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Opinion

Editorial: Want to boycott Israel? The 1st Amendment allows it — but Texas doesn’t

LOS ANGELES,CA --MONDAY, MAY 14, 2018--A woman yells while holding a sign "#BDS,” referring to “Boyc
A woman yells while holding a sign "#BDS,” referring to “Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions,” in front of the Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles on May 14.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Bahia Amawi worked for nine years as a speech pathologist for a Texas school district. But in September, when it came time to renew her contract for the coming year, she was asked — under the provisions of a recent state law — to affirm that she does not and would not boycott Israel.

That put her in a tough position. As an American of Palestinian descent, she does try to avoid buying products from Israel. So she declined to sign the contract. And she lost her job.

That is as ludicrous as it is un-American. Regardless of one’s position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, it should be clear that a U.S. citizen like Amawi has a right to make choices for herself about what kind of hummus or olive oil she does or does not want to buy, and about what kind of political statements she wants to make through her purchases.

The effort to legislate the boycott out of existence is wrongheaded and misguided.
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“This is a personal choice,” she told reporters — and she’s absolutely right.

Over the years, some people have boycotted grapes and lettuce to protest the treatment of farmworkers; others refused to travel to South Africa at the height of apartheid. Today, some people won’t invest in cigarette companies or arms manufacturers; others won’t buy from Nike because of its support for Colin Kaepernick.

As the Supreme Court has recognized, boycotts are a form of speech protected under the Constitution. That protection exists so that government cannot penalize people like Amawi because their opinions are out of step with those of the state.

The Texas law was passed in 2017 by the Republican-controlled state Legislature. It bars governmental entities from contracting with companies that boycott Israel, apparently to prevent state dollars from somehow being used to support a sanctions movement they disparage. That’s problematic on its own. But to make matters worse, “company” is defined broadly to include individual “sole proprietorship” contractors such as Amawi.

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Had she signed the contract, she would have been promising not to engage in any action “intended to penalize, inflict economic harm on, or limit commercial relations with Israel, or with a person or entity doing business in Israel or in an Israel-controlled territory.” Lawmakers may have been trying to deter the state’s suppliers from taking a corporate stance against Israel, but there’s nothing in the language of the law suggesting that it does not cover a contractor’s personal behavior as well.

Instead of signing, she is now suing the school district and the Texas attorney general, arguing that the law violates the 1st Amendment’s protections on political speech and political advocacy. We hope her challenge is successful.

The Texas law is part of a bigger worldwide effort to combat the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. The highly controversial BDS campaign calls on people and companies to boycott Israel until that country ends its occupation of “all Arab lands,” ensures equal legal rights for its Arab citizens and accepts the right of Palestinian refugees to return to the former homes of their families in Israel. Some supporters of BDS accept the idea of a “two-state solution.” Others don’t, preferring a single-state solution in which Israelis and Palestinians live together in one land.

Although BDS has not so far inflicted substantial damage on the Israeli economy, the movement’s increasingly high profile — especially on some college campuses — has alarmed Israelis and their supporters in the United States.

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Laws like the one in Texas are one response. According to Palestine Legal, a group that advocates for Palestinian causes, 26 states in the U.S. have passed some type of anti-Israel boycott legislation. (Another response is the effort to conflate anti-Zionist speech — that is, speech arguing against the state of Israel — with anti-Semitism; among others, the U.S. State Department has taken positions that move down this troubling path.)

It is understandable that many people would object to the BDS movement, worrying that it demonizes Israel and that it will weaken the country, which enjoys strong support in the United States. But the effort to legislate the boycott out of existence is wrongheaded and misguided.

Politicians are entitled to denounce BDS, if they choose to. But they must not take actions that infringe the free speech rights of their constituents. The 1st Amendment exists to protect all points of view — including yours, but also those of the people you disagree with. At the end of the day, that benefits us all.

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