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The growing number of anti-BDS laws across the U.S. should be seen “in the larger context of this very well-resourced effort to shut down the entire grassroots movement for Palestinian rights,” says Palestine Legal Director Dima Khalidi

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SHARMINI PERIES: It’s the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. Republican Governor Larry Hogan of Maryland signed an executive order on Monday that requires all firms with state contracts to promise they will not boycott Israel. In this pronouncement, Hogan said all future state contracts would require companies to certify they will not economically discriminate against Israel and that if any current state contractors refuse to agree, they would be terminated. The order is in response to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions–or BDS–Movement which is trying to put pressure on Israel to stop human rights abuses against Palestinians and to lift its occupation of Palestinian land. The Boycott Divestment and Sanctions campaign is very similar to the very effective campaign that was organized against South African apartheid some 23 years ago. There are some 21 states that has implemented similar anti-BDS laws or executive orders in the U.S. Another recent example that will boggle your mind is this one in Dickinson, Texas where they have just passed a similar measure requiring people receiving Hurricane Harvey Relief Assistance to sign a document promising not to boycott Israel. Joining me now to discuss these anti-BDS developments in the U.S. is Dima Khalidi. She is the founder and director of Palestine Legal, an organization that protects the civil and constitutional rights of people in the U.S. who speak out for Palestinians. Thanks for joining me today, Dima. DIMA KHALIDI: Thanks for having me, Sharmini. SHARMINI PERIES: Dima, as I said, Governor Hogan’s executive order and the state of Maryland is one of many states that have now adopted anti-BDS measures, some 21 states. Why are they doing this and how constitutional are these positions and measures? DIMA KHALIDI: Well, the reason that we’re seeing these now 22 laws, actually, is because of the growing effectiveness of the grassroots movement for Palestinian rights, which includes efforts to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel for its illegal activities and its decades of violations of Palestinian human rights. As we see more and more churches and student governments and even NFL players supporting boycotts for Palestinian rights, we’re seeing the Israeli government along with Israel advocacy groups in the U.S. looking for more and more ways to silence this growing grassroots movement. In addition to seeing this legislative assault on our right to boycott for Palestinian rights, we’re also seeing all over the United States efforts to shut down the conversation about Israel, Palestine. Our work for example, encompasses these kinds of efforts on campuses around the country which include attacks on students, efforts to censor and punish them for protesting and speaking out and putting on events that raise awareness about Palestine. We have to see these efforts in the context, in this larger context of this very well-resourced effort to shut down the entire grassroots movement for Palestinian rights in the U.S. and internationally. These BDS laws, certainly, illustrate this top down approach to this issue. SHARMINI PERIES: Now I understand, Dima, that some legal challenges to these measures have been brought about by the ACLU, how effective are these challenges and are we seeing some successes here? DIMA KHALIDI: The ACLU lawsuit in Kansas, is the first to actually challenge one of these laws and it is on the basis that these laws violate our First Amendment rights to engage in boycotts to effect social, economic and political change. There have been several bills, similar bills, that have been defeated including in Maryland. For three years in a row, the legislature has failed to pass such an anti-BDS law because of First Amendment concerns and because of a very strong grassroots opposition to this legislation. That’s why we’re seeing Governor Hogan going around the legislative process to issue an Executive Order just like Governor Cuomo in New York did after such efforts failed in the legislature. We’re confident that the legal challenge in Kansas will prevail, will confirm our First Amendment rights to engage in this kind of political activity, especially at this time when our right to dissent has to be protected more than ever. SHARMINI PERIES: Right. Now, 21 states, that’s almost, not quite, but almost half the United States. The defenders of anti-BDS laws and orders argue that states have the right to choose with whom they do business. This sounds a lot like arguments that were made during racial segregation where businesses said they reserved the right to deny service to anyone they choose which is usually this means that anyone who doesn’t follow their racial segregation rules and they’re denied service. We see this in terms of the Gay Rights Movement as well and gay marriage where people are denying services to gay couples. What should we draw these parallels? DIMA KHALIDI: The parallel that should be made is with Civil Rights-era boycotts. The 1982 Supreme Court case that declared our right to boycott for political, economic, and social change arose from such a boycott of white businesses in the South. The Supreme Court said that when we use our collective voices to try to affect such change, it is protected by the First Amendment and so the states’ defense of these bills and these laws saying it amounts to their own speech rights, it does not hold water here. We’re talking about efforts to condition state benefits on political view points and this constitutes view point discrimination and is a violation of the First Amendment. We expect the courts to rule as much in the Kansas lawsuit and hopefully in other lawsuits that follow in other states challenging all of these laws. SHARMINI PERIES: The Texas case which is arguably even more extreme in that the town of Dickinson, Texas is providing Hurricane Relief only to those who sign a promise not to boycott Israel. People are in crisis and need to assistance. This is being thrust upon them. Now this goes beyond doing business with local government agencies. The sponsor of the Texas law even had to backtrack now saying that this is not how the law was supposed to be implemented because it’s gotten so much international attention about how inhumane this aspect, this requirement, is. So now, what is your assessment of this particular clause that people are being asked to sign and will they be successful at this? DIMA KHALIDI: It really shows the extent to which these laws are trying to place a political litmus test on the receipt of state benefits including disaster relief. In this case, the Texas law is intended to apply to companies, not to individuals. In addition, it also illustrates the way that these laws can be misconstrued, misapplied, and also create confusion and it shows the broader intent of these laws which is to chill our speech on these issues, our involvement in campaigns to boycott for Palestinian rights. When you see governments making a judgment on what is a proper political position, that is an improper way to coerce people to have certain political beliefs or to silence their own political beliefs. I think this particular case, this Texas case, really illustrates what is fundamentally wrong with these laws and why we need to protect our rights to engage in these kinds of collective grassroots means of challenging systematic injustices like we see in Palestine. SHARMINI PERIES: Right. Now although the state of Israel is supporting this anti-BDS legislation and in fact, they’re out there lobbying some of the states to make sure that it takes place. Some Jewish groups in the U.S. have come out against them. For example, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Reform Movement which is the largest Jewish Movement in North America, told the newspaper Haaretz, and let me quote here, “The seriously unfortunate consequences of the perforation of these anti-BDS bills and now the law in the states is that they have turned support for the current Israeli government policies into a litmus test, even in arenas where Israel should be a part of the discussion.” What is your take on these laws? DIMA KHALIDI: That’s right that they do create these litmus tests, and we have seen certain organizations, Jewish organizations, Zionist organizations, realizing that these bills are not the way to go but what we also have to keep in mind is that this is really part of a much larger effort to silence Palestine advocacy and we have to challenge that as a whole. We can’t just go after these laws. We have to challenge the intimidation, the censorship that is happening around the country of Palestine advocates. This is one part of that larger effort. SHARMINI PERIES: Alright, Dima, what’s next? What can people do in order to resist these laws coming about in their own states where it hasn’t yet taken a stance and of course, to fight back the laws and measures that are already in the books of states that have? DIMA KHALIDI: For one, people have to understand that their right to boycott is protected and so if you’re thinking about it, if you are already engaged in this kind of political activity, you should continue to do so. If you are, in any way, prevented or threatened, you should please contact Palestine Legal, It is really important right now to contact your representatives to let them know that these kinds of bills are unacceptable, that they are being challenged, that they are unconstitutional. Whether there is a pending bill, whether a bill may appear, it’s important to talk to legislators, to government officials about why it’s important to protect our right to boycott, why people are boycotting for Palestinian rights in the first place, and why they must reject this kind of legislation. SHARMINI PERIES: Alright, Dima. I thank you very much for joining us today and all the best with your fight. DIMA KHALIDI: Thank you, Sharmini. Thank you. SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on the Real News Network.

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Dima Khalidi is the founder and Director of Palestinian Legal (formerly Palestine Solidarity Legal Support), and Cooperating Counsel with the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR). Her work includes providing legal advice to activists, engaging in advocacy to protect their rights to speak out for Palestinian rights, and educating activists and the public about their rights.

Dima has a JD from DePaul University College of Law, an MA in Comparative Legal Studies from the University of London - School of Oriental and African Studies and a BA in History and Near Eastern Studies from the University of Michigan.