Illinois House Passes Bill to Stop BDS Campaign Against Israel
Ali Abunimah, co-founder of The Electronic Intifada, says the bill violates the first amendment and aims to deter attempts to hold Israel accountable for its illegitimate and illegal actions.
SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.
The Illinois House passed a bill today that would prevent the state’s pension fund from investing in companies that support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign known as BDS, which is a global movement to put economic pressure on Israel to end the occupation of Palestine. This is one of the more recent pieces of legislation in the past few years that have been introduced to crack down on BDS activities. For example, in Canada there has been a similar development to where the public safety ministry talked about using hate speech laws against Israel boycott advocates.
Here to discuss this is Ali Abunimah. He’s joining us from Chicago. He’s the co-founder of the Electronic Intifada. Thank you so much for joining us, Ali.
ALI ABUNIMAH, CO-FOUNDER, ELECTRONIC INTIFADA: Thank you, it’s my pleasure.
PERIES: So Ali, this BDS counter-strategy, if I may, can you speak to the legality of the bill that was passed in Illinois today?
ABUNIMAH: Well, that’s not clear yet. There was an earlier version which contained clearly unconstitutional provisions that would’ve prohibited the state from doing business with companies that had freely chosen to support Palestinian rights. And the ACLU had made some noise about that, and that was taken out. But what this current bill does, and it passed with 102 votes in favor, no votes against and no abstentions. So you know, unanimity in the Illinois General Assembly. What it does is it forces the state pension fund to investigate companies that are suspected of supporting boycott or divestment from Israel or from companies that are aiding and abetting Israeli occupation and human rights abuses, and to divest state funds from those companies.
Now, what’s interesting is that this bill, like other legislative efforts around the country, even includes efforts to divest from Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Now, remember that Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem are illegal under international law, and illegitimate and illegal according to longstanding U.S. government policy. So this Illinois law aims to deter civil society action even to hold Israel accountable for what the U.S. government considers to be violations of international law.
PERIES: It seems a really obscure way to counter the BDS campaign. What are the specifics–explain to us how this would now work, in terms of the new legislation. How would they implement it?
ABUNIMAH: Well this legislation, what it does is it orders the state, the state pensions funds and pensions board, to–it keeps lists of companies that are required to obey its provisions. And so they have to issue quarterly reports. So there’s a lot of technical details like that.
Now, of course it does seem somewhat obscure. But I think it’s important to put this in the bigger context. This law in Illinois, the reason–I spoke to people who are very involved in the efforts to lobby against it. And what is very clear is that there was kind of a stitch-up between Illinois’s Republican governor, Bruce Rauner, and the Democratic leadership that controls the House in Illinois. And the reason for that is because it’s received such huge and forceful backing from the Israel lobby in Illinois, and that really reflects what’s going on around the country. We’ve seen other efforts at this most recently at the federal level, when the U.S. campaign to end the Israeli occupation discovered a sort of surreptitious amendment placed into the fast-track legislation that would have given President Obama authority to force through the Trans-Pacific Trade deal. And that amendment would have made it a key U.S. trade goal to oppose boycotts or divestment from Israel.
So using international trade negotiations to force other countries to oppose Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. Now, presumably that amendment has gone down because Obama’s Republican-backed bill to give him that fast-track authority failed last week in the Senate. But these efforts are not going to go away. We’ve seen other efforts around the country. Just in the past couple of days a large coalition of national and Indiana civil rights and human rights and faith groups have written to the Governor of Indiana, Mike Pence, urging him not to sign a resolution that defines lawful, nonviolent advocacy for Palestinian human rights through BDS as anti-Jewish.
These are legislative efforts that are being pushed around the country. There’s a similar Senate resolution in California, as well. It’s happening nationwide. And what’s happening is the Israel lobby is pushing these bills to define peaceful, lawful advocacy for Palestinian rights, efforts to hold Israel accountable under international law, as anti-Jewish and antisemitism. Of course, that’s an effort to delegitimize this kind of advocacy for Palestinian rights.
The context to this, I think there’s two key points to the context. One is the recent Israeli election result where the Israeli public voted once again for a very extreme, very far-right government that is absolutely rejectionist when it comes to any efforts to bring about a just peace. That has declared its intention to expand Jewish-only settlements on occupied Palestinian land as much and as fast as it can get away with. That is of course giving a great impetus to the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.
Israel recognizes it as a strategic threat. Last year for example, we saw Israel’s then-economy minister Yair Lapid saying that the growing boycott movement would hit every Israeli in the pocket if it wasn’t stopped. And we saw Michael Oren, the former Israeli ambassador to the United States, urging Congress and urging U.S. lawmakers to use their authority to make laws to suppress this movement.
The reason, I think this is really important. Why are Israel lobby groups and their allied groups resorting to government coercion, the heavy fist of government. Remember that many of the strongest supporters of these kind of laws are people who claim they want government out of the way. They don’t want government standing in the way of business. If lawmakers–if a pizza parlor in Indiana doesn’t want to make pizza for a gay wedding, that should be their right according to the people who support these kinds of laws. But what they’re saying is if you make the free choice as a citizen, as an academic, as a business owner, to support the Palestinian struggle for human rights, you should be punished. You should be divested from. Your free speech rights should be limited. You should be maligned as a bigot.
So we see these incredible double standards when it comes to Israel where many of our lawmakers in this country, this is certainly true in Canada as well, are prepared to allow their support for Israel, which is often based on very extremist views, radical, Christianist views, often this kind of end times, Christian Zionist views. They’re going to allow the religious extremism that leads them to support Israel to trump basic rights like free speech and the 1st Amendment.
PERIES: And in reference to Canada, Ali, can you more specifically talk about how hate speech laws, mainly the bill C-51, is being used to muzzle BDS activists?
ABUNIMAH: Well of course, Canada is not like the United States. In the United States we do have Constitutional protections for free speech. That doesn’t mean that government and other authorities don’t try to violate them constantly.
But Canada lacks the kind of Constitutional protections for free speech that we have in the United States, and we’ve seen authoritarian governments, whether led by the Liberal party in Canada or the current Conservative government, using the lack of Constitutional protections that Canadians enjoy to push through very draconian legislation like Bill C-51. Where the government–this has been supported, of course, by the opposition. This is bipartisan in Canada, in terms of the main parties that have held government power. Pushing these very draconian and authoritarian measures when it comes to Palestine.
In particular, we’ve seen recently the public safety minister pushing–or the public safety ministry talking about zero tolerance when it comes to support for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. You’ve had many groups in Canada saying, well, what do you mean by this? Is it now illegal to advocate against Israeli settlements? Is it illegal to advocate for the right of return? And again, the background to this is the extremely close military and political relationship between Canada and Israel. And just a few months ago, we saw Canada and Israel signing agreements explicitly to cooperate on suppressing the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.
In the United States, back to the U.S., the Obama administration has been absolutely complicit in this. President Obama is the first U.S. president to explicitly pledge, or his administration explicitly to pledge efforts to hold Israel accountable through boycott and divestment. And interestingly, many of the anti-Palestinian groups that are pushing these legislative efforts across the country to limit the rights of Americans to engage in the very venerable tradition of boycott–which was used to help end apartheid in South Africa, it was used to help end Jim Crow and segregation in the United States.
Many of these groups are relying on an Obama State Department definition of antisemitism that is so broad that it makes advocating–you know, under this, some interpretations of this Obama definition of antisemitism, advocating for equal rights for Israelis and Palestinians in a single state is a form of anti-Jewish bigotry. So if you espouse the values that supposedly reign in the United States of equality under the law, separation of church and state, if you advocate that in the context of Israelis and Palestinians, you could be accused under the Obama definition of antisemitism of denying the right of the Jewish people to self-determination, and therefore being a bigot.
We have to be very wary and very cautious about government attempts to define what we can and can’t talk about in this way. And I’d also point–one other thing. If you look at what’s happening on campuses, this isn’t necessarily related to government legislation, but it is about coercion. There was a report that came out just yesterday from Palestine Solidarity Legal Support about the dozens of examples of students and faculty being falsely accused of antisemitism simply for advocating for Palestinian rights or criticizing Israel. And these kinds of accusations ruin careers. They’re designed to intimidate people into silence. And the tactics on campus may be a little bit different, but I think they come from very much the same place as the efforts to legislate the movement for Palestinian rights and Palestinian equality out of existence.
But we can in a sense take heart from it. Because I think it’s a sign that–.
PERIES: The campaign is working.
ABUNIMAH: The campaign is working.
PERIES: This kind of silencing of dissent. We’ve done several reports–in fact, Michael Ratner has spoken to this issue, who is the president of the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, as well. To your last point, Ali, how strong is the DBS movement and will they be able to withstand this kind of alertness now, on the part of the mainstream?
ABUNIMAH: Well, what’s clear is that the movement is growing rapidly. You know, in fact this year is the tenth anniversary since Palestinian civil society issued the call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. And people who aren’t familiar with it can just search online for Palestinian BDS call, and it will come right up. And so it’s been ten years, 2005. And back in 2005, 2006, 2007 people dismissed this. They said it will never take off. Well, just ten years later it’s incredible, because this movement has made far more progress in terms of international support and legitimacy than the boycott campaign against South Africa did in its first 20 or 30 years. I mean, South Africans called for the boycott of the apartheid regime in the 1950s. But it took until the 1970s and even the 1980s for it to really become mainstream.
And what’s remarkable is how quickly it’s becoming mainstream. How quickly big-name artists are respecting the Palestinian call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. Academic associations in this country. We’ve seen in Europe major, multi-billion dollar pension funds pulling investments out of Israeli banks because of their activities in the occupied territories. We’ve see companies like Veolia losing billions of dollars worth of contracts and having to pull out of their Israeli businesses altogether.
So there’s no doubt that the momentum is going to continue. And I think these kinds of legislative efforts will simply provide more opportunity for supporters of this campaign to educate people about it. And why–you know, even if you don’t care about Palestine, you should not want legislatures around the country or around the world trying to legislate what you can and can’t think when it comes to Israel. We’ve had too much of that in this country. People are tired of being afraid to discuss Israel freely. And we cannot go backwards, we cannot allow people in Washington or in Indianapolis or in Springfield, Illinois to try to legislate and dictate whether or not we can or can’t support freedom for Palestinians and an end to Israeli occupation and apartheid. It’s too late for that.
PERIES: Ali Abunimah with the Electronic Intifada, thank you so much for joining us today.
ABUNIMAH: My pleasure. Thank you.
PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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