Texas court: boycotting Israel does not violate US law

Apr 27,2019

Pitman found that the state could not prohibit boycotting the state of Israel as a condition of public employment.

American Judge Robert L Pitman of the Western District of Texas had found that this predicament likely violated her First Amendment rights, Washington Post reported on Friday.

An Austria-born American citizen and Muslim of Palestinian origin, Bahia Amawi, 46, who brought suit against the school district last year, said she was ecstatic.

In December last year, Amawi, a speech pathologist who has worked as a contractor in a Texas school district for nine years, received a new contract agreement to sign in September for the upcoming school year.

The agreement asked her to affirm that she did not boycott Israel and assert that she would not while working for the school.

She declined to sign it. Amawi said the statements infringed on her principles: her stance on Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and her belief in the First Amendment. So she was forced to stop working with the district.

“It’s a huge win not just for me, but for everybody here in Texas,” she said in an interview with The Washington Post. “I was in tears."

In a 56-page opinion, Pitman, an Obama appointee, found that the state could not prohibit boycotting the state of Israel as a condition of public employment.

Pitman’s holding is the third by a federal judge since last year to turn back state legislation that aims to use public money to deter anti-Israel activity.

A spokesman for the Texas attorney general said his office intends to appeal the ruling. “We’re disappointed with the ruling essentially requiring government to do business with discriminatory companies. We look forward to defending this law on appeal,” said spokesman Marc Rylander in a statement.

The decision casts doubt on the constitutionality of state efforts to undermine the movement known as BDS, for boycott, divestment and sanctions.

Modeled on the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, the campaign aims to leverage economic pressure on Israel to win Palestinian rights.

It seeks the end of Israeli occupation of “all Arab lands,” the full equality of Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel and the “rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.”

BDS is a flash-point in the charged debate over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — a debate that has evolved as a left-wing flank of the Democratic Party insists on the right to criticize Israel’s government, particularly as it moves to the right under the leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu.

The first two Muslim women in Congress, Democrats Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, are also the first two to say they support the BDS movement.

As the boycott has picked up high-profile advocates, its opponents have been moved to declare themselves, as well. In January, the Senate advanced bipartisan legislation proclaiming the right of states to cut ties with businesses that shun Israel.

Among those states was Texas. The legislature’s 2017 “anti-BDS bill,” as it was called, compelled anyone entering into a contract with the state to sign a “written verification” vowing not to boycott Israel. The law’s champions declared, “Anti-Israel policies are anti-Texas policies.”

The law threatened to ensnare powerful global companies, including Airbnb, which announced last fall that it would remove listings in Jewish settlements in the West Bank. The home rental site ultimately reversed itself, and the Texas Comptroller’s Office backed off its promise to sever ties with the multibillion-dollar company.

Now, it’s the state that will have to change course. The effect of the certification was to “suppress unpopular ideas” and “manipulate the public debate through coercion rather than persuasion,” Pitman wrote in his opinion Thursday, quoting from the 1994 Supreme Court case Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. v. FCC, which dealt with must-carry requirements imposed on cable television.

“This the First Amendment does not allow,” the judge held.

Washington Post