Local lawmakers tried to keep businesses that object to Israeli settlement violence from competing for state contracts

By Kelly Hayes-Raitt

Israeli soldiers stop a Palestinian on a busy street in the West Bank during the author’s 2007 visit Photo by Kelly Hayes-Raitt

Israeli soldiers stop a Palestinian on a busy street in the West Bank during the author’s 2007 visit
Photo by Kelly Hayes-Raitt

“You’ve been served,” the stranger said with a smirk as she handed me a neat stack of papers.

It was 1996, and I was the spokesperson to defeat three ballot initiatives funded by freewheeling CEOs that would gut swindled seniors’ rights to sue them for stock fraud. Every quarter, I’d issue a press release listing which of the initiatives’ funders had been sued.

One of those CEOs then sued me. His hypocrisy made better news copy than my original press release.

Similar hypocrisy is wending through the California Legislature. Until recent changes gutted its most alarming provisions, Assembly Bill 2844 — authored by Assemblyman Richard Bloom and co-authored by state Sen. Ben Allen, both Santa Monica Democrats — would have required state government to blacklist socially conscious businesses that boycott Israel for its discrimination against Palestinians.

In other words, boycott the boycotters.

The BDS Movement — boycott, divestment and sanctions — is modeled after the successful international campaign to end apartheid in South Africa. It’s been kicking around for a decade, but has more recently gathered steam following Israel’s 50-day onslaught in Gaza that killed 2,130 Palestinians, injured 11,000 and “displaced” as many as 500,000 in 2014.

BDS punishes companies that profit from Israel’s discriminatory policies and practices. Supporters include the World Council of Churches, which represents 500 million Christians in 110 countries, and the student governments of seven of the nine Universities of California, according to Jewish Voice for Peace.

Boycotts are non-violent protests that date back centuries. Aristophanes employed one in 411 BC in his play “Lysistrata,” about Greek women who withheld sex to protest the Peloponnesian War. British abolitionists boycotted slave-produced sugar in the late 1700s.

The term “boycott” was coined in Ireland in 1880 when poor farmers were evicted from their homes by a land agent named Charles Boycott. Calls to shun him were so successful that his farm, stable and house workers refused to work, local businessmen refused his business, and even the postman refused to deliver his mail!

Whether it’s grapes in the 1970s, Montgomery buses in the 1960s, English tea in 1773, or the current boycott against North Carolina for its silly bathroom law that discriminates against transgender people, Americans enjoy the right to boycott.

The U.S. Supreme Court has “unequivocally ruled that boycotts in pursuit of humanitarian and social justice goals are a form of political speech entitled to the highest protection under the First Amendment,” states the Center for Constitutional Rights in a brief opposing AB 2844. “The court has further held that government at any level must not deny economic benefits, including public contracts, in retaliation for political beliefs.”

But Bloom and Allen didn’t appear to be concerned with Gandhi, Mandela, King, Chavez or the Supreme Court with their attempt to counter the international movement to boycott Israel.

A major controversy is the Israeli government’s persistent support of settlements, the illegal outposts built high in the hills of the West Bank by ultra-conservative Jews. Many of the Jews I met in Israel and the West Bank believe the settlers undermine security and stymie peace efforts.

Infrastructure for the settlements is funded by the Israeli government and — in defiance of U.S. policy — by private American organizations.

Roads that forbid Palestinian travel, systems that siphon water from Palestinian farms and villages, and electrical grids that plunge Palestinians into darkness are built for settlements. Sewage, however, runs downhill untreated, contaminating Palestinian wells and farms.

“Violence by Israeli settlers against Palestinians and their property is directly linked to the existence and expansion of illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank,” begins a report by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights that documents a doubling of Palestinian casualties by settlers between 2009 and 2013.

During a visit in 2007, I personally witnessed settlers armed with rifles illegally occupy a Palestinian’s home in a dense neighborhood in Hebron. I saw the squatters hurl rocks and rotten food at Palestinian children.

In At-Tuwani, a rural village south of Hebron, I watched Israeli soldiers accompany Palestinian schoolchildren past settlements. Observers’ videos of settlers stoning the schoolchildren had created an international outcry that embarrassed the Israeli government into requiring this armed escort.

Palestinians told me settlers contaminate their wells with dead chickens and burn their ancient olive groves.

Every American president since LBJ has called the settlements an impediment to peace. Yet, under the Netanyahu government, the number of settlers in the West Bank has grown by 120,000 to a total of 350,000, the prime minister himself boasts. More settlers means more violence — from both Palestinians and the settlers — and less hope for negotiated peace.

The BDS Movement is having an impact: Foreign direct investment in Israel dropped by 46% in 2014 compared to 2013, and by 15% in 2013 compared to 2012, according to the UN Conference on Trade and Development. (Investments rebounded in 2015, but fell back to 2014 levels during the first half of this year.)

AB 2844 passed the Assembly last month and is working through the Senate, with an Appropriations Committee meeting scheduled for Monday.  The amended version of the bill no longer calls for a state contract blacklist of businesses that boycott Israel, but instead punishes any business that uses a boycott as a pretext for discrimination here at home.

But the spirit of the original lingers. To boycott the boycotters is to muzzle free speech.

Santa Monica resident Kelly Hayes-Raitt blogs at LivingLargeInLimbo.com.