Do Americans Have the Right to Boycott Israel?

27 October 2022 11:00:00 - Last updated: 27 October 2022 12:09:07

In the midst of serious violence in the West Bank, the top United Nations human rights body issued a report on October 20 that concluded that the Israeli occupation appeared illegal under international law because the Israeli government is trying to make it permanent with the establishment of settlements. The UN experts urged that the International Court of Justice at the Hague offer its opinion on the occupation.

At the same time, another angle of the Israel-Palestinian conflict may go to the American Supreme Court. The American Civil Liberties Union, a private organization that works to protect American citizens’ civil rights, said on October 20 that it would ask the Supreme Court to cancel an American state’s law that penalizes American companies that refuse to pledge to ignore calls to boycott Israel. There are 35 American states (out of 50) that have laws that forbid any state government contracts or investment with private companies that boycott Israel or the occupied territories. Human Rights Watch in 2019 urged that states to cancel anti-boycott laws that penalize companies that want to end their involvement in the Israeli occupation. Human Rights Watch issued this recommendation after the popular American tourism lodging company AirBnB said in 2018 that would stop listing properties for rent in Israeli settlements. The Israeli government urged American state governments to intervene and major states including Illinois, Texas and Florida retaliated against AirBnB. The company had to retreat from its position.

Similarly, this month after pressure from the states of New York, Texas and Illinois, the American company Unilever sold to an Israeli company the license rights to make a popular brand of ice cream that the company had decided not to sell in the West Bank. American foreign policy analyst Steven Cook, a researcher at the Brookings Institute, wrote in May 2022 that despite occasional noise from some university campuses, Israel and the anti-boycott movement in the United States has won. Major American companies have big, important commercial relations with Israeli firms that they will maintain. The influence of the anti-boycott movement is strong in Washington and the states. According to a Pew Research public opinion survey in 2022, 84 percent of Americans know little or nothing about the boycott-Israel movement, and only five percent support it.

In this difficult climate, why is the American Civil Liberties Union urging the American Supreme Court to take a case about the anti-boycott law in the state of Arkansas now? The reason is that the organization perceives that these laws represent a serious threat to American citizens’ freedom of speech. In its October 20 announcement, the American Civil Liberties Union reminded that commercial boycotts are part of American history. In their revolution against Britain 250 years ago Americans boycotted British products to put pressure on London to accept American independence. In the United States in the 1960s the Supreme Court issued a decision about the boycott by black American civil rights organizations against businesses in the state of Mississippi that discriminated against black citizens. The Supreme Court decided that boycotts were a kind of political expression protected under the Constitution. Is this right safe in view of anti-boycott laws?

The case the American Civil Liberties Union is bringing now comes from a local newspaper in the state of Arkansas that wanted a contract for advertising from the local state university. Before it could finalize the contract, the state of Arkansas followed its law and required the newspaper to pledge it would not boycott Israel. The editor of the newspaper, who is a conservative, objected as a matter of principle. He mentioned that his newspaper focuses on local news in a town in Arkansas. Why, he asked, does he need to make a pledge about the Middle East which is far from Arkansas and not the concern of the newspaper? He insisted that the newspaper is not boycotting anyone but the government has no right to compel his newspaper to follow a political line or whether to choose to implement a boycott or not.

The editor commented that he didn’t blame the Israeli government for doing everything it can to protect Israeli interests, but he expected American politicians to push to defend American citizens’ rights. Working with lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union, the editor won his case against the anti-boycott law in the initial court but the state government appealed to the higher court. Earlier in October that higher court issued a judgement that a boycott is a private commercial action and therefore is not political expression, thus confirming the Arkansas anti-boycott law. Now the case may go to the highest court which will decide if boycotting Israel is a free political decision in America or not.