Laws that target Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, a powerful tool for standing with the oppressed, threaten our constitutional rights.
As Christian leaders we have long used the non-violent instruments of boycott and divestment in our work for justice and peace. These economic measures have proven to be powerful tools for social change, from strengthening labor rights for farmworkers to ending apartheid in South Africa.1 Observing the success of these efforts, Palestinian civil society issued a call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) in 2005 to advance Palestinians’ long-denied rights to freedom, justice, equality, and self-determination.2 In 2009, Palestinian Christians included a call for boycott and divestment in their landmark document, “Kairos Palestine: A Moment of Truth.” Christian denominations around the world have responded by divesting from companies that profit from Israel’s occupation and its persistent settlement expansion—both of which are illegal under international and U.S. law.3
In January 2016, the pension board of the United Methodist Church decided to divest from Israeli banks and a real estate company due to their financing of settlement construction in Palestinian territory.4 In 2015, the United Church of Christ overwhelmingly approved a resolution divesting from companies that profit from Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands along with, a boycott of products from Israeli settlements.5 In 2014 the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted at its general assembly to divest from three companies that profit from the occupation and in 2012 they implemented a boycott of Israeli settlement products. 6 Friends Fiduciary Corporation, the socially responsible investment firm serving over 300 Quaker meetings, as well as the American Friends Service Committee, also divested from companies benefitting from the occupation.7
Israeli governmental policy proponents, fearing the growing BDS movement, have launched a well-funded campaign 8 to suppress BDS. During the last two years, “anti-BDS” bills have been introduced in the U.S. Congress and several state legislatures.9 Legislation introduced in New York, California, Florida, Iowa and other states would prohibit investing in or contracting with organizations that boycott Israel and “its territories.” These laws may threaten public funding for social services such as soup kitchens and homeless shelters provided by churches that have passed BDS resolutions.
These bills attack a non-violent, time-tested, and constitutionally protected approach to achieving peace. The First Amendment protects more than “speech”: the Supreme Court has long recognized that it also protects expressive conduct. In NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware Co., the Supreme Court found that “the boycott clearly involved constitutionally protected activity” through which the NAACP “sought to bring about political, social, and economic change.”10
We people of faith, representing various Christian traditions, are deeply concerned about this wave of state and national legislation: It threatens our constitutional right to engage in economic advocacy to end the Israeli occupation and uphold fundamental Palestinian rights. We urge our representatives to exercise their considerable political power to halt these misguided legislative efforts and to uphold the First Amendment rights of their constituencies.11