Arab Americans need to push back against racist anti-BDS laws
At least 28 of America’s 50 states have adopted laws that violate the US Constitution by punishing citizens who refuse to sign a letter renouncing the moral boycott of Israel’s illegal occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, known as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, or BDS.
The anti-BDS laws began in Tennessee in 2015 and, as a result of a well-financed propaganda campaign that falsely associates the rejection of Israel’s war crimes with anti-Semitism, have resulted in more than two dozen other states adopting anti-BDS legislation.
When these laws are challenged in court, they are usually declared illegal, such as in Texas, Arkansas and Georgia. But not enough is being done to revoke these discriminatory laws that target Americans, especially those who are Arab and/or Muslim, who believe that foreign countries should not be rewarded for violating the rights of civilians.
Anti-BDS laws continue to be strengthened in several states, including this week in Iowa, where the legislation is being expanded to specifically target the well-known ice cream maker Ben & Jerry’s.
The failure to mount an across-the-board challenge of all these laws is a reflection of the dysfunction of the Arab American community, which has split into two ineffective groups, one driven by secular issues and one by religious, mainly Muslim, concerns.
Arabs are excluded from almost every aspect of American life, discriminated against by the mainstream news media and marginalized in American politics. Arab ethnicity is not even included on the US Census and Arabs are not given minority status. While Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans and many other ethnic groups are recognized with celebratory months, parades, special cultural grants and guaranteed segments of government contracts, Arabs are not.
Despite this anti-Arab racism, as reflected in the wave of illegal anti-BDS laws, the Arabs have the rule of law on their side. The law protects Arab Americans in many ways, but they are made to fight for their rights on their own, even though the government and other institutions frequently fight on behalf of other ethnic and national groups.
The American Civil Liberties Union, for example, is selective about who it supports and when it enforces civil rights for Arabs. It occasionally joins the fight against anti-BDS laws, but it refuses to engage in high-profile discussions and debates, probably fearing it will lose support from mainstream Americans brainwashed by Israeli propaganda.
Arab Americans should consolidate their efforts under one banner, but they can’t. Although many see Arabs as being monolithic, they actually come from 22 countries that have more than 100 ethnic and national subgroups, which have diverse and often competing interests. The challenges get even more complicated in the US when you toss religion into the mix, separating Muslims from Christians and dividing Muslims among Arab and non-Arab interests.
Arabs and Muslims in the Middle East may look at their counterparts in the West and think they all enjoy the same lifestyle, but they do not. Being Arab in America is a never-ending challenge filled with restrictions, stereotypes and discrimination. What other US ethnic group is targeted for opposing the policies of a foreign country?
The failure to mount an across-the-board challenge of all these laws is a reflection of the dysfunction of the Arab American community.
The latest anti-BDS law to be expanded is the one first passed in Iowa in 2016. The sponsors of House File 2373 want to use the state’s law as a precedent to expand anti-BDS laws elsewhere, with the aim of punishing Ben & Jerry’s for refusing to sell its products in the occupied West Bank. The Vermont-based ice cream maker, which is a wholly-owned autonomous subsidiary of the British multinational Unilever, is not boycotting Israel. Its products are sold inside Israel, but the firm does not want to sell its products in the illegal and racist, Jewish-only settlements that are built on lands stolen from Christian and Muslim Palestinians. As a result, Iowa is adjusting its anti-BDS law to include companies that are wholly-owned subsidiaries, majority-owned subsidiaries, parent companies or affiliates.
Literally every Israeli settlement is built for the sole purpose of serving the followers of one religion — Judaism — on lands taken illegally from Christians and Muslims.
Iowa’s legislators do not seem to care that it will cost taxpayers millions of dollars to conduct an exhaustive inventory of every business that wants to bid for public contracts and secure signed affidavits that they do not support the boycott. The real victims will be ordinary Iowans, most of whom have never been to Israel, do not care about Israel and probably do not even know any Arabs or Muslims.
What is needed is a national legal movement to challenge all of the anti-BDS laws in one sweep, based on the simple fact that the US Constitution guarantees every American the right to free speech. Americans boycott other foreign countries all the time, so the issue is not the act of boycotting itself, it is the issue of protecting Israel.
Another problem is the disorientation of the BDS movement. Some activists are in fact anti-Israel, but the majority simply oppose the settlements. Those in the middle of this debate argue that Israel’s government empowers the racist settlement movement.
Yet, despite these inherent challenges, I cannot believe there is not one brilliant attorney who is willing to take this to the federal courts and quote the powerful American civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination based on race, religion or belief. Anti-BDS laws are a violation of the civil rights of Arabs, Muslims and anyone who believes in justice.
- Ray Hanania is an award-winning former Chicago City Hall political reporter and columnist. He can be reached on his personal website at www.Hanania.com. Twitter: @RayHanania