Activist groups are pushing back against lawmakers' attempt to punish Americans who boycott Israel and other U.S. allies.
Pending legislation in dozens of states around the country, legal groups warn, would make "blacklists" of organizations and individuals that endorse boycotts like those organized in order to combat U.S.-backed apartheid in South Africa.
Legal experts have blasted the anti-boycott campaign as "21st-century McCarthyism," and the Center for Constitutional Rights, National Lawyers Guild and Palestine Legal argue anti-boycott bills are an attack on the freedom of speech and likely unconstitutional.
This week, activists had a small victory, but their work still continues.
On Tuesday, advocates from New York's Freedom to Boycott Coalition delivered a letter signed by more than 100 organizations to the Albany offices of all New York state assembly and senate members.
The letter "strongly oppose[d]" two pending bills that would punish boycotts of Israel, effectively creating what they call "unconstitutional blacklists."
"State legislators pushing this McCarthyite, anti-democratic and unconstitutional legislation are out of touch with shifting opinion among growing numbers of New Yorkers and Americans," the coalition said in a statement.
Following the delivery of the letter, state Senate bill S6086, whose assembly counterpart A8220 is in committee, was pulled from the agenda of the Senate Finance committee. Legal observers say the bill is unlikely to pass this legislative cycle.
Senate bill S6086, which was sponsored by Democrat Michael Gianaris, and has bipartisan co-sponsor support, would have mandated that the government compile a list of companies and organizations boycotting Israel and imposed restrictions on them.
The Freedom to Boycott Coalition celebrated this as a small victory in a statement on Wednesday.
Another similar piece of legislation remains, nevertheless, which the groups oppose.
This bill, which was sponsored by Republican Jack M. Martins, and has bipartisan co-sponsor support, calls for punishing groups that boycott not just Israel, but all U.S. allies.
The legislation simultaneously singles out some countries like Venezuela, whose democratically elected socialist government the U.S. helped overthrow in 2002, which it would allow Americans to boycott.
Rahul Saksena, a staff attorney at non-profit advocacy organization Palestine Legal, told Salon in January that, while S6378A tries to present itself as balanced, it “clearly targets those who support boycotts for Palestinian freedom.”
Although its language is broader, S6378A is one of dozens of pending bills across that the U.S. that would effectively create a blacklist of and punish groups that support Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, or BDS, an international grassroots movement that promotes nonviolent economic means to pressure Israel to comply with international law and respecting Palestinian rights.
New York's Freedom to Boycott Coalition wrote in its letter to lawmakers that its member groups "share deep concerns about unconstitutional attacks on boycotts, a form of protected political speech."
The letter was endorsed by 108 legal, civil rights, peace and faith groups from around the state, including the Center for Constitutional Rights, Jewish Voice for Peace, the NY State Council of Churches and local chapters of the National Lawyers Guild, the New York Civil Liberties Union, Veterans for Peace and the American Association of University Professors.
“Lawmakers should never use public funds to put political pressure on those whose views and activities differ from their own," insisted Melanie Trimble, director of the NYCLU Capital Region chapter, in a statement.
"New Yorkers have a long history of bringing about social change through politically-motivated, collective actions like boycotts," she added. "A bill punishing New Yorkers for engaging in political speech degrades our state’s values and traditions and violates the Constitution."
Social justice group Jewish Voice for Peace, or JVP, has also strongly supported the campaign against the legislation. The group's five New York state chapters, along with the national organization, signed the letter.
JVP Executive Director Rebecca Vilkomerson wrote in Salon in February that "New York may blacklist me for working for justice for Palestinians." She defended boycotts as "a protected form of political speech" that have a "long history of being an effective tool to pressure the powerful."
“Our chapters of Jewish Voice for Peace across New York state are part of the global grassroots movement for justice for Palestinians, and represent growing shifts in Jewish-American and progressive opinion," explained Alana Krivo-Kaufman, JVP East Coast regional organizer.
"Our work for justice and equality for Palestinians follows in the footsteps of other progressive movements for racial and economic justice that have used the tactics of boycott and divestment to create political change."
The Freedom to Boycott Coalition stressed that an "increasing numbers of Democratic voters, particularly those under 30, women and people of color, see economic pressure as a necessary and moral set of tools to put economic pressure on Israel to end its abuses of Palestinian rights."
For almost 50 years, Israel has illegally militarily occupied the Palestinian territories in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Soon after withdrawing from Gaza in 2005, Israel imposed a strict blockade on the densely populated strip, which U.N. experts have for years said is illegal and which legal experts say amounts to "effective occupation."
The Israeli military regularly kills and injures Palestinians living under occupation. The U.S. government, Israel’s closest ally, has acknowledged the Israeli military's unlawful killings and use of excessive force and torture against Palestinians living in the occupied territories, as well as the "institutional and societal discrimination" endured by Arab citizens of Israel.
For the past several decades, Israel has also slowly colonized the occupied West Bank, supporting the expansion of illegal Jewish-only settlements, in what leading international organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross say is an explicit violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention.
Many human rights activists say BDS is one of the only ways to pressure Israel and the U.S. government that supports it to comply with international law and respect Palestinian rights.
Some activists have warned that the pending anti-boycott legislation could even punish human rights organizations for doing their work.
“Human Rights Watch recently issued a report calling for companies to cease doing business with illegal Israeli settlements," noted David Wildman, executive secretary of human rights and racial justice for the United Methodist Church's General Board of Global Ministries.
"Incidentally, Human Rights Watch, one of the most respected human rights defenders in the country, would be blacklisted under these bills, along with a number of churches which have taken steps to support Palestinian human rights."