Last year in June 2015 a meeting of more than 50 self-described pro-Israel organizations took place in Las Vegas to discuss the growing number of institutions boycotting and divesting from Israel due to its illegal occupation of Palestinian land.
The conference, which was organized by billionaires Sheldon Adelson and Haim Saban, aimed at raising funds and strategizing to combat the tactic known as Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) for freedom, justice and equality.
By early 2016, anti-free speech legislations to suppress BDS were introduced in 20 states, including California.
While pro Israel groups claim that BDS aims to delegitimize or destroy Israel, the fact of the matter is that boycotts aimed at securing civil and human rights are an integral part of American history.
For example, the Montgomery bus boycott against segregation, grape boycotts in support of farm labor rights, boycotts of companies enabling South African apartheid, and current divestment campaigns against fossil fuel and private prison companies. BDS is a nonviolent tactic for justice initially launched in 2005 by Palestinian civil society that urges various forms of boycott against Israel until it meets its obligations under international law.
By June 2016 a few states had passed anti-free speech bills and more recently New York Governor Andrew Cuomo made national headlines when he bypassed the New York legislature and issued an executive order to halt state business with groups that back BDS.
However, in the California State Assembly, things didn’t go as smooth as Adelson and Saban would have liked.
GOP Assemblyman Travis Allen of Huntington Beach initially introduced anti-free speech Assembly Bills 1551 and 1552 in January 2016 but failed to garner enough support mostly due to partisan politics. Democrat Richard Bloom of Santa Monica eventually introduced AB 2844 - backed by Democrat members of the Jewish Caucus - using the same language of Allen’s bill.
Following discussions in the Committee on Accountability, Judiciary Committee, and finally the Appropriations Committee, the bill was watered down and references to Israel were removed to the point that it was “no longer a pro-Israel bill” as Asm. Allen claimed. The title of the bill was changed from “California Combating the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions of Israel Act of 2016” to “Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions of Recognized Sovereign Nations or Peoples.” It passed with 64 yays and 16 abstentions.
Despite the changes in the language of the bill, the Senate version should still be defeated because both Bloom and Allen will urge the Senate to restore the old language to make it closer to the original version. If passed, the bill would not only remain a threat to our freedom for potentially infringing on protected political speech, but it would also cost the state an estimated $1.2 million annually for requiring the Attorney General to maintain a blacklist of groups that boycott “recognized sovereign nations and peoples.”
California should stand on the right side of history and protect our right to boycott, divest, and sanction of governments and entities that abuse civil and human rights.
Rashad Al-Dabbagh is founder and executive director of the Arab American Civic Council.
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