Texas Speech Pathologist Loses School Job for Refusing to Sign Anti-BDS Oath

A Palestinian-American speech pathologist in Austin, Texas, has filed a federal lawsuit for losing her job after refusing to sign a pro-Israel oath. Bahia Amawi is an Arabic-speaking child language specialist who had worked for nine years in the Pflugerville Independent School District. But she lost her job last year after she declined to sign a pledge that she would “not boycott Israel during the term of the contract” and that she would not take any action that is “intended to penalize, inflict economic harm on, or limit commercial relations with Israel.” We speak with Bahia Amawi and Gadeir Abbas, senior litigation attorney with the Council on American-Islamic Relations. He is representing Amawi in her lawsuit against the Pflugerville Independent School District and the state of Texas.

TRANSCRIPT

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: A Palestinian-American teacher in Austin, Texas, has filed a federal lawsuit for losing her job as a speech pathologist after refusing to sign a pro-Israel oath. Bahia Amawi is an Arabic-speaking child language specialist who had worked for nine years in the Pflugerville Independent School District. But she lost her job last year after she declined to sign a pledge that she, quote, “will not boycott Israel during the term of the contract,” unquote, and that she will not take any action that is, quote, “intended to penalize, inflict economic harm on, or limit commercial relations with Israel.”

AMY GOODMAN: Before filing the lawsuit Monday, Bahia Amawi spoke to The Intercept about what happened to her.

BAHIA AMAWI: The point of boycotting any product that supports Israel is to put pressure on the Israeli government to change its treatment, the inhumane treatment, of the Palestinian people. Having grown up as a Palestinian, I know firsthand the oppression and the struggle that Palestinians face on a daily basis.

You know, I have to set an example for my kids. We’ve got to stand up for what’s the justice and for rights and equal opportunity for everybody and humane conditions. And so, for me, it was an easy decision in that aspect. You know, so I could not sign it. I was forced to depart from my job because I will not sign it, and I cannot return back if I don’t sign it.

I have been here in the States for over 30 years. I’m an American citizen. I follow the law. And so, I have the luxury of having these rights, which many people in other countries do not have. It infringed on all my principles and, on top of that, my right to speech and also right to protest. It’s baffling that they can throw this down our throats, you know, and decide to protect another country’s economy versus protect our constitutional rights.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Last year, Texas became one of 26 states with laws preventing state agencies from contracting with companies or individuals aligned with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. BDS is an international campaign to pressure Israel to comply with international law and respect Palestinian rights. However, its opponents say BDS is a thinly disguised anti-Semitic attempt to debilitate or even destroy Israel.

AMY GOODMAN: Democracy Now! reached out to the Pflugerville Independent School District in Texas, which responded with a statement saying it had, quote, “followed state law, which does not allow school districts to hire a contractor unless the contract contains a written verification that the contractor does not boycott Israel and will not boycott Israel during the term of the contract. The plaintiff did not agree to the contract as written; therefore, it was unable to be executed in accordance with Texas law, ” unquote.

Well, for more, we go to Austin, Texas, where we’re joined by Bahia Amawi. In Chicago, her attorney, Gadeir Abbas, is with us, a senior litigation attorney with CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let’s begin with Bahia. Explain exactly what happened and how you noticed what was in this contract. I mean, you’ve been teaching in this school district — this is a public school, is that right? — for how long?

BAHIA AMAWI: Yes, this is a public school, and I have been contracting with them for around nine years. And every year I get a contract that’s exactly a duplicate of the year before. And this year I got it, as well, the contract, at the initial start of my month, which is August, when school begins. And so I signed the initial contract. It was exactly the same as I sign every year.

But then, later on, a few weeks later, my speech coordinator contacted me and said, “Well, Bahia, we have additional papers this year. This is brand new. And we need people to sign it.” So, when I received the papers, I looked through it. It was about maybe a stack of four sheets of paper with a bunch of new compliances and new codes. They appeared to be normal, job-related issues, like background history, criminal history, you know, equal opportunity employment, until I came across the one that has nothing to do with my job, which is Code 2270.001 of the Texas Government Code. And that one, I was reading it, and it states that currently — the contractor must affirm that it currently does not or will not boycott Israel, and basically, in short, causing any economic harm. So, that’s when I noticed it.

And right away I sent an email immediately, and I stopped even reading the additional codes. And I sent the email to my speech coordinator telling her, “Listen, I cannot sign this. This is against my principles, against my constitutional rights. And it’s also against my moral and ethical values, considering that I am a Palestinian American and I have family that actually live in the Occupied Territories, so it affects me personally, as well.” So, it affects me in both ways — as an American citizen and as a Palestinian American, too.

She was kind enough. We have a really good relationship with her. And I’ve known — like I said, I’ve known everybody for nine years, so I have a really good relationship with everybody at the school district. And she tried to — ”Let me see if I can go around it.” After two weeks, she returned back to me and apologized and said, “I’m really sorry, Bahia, but they said they will not pay you if you do not sign this part of the new compliances.” And so I kind of had to, you know, forcefully leave at that moment and couldn’t return.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Bahia Amawi, now, were you aware that this law had been passed in Texas at all? Had you heard anything in the media about it? And why did you decide then that you needed to seek an attorney’s help in challenging this?

BAHIA AMAWI: I did not. I was not aware that this law was passed. I’ve heard of it in other states, but I did not know it passed in Texas. It kind of went under — you know, undetected, I think. It wasn’t something they advertised or talked about much in the media. And I’m not a social media person, so I’m not always online. I have four kids, so I’m very busy with them, so I don’t go on Facebook or look up things or anything. So, I really had no awareness of this new law being passed.

And when I saw it, it just was unfair in so many ways. It just was — just did not make sense. It was baffling to me and shocking that my position as a speech therapist, helping kids with their speech and, you know, developing with their communication in the elementary school, effects any economic harm on Israel. So, to me, just nothing made sense at all of this. And it was a violation of everything, violation of my First — my freedom of speech, right to protest, my constitutional right. And so, it was actually a no-brainer. I knew that I had to do something about it. And I didn’t want this to grow into something more, which it can possibly, you know, and affect everybody, including my kids when they go to the universities. Who knows if they ask us, you know, in a state university if they have to sign it before registering for classes? You know, it may grow into something more. And I knew I had to do something about it.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to look a little more closely at the language contained in the contract. It asks our guest, Bahia Amawi, to sign a pledge that she does not currently boycott Israel and that she will, quote, “not boycott Israel during the term of the contract.” The contract goes on to explain, “’Boycott Israel’ means refusing to deal with, terminating business activities with, or otherwise taking any action that is intended to penalize, inflict economic harm on, or limit commercial relations specifically with Israel, or with a person or entity doing business in Israel or in an Israeli-controlled territory, but does not include an action made for ordinary business purposes.”

So, let me bring your lawyer into this conversation, Gadeir Abbas. This is one of 26 states that have passed similar laws. In this case, if Bahia was to simply say to a friend, “I am not going to buy something that is made in the Occupied Territories that Israel is selling in the United States,” this would make her in violation of the law?

GADEIR ABBAS: Yeah. Bahia would be disqualified from working for any school district in the state that’s following this law, simply because she chooses not to buy, for instance, Sabra hummus. So her grocery store decision to not buy Sabra hummus and to buy instead another kind of hummus automatically, under this law, disqualifies her from all public employees — all public employment of all kinds.

And here, Bahia is engaged in core, protected activity that really has a hallowed place in American tradition, from boycotts against British tea, from the Montgomery boycott, from the boycott against apartheid South Africa. Bahia’s actions and choices to spend her money in a particular way are expressive conduct that are protected by the First Amendment. And here, Texas, the state of Texas, is siding with a foreign country’s policy preferences over the needs of Bahia’s students. And let’s remember here, in the final analysis, Bahia’s students are being deprived of their speech pathologist in exchange for accommodating the policy preferences of a foreign country. That’s illegal and objectionable.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, Gadeir Abbas, given that there are 26 states that now have similar laws in place, and legislation that has gotten very little, if any, national attention, it must indicate that there is an intensive lobbying effort going on at the state level, and either by the state of Israel or by lobbying groups employed by groups in defense of the state of Israel. Do you know anything about this lobbying campaign that’s been going on?

GADEIR ABBAS: Well, it’s extremely successful. I mean, in Texas, for example, it passed the Legislature almost unanimously, on a bipartisan basis. And yeah, these bills have passed with relatively little controversy. And it’s only escalated. Congress right now, it’s Ben Cardin, a Democrat, who is pushing to include a criminal version of this state law and the continued resolution that is set to expire on Friday. And so, we might have, by the end of this week, a federal law that criminalizes the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and the activity associated with it.

And here, it just goes to show that for some issues — and Israel and Palestine are one of them — that the pro-Palestinian voices, the folks that are advocating for Palestinians to have equal rights, don’t have necessarily an ally in the Democratic Party or the Republican Party and really must look to the activists and the movement for Palestinian rights itself to vindicate these basic rights to speak out in favor of Palestinian rights.

AMY GOODMAN: I’d like to turn to Texas Governor Greg Abbott speaking about the anti-BDS legislation last year in May.

GOV. GREG ABBOTT: Israel is one of Texas’s largest trading partners. And then, of course, there is the issue about the essential international ally that Israel plays for both the United States and the state of Texas. As a result, any anti-Israel policy is an anti-Texas policy. … Any boycott of Israel is considered to be un-Texan. And Texas is not going to do business with any company that boycotts Israel.

AMY GOODMAN: So that’s Texas Governor Greg Abbott speaking about the legislation a year ago. Bahia Amawi, are you an active member of the Boycott, Divest, Sanctions movement?

BAHIA AMAWI: I am not actually an active member of BDS at all. Just personally, for myself, if I’m aware of a product that is — you know, supports Israel or is made in the country, then I just have a personal — I make a personal choice to avoid it, because I don’t want to support their ongoing occupation and aggression and subhumane treatment of the Palestinians, that’s making me kind of like a silent participant complicit with the whole occupation. So, I actually — I’m not aware of it. I don’t even go through and find out the list of things. I just happen to know about it, or, you know, if somehow I found out, then I just avoid it. But other than that, really, I’m not an active member.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what’s been the reaction of your fellow employees at the school or other teachers, as well, to this, the results of what’s happened to you in this case?

BAHIA AMAWI: Yeah, well, so, when I had to forcefully leave, I notified my co-workers, my co-evaluators. I work on an early childhood team, which are the ones that — usually in association with, and they depend on me to do the Arabic evaluations. So, when I told them, they were kind of shocked, because after nine years, they were like, you know, “Why? What’s happening? What’s changed all of a sudden?” So that’s when I shared with them this new compliance. And they were just disturbed as much as I was, and appalled. And they supported me. And they say, you know, “We understand, and we hope you do pursue and do something about it.” So they were very encouraging and very supportive. And they were hoping that I can return eventually, which is my goal.

I want to be able to go back to work again, because there’s a need for a speech therapist who speaks Arabic to evaluate students who have Arabic as a second language. It is actually beneficial to be a speech therapist with another language, bilingual in another language. There’s such a need all over.

AMY GOODMAN: Gadeir Abbas, is there any reference to any other state, any other country, in this kind of contract that you have to sign, a kind of oath to another country?

GADEIR ABBAS: No, there’s no other country that’s mentioned in the state of Texas law. There’s no other country mentioned in any of these laws in the more than 25 states that have passed them or the executive orders that have been issued by governors. This is only about Israel. And it really is unique in American history to have a law that specifically prevents Americans from boycotting a particular foreign country. I’ve never seen any kind of historical analog to what we’re seeing here.

And the fact of the matter, though, is that free speech rights in the United States are very well protected. And boycott activity, Supreme Court and other courts have held over and over again, is a core expressive action that Bahia and others are welcome and entitled to take. And so, whatever the state of Texas and the governor of Texas believes — obviously, he has cast his lot with Israel rather than Texas citizens like Bahia, who are put in the position of losing their job or advocating for their beliefs — the Constitution is designed, and the Bill of Rights exists, to protect Bahia’s right to protest the policies of Israel in the Occupied Territories as she sees fit.

AMY GOODMAN: Gadeir Abbas, we want to thank you for being with us, senior litigation attorney with CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, representing Bahia Amawi in her lawsuit against the Pflugerville Independent School District and the state of Texas.

When we come back, we’ll be joined by the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald, who wrote about Bahia’s case in The Intercept. And we’ll talk about these laws around the country. And what is the legal record when they’re challenged in places like, oh, Kansas and Arizona? Are these laws struck down? Stay with us.