New Jersey Passes Bill That Blacklists Companies Seeking Basic Human Rights for Palestinians
On Monday, June 27, the New Jersey State Assembly overwhelmingly passed a bill targeting companies that sign on to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (or BDS) that is pressuring Israel to provide Palestinians with basic human rights. Modeled by pro-Israel lobbying organizations in similar fashion to the executive order issued by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, the bill would establish a de facto blacklist of offending companies. It is the latest attack on a nonviolent grassroots movement by powerful forces seeking to deaden the impact of Palestine solidarity activism.
As the bill advanced in the legislature, Rania Mustafa, the executive director of the New Jersey-based Palestinian American Community Center, told AlterNet, “We’re American and we have the right to boycott and we have the right to free speech and that’s what makes this country beautiful. So we are very saddened by [the bill’s passage] because of the fact that we definitely think it is against the First Amendment and against free speech. If people want to boycott Israel it should be their choice, there shouldn’t be a law making that illegal.”
Mustafa said that supporters of the bill claim its prohibition is only limited to businesses and doesn’t infringe on any citizen’s First Amendment rights. “But at the same time,” she explained “who is it but people who run businesses? And if they feel a certain way, and if they don’t necessarily want to support a certain company for personal reasons they should have the full right to do so.”
Ramzi Issa, the secretary for the New Jersey chapter of American Muslims for Palestine (AMP), added, “It’s an ugly bill that goes against the values of the citizens of New Jersey and the country in general. It’s an infringement on our First Amendment right. It’s sad to see how New Jersey politics in general goes to serve special interests instead of the values of its constituents.”
Wanting to do more to help
To battle similar initiatives, which are inevitable in the future, Mustafa said, all the supporters need to become more organized. She said that while there are many disparate groups fighting the same battle, they lack organizational coordination: “We don’t have one unified organized voice and that is what we are trying to do; we are trying to organize and unify our voices into one so that it makes a much louder sound than if everyone is just yelling from their own quarters.”
Mustafa conceded that the Palestinian American Community Center entered the fight to stop the anti-BDS bill too late, and was not aware that the state of New Jersey was even considering an anti-BDS bill until it was announced that the bill had passed in the state senate last May. Together with American Muslims for Palestine and the New Jersey chapters of Jewish Voice for Peace and the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Mustafa’s group organized a frenzied campaign of phone lobbying to all of their local members in the legislature. They also held a rally in Secaucus outside of Assemblyman Vincent Prieto’s office and organized several petitions, which were presented to all the members of the state legislature.
Despite their combined efforts, the work was not nearly enough to sway the vote in their favor. On June 27 the state assembly passed the bill with 70 in favor, three against, two abstentions and five choosing not to vote. Issa thanked the isolated legislators who did not vote in favor of the measure: “We are in a country where you’re privileged to be able to use our laws of the constitution to fight for what’s right for you. The problem isn’t our laws, the problem is the people who are put in place to represent us when it comes to principles and values,” he said.
Mustafa said her organization is taking the fight against the bill as a learning experience. She explained, “For the past few weeks we have been working short-term but right now we are concentrating on the long-term, to begin building relationships with our local assemblymen and women and building relationships with our local officials. We’ve been doing this but we want to build our relationships even further and help in as many ways that we can and honestly have those conversations with them, and let them know about the things that are near and dear to our hearts; and stuff that we want them to also support.”
Leaping Through the Aggressor’s Narrative
AMP has chapters in Washington, D.C. that has ties with Capitol Hill along with other groups such as Council of Muslim Organizations. Issa said one of the biggest hurdles they face is getting over the narrative that Israel is the victim, which has saturated the public opinion in America. He explained that even many at the federal level, even in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, have latched onto the false belief that the Palestinians do not need protection from Israeli occupation.
As organizations like AIPAC seek to ram through more legislation limiting the ability of Palestine solidarity campaigners to organize in a democratic manner, Issa says he and his allies are planning to escalate their work. “We don’t think this is the end of it. We think there is more coming down the pipeline and this is sort of like testing the waters. We are prepared. We have people closely monitoring New Jersey legislation and hopefully we will act a little earlier next time.”
Issa said AMP is considering taking its fight to the courts. “We have a policy advocacy and a legislative monitoring committee that we put together and they are going to be looking at things closely and we have some organizations that are going to be trying to fight this,” he said.
According to Palestine Legal, in the past year, anti-BDS laws have been enacted in nine states including Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, and South Carolina. An anti-BDS executive order was also signed by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, ratifying a statewide blacklist without a vote in the legislature.
The New Jersey bill now waits for Gov. Chris Christie’s signature. Christie has already apologized for referring to the Palestinian Territories as occupied in order to appease right-wing pro-Israel forces. New Jersey residents concerned about human rights should not expect him to do the humane thing, which would be to veto this bill, and should brace themselves for its depressing consequences. For his part, Issa said AMP will battle to the end, petitioning Christie to veto the bill.