As North Carolina Presbyterian pastors, we were disappointed that the N.C. General Assembly passed the Israel Anti-Boycott Law (HB 161) and that Gov. Roy Cooper signed it.
Both of us have traveled extensively in Israel/Palestine and been deeply involved in our denomination’s social witness toward a just peace there. Our experience tells us this law is misguided and should be repealed. The law, which goes into effect Oct. 1, requires the State Treasurer to create a list of companies that boycott Israel. The law then bars the state from investing in or contracting with any company on that list.
An even more harmful federal legislation is now before both houses of Congress (HR 1697 and S 720), and must be stopped. Contravening stated U.S. policy regarding Israel and settlements, the bill collapses the distinction between Israel proper and the illegal settlements on Palestinian land, claiming the settlements are part of Israel, which directly conflicts with long-established international law.
Even more troubling, although courts have held that boycott is a protected form of political speech, this bill, if passed, would criminalize support for boycott with prison terms of up to 20 years, along with civil penalties of up to $1 million. Apparently, boycott is protected speech, except when it comes to Israel.
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The Presbyterian Church (USA) in 2012 approved a targeted boycott of products manufactured in the illegal settlements or which use raw materials from the Occupied Palestinian Territories (SodaStream and Ahava Cosmetics, etc.). Shockingly, this law, if passed, would turn faithful Presbyterians into criminals facing long prison terms. The same would be true of members of other Christian denominations, adherents of other religious traditions, and religiously unaffiliated people of conscience who support a boycott of Israeli goods as a means of achieving change.
Of course, we realize that the supporters of this bill believe they are protecting Israel from harm, acting as good allies. But what they are actually doing is further eroding American liberties – particularly the rights of free speech and collective action. In a political climate of growing authoritarianism, this is exactly the wrong thing to do. It is a hallmark of our democracy that American citizens can exercise their constitutionally protected free speech rights, including protesting their government’s policies and the policies of foreign governments, without fear of reprisal from their government. This law would change that.
Israel’s legitimate critics are on solid ground. According to B’tSelem, Israel’s own human rights organization, and other respected international human rights organizations, Israel is implicated in serious violations of human rights within Israel proper. Palestinian citizens of Israel comprise 20 percent of its population, and they live as second-class citizens, with 50 special laws applying only to them.
African-Americans who have witnessed the discrimination for themselves say, “We have seen this before!” Those who lived under apartheid in South Africa see haunting similarities. Violations of Palestinian rights are endemic in the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and in the humanitarian disaster in Gaza, caused by Israeli military assaults and a near-total siege. Those who seek equal rights for Palestinians see the growing international movement of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) as an effective, nonviolent tool to pressure Israel. This law seeks to shut down American support for BDS.
We are guided by a wise story in the Bible, when King Ahab confronts Elijah, the prophet: “Is that you, you troubler of Israel?” Kings and ruling elites have always used their power to attempt to silence prophets, but history teaches the necessity of those who speak truth to power. This is true both in the biblical history of Israel and in current international politics.
In the history of our country, Francis Makemie, considered to be the father of the American Presbyterian church, became known as “the disturber of governments,” because he spoke truth to the powers of King George. Countries thrive where free speech and collective action are protected rights of the people.
In growing numbers, American Jews and non-Jews who support a limited or general boycott of Israel, are speaking truth to power. For doing so, they would face draconian penalties more reminiscent of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, or North Korea, not the United States. Perhaps the makers of this law should remove all pretense and add to the penalties 1,000 lashes of the whip and the cutting out of tongues. It would reveal the bill’s true spirit.
The Rev. J. Mark Davidson is the pastor of Church of Reconciliation in Chapel Hill. The Rev. Ron Shive is the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Burlington.