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Ohio Lawmaker Proposes Condemning BDS Movement, Sparking Free Speech Concerns

Jo Ingles
Statehouse News Bureau
State Rep. Andy Thompson surrounded by backers of legislation L-R Chris Long, Ohio Christian Alliance, Michael Goldstein, Proclaiming Justice to the Nations and Rabbi Avi Goldstein, Columbus area clergy member.

Just a day before Jews celebrate one of their holiest days, Yom Kippur, an Ohio lawmaker is drawing attention to a resolution that condemns a protest movement on college campuses.

The BDS movement – boycott, divest and sanction – calls for action against those doing business with and in Israel, because of activists consider injustices against Gaza and Palestine.

Republican state rep. Andy Thompson, though, claims the BDS protestors often engage in anti-Semitic behavior.

“We shouldn’t kid ourselves. The BDS movement is about wiping Israel off the map,” Thompson says. “And if we don’t stand strongly and firmly against that, if we do not insist that our campuses protect the rights of Jewish students and allies of Israel, we could potentially face much darker outcomes.”

Thompson’s legislation, HCR 10, condemns the movement and urges state universities to take a stand against those who advocate for it.

Michael Goldstein is the executive director of the Ohio chapter of Proclaiming Justice to the Nations – a Christian group dedicated to supporting the state of Israel and the Jewish people.  

Goldstein, who is Jewish, says the legislation is needed because BDS groups infringe on the First Amendment rights of Jews on campuses.

“They have carried out an array of intolerant activities to silence Jewish and pro-Israel voices, many of them Christian, most frequently through the attempted cancellation, shutting down or disruption of pro-Israel events,” Goldestein says. “But also through the vilification and intimidation of Jewish and pro-Israel groups and individuals with the clear intention of de-legitimizing their perspective or their point of view or causing them to be too afraid or uncomfortable to express it.”

Opponents, however, say such bills just limit free speech in a different way.

But Rahul Saksena, an attorney for the civil rights group Palestine Legal, says the resolution is troubling because it is part of a national effort to stifle the speech of those who support Palestinian rights.

“It’s part of a larger trend that we are seeing across the country to censor and suppress First Amendment-protected speech that’s critical of Israeli government policy and supportive of Palestinian rights,” Saksena says. “So people in the U.S. are increasingly embracing boycotts and the tactics to help achieve justice and equality for Palestinians and that by increasing support for Palestinian rights is really challenging the status quo in this country, a status quo that favors uncritical support of Israel and I think in response that’s making Israel and its organizations nervous.”

The American Civil Liberties Union hasn’t taken a stance on the bill. Mike Brickner of the ACLU of Ohio says his group supports the rights of all people to be able to boycott or support certain causes.

But he says he’s leery of this resolution.

“It is one of many new bills that we have seen, both in Ohio and also across the country, that strike out against BDS activists,” Brickner says. “There was a bill that passed last General Assembly here in Ohio that limited the ability of the state to conduct business with people who participate in BDS activities.”

Brickner points to a bill introduced to Congress, the “Combating BDS Act of 2017,” that would possibly criminalize BDS supporters. He says that bill, which is co-sponsored by Sen. Rob Portman, “would harm people’s ability to boycott and come with some potential penalties if a person did engage in boycott activities with the BDS movement.”

Brickner says his group is watching this type of legislation to see how it will play out in the context of free speech for all sides.

As for Thompson’s bill, it was introduced to the House and referred to committee in June.