Esther Koontz, a math teacher from First Mennonite in Hutchinson, Kansas, wanted to contract with the state of Kansas to train math teachers. But as a condition of her employment, the state required her to pledge that she does not support economic boycotts against Israel or Israeli settlements. As a matter of conscience Esther refused to sign, and she was denied the contract.
The American Civil Liberties Union took Esther’s case to court and in January 2018, a federal judge issued a favorable preliminary ruling, saying that boycotts are a protected form of free speech. The state of Kansas amended the law and in May Esther dropped the case.
Despite this ruling and a similar one in Arizona, so far 26 states have enacted laws to discourage and prevent economic actions related to Israel. The first bill taken up in the new Senate contained language to give states the green light to continue enacting these laws.
As of this writing, the bill has not yet passed, as Democrats maintain that the Senate’s first action should be to reopen the government. But once this hurdle passes, there will likely be enough supporters in Congress to pass it. [Update: The Senate passed the bill on February 5.]
In addition to this effort, in December several senators tried to insert related legislation, which seeks to criminalize boycott actions, into the year-end spending bill. That effort also fell short, as the border wall debate prevented a year-end spending bill from being passed.
Regardless of one’s stance on “boycott, divestment and sanctions” (BDS) towards Israel, as Christians who support equal rights for all people, Israelis and Palestinians alike, we should be wary of any effort by the government to restrict free speech and the ability to make economic choices that align with our values.
This stance was articulated by 17 national Christian denominations and organizations in November 2017, including Mennonite Church USA, Church of the Brethren and MCC U.S. Their letter to Congress states, “While we may not be of one mind about which measures are most effective, we collectively affirm and defend the right of churches and organizations to use economic measures in the specific case of Israel-Palestine. This is consistent with how churches and church-related organizations have employed economic measures as nonviolent tactics in many instances of seeking justice and peace throughout history.”
Ask your members of Congress to oppose bills like the Combating BDS Act and the Israel Anti-Boycott Act. Rather than stifling debate on Palestine and Israel, Congress should proactively work for more just and peaceful policies that will benefit Palestinians and Israelis.