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The Establishment’s War on BDS

A new documentary looks at how US lawmakers have taken aim at the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement – and how it's spreading around the world.

Alan Leveritt dropped out of college to found the Arkansas Times in 1974 with a group of friends, a budget of $200, and the romantic idea of celebrating the best of his home state.

That affection still shines through in the Times today, featuring local heroes, hot tickets, and reviews of medical marijuana from Arkansas dispensaries. The monthly magazine has a staff of thirty-five and circulation of 25,000, distributed free and funded through advertising.

The Times has often had to fight for survival. Now it faces an existential threat that arrived via the small print of a procurement form: a new condition of eligibility for state advertising contracts required Leveritt to certify that he would not boycott Israel.

‘Without state advertising, the magazine could go out of business,’ the publisher says. Leveritt had little interest in the Middle East, and the Times had only ever mentioned Israel in passing, but as a self-described former conservative who drifted left but retained a libertarian streak, Levritt felt strongly that the clause violated his First Amendment rights. ‘I have the right to boycott anyone I want, and the state has no business getting involved,’ he says.

Leveritt is one of three protagonists in Julia Bacha’s new documentary Boycott, which receives its UK premiere at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in London on 20 March, and which follows their struggle against legislation targeting the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. The majority of US states have adopted anti-BDS laws since 2015, typically prohibiting contracts with people or businesses that refuse to disavow the movement. Boycott explores the jarring contrast between the ease with which the bills have sailed through and the gravity of their implications.

Thousands of contractors have been forced to sign the forms, and even applicants for emergency aid after Hurricane Harvey. Bacha’s subjects are resisting. Palestinian-American paediatric speech therapist Bahia Amawi finds she is suddenly compelled to make the pledge by her school in Texas. Thinking of her family in the West Bank, she refuses and loses her job. Mik Jordahl, a lawyer for prisoners in Arizona, returns from a harrowing visit to the occupied territories to face the same demand. ‘I was incensed enough that I couldn’t sign it,’ he says. With support from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), they take their states to court.

Boycott also sheds light on the murky process by which the anti-BDS laws are created and proliferate. Arkansas State Senator Bart Hester reveals that he introduced one after a meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a forum that brings conservative lawmakers together with right-wing pressure groups to draft legislation. Lobbyists for lower taxes and gun rights, and against abortion and trade unions, are represented. So are Israel advocacy groups that help to write and promote anti-BDS bills.

Israeli investigative journalists have discovered their government’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs (MSA) has supplied millions of dollars to anti-BDS groups in the US, such as the Israel Allies Foundation and Christians United for Israel, which are driving adoption of the bills. The MSA was able to skirt US laws requiring registration of foreign agents by creating a shell company through which to funnel funds. Former MSA minister Gilad Erdan has personally taken credit for the progress of the laws.

Bacha’s film shows Israel’s advocates pushing at an open door. Senators wave pro-Israel bills through without a second thought, in some cases underpinned by religious fervour; supporting Israel is a core value for many evangelical Christians, who believe the return of Jews to the Holy Land is a precondition for the Second Coming of Christ. Hester estimates that half the Arkansas senate are evangelical: ‘They know how important it is to support Israel,’ he says, before cheerfully confirming that Jews will go to hell after the Rapture.

Basic scrutiny is absent. In one exchange captured on camera, a Democrat lawmaker admits he couldn’t remember voting for the bill and would have opposed it if he’d understood it. Neither was there any public consultation, and even the staunchly pro-Israel, anti-BDS rabbi of Little Rock’s largest synagogue is ‘appalled’. Secrecy has been key to the progress of the laws, Bacha believes: ‘I don’t think the bills would have been successful if there had been a real public conversation about them,’ she tells Tribune.

The rebels endure gruelling ordeals as they risk their livelihoods to challenge the laws. Leveritt is acutely aware he is jeopardising the ability of his employees to feed their families. Amawi frets that she is the only local Arabic speaker able to perform her role and is ‘letting her community down’. Jordahl keeps advising clients without being paid. They are hauled over the coals on Fox News and fear being branded antisemites. Their trials are in striking contrast to the mindless bombast of state governors such as Greg Abbott and Andrew Cuomo, who proudly announce the new laws as self-evident affirmations of American values.

The protagonists must also contend with moving targets. After Jordahl beats Arizona, the state amends rather than discards the law. Leveritt sees judgements go both ways, and his case is likely headed to a definitive hearing at the Supreme Court.

While daunting, such a hearing would at least guarantee the exposure that promoters of anti-BDS laws have sought to avoid—and a reckoning is long overdue. The bills have become models for legislation against other forms of progressive activism: Indiana, for example, is targeting boycotts of the firearms and fossil fuel industries. The First Amendment, Bacha believes, is on the line. ‘Foreign policy can feel distant for many Americans but now the bills are templates to target things closer to home,’ she says.

Time to get off the fence, the director suggests, for prominent progressives who have sought to avoid a controversial subject. There are optimistic signs in Democrats who now regret voting bills through, and Bacha hopes a broad coalition can be forged. ‘It’s an opportunity for organisers across different movements to see that their rights are embedded with each other’s,’ she says. ‘In order to preserve the right of your advocacy for your social justice movement it’s important to preserve the rights for all organisers.’

The right to boycott is not an obscure issue, the film emphasises—it runs deep in US history, from the Boston Tea Party to Montgomery’s buses. Neither is this an issue limited to the US. The UK and France are among the European countries now advancing anti-BDS laws while demonstrating their belief in the power and legitimacy of these tools by boycotting, divesting from, and sanctioning Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.

There is hope that the legislative assault on BDS could yet backfire by raising the profile of the movement. Victory in the Supreme Court would grant it legitimacy and increase the prominence of the Palestinian struggle. The ACLU is taking on the case of anyone willing to challenge the laws, and confident they will end up in ‘the dustbin of history’. After all, Leveritt had barely published a word on Israel before the state threatened him: the Arkansas Times has published dozens of articles since.