Robert Azzi: Congress assails First Amendment, BDS, Palestinians, justice

  • Sen. Maggie Hassan (right) is a co-sponsor of the Israel Anti-Boycott Act. AP

For the Monitor
Published: 7/23/2017 12:20:02 AM

‘An advocate must be free to stimulate his audience with spontaneous and emotional appeals for unity and action in a common cause. When such appeals do not incite lawless action, they must be regarded as protected speech.” (NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware Co., 1982)

In contradiction to such sentiments, Sen. Maggie Hassan is co-sponsoring a Senate bill – Israel Anti-Boycott Act (S.720/H.R.1697) – that would make it a felony for Americans to support an international boycott against Israel.

It’s a bill designed to strip Americans of constitutionally protected rights, a bill that targets supporters of the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement that “works to end international support for Israel’s oppression of Palestinians and pressure Israel to comply with international law.”

“Boycotts to achieve political goals,” the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has written, “are a form of expression that the Supreme Court has ruled are protected by the First Amendment’s protections of freedom of speech, assembly and petition.”

BDS is designed to give Palestinians and their supporters a nonviolent platform from which to resist occupation and illegal settlement activity, activity which the international community believes is a “flagrant violation” of international law without “legal validity,” activities condemned by innumerable U.N. resolutions from No. 242 to No. 2334 and the Fourth Geneva Convention.

In 2014, Nobel Peace laureate Bishop Desmond Tutu said: ”I have witnessed the systemic humiliation of Palestinian men, women and children by members of the Israeli security forces. Their humiliation is familiar to all black South Africans who were corralled and harassed and insulted and assaulted by the security forces of the apartheid government.”

BDS is designed to empower Palestinians to resist that humiliation.

In response to (S.720/H.R.1697) the ACLU has written: “The bill would amend those laws to bar U.S. persons from supporting boycotts against Israel, including its settlements in the Palestinian Occupied Territories, conducted by international governmental organizations, such as the United Nations and the European Union. It would also broaden the law to include penalties for simply requesting information about such boycotts. Violations would be subject to a maximum civil penalty of $250,000 and a maximum criminal penalty of $1 million and 20 years in prison. We take no position for or against the effort to boycott Israel or any foreign country, for that matter. However, we do assert that the government cannot, consistent with the First Amendment, punish U.S. persons based solely on their expressed political beliefs.

“This bill would impose civil and criminal punishment on individuals solely because of their political beliefs about Israel and its policies.”

I support BDS because it’s a nonviolent response that I recognize – initiated by Palestinian civil society – to the illegal occupation of Palestinian territory, to the oppression of Palestinians, to the continued incarceration of hundreds of Palestinians held under administrative detention without either indictment or trial.

BDS does not delegitimize Israel; it delegitimizes illegal occupation and oppression.

In April, BDS co-founder Omar Barghouti said, “Twelve years ago, we were called romantic dreamers or worse. Today, our fast-growing movement is recognized as being so strong as to be fought by the full force of Israel’s regime of occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid, and by its partners in crime.”

Partners like members of the United State Congress who’ve aligned themselves with oligarchs and power brokers, partners who not only oppose BDS but who oppose making political and economic distinctions between Israel and occupied Palestinian territory.

I support BDS because I recognized, and supported, the boycott in South Africa that helped to strike down apartheid. I supported the Montgomery bus boycott and the Delano grape strike because I believe in justice.

Because I recognize that we’re called upon to resist oppression and occupation.

I recognize, too, that even when boycotts don’t change anything, as in the anti-Nazi boycott of 1933 that did nothing to stop the harassment of German Jews, that it’s morally necessary to act.

As Rabbi Stephen S. Wise of the American Jewish Congress said at the time, “We must speak out,” and “If that is unavailing, at least we shall have spoken.”

BDS is working.

In 2016, the EU, along with Sweden, Ireland and the Netherlands, affirmed the right to support BDS as protected by freedom of speech and freedom of association.

Last month the Spanish parliament unanimously passed a motion affirming the right to advocate for BDS as protected by freedom of speech and freedom of association.

BDS is working.

BDS supporters know it’s working because of the scale of resources its opponents are devoting to delegitimize and criminalize the nonviolent movement – including getting members of Congress to emasculate the First Amendment.

I know BDS is controversial. Some of my dearest friends don’t support it at all; others want BDS to apply only to the occupied territories.

I get that, and support their choice.

However, those friends and I do agree that the Israel Anti-Boycott Act is unjust and is a blatant attempt to dissuade American supporters of Palestinian freedom and justice from engaging in protected political speech and action.

Resisting violence is easy. Use greater violence and destroy, imprison and emasculate the enemy. If they resist, hit them harder.

Resisting nonviolence is harder – you can’t bomb non-violent resisters into submission.

So, to counter BDS’s nonviolent philosophy, Israel’s calling upon America to violently defile existential imperatives and collude in squelching First Amendment rights.

Pay attention: (S.720/H.R.1697) aligns America with governments that choose to deal with dissent and protest by limiting freedoms and speech – governments like Poland, Russia, Turkey, Israel and Egypt.

We’re not like them. We’re better than that.

Pay attention: If speech can be criminalized in order to oppress Palestinians then it could as easily be used against any other group that displease the government – or oligarchs – in the future.

Pay attention: Last week Vice President Mike Pence said, “America stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Israel, as together we confront those enemies who threaten our people, our freedom and our very way of life.”

What he, and Hassan, fail to recognize is that those “who threaten our people, our freedom, and our very way of life” is us – that we’re in danger of becoming our enemy.

Let us speak out: “If that is unavailing, at least we shall have spoken.”

(Robert Azzi is a photographer and writer who lives in Exeter. He can be reached at and his columns are archived at

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