My Turn: Bills that silence have no place in America


Friday, September 22, 2017

This autumn, both legislative branches of our national government will debate the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, which in its current form would criminalize groups (if not individuals) participating in any boycott, divestment or sanctions (BDS) activities. It is a bill that would essentially silence dissent and our constitutionally guaranteed right to free speech.

I have personally been much involved with the BDS movement. Indeed, my church affiliation, the United Church of Christ, signed on to this effort nationally in the belief that the current policies and practices of the State of Israel as they relate to that country’s Palestinian population are blatantly unjust. Indeed, they have been repeatedly cited by the United Nations as a violation of human rights and subsequently ignored by the state of Israel.

My professional life in the 1980s and early 1990s took me to South Africa multiple times, where I had many occasions to observe the practice of apartheid. I have also spent time in Israel where I have basically seen the same practices, always justified by “security,” while disenfranchisement and confiscation of Palestinian individuals’ property and Palestinian community land continues to be carried out. There is no way that anyone could observe this and not see that it is morally wrong.

As with South Africa, the abandonment of apartheid was largely achieved through economic embargo by the U.S. and Europe. Now, there are many Americans (including Massachusetts citizens) who see the BDS movement as one way to apply similar pressure to Israel to seriously adjust its policies and cease those practices that have deprived Palestinians of their land, their free movement and their vote.

Understandably, Israel and its lobbying arm in Washington have reacted strongly against the BDS movement, applying pressure at both the state and national level to prohibit Americans from exercising our right to speak truth to the situation. These lobbying pressures also include stopping Americans from taking whatever personal or collective economic steps needed to persuade Israel to abandon its apartheid behavior. To intimidate American policy makers, the Israeli lobby cites anti-Semitic underpinnings as the real reason for the BDS movement. The effectiveness of this specious rhetoric, I believe, has led a number of U.S. lawmakers to support these bills.

I do not know if these bills in any form will reach the floor of both Houses for further debate and vote. What I do know is that legislation of this nature that gags public dissent has no place in this country. For Massachusetts’ citizens who do not wish to engage with the BDS movement, they are free to do so. For those of us who have seen and clearly understand what we believe is unjust by any standard, we must be able to use our constitutionally guaranteed right to also do so.

Peter J. Purdy lives in Hawley.