The top Democrat in the Arkansas state senate was blithely going about his business when he ran into the makers of the documentary film Boycott, and a difficult question.
Greg Leding’s smile drops as the film’s director, Julia Bacha, asks about an Arkansas law requiring contractors doing business with the state to pledge not to boycott Israel. Leding claims not to know about the contentious but not uncommon piece of legislation that may well end up before the US supreme court. But he voted for the law, how can he not know about it? He tells Bacha he wasn’t paying attention.
Eventually, Leding concedes.
“I regret not knowing more about the issue when I voted. Having heard from my constituents, I probably would have voted against it,” he said.
Watching all of this from the sidelines with a grin on his face is Bart Hester, the Republican majority leader in the Arkansas state senate and primary sponsor of the legislation that sailed through his chamber without a single dissenting vote. “The Palestinian movement is not here educating the other side of the issue, and so no one heard the other side of the argument. I doubt there was any question. It just flew through,” he told the documentary makers.
And not just in Arkansas. More than 30 states have passed similar laws to punish boycotts of Israel in support of Palestinian rights, inspired by the anti-apartheid campaign in South Africa. There’s even federal legislation in the works that would make it a criminal offence to boycott Israel.
Bacha, who has made a number of documentaries about Palestinian and Israeli life, said she turned her lens on the US to understand the sudden proliferation of laws to protect a single foreign country from a form of political protest with a long tradition in America. Boycotts extend back to the Boston tea party, and were found by the US supreme court to be a protected form of free speech four decades ago.
“We’re at a crossroads where, over 20 years there was this big shift in the conversation. More Americans understand the actions of the Israeli government, the role of the United States in supporting Israeli policies, and the effects it has on the Palestinian people. There’s such a dramatic change, in particular among Democrats and liberals, in their perception of what’s happening in Israel and Palestine,” she said.
“So now there’s a growing attempt to shut down that conversation because if you can’t win a debate, you just try to not allow the debate to happen in the first place. For us, it felt really important to call attention to that.”
Boycott, which has been making the film festival rounds and will be available for rental on most major streaming platforms from 1 March, follows three Americans who fought back in the courts after refusing to sign commitments under state laws not to boycott Israel.
Bahia Anawi lost her job as a paediatric speech pathologist in Texas schools after refusing to make the pledge because she is a Palestinian American. Mik Jordahl, a lawyer, lost a job with the Arizona prison system and struggled financially after refusing to sign a work contract that included an anti-boycott clause. Jordahl visited Israel and the Palestinian territories with his Jewish son, and very much wanted to boycott companies complicit in the occupation.
Then there is Alan Leveritt, editor of the Arkansas Times, an alternative newspaper he founded nearly half a century ago. He was surprised to receive a demand to renounce boycotts of Israel if his newspaper wanted advertising from one of the state’s universities.
The Arkansas Times needed the revenue and Leveritt said it had never occurred to him to boycott Israel. But the demand rubbed him the wrong way.
“I have the right to boycott anyone I want to, and the state has no business getting involved in that. So we said, no,” he told Bacha.
The laws are primarily driven by the Israeli government and its allies in the US as a reaction to the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement. Israel claims it is antisemitic, has ties to terrorism and is aimed at the destruction of the Jewish state. Foreign critics, including politicians in the US, Britain and Europe, accuse it of “singling out” Israel. BDS’s Palestinian organisers ask who it is they are expected to protest against, using peaceful methods, if not Israel.
Bacha, whose film was funded by the Sundance Institute and a handful of other documentary groups in the US and UK, said Israel regards the BDS movement as a “fundamental threat”.
“Even if it’s not going to have an economic impact, it is having a reputational impact and crushing it has been a core goal of the government,” she said.
“As we show in the film, some of the funding to oppose it came directly from the Israeli government to organisations in the US that were at the forefront of the lobby for the anti-boycott laws.”
Among the most-powerful backers of the anti-boycott legislation is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac) which has little trouble rounding up politicians to back legislation in support of Israel. Which is why Bacha said she was not surprised by Leding’s admission that he had not read the law he voted for.
“Leding’s told it’s a pro-Israel bill, that it’s just going to protect Israel. He identifies as a pro-Israel lawmaker and so he signs the bill. This is not unusual,” she said.
Arkansas, like other states, dressed up the law as combatting antisemitism in the US, which came as a surprise to Rabbi Barry Block, of Temple B’nai Israel in Little Rock. He tells Bacha that no one asked for his opinion and that the first he knew about the legislation was when the Arkansas Times took up the challenge against it.
“Here I am the rabbi of the largest congregation in the state. Nobody had talked to me about this proposal,” he said.
“Supporting Israel is of the greatest importance to me. I could not be stronger in my opposition to boycotts of any Israeli products. However, I was appalled that a newspaper would have to sign an oath that it would not participate in any kind of political action.”
Hester tells Bacha that he didn’t think there was any point in consulting Block.
“I haven’t spoken to the leadership of the Jewish community. The local Jewish leaders … I don’t agree with. I didn’t need the locals’ opinion on this,” he said.
Boycott follows Anawi and Jordahl through their legal fights, and the court victories that forced their respective states to narrow anti-boycott laws to exclude individuals. But Leveritt lost his case before a federal appeals court, and the US supreme court refused to take it up earlier this month.
By then, corporations had seen the possibilities.
As Bacha shows in the film, laws to protect Israel provided the template for legislation to curb boycotts of companies over the climate crisis, gun control, factory farming and others issues.
“Since the start of this year, there’s been 30 new bills that have been introduced. They are listing all kinds of industries, not just guns and oil, but also causes. There are bills so you can’t put caught a company that doesn’t offer a comprehensive reproductive care. You can’t boycott a company based on their equity shortcomings. You can’t boycott a company if they if you think they’re transphobic,” said Bacha.
“It’s an onslaught right now.”