Robert Azzi: Defending activism and the power of boycotts

For the Monitor
Published: 2/17/2018 11:00:53 PM

In 1947, the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), together with the British Friends Service Council, accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of all Quakers. Chairman Gunnar Jahn, in awarding the prize, said, “The Quakers have shown us that it is possible to carry into action something which is deeply rooted in the minds of many; Sympathy with others; the desire to help others; that significant expression of sympathy between men, without regard to nationality or race; feelings which, when carried into deeds, must provide the foundation of a lasting peace. For this reason they are today worthy…”

Today, on the United States Holocaust Memorial website one reads that AFSC “… became an important part of a rescue network helping refugees. The group worked in French internment camps, hid Jewish children, and assisted thousands of Jewish and non-Jewish refugees with their immigration and resettlement to the United States.”

Today, to many supporters of Israel, AFSC seems less worthy.

Today, on Israeli government websites, one reads that the AFSC is one of 20 organizations banned from Israel because of their work in support of Palestinians living under occupation, because of their support of the non-violent, Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS).

In 2014, I was one of the signatories who signed a petition, authored by Professors Judith Butler and Rashid Khalidi, to object to incidents of censorship and intimidation relating to Israel and Palestine. Endorsed by Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) – another organization now banned by Israel – it stated, in part:

“Whether one is for or against Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) as a means to change the current situation in Palestine-Israel, it is important to recognize that boycotts are internationally affirmed and constitutionally protected forms of political expression. As non-violent instruments to effect political change, boycotts cannot be outlawed without trampling on a constitutionally protected right to political speech…”

Last week, in Portsmouth, in response to comments I made in support of BDS as a viable non-violent response to Israeli occupation, it was suggested that BDS was illegitimate because within its ranks are some people who advocate for the dismantling of the State of Israel or who might be anti-Semitic.

That may be true, but the presence of ‘bad actors’ in any movement doesn’t automatically delegitimize its actions and objectives.

The support of David Duke and the presence anti-Semites does not delegitimize the Republican Party, the presence of Antifa supporters does not delegitimize the Democratic Party, and extremists within BDS neither delegitimize its struggle for justice nor its moral authority.

According to its foundational statements BDS objectives are:

1. Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall.

2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality

3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.

BDS stands in the same tradition of non-violent resistance as the 1773 Boston Tea Party, Gandhi’s Swadeshi movement and boycott of British goods, the Montgomery bus boycotts, Cesar Chavez’s and United Farm Workers (UFW)-led grape strike in California and the boycott against South African apartheid.

BDS belongs on that list.

This isn’t the first time I’ve written on BDS, and probably not the last, but as long as I perceive that there’s a non-violent path forward to achieve justice and equity for Palestinians I’ll embrace it, especially when confronted by non-democratic attempts, including by my own government, to delegitimize constitutionally-protected rights.

Witness that in Kansas, Esther Koontz – who shares her opposition to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians with other members of her Mennonite congregation – was denied a state contract because she refused to submit a written certification that she was “not currently engaged in a boycott of Israel.”

Imagine that: she was denied a contract because of a belief she held about the actions of a foreign government - Koontz was denied a contract because she failed to pass a litmus test unconstitutionally passed by an American legislative body on behalf of a foreign power.

Thankfully, in a suit successfully brought by the ACLU on Koontz’s behalf a federal judge ruled that the law was an unconstitutional denial of free speech.

Citing the 1982 Supreme Court case (NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware) that invoked free speech rights to protect NAACP members from punishment by the state of Mississippi the federal court ruled that “the First Amendment protects the right to participate in a boycott.”

Kansas isn’t alone in trying to suppress the First Amendment.

Witness that in New York, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo directed state agencies to establish a litmus test in order to “to terminate any and all business with companies or organizations that support a boycott of Israel.”

So much for Free Speech.

Witness, too, That New Hampshire Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan supports a measure sponsored by Maryland Sen. Cardin which could impose prison sentences and large fines for anyone working with international organizations to boycott Israel.

So much for democratic ideals.

After the ACLU condemned Cardin’s bill as an attack on the First Amendment which “would punish individuals for no reason other than their political beliefs” several senators, including Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand, withdrew their support.

Maggie Hassan did not.

Since 2014, over 100 similar anti-boycott measures have been introduced in America – at least 24 of them enacted.

For example, in Dickinson, Texas, residents applying for funds to help pay for Hurricane Harvey repairs were asked to verify they don’t boycott Israel and to promise not to do so during the terms of the agreement.

In Florida, State Rep. Randy Fine, is demanding that scheduled concerts by New Zealand pop star Lorde be cancelled because Lorde cancelled a show in Israel in solidarity with BDS, basing his demand upon a Florida law prohibiting state and local governments from conducting business with organizations that boycott Israel.

In 2012, Nobel Peace Laureate Bishop Desmond Tutu, wrote:

“A quarter-century ago I barnstormed around the United States encouraging Americans, particularly students, to press for divestment from South Africa. Today, regrettably, the time has come for similar action to force an end to Israel’s long-standing occupation of Palestinian territory and refusal to extend equal rights to Palestinian citizens…”

“These are among the hardest words I have ever written.” Tutu continued. “... Not only is Israel harming Palestinians, but it is harming itself... This harsh reality endured by millions of Palestinians requires people and organizations of conscience to divest from those companies ... profiting from the occupation and subjugation of Palestinians.”

BDS: its time has come.

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


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