tlaib is already being unfairly scrutinized for her stance. The Michigan Democrat tweeted her support for Americans’ right to boycott in response to Rubio’s proposal and suggested that senators refresh their constitutional knowledge. Rubio, among others, rushed to accuse her of anti-Semitism and to denounce BDS as a movement designed to “destroy Israel.” Both accusations often go hand in hand with speaking out against Israeli human rights abuses. Tlaib later clarified her comments, reiterating that it was American senators, not Jewish-Americans, whom she was criticizing. But the cries of anti-Semitism didn’t stop.
“Those who use BDS as a tactic to spread hate speech and anti-Jewish sentiment are bastardizing a peaceful political movement that aims to pressure the Israeli government, not demonize Israeli citizens.”
And Tlaib is not the only public figure who has received undue criticism recently for her support of Palestinian human rights. Davis, an iconic political activist, had the Fred Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award rescinded by the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute due to her Palestinian advocacy. Davis is well known for linking systemic injustices faced by black Americans to those suffered by Palestinians at the hand of the Israeli government. A month prior, Hill, a CNN contributor, was fired after making remarks in support of Palestine at the United Nations. The controversy surrounding his speech grew so large that Hill wrote an op-ed telling readers that his support for radical change in Israel does not stem from anti-Semitism and that he unequivocally deplores all hateful acts against the Jewish people.
Fighting anti-Semitism, whether within the BDS movement or not, is necessary and important work, of course. Hate crimes against Jewish Americans are on the rise, and anyone who considers themselves an advocate for marginalized communities should do what they can to combat this disturbing trend.
However, BDS is not inherently anti-Semitic, whatever its many critics claim. Those who oppose the movement and decry it as discriminatory against Jewish people are misrepresenting the target of the boycotts, divestments and sanctions. Criticisms of a country are not the same as criticisms of its people. Those who use BDS as a tactic to spread hate speech and anti-Jewish sentiment are bastardizing a peaceful political movement that aims to pressure the Israeli government, not demonize Israeli citizens. I often compare my criticism of human rights abuses in Israel to my criticism of oppressive policies in Saudi Arabia. The difference is that my critiques of Saudi Arabia aren’t met with accusations of Islamophobia.
Open expression of support for the radical idea that Palestinians deserve equal rights is being chilled by anti-BDS laws in the U.S. But even if those laws are struck down, the consequences of speaking out can still be high, as the above stories show. I sometimes wonder if my own support of BDS and Palestinian justice might one day be used against me.
The fight for Palestinian justice is a worthy cause, and supporters should not be met with loss of employment, unfounded accusations of anti-Semitism or the restrictions of unconstitutional anti-BDS laws. Americans must not view the realization of one group’s civil rights as a zero-sum game. Palestinians’ liberation does not come at the expense of Israelis’ ― or the Jewish people’s ― safety and freedom. But the taboo in America against an honest discussion of the conflict threatens any real progress for Palestine and Israel.
Given the historic status of the Israeli-Palestinian debate in American politics, no ordinary civilians, let alone 2020 presidential candidates, can comfortably proclaim their support for Palestine without fear of retribution. That might remain true in 2024 and beyond. For now, it’s important to protect all Americans’ constitutional right to stand up for Palestinian justice, and that means doing away with anti-BDS legislation that violates our freedom of speech.
Reina Sultan is a young professional working in international development with a focus on public health. She is passionate about advocacy and representation of intersectional and diverse voices.