We’re a Small Arkansas Newspaper. Why Is the State Making Us Sign a Pledge About Israel?

At The Arkansas Times, a publication I founded 47 years ago, our pages focus on small-scale local issues, like protecting Medicaid expansion from the predations of our state legislature and other elements of Arkansas politics, history and culture. So I was surprised when in 2018 I received an ultimatum from the University of Arkansas’s Pulaski Technical College, a longtime advertiser: To continue receiving its ad dollars, we would have to certify in writing that our company was not engaged in a boycott of Israel. It was puzzling. Our paper focuses on the virtues of Sims Bar-B-Que down on Broadway — why would we be required to sign a pledge regarding a country in the Middle East?

I understood the context of that email. In 2017, Arkansas pledged to enforce support for Israel by mandating that public agencies not do business with contractors unless those contractors affirm that they do not boycott Israel. The idea behind the bill goes back 16 years. In 2005, Palestinian civil society launched a campaign calling for “boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel until it complies with international law and universal principles of human rights.” Around the world, Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, or B.D.S., as it became known, gained momentum. In response, Israel and lobbyists have used multiple strategies to quash the movement. In the United States, one such strategy took the form of anti-B.D.S. bills. Currently, more than 30 states have provisions on the books similar to Arkansas’s.

It soon became clear that The Arkansas Times had to answer our advertiser. Though boycotting Israel could not have been further from our minds and though state funding is a significant source of our income, our answer was no. We don’t take political positions in return for advertising. If we signed the pledge, I believe, we’d be signing away our right to freedom of conscience. And as journalists, we would be unworthy of the protections granted us under the First Amendment.

And so, instead of signing, we sued to overturn the law, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, on the grounds that it violates the First and 14th Amendments. We are still fighting it.

The Arkansas legislature is dominated by conservative evangelicals, such as the former Senate majority leader, Bart Hester. He is featured in the new documentary film “Boycott,” directed by Julia Bacha and produced by the group Just Vision. “Boycott” follows three plaintiffs, including me, challenging their states’ anti-boycott laws. In the film, Senator Hester explains that his religious belief motivates everything he does as a government official, including writing Arkansas’s anti-boycott lawHe also explains his eschatological beliefs: There is going to be certain things that happen in Israel before Christ returns. There will be famines and disease and war. And the Jewish people are going to go back to their homeland. At that point Jesus Christ will come back to the earth.” He added, “Anybody, Jewish or not Jewish, that doesn’t accept Christ, in my opinion, will end up going to hell.” Senator Hester and his coreligionists may see the anti-boycott law as a way to support Israel, whose return to its biblical borders, according to their reading of scripture, is one of the precursors to the Second Coming and Armageddon.

In other words, Senator Hester and other supporters of the law entwine religion and public life in a manner that we believe intrudes on our First Amendment rights.

These types of laws are not restricted to states in which fundamentalist Christians hold sway. In 2016, California passed a law requiring large contractors working with a state agency to certify that they will not discriminate against Israel, and Andrew Cuomo, as governor of New York, signed an executive order that compels state entities to divest money and assets from a list of organizations regarded by the state as participating in the boycott. Senator Chuck Schumer of New York proposed national anti-boycott legislation.

Let’s be clear, states are trading their citizens’ First Amendment rights for what looks like unconditional support for a foreign government.

When our case reached the Federal District Court in 2019, the state argued that boycotting was not political speech but rather an economic exercise and therefore subject to state regulation. We found that argument absurd. After all, our nation’s founding mythology includes the boycott of tea. Since then, boycotts have repeatedly been used as a tool of political speech and protest, from the Montgomery bus boycott to end segregation to the Delano grape strike protesting exploitation of farmworkers. University students throughout the country engaged in anti-apartheid boycotts of and divestment from South Africa. In 1982, the right to boycott as a method of collective political speech was upheld by a unanimous Supreme Court ruling in N.A.A.C.P. v. Claiborne Hardware Company.

And yet U.S. District Judge Brian Miller ruled against us. We appealed to the Eighth Circuit — and won — before a three-judge panel in February. But on June 10, a rehearing by the full Eighth Circuit was ordered. That hearing occurred on Sept. 21, and a decision is expected very soon. Frankly, we’re concerned it won’t go our way.

If we lose in the Eighth Circuit, our last hope is the Supreme Court. Ours isn’t the only case out there. In 2018 and 2019, federal courts in Texas, Arizona and Kansas ruled against their states’ anti-B.D.S. laws. If the Supreme Court rules against us, the other favorable rulings could be in jeopardy. Also concerning is that these states have since amended their anti-boycott laws, narrowing their scope so they apply only to companies with a large number of contractors and to public contracts that are more than $100,000 but without addressing what we see as the laws’ fundamental unconstitutionality.

Although the Arkansas press has covered the case, there has been little editorial support for or comment on our fight beyond that. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette signed the pledge — as did Arkansas Business, our business journal. And yet freedom of expression is a sacred American value and foundational to our democratic ideals.

If these anti-boycott laws are allowed to stand, get ready for a slew of copycat legislation. Texas passed two laws that went into effect on Sept. 1 — one prohibiting state agencies from conducting business with contractors that boycott fossil fuels and another preventing agencies from contracting with businesses that boycott firearm companies or trade associations.

What the outcome of The Arkansas Times’s lawsuit will be is unclear. One thing, however, remains crystal clear: These anti-boycott laws, allowing government to use money to punish dissent, will encourage the creation of ever more repressive laws that risk strangling free speech for years to come.

Alan Leveritt is the founder and publisher of The Arkansas Times. His lawsuit against Arkansas’s anti-boycott law is the subject of Just Vision’s upcoming documentary “Boycott.”

Meet the Texas Speech Pathologist Who Lost School Job for Refusing to Sign Pro-Israel, Anti-BDS Oath

A Palestinian-American speech pathologist in Austin, Texas, has filed a federal lawsuit for losing her job after refusing to sign a pro-Israel oath. Bahia Amawi is an Arabic-speaking child language specialist who had worked for nine years in the Pflugerville Independent School District. But she lost her job last year after she declined to sign a pledge that she would “not boycott Israel during the term of the contract” and that she would not take any action that is “intended to penalize, inflict economic harm on, or limit commercial relations with Israel.” We speak with Bahia Amawi and Gadeir Abbas, senior litigation attorney with the Council on American-Islamic Relations. He is representing Amawi in her lawsuit against the Pflugerville Independent School District and the state of Texas.

UPDATE: Abby Martin’s Lawsuit Over Israel Loyalty Oath Mandate in US

New developments in Abby Martin’s major lawsuit challenging unconstitutional pro-Israel, anti-BDS law in the state of Georgia.

If I’m not mistaking, isn’t signing a loyalty pledge to another country treason for an elected official.

This story is SOOO bizarre. How on earth can governments in the US justify these loyalty oaths??

The hypocrisy is galling. The elites accusing a foreign government of tampering with US elections, but allow a foreign government to suborn the rights of US citizen to speak out about that government’s atrocities.

“Condemning illegal Israeli settlements is no more anti-Jew than criticizing American drone warfare is anti-Christian. This is about the behavior of a government and culture, not about ethnicity or religion.”
-Benjamin L. Corey

Everyday Israelis Express Support for Genocide to Abby Martin

On the streets of Jerusalem, Abby Martin interviews Jewish Israeli citizens from all walks of life. In several candid interviews, disturbing comments reveal commonly-held views about Palestinians and their future in the region. Israeli-born human rights activist and anti-Zionist, Ronnie Barkan, explains why these attitudes dominate Israeli society.

If You Think Trump Is Helping Israel, You’re a Fool

By barring Representatives Omar and Tlaib, Netanyahu made the president happy. But he has poisoned relations with America.

I am going to say this as simply and clearly as I can: If you’re an American Jew and you’re planning on voting for Donald Trump because you think he is pro-Israel, you’re a damn fool.

Oh, don’t get me wrong. Trump has said and done many things that are in the interests of the current Israeli government — and have been widely appreciated by the Israeli public. To deny that would be to deny the obvious. But here’s what’s also obvious. Trump’s way of — and motivation for — expressing his affection for Israel is guided by his political desire to improve his re-election chances by depicting the entire Republican Party as pro-Israel and the entire Democratic Party as anti-Israel.

As a result, Trump — with the knowing help of Israel’s current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu — is doing something no American president and Israeli prime minister have done before: They’re making support for Israel a wedge issue in American politics.

Few things are more dangerous to Israel’s long-term interests than its becoming a partisan matter in America, which is Israel’s vital political, military and economic backer in the world.

Trump’s campaign to tar the entire Democratic Party with some of the hostile views toward Israel of a few of its newly elected congresswomen — and Netanyahu’s careless willingness to concede to Trump’s demand and bar two of them, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, from visiting Israel and the West Bank — is part of a process that will do huge, long-term damage to Israel’s interests and support in America.

Netanyahu later relented and granted a visa to Tlaib, who is of Palestinian descent, for a private, “humanitarian’’ visit to see her 90-year-old grandmother — provided she agree in writing not to advocate the boycott of Israel while there. At first Tlaib agreed, but then decided that she would not come under such conditions.

Excuse me, but when did powerful Israel — a noisy, boisterous democracy where Israeli Arabs in its Parliament say all kinds of wild and crazy things — get so frightened by what a couple of visiting freshman American congresswomen might see or say? When did Israel get so afraid of saying to them: “Come, visit, go anywhere you want! We’ve got our warts and we’ve got our good stuff. We’d just like you to visit both. But if you don’t, we’ll live with that too. We’re pretty tough.’’

It’s too late for that now. The damage of what Trump and Bibi have been up to — formally making Israel a wedge issue in American politics — is already done. Do not be fooled: Netanyahu, through his machinations with Senate Republicans, can get the United States Congress to give him an audience anytime he wants. But Bibi could not speak on any major American college campus today without massive police protection. The protests would be huge.

And listen now to some of the leading Democratic presidential candidates, like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders — you can hear how unhappy they are with the behavior of this Israeli government and its continued occupation of the West Bank. And they are not afraid to say so anymore. As The Jerusalem Post reported on July 11, “Sen. Elizabeth Warren, whose presidential candidacy has rallied in recent weeks, told two Jewish anti-occupation activists ‘yes’ when they asked her for support.’’

But who can blame them? Trump is equating the entire Democratic Party with hatred for Israel, while equating support for Netanyahu — who leads the most extreme, far-right government that Israel has ever had, who is facing indictment on three counts of corruption and whose top priority is getting re-elected so that he can have the Israeli Knesset overrule its justice system and keep him out of court — with loving Israel.

How many young Americans want to buy into that narrative? If Bibi wins, he plans to pass a law banning his own indictment on corruption, and then, when Israel’s Supreme Court strikes down that law as illegal, he plans to get the Knesset to pass another law making the Supreme Court subservient to his Parliament. I am not making this up. Israel will become a Jewish banana republic.

If and when that happens, every synagogue, every campus Hillel, every Jewish institution, every friend of Israel will have to ask: Can I support such an Israel? It will tear apart the entire pro-Israel community and every synagogue and Jewish Federation.

Then add another factor. By moving the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — and turning that embassy, led by a Trump crony, Ambassador David Friedman, into an outpost for advancing the interests of Israeli Jewish settlers, not American interests — Trump has essentially greenlighted the Israeli annexation of the West Bank.

Again, should Netanyahu remain prime minister — which is possible only if he puts together a ruling coalition made up of far-right parties that want to absorb the West Bank and its 2.5 million Palestinians into Israel — Israel will be on its way to becoming either a binational state of Arabs and Jews or a state that systematically deprives a large and growing segment of its population of the democratic right to vote. Neither will be a Jewish democracy, the dream of Israel’s founders and still the defining, but endangered, political characteristic of the state.

Don’t get me wrong. I strongly oppose the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement — which Representatives Omar and Tlaib have embraced — because it wants to erase the possibility of a two-state solution. And I am particularly unhappy with Representative Omar.

I know a lot about her home district in Minnesota, because I grew up in it, in St. Louis Park. Omar represents the biggest concentration of Jews and Muslims living together in one district in the Upper Midwest. She was perfectly placed to be a bridge builder between Muslims and Jews. Instead, sadly, she has been a bridge destroyer between the two since she came to Washington. But anytime she is legitimately criticized, Democrats automatically scream “Islamophobia’’ and defend her. That’s as disturbing as Trump.

I know that more than a few Somali immigrants in Minneapolis, who face so many challenges — from gang violence to unemployment — are asking why is Omar spending time on the West Bank of the Jordan and not on the West Bank of the Mississippi?

I love Israelis, Palestinians and Arabs — but God save me from some of their American friends. So many of them just want to exploit this problem to advance themselves politically, get attention, raise money or delegitimize their opponents.

In that, Trump is not alone — he’s just the worst of the worst.

Rep. Rashida Tlaib Rejects Israeli Offer to Visit West Bank Family

Israel walked back an earlier decision to block a visit by Tlaib and Omar

Rep. Rashida Tlaib on Friday called off her visit to the West Bank, hours after Israel ’s decision to allow her into the country on humanitarian grounds with some restrictions on what she could say and do.

Her announcement capped off two days of back-and-forth, with Israel on Thursday saying it would bar Ms. Tlaib and Rep. Ilhan Omar from the country because of their support for boycotting Israel. Israel had said last month it would allow the Congresswomen to visit but reversed course after pressure from President Trump, who said “it would show great weakness” to let them in.

Donald J. Trump

@realDonaldTrump

It would show great weakness if Israel allowed Rep. Omar and Rep.Tlaib to visit. They hate Israel & all Jewish people, & there is nothing that can be said or done to change their minds. Minnesota and Michigan will have a hard time putting them back in office. They are a disgrace!

Ms. Tlaib had filed a humanitarian appeal to Israel, promising not to promote boycott activities and abide by restrictions while visiting her family in the West Bank. She said it might be her last chance to see her elderly grandmother. But she said Friday she didn’t want to visit under the conditions imposed by Israel, who she accused of “silencing me and treating me like a criminal.

“I have decided that visiting my grandmother under these oppressive conditions stands against everything I believe in—fighting against racism, oppression & injustice,” she said in a tweet.

Rashida Tlaib

@RashidaTlaib

Silencing me & treating me like a criminal is not what she wants for me. It would kill a piece of me. I have decided that visiting my grandmother under these oppressive conditions stands against everything I believe in–fighting against racism, oppression & injustice. https://twitter.com/RashidaTlaib/status/1162341203406401536 

Rashida Tlaib

@RashidaTlaib

When I won, it gave the Palestinian people hope that someone will finally speak the truth about the inhumane conditions. I can’t allow the State of Israel to take away that light by humiliating me & use my love for my sity to bow down to their oppressive & racist policies. https://twitter.com/RashidaTlaib/status/1162333169846247425 

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Israel’s announcement Friday had partially walked back Israel’s decision Thursday to block Ms. Tlaib, a Palestinian-American representing Detroit, and Ms. Omar, a Somali-American representing Minneapolis, from entering Israel for a visit to Jerusalem and the West Bank that was to begin Sunday.

Israeli Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, who said he authorized Ms. Tlaib’s entry into Israel on humanitarian grounds, wrote on Twitter that the congresswoman’s “hatred of Israel outweighs her love for her grandmother.”

The episode was the latest round in Mr. Trump’s feud with Ms. Tlaib and Omar, who, along with New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley, make up a group of women of color in Congress calling themselves ‘The Squad.’ Mr. Trump has repeatedly targeted them at rallies and on Twitter as being anti-Israel, which they deny.

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Sen. Marco Rubio (R. Fla.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Israel’s decision to bar the Congresswomen is a mistake. “Being blocked is what they really hoped for all along in order to bolster their attacks against the Jewish state,” he said.

House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi said the decision was a sign of weakness, and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee said it believed every member of Congress should be able to travel to Israel.

Democratic leaders have expressed concern over Ms. Tlaib and Ms. Omar’s views on Israel, which are problematic for a party that has identified as pro-Israel.

Ms. Omar has said lawmakers’ support for Israel is motivated by money, which critics slammed as anti-Semitic. She later apologized for the comments after Mrs. Pelosi rebuked her.

Ms. Tlaib has slammed Israel’s policies toward Palestinians and has said she supports a one state solution, in which Israelis and Palestinians living in Israel would have equal rights and representation. Israel fears that would be the end of its Jewish majority in the country.

Along with Ms. Omar, Ms. Tlaib was to visit Jerusalem, Hebron, Bethlehem and Ramallah.

Ms. Tlaib came under fire from some supporters Friday after she had accepted Israel’s offer to visit her grandmother. Some Palestinians criticized Ms. Tlaib as having caved to Israeli pressure and accepting unfair demands.

Bassam Tlaib, 54, the Congresswoman’s uncle who lives in Beit Ur al-Faqua, said the whirlwind of media reports whether Ms. Tlaib would be allowed to enter Israel brought the family “from a state of happiness to anxiety.” He said he was afraid to give Ms. Tlaib’s grandmother hope that she’ll be visited by her grandchild.

“She’s is waiting to be embraced by her loved one,” Mr. Tlaib said of his mother and the congresswoman’s grandmother.