Nothing particularly alarming seemed to transpire in the Florida State Capitol building during this January’s Senate floor hearing of Florida SB 86. No vocal dissent cropped up between senators, and there was no public testimony – just a wall full of little green lights flicking on as every legislator in the chamber voted the bill through. However benign in appearance, that wall of green lights signals an alarming violation of Floridians’ First Amendment rights. The bill, should it become law, would set a grim precedent by allowing Florida to compile a list of organizations associated with the BDS movement, which promotes the boycott, divestment and sanctioning of Israel. According to the language of the bill, any group that lands on this list would be ineligible to bid on government contracts or receive state funds.
“If your business wants to discriminate against Israel,” State Sen. Joe Negron said in his introduction to the bill in committee in November 2015, “then Florida doesn’t want to do business with you.”
It’s a puzzling choice, considering no businesses in Florida are currently participating in BDS. State universities, on the other hand, saw a flurry of initiatives in 2015. In January 2016, in Tampa, the University of South Florida’s student government passed a resolution supporting the BDS campaign, likely in response to the 10,000 students who petitioned over the past year in its favor. Across the country – at Princeton, Stanford and the University of California, to name just a few universities – college students are doing the same. Taken in this context, it seems most plausible that Negron’s bill is an attempt to quash the growing momentum of the BDS movement on college campuses by threatening to yank state funding should a university choose to divest.
This bill poses a direct threat to the position that universities have traditionally upheld in relation to dialogue on politically contentious subjects. From the US civil rights movement, to the boycotts and protests against South African apartheid in the 1980s, up to the modern-day push to divest from fossil fuels, universities have provided a space for voicing political dissent and challenging destructive ideologies. They are the nexus and incubators of grassroots movements that have without a doubt improved our country.
This bill – and the others like it currently making their way through California and Illinois legislatures – threatens that legacy by financially muzzling one side of a growing conversation on the United States’ role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Because although the conflict continues to be a subject of intense debate in the United States, the question of whether or not the Israeli government is oppressing Palestinians is not actually contentious on the world stage. Respected international human rights organizations – Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch – and the United Nations itself have agreed for decades that Israel is violating international law with its policies. They agree that the hundreds of Israeli settlements built within the 1967 borders of Palestine over the past 50 years are illegal. They agree that annexing additional Palestinian land by erecting a 25-foot concrete wall within the West Bank is illegal. They agree that the extrajudicial arrest and torture of Palestinian children is illegal; that the strangling blockade on Gaza must be lifted; that refugees and their families are entitled to compensation for the land they lost when they were violently pushed out of it in 1948.
It should be unfathomable – given the United States’ constitutional commitments to liberty and justice for all – that the US would continue to support Israel in these policies to the tune of $3 billion taxpayer dollars a year without a vocal countermovement erupting on college campuses. It should be, but it isn’t – mostly because the country we live in today is not yet the country described in the text of the US Constitution. This is the US of 2016: a United States driven by greed, founded on the profitable bloodshed of Native peoples domestically and maintained by the profitable bloodshed of Native peoples abroad.
If this all seems monstrously cynical, flip on your television to one of the channels where paid pundits exhort viewers to fear and hate Syrian refugees, fear and hate Black people, and fear and hate transgender people. It is human rights movements like the BDS campaign that attempt to do battle with this cynicism. No matter your views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, you’d do well to oppose Senator Negron’s bill on the grounds of what it represents: a surrender to the ignorant fear that is the true threat to peace and democracy in our country.
But in the meantime, is there anything Florida voters can do to keep this bill from becoming law?
According to a video recently released by the arts-based activist group Peace House, “not really.”
“Sometime in the next month,” they say, “[Negron] will pass this bill.” In the background, a man wearing a suit sits on an electronic hoverboard and laughs. On his lapel: the acronym AIPAC.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is the United States’ pro-Israel lobby group. “For decades,” Robert Dreyfuss wrote for Mother Jones in 2009, “AIPAC – together with Washington’s broader Israel lobby, which distributed more than $22 million in campaign contributions during the last election cycle – has had a well-earned reputation for getting what it wants.”
Laila Abdelaziz, the legislative and government affairs director at the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Florida, told Truthout, “This bill enjoys bipartisan support in a political climate that can barely legislate the needs of the people.” To illustrate: In 2015, the legislature was stymied, unable to successfully pass a budget and complete Senate and congressional redistricting obligations without convening for three separate special sessions. According to the Tampa Bay Times, this stalemate cost taxpayers more than $1 million.
“How quickly and quietly [Senate Bill 86] is passing,” Abdelaziz said, “despite warnings that it violates protected speech, is telling of the power behind the special interests pushing the legislation forward.”
For this reason, it’s likely already too late to do anything substantive to stop SB 86 from becoming law. The best we can hope to do – particularly in states like mine (Louisiana), where unconstitutional bills are frequently borrowed from other legislatures – is keep our eyes sharp on our own state capitols this year. AIPAC wants this bill to pass quickly and quietly into law because the group knows that if most people were aware of what it was trying to do, they’d be furious. The only way to combat this maneuver is to make a lot of noise.
If you catch a whiff of this bill on the upper lips of your state legislators, clang the bell. Rally outside of the capitol building. Make a scene. Make it loud. Make it so loud that it reverberates through the opinion pages of the newspaper, the telephones of your legislators, and across the quads and town squares of our country. AIPAC may get part of what it wants in Florida, but between you and me and the rest of us out here in the grassroots of the country, we can at least guarantee that they won’t get our silence, too.