New Jersey Politicians on the Verge of Voting to Suppress Residents Who Support Palestinians' Human Rights

In March, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, a self-proclaimed “activist for social justice," declared on a right-wing talk show that the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement to pressure Israel into respecting Palestinian human rights is “anti-Jewish” and is contributing to a rise in antisemitism. When Booker’s office was contacted to clarify why he would be so dismissive of the oppression of the Palestinians, a spokesperson refused to offer comment.

Also this March, Israeli intelligence and government officials gathered in Jerusalem to plan an all-out political offensive on the BDS movement. At the conference, Transportation Minister Yaakov Katz called for "civil targeted eliminations," or smear campaigns, against people leading the push for Palestinian human rights. His words reverberated across pro-Israel circles in the U.S., where attacks on Palestine solidarity activists are at a fever pitch.

This week, New Jersey’s state senate voted 39-0 on a bill aiming to punish local companies that sign on to the BDS movement. Echoing Booker, Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg essentially called BDS a form of antisemitism, describing it as “veiled discrimination.” The state assembly is due to vote soon on the bill, which could make New Jersey one of a growing number of states seeking to crack down on the political speech of its residents.

New Jersey’s anti-BDS bill would prohibit the state from investing pensions and annuities in companies that boycott Israel or Israeli businesses. Assemblymember Gary Schaer, a sponsor of the bill, explained, “Because there is a movement to demonize the state of Israel. I think that is antithetical in the United States’ best interests. It seems to me to be picking out one target rather than looking to build the necessary relationships to have effective change in the Middle East.”

New Jersey’s pro-apartheid bill hides facts

The proposed bill, like Schaer’s statement of support, includes a gaping hole that deprives state residents of vital information. There is no mention of Israel’s illegal occupation, its forced home evictions, the expansion of settlements, and the human rights violations that inspired the BDS call in the first place.

The bill defines Israel as, “the only true Democracy in the Middle East," a questionable claim considering that its military controls some four million Palestinians, depriving them of rights and formally denying them the right to vote for nearly 50 years.

In explaining why there was no mention of these violations of human rights and international law in the bill, Schaer said, “Because this bill is an anti-BDS bill and not every bill written by the New Jersey legislature, or any other legislature, would necessarily include items, which is related or not related. This bill is not about occupied territories or administered territories or liberated territories or whatever nomenclature one wishes to use. This is about that BDS is simply wrong.”  

New Jersey is not the only state trying to use laws to undermine the BDS movement. The state of Illinois was the first in the nation to pass an anti-BDS bill in 2015 and this bill too is absent of vital information about Israel’s illegal activities.

Assembly member Valerie Huttle, another sponsor of the bill, said she supports the legislation because New Jersey shares similarities with Israel because of its “size” and because New Jersey has the “second largest Jewish population” in the country. “New Jersey is an ally [of Israel],” Huttle stated. “We have similar bonds, rooted in the values of freedom, democracy and equal rights.”

Although Huttle sees similarities between Israel and New Jersey, there are some significant differences between the two. New Jersey does not have security forces shooting at farmers or fishermen while they are tilling their land or fishing. New Jersey did not build a 26-feet tall, 280-mile wall to separate its gentile residents from the state’s Jewish population.

Rahul Saksena of Palestine Legal, a group founded to defend the constitutional rights of Palestine solidarity activists in the U.S. against legal and political threats, explained, “These anti-BDS bills are a misguided attempt to silence the growing boycott, divestment and sanctions movement for Palestinian freedom. On campuses and in communities across the country, people are increasingly embracing BDS as a tactic to challenge the U.S.'s blind support for Israel. Yet instead of engaging the issue on the merits, instead of having an honest conversation about Israeli policies and human rights abuses, Israel's advocates and the state and federal lawmakers who back them, seek to silence the conversation.”

Saksena added, “The Supreme Court has long held that boycotts that bring about political, economic, and social change, like BDS, are protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Efforts by state lawmakers to suppress, punish, or chill BDS activism raises serious constitutional red flags.”

As even Israel’s supporters admit, BDS has helped to expose Israel’s human rights abuses to the world. As a result, Israel, its lobby groups and its right-wing supporters have launched an unprecedented, well-funded global campaign to pass laws silencing Palestinian narratives and moving towards the criminalization of BDS advocacy.

These laws foster an environment of bullying, intimidation and repression that has all the hallmarks of the era of McCarthyism. These activities should deeply concern not just activists supporting Palestinian rights, but all those who value the civil liberties enshrined in the Constitution. But in New Jersey, many self-proclaimed progressives are not only silent about the assault on protected political speech, some, like Booker, Huttle and Schaer, are leading the charge.


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