ALEC Goes After BDS

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conservative organization that prepares draft legislation or “model policies” for state assemblies, is going after the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Launched in 2005 by Palestinian civil society to encourage global solidarity and pressure Israel to end a near half century of occupation, BDS targets Israeli  and private firms that operate in the Occupied Territories.

At ALEC’s annual national conference this week, Wisconsin State Sen. Leah Vukmir plans on introducing a draft bill, to be circulated amongst fellow conservative lawmakers, undermining/criminalizing BDS organizing in the United States.

While ALEC has released all the “model policies” for its upcoming conference, the BDS draft bill – dubbed Protection and Enforcement Against the Commercial Exclusion of Israel Act – is available only as a summary of the bill’s intent. The summary states, inter alia, that “the goal of the resulting model policy will be to create disincentives to engaging in . . . secondary boycott activities . . . with the intention of creating significant economic harm to Israeli or Jewish entities by exerting coercive economic pressure on those doing business with them.”

According to Palestine Legal, anti-BDS legislation has been proposed in 22 state assemblies, including nine states that have implemented them. Across the board, the legislation prohibits state funds (such as contracts, public university moneys, or public pensions) from going to companies that “discriminate” or “divest” from the Occupied Territories and/or Israel; in other words boycotting the boycotters (we’ve previously noted the irony). In New York State, the governor bypassed the legislature altogether to sign an executive order. While it’s not surprising that pro-Israel partisans lobby state assemblies against BDS, it is noteworthy that ALEC has taken on the cause.

While it is safe to bet that the conservatives gathering at the ALEC conference are predominantly sympathetic toward Israel, ALEC is an interest group focused on domestic affairs. It does not normally entangle itself in foreign affairs issues, especially those that arouse intense passions and have the potential to create antagonists (ALEC already faces a bevy of liberal critics and other opponents). To say that this is an unusual step should be superfluous: Foreign affairs are entirely beyond the remit of state legislatures, and ALEC’s sole foray into foreign matters is a page on its website promoting the virtues of “international trade,” which is entirely devoid of policy guidelines since state legislators cannot address foreign trade policy. That ALEC has taken on BDS is yet another indication that Israel is increasingly seen as a domestic rather than a strictly foreign policy issue and one could be forgiven for surmising that pro-Israel groups have played a part in the ALEC controversy. The anti-BDS statement released in Sen. Vukmir’s name certainly reads like a “greatest hits collection of bromides” against BDS routinely issued by groups such as The Israel Project, Zionist Organization of America, et cetera. In fact, Vukmir’s press statement links to the right-wing Israeli organization, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, whose attacks against BDS it mirrors.

Not surprisingly, there’s no mention of why Palestinian civic society launched BDS in the first place. Instead we’re told:

“BDS is not actually a protest of Israeli policies and is not aimed at bettering anyone’s life. BDS is an aggressive disinformation campaign dedicated to one goal: to destroy the Jewish state. In the process BDS harms Jews and Arabs alike.”

Without a hint of irony, Sen. Vukmir goes on to misinform readers as follows:

“‘The real aim of BDS is to bring down the state of Israel. There should not be any equivocation on the subject.’ Those words belong to BDS leader As’ad Abu Khalil, a professor at the University of California. ‘BDS does mean the end of the Jewish state … BDS is the final showdown.’ That was written by BDS Leader Ahmed Moor.” [Italics mine]

A Palestinian-American professor and his Lebanese-American colleague would be surprised to find themselves declared as BDS leaders. In reality, BDS is a highly decentralized grassroots movement, and campaigns are often local affairs launched by any number of actors, including college chapters of Student for Justice in Palestine (SJP); American nonprofits such as Adalah-NY, Jewish Voice for Peace, and the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation; the West Bank-based Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel; a growing number of churches; as well as countless individuals, including American Jews. Sen. Vukmir could have quoted any of these organizations, not one of which seeks “to destroy the Jewish state,” but her selective usage of what are out of context, inflammatory statements by individuals speaking only in their own names further illustrates her demonization of BDS.

The press release then descends into outright slander as it attempts to link BDS to a hate crime statistic on anti-Jewish violence:

“BDS is also the basis for a newly emboldened and vicious anti-Semitism here at home. […]

How serious is this problem? To put it in perspective, only about 1.5 percent of Americans are Jewish – yet according to the FBI, a staggering 60 percent of all hate crimes against religious minorities in this country are against Jews.”

The statement does not even pretend to provide evidence for its claim that pro-Palestinian activists, which include many American Jews, are behind anti-Semitic crimes; and its omission is evidence that it cannot.

Sen. Vukmir’s hysterical tone continues with the claim that Americans are being “terrorized” and Jewish-Americans are “living in fear” from a movement that most, incidentally, have never heard of. Ironically no one imagines BDS to be as widely-known as its enemies. Sen. Vukmir then quotes an Israeli Supreme Court justice who labels BDS “political terrorism.” That’s par for the course. When Palestinians engaged in armed attacks against Israel, it was labeled terrorism. When Palestinians abandon armed resistance and adopt peaceful civic protest, they are attacked for “political” or “cultural terrorism.” For many BDS opponents, the only acceptable form of Palestinian response to military occupation is acquiescence to their own subjugation.

Sen. Vukmir ends by pointing to those that she considers the real victims: Israel and Big Business profiting off of the occupation which need “your state” to come to their aid. Not the occupied Palestinians, of course, but their military overlord. Reinforcing the oddity of ALEC taking on this issue, Sen. Vukmir does not offer any guidance or assistance from ALEC (not even a link to the summary statement), but, rather, directs readers to the American Center for Law and Justice, a Christian Right and Christian Zionist legal group remarkably different in its outlook from the philosophically libertarian ALEC.

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While state legislators might leave the ALEC conference armed with an anti-BDS bill, they cannot stop the movement. As Palestine Legal notes: “The good news is that your right to engage in boycotts related to Israeli human rights abuses and to advocate for BDS is protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. None of the bills and resolutions . . .  prohibit you from engaging in BDS activities.”

BDS proponents scored a victory in the California legislature recently: an anti-BDS bill met stiff resistance (including from the editorial board of the state’s most widely read newspaper, the Los Angeles Times) after the assembly’s Judiciary Committee concluded that the bill “raises very serious and perhaps insurmountable First Amendment concerns.” Eventually, the legislation was so drastically amended that even the Israeli-American Nexus, a lobbying group which promoted the bill, withdrew its support in disappointment.

ALEC’s model policy, as proposed by Sen. Vukmir, recognizes that anti-BDS bills can only “prohibit [boycott] to the extent possible” and cannot target “individual consumer behavior.” Pro-Israel groups might end up doing the BDS movement a favor if they persist in trying to subdue the constitutionally-guaranteed rights of freedom of speech, protest and assembly for the sake of pro-Israel apologia and partisanship; in other word, gross overreach that would repel even those who otherwise might be supporters of Israel, as was the case in California.

So goes California so goes the nation?