ILYA MARRITZ This is On The Media. I'm Ilya Marritz, in for Brooke Gladstone. The United States is one of Israel's strongest allies, which is why when a boycott Israel movement threatened the country's image internationally, Israel's government responded. Story starts back in 2005.
JULIA BACHA The original movement for boycott started by Palestinian civil society, and it was inspired by the anti-apartheid movement against South Africa.
ILYA MARRITZ Julia Bacha is the director of the documentary film Boycott and the creative director at Just Vision. It's a nonprofit media organization that creates content about Israel and Palestine.
JULIA BACHA And in around 2011, Israel introduced an anti-boycott bill that made it really hard for Israelis to call for a boycott of Israeli companies that were operating in the West Bank.
ILYA MARRITZ The film explores how Israel created an entire department, the Ministry of Strategic Affairs, to fight the boycott movement around the world.
TAPE Any anti Israel policy is an anti Texas policy.
TAPE The state of Georgia will no longer do business with companies boycotting Israel. The law signed by Governor Kemp today applies to situations where a boycott would affect any goods or services available in the state.
ILYA MARRITZ The American laws require public employees and contractors to sign pledges that they will not boycott Israel. And there are versions of this in 34 states across the U.S., including OTMs, home state of New York.
TAPE Today, I'm going to sign an executive order that says very clearly, we are against the BDS movement. And it's very simple. If you boycott against Israel, New York will boycott you.
ILYA MARRITZ Bush's film, first released in 2021, charts three suits challenging these laws, one brought by a Palestinian-American speech pathologist in Texas.
TAPE My name is Bahia Amawi. I am representing myself and I'm against this bill.
TAPE What you're really hoping the state will do is completely. Repeal it.
TAPE Repeal the Anti-BDS statute.
TAPE Repeal anything that has to violate my right to freedom of speech, my right to boycott, and to choose a political view of my own.
ILYA MARRITZ Another by a lawyer in Arizona.
TAPE I was just opening my annual contract from the state of Arizona, and I was rather shocked to see this after my trip to the West Bank and seeing what I had seen. I was incensed enough that I said I couldn't sign this. And I had to file suit.
ILYA MARRITZ And Allen Leverett, a publisher who runs the Arkansas Times, he was told he needed to sign a pledge to not boycott Israel if he wanted to keep the government as a paying advertiser. And these ads are actually a pretty big source of funding for the Arkansas Times.
TAPE I just object to the government saying we got a big old wad of money over here and we'll give it to you. Will, that will advertise with you. But here's the political position you need to take regarding foreign policy, for God's sake. And we're in Arkansas.
ILYA MARRITZ One of the organizations you investigate in this film is the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC. Do you want to explain what ALEC is and their role in kind of spreading these laws?
JULIA BACHA ALEC is an organization that brings together state legislatures, conservative leaders, right wing organizers and big money, big corporations. They meet once a year in a big gathering. It's a closed door meeting, so press is not allowed. And in that meeting, they discuss potential model bills, laws that they discuss whether they would like to bring back to their respective states. Most of the legislatures in attendance are Republicans. There are many bills that are about undoing environmental regulations. And the goal of those bills are all to pass consistent, pro-business legislation so that corporations can work across state lines with very little friction. Now, most people don't know that ALEC is originally an evangelical organization. It was founded in 1973 by Paul Weyrich, and the goal at the time was to fight back against the social progress that had been made in women's rights. Desegregation was a big threat to the conservative movement at that time, and they felt that they needed to work at the state level to undo that progress that was happening in the fifties and in the sixties. They were going bankrupt in the eighties, and that's when the big business corporations came in and made them financially viable. And now you have these two interests, the business interests and evangelical interests that are producing all of these bills. And the Anti-boycott bill was brought to ALEC by an evangelical organizations called the American Center for Law and Justice that was found by the televangelist Pat Robertson.
ILYA MARRITZ Right. And there's a quite a tangled web in this film. There is this intriguing dark money story. And in the doc, you talk with an Israeli investigative reporter named Itamar Benzocaine, who was basically able to piece together a chain of money linking the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs to ALEC and other religious and political groups in the United States who support Israel. What does that money trail tell us?
JULIA BACHA The Ministry of Strategic Affairs in Israel was created with the open intent of fighting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, and that Dead Ministry was initially put under the same kind of secrecy as the Defense Ministry, which means that Israeli journalists like Itamar, who were seeking to understand what in the world that ministry was doing to combat BDS, came back empty handed because their FOIA requests were denied. Now, what was fascinating was that over the course of the three years that it took to make the film, by the end of production, Itamar finally was able to get the documents he was seeking, and he was able to do that because under the many, numerous elections that Israel has gone through over the past few years, at one point Netanyahu wasn't elected. And so there was a new government, and that new government actually decided to close the Ministry of Strategic Affairs and as part of its effort to kind of sabotage the way that the ministry had been working. This is all internal politics of the Israeli government. They handed over the documents to Tamar.
ILYA MARRITZ Okay. So there's a breakthrough due to changing political control of the country.
JULIA BACHA Yes. And so Itamar now learns that the Ministry of Strategic Affairs, as part of its efforts to combat the Boycott Divestment sanctions movement, has been trying to fund American organizations. Now, there is a law in the United States. It's called FARA is the Foreign Agents Registration Act that says that if you are an American organization lobbying domestically and receiving money from a foreign government, you need to register in the United States as a foreign agent. A lot of the organizations in the U.S. who the Ministry of Strategic Affairs engaged and offered to fund didn't want to receive that money directly from the government because otherwise they would have to register as a foreign agent. So the Ministry of Strategic Affairs created an organization called Concert to basically channel the money and make it look like the funding was not coming from the Israeli government. And Concert gave money to a lot of the organizations like Christians United for Israel, the Israel Allies Foundation that did all the political lobbying at the state level to pass the Anti-boycott bills.
ILYA MARRITZ So you ended up learning in the process of making this film that the Anti-boycott bills in the United States were not simply inspired by similar bills in Israel. They were actually written by an Israeli think tank called Collette.
JULIA BACHA It's been really interesting with the protests now against judicial overhaul in Israel, how they brought to the public eye the Conflict Policy Forum, which is a Jerusalem based think tank that has received at least partial funding from Israeli American businessmen because it has been very much behind the scenes on a lot of right wing policies, not only in Israel but also in the United States. And I think there probably are audiences and publics who, up until now, if they hear about the Anti-boycott law and they don't really understand about the consequences, they would think, oh, maybe, you know, that's a good thing for Israel. But now that they see the other policies that Collette are pushing for internally in Israel, they might begin to see the similarities in the sort of authoritarian nature of a lot of these bills.
ILYA MARRITZ One of the things I appreciate about your film is drawing some parallels and some comparisons with the earlier boycott efforts. There was the anti-apartheid movement in the eighties, and then there's the black American civil rights struggle in the 1950s and sixties.
JULIA BACHA There's one specific case that is very relevant to the dynamics playing out in courts today as they relate to the Anti-boycott bills. The African-American community in Port Gibson, Mississippi, called for a boycott of the white merchants in Port Gibson. And they did that as a last resort. They very clearly say, we feel like we've tried dialog, we've tried communicating, but segregation has continued and now we need to take this action. And the white merchants responded by suing the NAACP, which was the main organizer for all commercial damages that they had faced over the course of that boycott. The state Supreme Court in Mississippi ruled against the NAACP, and that case eventually makes its way 15 years later to the Supreme Court.
ILYA MARRITZ Was the boycott still going on at that point?
JULIA BACHA The boycott itself wasn't at that level, right. I mean, boycotts have obviously come and gone over the course of the civil rights era. But at that point, when the case ends up in the Supreme Court, it's an interesting moment because there's always been this tradition in the U.S. of boycotts. They go back to the actual origins of America when Americans decided to boycott British tea as a way of affirming their independence from colonial Britain. But this is the first time now in 1982 that the Supreme Court is asked to look at the question of whether boycotts are protected under the First Amendment. They unanimously rule that boycott is a form of speech protected under the First Amendment. Since then, we have never had a challenge until now.
ILYA MARRITZ So as you show in this film, dozens of states enacted anti-boycott laws in the late 20 teens right up till 2020, focused on the Israel issue specifically. And you follow three people who challenged those laws in their states and Texas, Arizona and Arkansas. Where do these laws stand today?
JULIA BACHA The laws today, by and large, still exist in 34 states. The big difference now in many of these states is that because of the lawsuits that Americans from different political backgrounds have been bringing. Now, over the past five years, the bills have changed because most of the lawsuits were ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. So, for example, Bahia, Maui, a Palestinian-American, she's a childhood speech pathologist. So she has a public contract, and she was presented with the Anti-boycott law. She was told, either you sign this or you're fired. And she said, I can't sign away my ability to protest Israeli actions. So she was fired from her job and took Texas to court, and she won in court. Similarly, Mike Jordan, who's an Arizona lawyer, also took Arizona to court and he won. In Georgia, there was also a case of a journalist, and she won in Georgia as well. In Kansas, there was a math teacher and she won as well. So across the country, when these cases are being brought to the courts, the courts are saying this is unconstitutional. The one exception to that case is Allen Leverett. And Allen is the newspaper publisher in Arkansas whose case has made its way through the courts over the past few years. The eighth Circuit Court of Appeals eventually ruled against Allen, and the ACLU asked the Supreme Court to take up the case and review it. And we learned actually, just a few weeks ago, the Supreme Court didn't really say why. It just passed on taking it on at this point. So now we are in a bit of a bizarre situation in America where if you are one of the seven states that live under the eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, you are not protected by the First Amendment if you decide to engage in a boycott campaign. The ruling in the eighth Circuit is not limited to people who are boycotting Israel. The ruling basically says boycotts are not protected, period. So environmental groups that want to call for a boycott of the fossil fuels industries, not protected groups, were calling for accountability of the firearms industry. They call for a boycott of any company related to the weapons industry. They are not protected.
ILYA MARRITZ Not protected. If you have state contracts, if you make money from the state, if you're a state employee. What was the eighth Circuit's reasoning?
JULIA BACHA The eighth Circuit reasoning was separating the act of not purchasing something with the speech of why you are not purchasing it. So in their logic, you can call for a boycott. You can explain why you boycott, but you can't actually boycott.
ILYA MARRITZ I can more easily imagine the reverse situation where, for instance, the Palestinian-American woman in your film might not want to purchase Israeli products. That would be pretty understandable given her background, but she just might not talk about it. Would that I mean, I mean, we're getting into like some extremely, like murky and bizarre and potentially very intrusive territory if the state were to get involved there.
JULIA BACHA That's exactly the territory that we could be going into, because the only way to monitor whether someone is boycotting or not is by monitoring their speech, monitoring their social media, monitoring, whether they're joining protests for Palestinian rights, by seeing what membership they have in organizations. So there could be whole investigations and then trials where people are deciding if someone is engaging in a boycott or not. And that's a pretty scary future.
ILYA MARRITZ I know you've lived and worked in and around the Middle East for many years. This film is really so much about America and how we as Americans understand our Constitution and our system of self-government. Are you sort of surprised that you ended up here?
JULIA BACHA It was an interesting process for our entire team at Just Vision. It was really shocking to us that the Anti-boycott bills were able to pass with so little public scrutiny. The vast majority of Americans still to this day have no idea that these bills exist in the books. And we really wanted to make sure that people understood that. You know, I think there's often a sort of reluctance to want to get engaged in Israel and Palestine for a variety of reasons, but that reluctance will end up coming back to bite you.
ILYA MARRITZ Julia Bacha is the director of the documentary film Boycott. Thank you so much, Julia.
JULIA BACHA Thank you for having me, Ilya.
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