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Herb Rothschild Jr.: Repression receives a setback

I rarely write about political ephemera. The situations and issues that figure in this column don’t disappear once I’ve written about them. They remain, and I keep an eye on them ... for years if need be. Occasionally I like to share updates.

My Feb. 17 column, titled “The loyalty oath returns,” focused on one of the most effective strategies Zionists have pursued to destroy the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. Because our government supports Israel militarily and economically no matter how dire its oppression of Palestinians, BDS is the only tool available to those who oppose the continuing injustice. To wrest that tool from us, the Israel lobby to date has persuaded 25 state governments to enact laws punishing businesses that support BDS, and has gotten 49 U.S. senators, including Oregon’s Ron Wyden, to co-sponsor a pending federal bill.

I gave two examples of the hardship these laws can impose. When residents of Dickinson, Texas, applied for public funds to help them recover from Hurricane Harvey, the city required them to affirm that they do not currently support BDS, and won’t do so while they receive relief. And when Esther Koontz, a math teacher and a Mennonite, wouldn’t sign Kansas’s anti-BDS oath, she wasn’t allowed to train public school math teachers there.

This remarkable exercise of power to compel conscience met its second judicial setback on Sept. 28 when a federal district judge in Arizona deemed unconstitutional a 2016 law requiring anyone doing business with the state to submit a written pledge that it wasn’t boycotting Israel. Jordahl et al v. Brnovich et al. followed a similar Jan. 30 federal court ruling in Kansas on Esther Koontz’s behalf. The ACLU brought both legal challenges.

In Jordahl, Judge Diane Humetewa wrote that the statute endangered “the rights of assembly and association that Americans and Arizonans use to bring about political, social, and economic change,” quoting the Supreme Court’s 1982 decision in NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware Co., which upheld the right of blacks in Mississippi to boycott white-owned businesses that discriminated against them.

Mikkel Jordahl, an attorney and the lead plaintiff, for 12 years had a state contract to provide legal advice to inmates in a county detention facility. In his personal life, he avoids companies he considers complicit in Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories, and he wanted to do the same in his law office, for example by not buying office machines from Hewlett-Packard because its IT services are used at Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank. Jordhal’s father, a Lutheran minister, and his wife lived in the West Bank in 1977, and Jordahl joined them there for three months, witnessing first-hand the brutality of the occupation.

I’m reasonably sure that Wyden, Chuck Schumer and many other supporters of anti-BDS legislation would have severely condemned any similar attempt to suppress the BDS movement against apartheid South Africa in the 1980s. And I think they would have scorned any white supremacist claim that it was racist, but many Zionists don’t hesitate to label the current BDS campaign anti-Semitic.

One thing that endeared me to the ACLU, for which I worked for years in the bad old days in Louisiana, is its principled consistency. I detest the widespread habit of playing by the rules when it’s to one’s perceived self-interest and ignoring or changing them when it’s not. I expect my fellow Jews particularly to do better than that, though God only knows why.

Herb Rothschild’s column appears in the Daily Tidings every Saturday.