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US city links hurricane relief to support for Israel

In Dickinson, Texas, residents must sign a pledge not to boycott Israel in order to obtain hurricane relief funds.

Dickinson

Those wishing to receive Hurricane Harvey relief funds in the US city of Dickinson, Texas, will have to sign an agreement that they will not boycott Israel.

An application for a Hurricane Harvey Repair Grant posted on the Dickinson city website this week includes a "Verification not to Boycott Israel" clause.

The clause states that by signing the agreement, "the Applicant verifies that the Applicant: (1) does not boycott Israel; and (2) will not boycott Israel during the term of this Agreement".

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has strongly criticised the contract, saying it infringes on constitutional rights.

"It is flatly unconstitutional, and morally outrageous, for the government to impose political litmus tests on access to disaster relief funds," ACLU representative Brian Hauss said.

"Supreme Court precedents going back to the McCarthy era establish that the government cannot force people to sign loyalty oaths or other certifications regarding their political beliefs, expression and association in exchange for government benefits."

Dickinson, a city located in the greater Houston area and with just under 20,000 people, was hit hard by Hurricane Harvey two months ago. About half of its citizens were affected by the devastating hurricane. At least three people died, local media reported.

In an effort to rebuild, the Dickinson city government is offering grants to contractors who want to aid in the relief efforts - but only if the applicants agree to not boycott Israel.

Bryan Milward, a management assistant for the city of Dickinson, said that the clause is included in the application because of a Texas state law.

"In this application form, people state what damage they had from the storm and what the funds they receive would be used for," Milward said. "This application functions as a contract, which means we have to include this clause based on state law."

Milward was referring to a Texas law, passed earlier this year, that is specifically aimed at the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which puts economic and other non-violent pressure on Israeli companies and companies that work with Israel.

House Bill 89, known colloquially as the anti-BDS bill, states that no Texas state agency can contract companies that boycott Israel.

"Anti-Israel policies are anti-Texas policies, and we will not tolerate such actions against an important ally," Governor Greg Abbott said in a statement in May after signing the bill into law.

But rights groups, including the ACLU, call these laws a "legislative assault" on the right to boycott.

"In short, the Texas law being enforced by the City of Dickinson - as well as other cities throughout Texas, including Galveston, Austin and San Antonio - is leveraging vital government funds to suppress one side of a prominent public debate," Hauss said.

"These bills and laws differ in various respects, but they share a common goal of suppressing constitutionally protected boycotts of Israel," he added. "They seek to accomplish this objective by scaring people into thinking that these boycotts are illegal and threatening government blacklisting and financial penalties."

Broader trend

The Texas law is part of a wider trend across the US, aimed at targeting the BDS movement.

At least 21 states have implemented laws that seek to prohibit individuals from boycotting Israel.

"This type of anti-BDS legislation is something we've been tracking for some time and we are aware of," Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, said.

"People that want to help rebuild areas that were devastated by natural disasters have to pass a litmus test on their thoughts on the Middle East," Munayyer said. "Even for someone like myself, who is aware to this type of legislation, it's shocking to see it be applied to hurricane relief."

In Kansas, the ACLU is currently taking the state to court over a contract a mathematics teacher had to sign to be eligible for a state-funded programme to help other teachers.

The teacher, Esther Koontz, refused to sign this statement based on her religious beliefs, which meant she was not eligible to enrol in the programme.

The ACLU said in a statement that Koontz's free speech rights were infringed by the contract.

The organisation based its arguments on a ruling from 1982, in which the US Supreme Court said the government cannot prohibit a "non-violent, politically motivated boycott designed to force governmental and economic change".

In 2017 alone, six governors signed state laws that prevent the government from doing business with companies that boycott Israel.

'Legislative assault'

In March, a similar anti-BDS bill was introduced in the US Congress that would make it a felony to support boycotts of various companies doing business with Israel, according to the ACLU.

"Congress has also a federal bill, the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, that threatens serious sanctions against anyone who support boycotts called for by international governmental organisations, such as the UN Human Rights Council," Hauss said.

"The bottom line is that boycotts are a legitimate form of non-violent protest, and they are protected by the First Amendment."

If this bill becomes a federal law, violators could face a maximum prison sentence of 20 years and a $1m fine.

"Over the past few years, we've seen a legislative assault on the right to boycott. It's always hard to figure out what sparks a particular legislative trend, such as the one at issue here. Whatever their origins, many of these laws clearly violate the First Amendment," Hauss said.

For Munayyer, it is clear who is behind these bills.

"There is no secret where this is coming from: There is a variety of pro-Israel interest groups that have made this their agenda, at the federal level as well," he said.

"To see that American lawmakers are willing to curtail the civil liberties of American citizens like this is shameful."


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