“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win,” as Mahatma Gandhi once famously said.
The executive committee of the Illinois House voted Wednesday to move forward a bill to the full House that would punish companies that stand up against Israel for its anti-democratic behavior. Those of us who call for Israel to respect the human rights of Palestinians are troubled by this vote, which signals that legislators in Illinois are targeting time-honored and constitutionally protected boycott and divestment tactics to achieve human rights for Palestinians.
These same tactics propelled the civil rights and anti-apartheid movements in the United States and around the world. While attacks on Palestinians from government institutions in our country are nothing new, this bill shows the boycott and divestment movement itself has officially entered the “then they fight you stage” in the United States.
If passed, SB 1761 will force state retirement systems to expend resources investigating, blacklisting and withdrawing funds from companies that boycott Israel in protest of its occupation of and denial of equal rights for Palestinians. Notably, this will even include boycotts of Israeli companies based in Israeli settlements in the occupied territories, which our own government considers illegitimate and are illegal under international law.
This comes on the heels of last year’s failed attempt by the same Illinois legislators to punish universities that subsidize faculty involvement in academic associations expressing support for an academic boycott of Israel – a clearly unconstitutional mandate.
Ironically, by pushing this legislation, proponents are forcing a discussion of Israel’s abuses and pushing this nonviolent strategy of economic pressure for change into the open. So, what provoked Illinois politicians to pursue this legislation now, while the Illinois pension system and the rest of the state is facing an unprecedented financial crisis, and while the governor is slashing services for tens of thousands of people in need?
Quite simply, lobby groups that support Israeli policies are alarmed at the growing success of the grassroots movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) and are exerting pressure on state legislators.
This growing movement, modeled after the global effort to isolate apartheid South Africa and create economic pressure for change, was initiated by a broad-based coalition of Palestinian civic, religious, labor, and student organizations in 2005 and calls for an end to systemic discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel, an end to Israel’s brutal military occupation of the West Bank and its devastating blockade of Gaza, and a right to return home for the Palestinian refugees who have been displaced by Israel since its initial mass expulsion of over 700,000 individuals in 1948.
This movement has since grown in leaps and bounds. Billions of dollars in contracts have been lost as a result of European companies withdrawing their business after facing pressure at home. Brazil recently canceled a $2 billion contract that an Israeli firm had acquired to coordinate security at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
And the movement is gaining ground here at home. The county of Durham, North Carolina, dropped a contract with G4S, a multinational security contractor that operates checkpoints in the occupied territories and works with the Israeli prison system that routinely holds children in military detention and imprisons political prisoners.
University student governments across the country, including Northwestern University, Loyola University and the statewide student panel representing student governments across the University of California system, voted for divestment. In June 2014, the United Methodist Church voted to pull its investment from G4S, while Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted to divest from three companies, including Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions, for their involvement in “non-peaceful pursuits” related to the Israeli Occupation.
Israel’s apologists are in a tough place — how do you stop a multi-racial, multi-generational, multi-denominational grassroots movement, composed of students, religious denominations, labor and countless other groups, from pushing for change in the Israeli-Palestinian status quo? This legislation, and a currently pending U.S. Senate amendment to pressure trading partners who boycott Israel and its settlements, suggests their current answer is to try to legislate it out of existence and hope no one notices.
How ironic that they are seeking to boycott a boycott movement. They ought to get out of the business of protecting Israel from nonviolent pressure to embrace equality for all its citizens and end its illegal military occupation.
Fortunately, it takes more than a bill like SB 1761 to stop a social movement. Now they’re fighting us, next we win.
Rev. Donald (Don) Wagner is national program director of the Friends of Sabeel-North America, an educational and advocacy organization that supports the Sabeel Palestinian Christian movement.
Ghada Hashem Talhami is a professor of politics, emerita, at Lake Forest College.