In the 1980s, Americans boycotted products from South Africa to protest the oppressive practice of apartheid.
Universities, religious institutions, corporations, and individuals divested their assets from South African companies in order to bring pressure to bear upon the South African government. Our goal was to destroy this abusive, bigoted system of forcing the native peoples into slums and less-productive farmland in order for the descendants of European colonists to possess the fertile lands and natural resources at the southernmost tip of Africa.
Our boycott, divestment, and sanction (BDS) strategy actually worked. Nelson Mandela became the president of South Africa after spending decades in prison for protesting apartheid. The BDS tactic is highly effective. It raises public awareness and brings about positive solutions.
Americans have been using BDS strategies in recent years to protest similar conditions for Palestinians, especially those living in the Gaza Strip. Palestinians have been corralled into what the pre-Mandela South African regime called a “township” (or what Americans call a “reservation” or “ghetto”) to keep them physically segregated from the wealthier, more prosperous Israeli government-occupied areas of their former homeland. After all, the state of Israel only came into being in 1948 and is ruled by persons of mostly European ancestry. The true natives of the region are the Palestinian people. They have dwelled there for thousands of years.
Natives driven from the more fertile areas of their homeland and forced to live on a “reservation” where their homes are frequently bombarded by the military and their families are deprived of access to adequate clean water, health care, and food… Sound familiar? We see it happening in our own country, most recently at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. It’s the reason why many Americans identify with and speak out passionately in defense of the Palestinian people. It’s why many church organizations and universities have divested their funds from supporting the oppressive Israeli regime. Universities throughout the country have organized actions for Palestinian rights, including Rutgers, University of California-Irvine, and UC-Berkeley.
However, as of December 19, 2016, Ohioans can no longer use BDS strategies against the Israeli government to protest its treatment of the Palestinians. Ohio House Bill 476, signed into law by Governor John Kasich, has made doing so illegal. The bill is seen by many as an unlawful reaction to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, a nonviolent global campaign which uses boycotts of Israeli goods and products to pressure the state of Israel to end its illegal occupation and collective punishment of, and violence against, Palestinian civilians.
Ohio H.B 476 represses freedom of speech while extending a suspect economic benefit directly to a foreign government. A last-minute amendment to the bill doubled the amount of State of Ohio assets which may be invested in foreign nation debt instruments from 1% to 2%. Available state assets for investment were estimated at $13 to $14 billion. Coincidentally, Israel is the only nation capable of meeting the standards for the investment by the State of Ohio Treasurer. Besides critically undermining the free speech of its citizens, Ohio seeks to extend up to $260 million in credit to a foreign nation.
Ohio H.B. 476 contradicts core free speech values and stifles debate. Telling others why your institution doesn’t support the oppression of the Palestinian people is now a crime in Ohio. You cannot host pro-Palestinian rights speakers on your campus, for example. The punishment for violating the bill is the withdrawal of all state funding from your institution.
And don’t feel safe if you’re not an Ohioan–similar federal legislation is currently in the works under the name of the “Anti-Semitism Awareness Act Bill.” In a Trump administration with a majority Republican Congress, its odds of being passed are seen as good. The title of the federal bill is extremely misleading. The BDS campaign against Israel is actually a criticism of the state or government, not of a religion or race. Palestinians are a related Semitic people after all, and American BDS actions are taken in their support, not against them because of their race or religion.
So, where in our Constitution’s First Amendment does it say every American must believe exactly as the government tells us to? Where in our First Amendment does it say the government of Israel can tell American citizens what strategies they can use to protest the mistreatment of Palestinians? Why are Palestinians treated as second class citizens in the first place? What other peoples are we to mistreat and ignore around the world simply because another government wishes Americans to mistreat and ignore them as well?
Can you imagine if laws such as Ohio H.B. 476 had happened in 1980s? Nelson Mandela would have never become president of South Africa. Millions of native blacks would still be legally trapped in the townships at the mercy of the wealthy descendants of white European colonists.
What’s next? Will the US officially resurrect the Jim Crow laws? Massacre the remaining Native Americans to build more oil pipelines on their lands? If we can treat the Palestinians as second class citizens, why not others? Whatever happened to our collective conscience? Is American morality that easily bought and sold?
Bio: Cindy A. Matthews is a freelance writer, novelist and editor of Our Revolution Continues blog: http://bernie2016.blogspot.com