Please take your seat, sir, said the steward to the Governor. “We will be landing at Ben Gurion Airport shortly.” Snapping his seat-belt firmly into place, the edgy Governor fingered his rosary beads as he wondered, to himself, whether Israeli Jews would have big noses like those of Miami. Do they tan well? Would he understand what they say, given their heavy, Eastern European accents? What was the exchange rate for his pocketful of “Benjamins”? Looking around the first class section, the Governor eyed a man with a long, thick, black beard seated one aisle away. For a moment, he thought about getting up to ask him for the missing answers… but he stopped. The guy was too tall and fit with no hook nose… and where was his black beanie? Goyim, he thought to himself, using a term he had picked up in a Boca campaign stop. He looked away uncertain of what awaited.
No… I’ve not lost my mind. And for those of you who I have offended by this frenzy of odious, dark canards… good! It was intended to cause reaction. It’s a parody. It’s called protected speech. It’s the First Amendment. It allows me to say what I want… to affront who I please, to stand on any street corner shouting out to passersby they should boycott that damn lunch counter that won’t serve people of color or that country that will not allow Palestinians to breathe. And to do so without any imposition of government will upon my voice… be it through a penalty on my purse or the loss of my personal liberty.
Political correctness is America’s newest form of intolerance, and it is especially pernicious because it comes disguised as tolerance. It presents itself as fairness, yet attempts to restrict and control people’s language with strict codes and rigid rules. I’m not sure that’s the way to fight discrimination. I’m not sure silencing people or forcing them to alter their speech is the best method for solving problems that go much deeper than speech.”
-George Carlin, When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?
On May 29th, Florida Governor, Ron DeSantis, flew to Israel with his cabinet for a closed, political moot court session. Barring journalists, and thus, ultimately, the public who elected him and paid for his trip, the governor performed a symbolic signing of a bill that places the interests of Tel Aviv clearly ahead of the constitutional rights of Tallahassee.
Surrounded by Israeli dignitaries, accompanied by AIPAC checkbooks, Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, and Morton Klein of the Zionist Organization of America, the DeSantis journey was nothing short of a full on fidelity cheer for Israel. A staunch supporter of the move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, earlier this year attending a meeting of the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County, the governor urged sanctions against Airbnb unless it reversed its decision barring lodging listings in the occupied West Bank of Palestine. While still in Congress, he supported several Florida anti-BDS laws prohibiting public entities from contracting with any company or non-profit group engaged in an Israeli boycott. He also embraced legislation that prohibits state pension funds from investing in companies which participate in “politically motivated” challenges to Israel.
DeSantis has an opportune history of vilifying those who confront Israeli apartheid. Indeed, like his predecessor, former Gov. Rick Scott, who took three Florida funded trips to Israel, he is an astute politician who knows just what it takes to get elected. Describing BDS as “nothing more than a cloak for anti-Semitism”, he has boasted that, “as long as I’m Governor, BDS will be DOA.” Yet, the bill DeSantis lobbied for, and signed but two days after his empty performance in Israel, is much more insidious than the mere imposition of civil penalties upon activists who advocate a non-violent boycott.
In relevant part, HB 741 states that, “A public K-20 educational institution must treat discrimination by students or employees or resulting from institutional policies motivated by anti-Semitic intent in an identical manner to discrimination motivated by race.”
With sweeping unconstitutional reach, this legislation conflates mere criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. It lays bare the authoritarian groundwork for criminal prosecution for those in public schools and universities with the temerity to challenge Israel through words… and nothing more. Using provocative tripwires of Holocaust denial and conspiracy theories that target Jews as examples of prohibited academic speech, the statute remains at odds with the First Amendment nonetheless. Moreover, to the extent HB 741 equates a challenge to Israel with bias motivated by racial animus, it is an interesting legislative recast in the light of the personal history of DeSantis… indeed, of Florida as a whole.
To be sure, in his campaign for governor, DeSantis drew support from various self-professed neo-Nazis. He spoke at a conference chaired by a man who believes that African Americans should thank white people for freeing slaves. His campaign used ads with jungle music and the call of monkeys in their background. He, himself, urged voters “not to monkey up” by voting for his African American opponent. The divide between one who has never hesitated to use vile, painful speech to promote his voice and his proud, eager squeeze of a censorship whip has rarely been so vivid. Not one to walk alone, from coast to coast the governor’s duplicity drives statehouse halls as legislators speak in selective tones promoting constitutional protections such as the right to bear arms while suppressing others that extol fundamental rights of speech, association and peaceful boycott.
DeSantis is a true son of Florida. While it has long prided itself on the mirage of cultural, religious and political diversity, it has an insidious history of ignoring, if not accepting, the very brand of political and social disenfranchisement and violence that is synonymous with Israel. Thus, in the shadow of the Civil War, Florida enacted laws called Black Codes that, by design, were intended to disenfranchise its black citizens. Can Nation State be far off?
Twenty years later, the white-Democrat controlled legislature passed a poll tax which finished the job. Losing what little remaining political power they had, African American voters were essentially stripped of all legal and political rights. No longer able to vote, they were excluded from sitting as jurors and barred from running for elective office. Before the turn of the century, there was no black political influence anywhere in Florida. Not long thereafter, Governor Napoleon Bonaparte Broward suggested that African Americans find a location outside the state for them to live. To be named deal of the century?
In the mid-1920’s, the Ku Klux Klan moved the political assault upon African American communities throughout Florida to one of sheer terror and outright violence. With power bases in major cities such as Jacksonville, Tampa and Miami, the Klan soon became the very public face of the hatred that had long found comfort through the state’s legislative batter. So brazen was the Klan’s thumb-print on the life and death of black Floridians that it held publicized group initiations at the Miami Country club. During this time, Klan-like violence flourished throughout rural Florida . . . with mob attacks on African Americans so frequent that local newspapers rarely covered it and law enforcement typically looked away. In1920, a white mob broke into a jail in Macclenny and lynched four black men accused of raping a white woman. In Ocoee, the same year, a white mob destroyed its black community… causing as many as 30 deaths and destroying 25 homes, two churches, and a Masonic Lodge. This devastation was later mirrored in the Rosewood massacre, a racially charged slaughter that resulted in the deaths of upwards of 150 black residents in rural Levy County and which left the town of Rosewood completely destroyed. To be rebuilt with white “settlers”?
Decades have passed since the Klan and mob rule shaped Florida with a public iron fist. Yet, in the years since, a walk down its streets from the Panhandle to Miami Beach remains very much a tempt of fate for persons of color. Once adorned with sheets of hate, the attacks are now most often carried out by those who wear the badge of law enforcement.
It would be far too easy to simply cluster police violence in Florida with that endemic across the country. However, that toll bears a dramatic face in Florida, a state driven by a transparent legislative show of support for the agenda of a far off country that flaunts international law while it shows palpable indifference to the constitutional rights and physical safety of its own citizenry.
As of five years ago, the African American population in Florida was outnumbered 3 to 1 by their white counterparts. An investigation, by the Tampa Bay Times, found that during the six year period preceding it, Florida police shot 827 people… 343 of them were black. More than half were fatal… the majority of them black.
Paring off cases involving crimes of “violence” or where there was actual evidence that those shot had threatened police with weapons, the Times investigation found there were 147 cases that presented no apparent grounds for the use of deadly force by police… 97 of them involved black Floridians. Of those who were unarmed, African Americans outnumbered whites two to one. They were twice as likely to be shot after being pulled over for a traffic violation, or by reaching for something harmless such as a license or gearshift. They were also three times as likely to be shot while being chased by police on foot, while suspected of a minor crime such as smoking pot, or while not committing any offense at all. The report found African American victims were four times more likely to be shot in the back.
These statistics give no one with knowledge of the recent history of Florida reason to pause. They reflect but one short period of unbroken police violence directed at the African American community throughout the state.
In 1967, Martin Chambers, 19, was shot dead by police in Tampa. Fleeing with two other young black men from the scene of a robbery of a photo supply store, he was shot in the back by an officer who later said he feared that Chambers would escape. In noting that lawbreakers accept the risk that “officers might have to use force to do their jobs”, the State Attorney ruled the shooting justified because the victim was a “felon fleeing apprehension.” Within hours, rioting broke out which lasted three days… destroying a large swath of the African American community.
Rodney Mitchell, 23, was stopped in Sarasota for not wearing a seat belt. Police shot him as he reached to put the car in park… claiming they feared he had a gun.
After being stopped by police for riding his bicycle on the wrong side of the road in West Palm Beach, 22 year old Dontrell Stephens was shot in the back and paralyzed when an officer said he saw Stephens flash a dark object at him with his left hand. The object was a cell phone.
17-year-old Jeremy Hutton, with Down syndrome, who took his mom’s minivan for a joyride, was shot three times during a low-speed car chase.
Alens Charles, 21, fell asleep in his car, unarmed, and in his own driveway. He woke up to investigating officers who shot him when he sat up.
Gregory Frazier, 55, was using a small pocket knife to eat near his home in Pompano Beach when police responded to a phone call of an argument between him and his daughter. Knowing he had a knife, officers told Frazier to get down on the ground. Not long after saying “leave me alone”, he was shot dead.
Corey Jones was shot and killed by a plainclothes officer while he stood waiting by his disabled car in Palm Beach Gardens. 31 years of age, Jones was struck by three of six shots fired by the officer who falsely claimed that he had identified himself and shot in self defense.
Latasha Walton, 32 years old, was shot and killed by a Florida Highway patrol officer after being pulled over for allegedly driving erratically. Officers claim a trooper opened fire as she attempted to flee the scene.
Charles Kinsey, a mental health therapist, was shot by police in North Miami while he sat on the ground with his hands in the air… seated next to his autistic 23 year old patient who had wandered away from his group home. Unarmed, Kinsey asked the police not to shoot him while trying to convince his patient who was playing with his toy truck to obey officers. After being shot, he was handcuffed and left bleeding on the ground for 20 minutes with no medical aid.
Recently, Dyma Loving, a 26-year-old mother-of-three, called police after getting into an argument with a white neighbor who threatened her and a friend with a rifle. Responding officers pushed Loving against a metal fence and put her in a headlock before forcing her to the ground.
Several days later, police slammed a 15 year old boy’s head into the pavement during a “trespassing” incident in which he had been seen merely reaching down to pick something up off the ground outside of a McDonald’s in Tamarac, Florida.
These are but a few of the faces of African American women and men, of all ages and backgrounds that have long been victimized by police violence throughout Florida. The fortunate ones have been injured or left crippled but lived to tell their story. Countless others have been buried leaving family to wonder why, seeking not just answers… but justice. For them, it never came.
Just what is there about Florida that lingers-on for its African American community forced to relive the horrors of Macclenny, Ocoee and Rosewood far removed in time and place… but not outcome? It’s far too easy and academic to simply write it off to the residual effects of “badges and incidents of slavery”. Can it be the North Miami Police Department using images of black men for target practice which reinforces it daily? Or the once Biscayne police chief who told his officers “… if they have burglaries that are open cases that are not solved yet, if you see anybody black walking through our streets and they have somewhat of a record, arrest them so we can pin them for all the burglaries.” Or the scathing indictment by the Department of Justice of the Miami Police Department in 2013concluding it’s officer’s shot and killed way too many people of color yet doing nothing of consequence about it.
Meanwhile, as DeSantis posed in Jerusalem, life and death for Palestinians went on very much as it has these past ten, thirty, fifty, seventy plus years… an unbroken march of death and destruction fed by excuse… fueled by hate. According to B’Tselem (The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories) over the last decade, approximately three-thousand five hundred Palestinians have lost their lives to the Israeli armed forces or paramilitary settler violence. Among those killed have been seven-hundred eighty two minors and three-hundred thirty eight women. According to a data base maintained by Israel-Palestine Timeline, since 2000, approximately 10,000 Palestinians have been killed by Israel… including 2,172 children. Another 100,000 have been injured.
Over the last year, much of the world has watched fixated on the Great Return March in which Israeli snipers have murdered more than 300 Palestinian demonstrators on the eastern edge of Gaza. Another 30,000 have been injured by gunshots or teargas. Nearly 60 of those killed and 7,000 of those injured have been children. Hundreds, including children, have had their limbs amputated as a result of being shot with ammunition designed to tear apart limbs. Apparently the Florida State Legislature has slept through the carnage. Perhaps a match between some recent numbers and names and backdrop might awaken Tallahassee politicians who fear words but seem perfectly comfortable with violence.
On January 11, 2019 Abdul-Rauf Ismael Salha, 14 was shot in the head with live fire by an Israeli sniper while demonstrating during the Great Return March in Northern Gaza. He died three days later.
On May 31, 2019 Israeli soldiers shot and killed Abdullah Luay Gheith, 16, from Hebron, as he and several other young men tried to enter Jerusalem by climbing over a border fence from just outside Bethlehem to attend Friday prayers at the al-Aqsa Mosque. He died instantly after being shot in the heart. Mo’men Abu Tbeish, 21, was also shot and seriously injured in the same incident.
On May 5, 2019, Maria Ahmad Ramadan al-Ghazali, 4 months, was killed along with her father, Ahmad Ramadan al-Ghazali, 31, and Eman Abdullah Asraf, 30, when their high-rise apartment in a Beit Lahiya building was hit by Israeli missiles.
On May 4, 2019, Seba Abu Arar, 14 months, and her pregnant aunt,Falastin Abu Arar, 37, were killed by a rocket that struck close to their apartment building. The infant died instantly when, while sitting on her aunt’s lap, was hit by shrapnel which entered their apartment. Her aunt succumbed later to her wounds.
On April 18, 2019 Fatima Suleiman, 42, a school teacher, was killed after the car she was driving was rammed by a large truck driven by a settler near her home in Teqoua’. Thrown from her car, the truck struck and killed her before fleeing the scene.
On March 6, 2019 Malak Rajabi, 18 months, and her brother, Wa’el, age 4, died in a fire in Hebron when Palestinian rescue crews were blocked, by the Israeli military, from reaching their home before they were burned alive inside.
On December 15, 2018, Sumayya Mahmoud Nasser, 68, died in Jerusalem when she suffered a heart attack while praying at the al-Aqsa Mosque. Israeli forces outside the mosque prevented an ambulance with life saving equipment from reaching her.
On October 13, 2018 Aisha Rabi, 48, mother of eight, was on her way home with her husband, to Bidya in the northern West Bank, when her family’s car was struck, near the Za’tara roadblock, by a hail of large rocks thrown by a group of young settlers just south of Nablus. One of the rocks smashed the windshield and struck her in the cheek and ear. She bled for about two minutes and died.
On August 9, 2108, Israeli air force dropped a guided bomb on a home in the al-Ja’frawi neighborhood which lies on the southeastern outskirts of the Gazan town of Deir al-Balah. The bomb, which failed to detonate, went through the roof of a house rented by Muhammad and Inas Abu Khamash and into their living room… killing Inas, 22, an education student who was nine months pregnant, and Bayan, the couple’s 22-month-old daughter.
On August 27, 2017, eight year old Aseel Tareq Abu ‘Oun was run over and killed by a settler as she left a supermarket near her home in Foroush Beit Dajan village in Nablus.
On August 11, 2017, Amir and Hamza Abu Sbeih, Anas Haymouni and Youssef Roman, each six years old, were severely injured when a settler mounted a curb in East Jerusalem and crashed his vehicle into them.
On May 20, 2017, Fatima Jibril ‘Ayed Taqatqa, 15, died two months after she had been shot in the head by an Israeli soldier at the Etzion junction, south of Bethlehem. Soldiers claimed she had tried to ram them with her car. Evidence showed she was an inexperienced driver with no driver’s license who panicked upon seeing soldiers and was shot after her car came to a complete halt.
On July 1, 2016, Sara Daoud Ata Tarayra, a 27 year old pregnant woman living in Hebron, was shot dead at the entrance of the Ibrahimi Mosque in the city. Ordered to accompany a female soldier to a room to be searched, after being sprayed with pepper spray and fleeing, she was shot and killed by other soldiers. Palestinian medics were prevented from treating her as she lay bleeding on the ground.
On July 1, 2016, Muhammad Mustafa Habash, 63, from Nablus, died after suffering from severe tear gas inhalation after being fired upon by Israeli troops. He was one of 40 who suffered from excessive tear gas as they attempted to cross the Qalandiya checkpoint from Ramallah, in the central occupied West Bank, to attend prayers at the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.
On April 28, 2016, Maram Saleh Abu Ismael, 24, from Beit Surik, five-months pregnant and a mother of two young daughters, and her 16 year old brother, Ibrahim Taha, were shot dead by Israeli soldiers at the Qalandia terminal north of occupied Jerusalem. On her way for a visit to Jerusalem for the first time in her life, the two were apparently approaching soldiers in a drive through lane not intended for pedestrians. Told to stop in Hebrew, a language which neither understood, they continued on until shot dead in a hail of 20 rounds fired from a distance. Both lay bleeding on the ground while soldiers prevented Palestinian medics from treating them.
On August 1, 2014, the extended family of Salem Al Mahmoum was wiped out by indiscriminate Israeli tank and artillery shelling, on a street in Rafah, after fleeing a house that had been attacked just moments before by an Israeli war plane.
The 16 extended family members killed in that attack were:
- Aziza Mahmoud Salaman Al Mahmoum (50), Salem’s wife;
- Wafa’ Salem Suleiman Al Mahmoum (25, Aziza and Salem’s daughter;
- Hani Salem Suleiman Al Mahmoum (23), Aziza and Salem’s son;
- Yahia Salem Suleiman Al Mahmoum (13).Aziza and Salem’s son
- Asma Salem Suleiman Mahmoum (16), Aziza and Salem’s daughter;
- Iqzaya Hammad Salman Al Mahmoum (36), wife of Mustafa Nasser Al Mahmoum;
- Bisan Mustafa Nasser Al Mahmoum (9), Mustafa and Iqzaya’s daughter;
- Hiba Mustafa Nasser Al Mahmoum (7), Mustafa and Iqzaya’s daughter;
- Dou’a Mustafa Nasser Al Mahmoum (4), Mustafa and Iqzaya’s daughter;
- Ubada Mustafa Nasser Al Mahmoum (2), Mustafa and Iqzaya’s son;
- ‘Itaf Hammad Suleiman Al Mahmoum (30), Iqzaya’s sister;
- Ibtisam Hammad Suleiman Al Mahmoun (18), Iqzaya’s sister;
- Anas Ibrahim Hamdan bin Hamad (4);
- Mohammed Anas Mohammed Arafat (4 months);
- Usama Hussein Hassan Abu Sneima (30); and
- Su’ad Jum’a Hamad Al Tarabin (31)
On July 30, 2014, Israeli tanks fired two artillery shells at the house of Mohammed A’ta Al Khalili located in Al Sanafour area in At-Tuffah neighborhood, east of Gaza City. One shell landed on a group of family members awaiting evacuation, killing eight, including two women and three children. The eight were:
- Ashraf Mahmoud Al Khalili (33)
- Nedaa Ziyad Al Khalili (27). Ashraf’s wife
- Deema Ashraf Al Khalili (5). Ashraf’s daughter
- Ziyad Ashraf Al Khalili (2). Ashraf’s son.
- Mahmoud Ashraf Al Kahlili (7). Ashraf’s son.
- Ahmed Mahmoud Al Khalili (28). Ashraf’s brother
- Aya Mohammed Al Khalili (23). Ahmed’s wife who was three months pregnant
- Lama Ahmed Al Khalili, 4. Ahmed’s daughter
On June 11, 2018, Israeli forces demolished a house, a multi-story residential building and 2 commercial facilities in the villages of sour Baher and al-Mukaber Mount, south of occupied East Jerusalem. The next day, their bulldozers razed a residential building, 7 stores and a gas station in the vicinity of the Qalendia checkpoint north of occupied East Jerusalem. Elsewhere, they seized a large plot of Palestinian land to build a new “settlement” street Northeast of Nablus. That same day, they destroyed another multi-story residential building under construction and back-filled a well in Khelet al-Surbat in southern Hebron. Southeast of Nablus, the Israeli military moved boundaries to seize Palestinian agricultural land in the village of ‘Asirah al-Qibliyah.
There was nothing remarkable about these two days. In all respects they were typical ones in the life of occupied Palestine. A small seize in a timeless grab, the destruction of these homes, residential buildings and shops, along with the confiscation of Palestinian land for Israeli military purpose or settler convenience, was a continuum of a boundless land snatch that started long before the occupation. One year later the targets may have changed… the theft has not.
On June 10, 2019, as part of “settlement” expansion, a Palestinian woman… unable to pay the demolition costs of her home… was forced, pursuant to an Israeli municipality order, to demolish it in Sur Baher village, south of occupied East Jerusalem, rendering her and her six children homeless. That same day Israeli forces compelled a Palestinian civilian to self-demolish his residential building, under-construction, in Sho’fat refugee camp, north of occupied East Jerusalem.
Meanwhile, other Israeli forces demolished a residential house, an under-construction building and a commercial facility in Surbaher village and al-Mukaber Mount area, south of occupied East Jerusalem. Accompanied by dozens of soldiers and police officers, streets surrounding the demolition sites were closed before the properties were raided and leveled. Later that day, a military order was issued to confiscate a sizeable plot of land to construct a new street for the Alon Moreh settlement northeast of Nablus.
On Wednesday, June 12, 2019, Israeli troops moved into Um al-Khair village, southeast of Yatta, south of Hebron, and demolished a Palestinian house that was home to ten persons, including 7 children. Meanwhile, other Israeli forces and a bulldozer moved into Kherbit Khashem al-Daraj, east of Yatta, south of Hebron, where they uprooted barbed wire and demolished a Palestinian barn. That same day, Israeli military moved into Kherbit Ras al-Ahmar, in the northern Jordan Valley, where they uprooted tents and demolished houses and barns belonging to 4 families. Later, they destroyed a residence and 4 barracks for grazing sheep and horses in Beer ‘Onah village, north of occupied East Jerusalem.
On June 11, 2019, Israeli forces and 2 bulldozers moved into Kherbet Abu Kbaish, east of Tamoun village, southeast of Tubas. Uprooting some 550 forest and 240 olive trees and destroying two wells in one location… and an additional 310 forest trees and an agricultural well in another, they declared the now leveled woodlands to be a “nature reserve.”. The trees and wells had been donated by the Brazilian Consulate. Later that day, military forces and 3 diggers moved into Khelat al-Sharbati area near Jawhar Mount neighborhood, in the southern area of Hebron, where they demolished an under-construction multi-unit building and a well.
Elsewhere, the military issued 3 orders: one to change borders and seize agricultural lands belonging to Palestinian civilians in ‘Asirah al-Qabaliyah village, southeast of Nablus… another to confiscate agricultural lands belonging in Burin village, also in southeast of Nablus… and a third to change borders and seize around nearby land to expand a military camp assigned security for a nearby settlement. Not long thereafter, Israeli forces demolished a residence, 4 barracks used to raise livestock and horses, and four agricultural facilities in Ber ‘Ounah. Eyewitnesses reported that Israeli forces randomly fired rubber bullets during the demolition process.
By no means a rarity, increasingly, demolition orders, have become the rai·son d’ê·tre for the Judaization of Jerusalem as Israel seeks to transform its physical and demographic landscape and character at the expense of its Muslim and Christian ones. Just several days ago, Israeli occupation forces issued demolition orders for all Palestinian homes in Jerusalem’s Wadi Yasul neighbourhood which will render some 550 Palestinians homeless.
Never ones to leave the theft and destruction of Palestinian land and homes to military forces, alone, illegal “settlers” were active during the same period… typically under the watchful eyes and protection of Israeli troops. For example, on June 5, 2019, settlers from “Ahiya” settlement, which sits on the southern side of Jaloud village, southeast of Nablus, attacked the village outskirts. They threw stones at the village secondary school breaking several windows and set fire to olive fields destroying over 1000 olive trees planted some 65 years ago. The following day settlers seized agricultural lands in the al-Makhrour area in Beit Jala, where they planted various crops before enclosing it with barbed wire and placing mobile homes on what was Palestinian land. On June 8, 2019, settlers attacked a Palestinian land trust in the Al-Khader village, in southern Bethlehem, where they placed water pipes and planted hundreds of olive, apricot, and peach trees throughout it.
Not long thereafter, settlers from the nearby Yitzhar settlement vandalized Palestinian homes in Einabous village, south of Nablus, as well as a local mosque, and clinic. They also slashed the tires of Palestinian vehicles and spray-painted the Star of David on the mosque, clinic, and homes, along with racist slogans spray-painted in Hebrew.
These are but a few of the thousands of instances of theft, violence and outright murder perpetrated by the Israeli military and deadly settler movement against Palestinian civilians for as far back as one can see. Yet, in the run-up to his fawning recital in Israel, even a casual glance of recent events in Palestine should have given DeSantis reason to pause. Predictably… he did not.
In the days before the DeSantis arrival, Israeli forces conducted at least 90 military incursions into Palestinian communities throughout the occupied West Bank… including 7 in Jerusalem and its suburbs. During those raids, Israeli forces killed a Palestinian child and wounded 17 civilians . . . including 6 children. Ten of them, including 2 children, were wounded during their participation in the weekly protest, at Kafr Qaddoum, against Israeli land confiscations and the closure of the village’s southern road by Israeli forces. Six, including 4 children, were wounded while protesting a military incursion into Nablus to secure the entry of hundreds of settlers into the eastern area of the city to perform rituals in Joseph’s Tomb. During this same period, Israeli forces arrested at least 82 Palestinians…including children. Among them were 45 civilians and 3 women in Jerusalem and its suburbs.
In early May of this year, Israeli bombings in Gaza took the lives of at least 12 civilians… including two women, one of them pregnant, and a number of toddlers. Another 100 were injured. This past Friday, the 61st Friday of the Great Return March, Israeli snipers wounded 92 Palestinian civilians… 28 of them children and four paramedics, one a female, in the eastern Gaza Strip. One of the wounded was a child who was hit with a live bullet to the chest sustaining serious wound. In addition, dozens of civilians suffered tear gas inhalation and seizures due to canisters fired by Israeli forces.
Against this light, Governor DeSantis flew to Israel to show support for a country which cripples and murders with impunity, while ignoring the precise violence perpetrated daily against citizens of his own state. Against this light, the State of Florida seeks not to end violence which targets generations of African American citizens but, rather, to silence protected speech that seeks little more than to express solidarity and support with others who know all too well that same deadly aim some 6,500 miles away.
It would be far too easy to confront the conspicuous marrow of the latest legislative attacks on BDS by reliance on constitutional purpose and precedent alone. That pure non-violent speech, association and boycott carry and further the stamp of First Amendment approval is, by now, beyond peradventure.
Long ago, in NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware Co. the United States Supreme Court unanimously recognized that economic boycotts constitute a form of constitutionally protected expression no different than traditional means of communication such as speaking or writing and that those who exercise that right may not be penalized for such conduct.
In Claiborne, a local branch of the NAACP launched a boycott, in 1966, of white merchant’s to obtain a long list of demands for equality and racial justice from civic and business leaders. Though the boycott was largely limited to speeches encouraging others to support their cause through nonviolent picketing, some acts and threats of violence did result. Several years later, the merchants sued the NAACP seeking damages for the boycott alleging it caused malicious interference with business interests, for antitrust violations and for violation of a state boycott statute.
Rejecting First Amendment claims, the lower Mississippi state court found for the merchants and ordered the NAACP to pay $3.5 million in damages. It also issued a permanent injunction prohibiting protesters from posting “store watchers” at the premises of the boycotted businesses; persuading others to withhold patronage from the boycotted businesses; “using demeaning or obscene language to or about any person” for continuing to patronize the boycotted merchants; “picketing or patrolling” the premises of the boycotted businesses; and “using violence against any person or inflicting damage to any real or personal property.” On appeal, the judgment was largely upheld by the Mississippi Supreme Court.
In a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the state court finding that the boycott was a form of political speech entitled to protection under the First Amendment. In doing so, it noted that “…the boycott clearly involved constitutionally protected activity” through which the NAACP “… sought to bring about political, social, and economic change.”
The high court found that while the boycott may have adversely impacted local businesses, it was part of broader peaceful political activity on an issue of public significance: “Through speech, assembly, and petition… rather than through riot or revolution… petitioners sought to change a social order that had consistently treated them as second-class citizens.”
Moreover, it reasoned that, without proof of an organization’s unlawful goals, an individual cannot be held liable for exercising their First Amendment right to assemble with other people… even if some of the others committed violent acts. Under those circumstances, the Supreme Court noted that when acts of violence are committed in conjunction with lawful expression, regulations must be sufficiently precise to impose damages only upon those who are guilty of wrongful conduct.
There should be no doubt about the continuing vitality, indeed, controlling application of Claiborne to the latest spate of legislative efforts to silence BDS. In a series of recent cases that have considered the state’s power to prohibit political boycotts, district courts have fallen clearly on the side of those who engage in BDS, and related speech activity, as a fundamental constitutional right.
For example, in Amawi v. Pflugerville Indep. Sch. Dist, Texas sought to require an oath from public employees that they would not support BDS as a condition of their employment. The lead plaintiff, Bahia Amawia, a U.S. citizen and speech pathologist, is a Palestinian, with family in Palestine, who participates in the BDS movement because she “advocate[s] for Palestinian human rights and justice [and to that end] support[s] peaceful efforts to impose economic pressure on Israel, with the goal of making Israel recognize Palestinians’ dignity and human rights.” For almost a decade, she contracted with a local school district in Texas to provide speech therapy and childhood evaluations. When she refused to certify that she did not, and will not in the future, boycott Israel, she was fired and sued.
Rejecting the state’s power to prohibit the boycott of Israel as a condition of public employment, the court scoffed at the Texas argument that BDS was merely an effort to “…refuse to buy things.” In siding with the broadest reach of First Amendment protection the court reminded Texas of the now almost four decade old teach of Claiborne “… that boycotts are “deeply embedded in the American political process”—so embedded not because “refusing to buy things” is of paramount importance, but because in boycotts, the “elements of speech, assembly, association, and petition… “are inseparable” and are magnified by the “banding together” of individuals “to make their voices heard.” With quick dispatch, the court ruled the Texas statute unconstitutional.
Likewise, in Koontz v. Watson, the court rejected an attempt by the Kansas legislature to impose a fidelity clause upon state contractors which prohibited them from engaging in a boycott of Israel. In Koontz, the plaintiff, a Mormon, became motivated to boycott Israel by a documentary she saw, in 2016, about conditions in Palestine. The following year, she began to boycott Israeli businesses not long before the Mennonite Church USA passed a resolution that called on its members to boycott products associated with the occupation. As a result, Ms. Koontz decided she would not purchase any products or services from Israeli companies or from any company which operates in Israeli-occupied Palestine.
Because of her refusal to sign the required certification, Ms. Koontz, a curriculum coach at a public school, was denied an opportunity to participate as a teacher trainer in a statewide program under a contract that would have enhanced her career and increased her income.
In revisiting Claiborne, the court noted that Ms. Koontz, and other members of the Mennonite Church, have “banded together” to express their dissatisfaction with Israel and to influence its governmental action which, they see, as one riddled with injustice and violence.
Drawing no distinction between the unconstitutional anti-boycott efforts of Mississippi, some fifty years earlier, and that of Kansas, today, the court reasoned Ms. Koontz “and others participating in this boycott of Israel seek to amplify their voices to influence change… as did the boycotters in Claiborne.” Finding the law violated Ms. Koontz’ First Amendment rights, the court granted a preliminary injunction enjoining the state from enforcing the law.
A similar conclusion was recently reached in the matter of Jordahl v. Brnovich. In 2016, Arizona enacted legislation “… aimed at divesting state funding from companies that engage in a boycott of Israel.” In relevant part Arizona Revised Statute § 35-393.01 states :
“A public entity may not enter into a contract with a company to acquire or dispose of services, supplies, information technology or construction unless the contract includes a written certification that the company is not currently engaged in, and agrees for the duration of the contract to not engage in, a boycott of Israel.”
Mikkel Jordahl is an attorney who, on a personal level, participates in a boycott of consumer goods and services offered by businesses which support the occupation of the Palestinian territories. Jordahl was moved by the Peace Not Walls campaign, promoted by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which calls on “… individuals to invest in Palestinian products to build their economy and to utilize selective purchasing to avoid buying products made in illegal Israeli settlements built on Palestinian land.” Mr. Jordahl is a non-Jewish member of Jewish Voice for Peace and supports its endorsement of BDS campaigns. As head of his own law firm, he wanted it to join the boycott of all businesses operating in settlements in occupied Palestinian.
For more than a decade, Mr. Jordahl’s firm contracted with an Arizona county jail for legal services to incarcerated individuals. Following passage of Arizona’s anti-BDS law, the County asked him to execute a written certification, on the Firm’s behalf, that it “is not currently engaged in a boycott of Israel,”, that “no wholly owned subsidiaries, majority-owned subsidiaries, parent companies, or affiliates” of the Firm are “engaged in a boycott of Israel,” and that neither the Firm nor any of the above-mentioned associated entities would “engage in a boycott of Israel” for the duration of the contract agreement.” He refused. As a result, the county stopped paying for his firm’s legal services although Mr. Jordahl continued its work, free of charge, at significant personal expense.
The Arizona court had little difficulty in siding with Mr. Jordahl and his firm. Beginning with the settled proposition that citizens do not forfeit their First Amendment rights by accepting public employment, the court found no difference of constitutional consequence between Claiborne and its progeny and the Arizona law at hand.
From there it was a quick judicial walk to the conclusion that Arizona’s anti-BDS law impermissibly “burdens the protected expression of companies wishing to engage in such a boycott. The type of collective action targeted by the Act specifically implicates the rights of assembly and association that Americans and Arizonans use “to bring about political, social, and economic change.”
In light of these cases, it is wishful sophistry to see the Supreme Court do a 180 degree turn if, and when, an anti-BDS case reaches its historic bench and to find that such legislation passes constitutional muster. Yet, Florida and its toadying Governor, desperate for political pomp, have gone one step further in it’s most recent law that not only impermissibly prohibits boycotts, but seeks to criminalize mere words, themselves. Under their broken view of the First Amendment, one can silence public discussion and debate over the policies and practices of Israel by simply reducing it to little more than a trendy puerile talisman of anti-Semitism. It will not work.
If there is any remarkable feature of the American experience, it is the First Amendment. By its very language, it is imposing. It is meant to be. “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech or of the press…” While this unqualified phrasing was not intended to safeguard all expression, First Amendment protection of speech and press is the exalted cornerstone of our Republic.
Nowhere is that more compelling than it is with regard to political speech. As noted by the Supreme Court… “Speech concerning public affairs is more than self-expression; it is the essence of self-government.” To be sure, the Court has often “… reaffirmed that speech on public issues occupies the highest rung of the [hierarchy] of First Amendment values and is entitled to special protection.”
The constitution permits but minimal interference with political speech. And when it takes the form of a “prior restraint” suppressing it before the fact, it is presumptively unconstitutional whether the ban arises from a court order or by legislative act. The right of speech stretches from the speaker’s voice to the listener’s ear … free from government. Ultimately, it is only through a robust exchange of ideas and opinion that informed decisions can be drawn on essential issues of public concern.
Ripped from the historical presence of Palestine, Israel has received hundreds of billions of dollars from the United States since its founding. In the decades since, it has provided Israel an endless supply of high grade weaponry, technical assistance and blanket support in the UN. It has shaped much of its own foreign policy in the Middle East, Gulf and parts of North Africa in reliance upon what is described, by some, as a bilateral relationship that furthers the interest of both. Over these years, the United States has inflicted millions of casualties in the region and suffered tens of thousands of its own. While some choose to describe the relationship between the United States and Israel as one of architect and proxy, with vigorous disagreement over which is which, there can be no reasonable quarrel over the fact that they have been inexorably intertwined with one another on issues of public interest and policy for more than seventy years. Given this history, to suggest that discourse and debate about that relationship, indeed, about Israel itself, does not constitute protected speech about pressing public issues is sheer folly.
That is not to suggest that all comment and speech about Israel, its leadership, its people, its property must be constitutionally countenanced under all circumstances at all times. Indeed, it is well settled that, under limited circumstances, speech can cross the line from protected observation and comment to illegal conduct.
Thus, in the landmark case of Brandenburg v. Ohio the Supreme Court noted that speech “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action” and “likely to incite or produce such action” may be punishable via criminal law. However it went on to note that speech may encourage or even advocate lawless action, yet be unlikely to incite such action, leaving it fully protected under the First Amendment.
Cut to its essential chase, Brandenburg and its progeny reaffirm a call for calculation and consideration of words and context not whitewash of thoughts. Florida would silence that calculus by legislative fiat. It would convert any challenge to Israel, any dare to its policies, any opposition to its practices to prohibited, perhaps even criminal speech. It does not pass constitutional muster.
Whether by ignorance or political convenience, the fundamental disconnect between the secular evil that is Zionism and the age-old faith that is Judaism seems to narrow day by day across certain political divides. BDS is a movement of non violence and humanity… it singles out no one faith, race, or sexual identity for either scorn or praise. Yet, with unsurprising ease and clear purpose, it has been reworked, by some, to turn aside its well defined goal and, by now, settled history and practice. Short on cover, excuse and allies, desperate Zionists have never hesitated to exploit painful historical events to further their faithless geopolitical blueprint. And while many wince at the claim of an age-old international Jewish conspiracy, Zionists welcome the screed as so much supporting fodder for their all too convenient baseless charge that Jews are under attack, everywhere. Make no mistake about it, Israeli hate and violence is under attack… as well it should be. But to cast its long, supremacist and deadly shadow as vulnerable victim to ”anti-Semitism” by critical speech . . . and speech alone… is little more than cheap obfuscation and empty rewrite.
While HB 741 may please Florida’s political benefactors, ultimately it will fail as but another petty pander to those who find comfort in lofty self-praise but flee the search for truth. That search will not permit the future of Palestinians to remain highjacked through the fabrication of a shallow Zionist chronicle.
When the history of our time is written, anti-BDS legislation will be dispatched as little more than opportune political chant. As for BDS, itself, it will have proven to have played a defining role as a loud and powerful megaphone that confronted the longest and most insidious system of apartheid of our day… bar none.
Feature photo | Gov. Ron DeSantis visits the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Photo | Governor’s Press Office
Stanley L Cohen is a US-based attorney and human rights activist who has done extensive work in the Middle East and Africa.
This article was published with special permission from the author. It first appeared at CounterPunch.