Boycott: American idealism and the defence of Palestine

Boycott: American idealism and the defence of Palestine
10 min read
22 November, 2022

‘Out of sight, out of mind’ is said to dismiss a problem because of how far it is or seems to be. But with attention spans saturated at the whim of 140 characters, perhaps it’s time this 15th-century proverb took on a new, altogether modern meaning.

Instant forms of distraction have obscured things that matter, with this habit seeping into how our political economy functions. It’s all too easy to forget that the climate crisis deteriorates in tandem with the cost-of-living crisis, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is one of many ongoing conflicts around the world and that the fight for women’s rights doesn’t just take place in countries labelled pariahs.

Nor are these issues fixed at the click of a button. Yet it’s within this smog that Julia Bacha's documentary Boycott is filmed, and given its link to Palestine – the most infamous case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ of our time- all the more reason why the sumud of the film’s participants are remarkable.  

"Not only is Palestine ‘out of sight, out of mind’, but should one happen to be mindful of Israel’s occupation they are duly placed out of sight"

Boycott is a difficult documentary to pin down. On the surface, the film is about three American plaintiffs and their fight against anti-BDS legislation, but to reduce its message to just that would miss its wider mark. Boycott is a film with its eye on Palestine no doubt, but not without a heavy American accent.

We’re often reminded of American idealism – opportunity, independence, and critical thinking – but where are these ideals in American life? The United States today is a tribal battleground, bereft of ways to avoid partisanship and indebted to the market as a guarantor of freedom.

Boycott instead celebrates the idea that there are different ways to the truth; encapsulating what Americans insist made their country ‘great’. The three plaintiffs, each with diverse backgrounds and motivations, converge in their right of choice and their right to boycott Israeli apartheid. And it’s this message that makes Boycott a truly American film: the sceptic citizen as David versus the imposing government as Goliath.

Boycott plaintiff Bahia Amawi speaking to journalists at a press conference outside of a Texas courthouse as seen in Just Vision’s documentary Boycott. Photo credit: Jonah Candelario]
Boycott plaintiff Bahia Amawi speaking to journalists at a press conference outside of a Texas courthouse as seen in Just Vision’s documentary Boycott. [Photo credit: Jonah Candelario]

Learning about Israel’s occupation of Palestine in the United States is purposefully hard. The country’s role as protector and benefactor-in-chief to Israel has placed a muzzle over Palestinian voices, constricting pro-Palestinian activists and academics from the public eye. Not only is Palestine ‘out of sight, out of mind’, but should one happen to be mindful of Israel’s occupation they are duly placed out of sight.

This systematic suffocation continues to segregate and silence. Flick through any U.S media during periods of tension and the sub-text is clear: sell Israeli military actions to the Americans that bankroll it, with Palestinian terror, not territory the incessant focal point. The much-cited study by M.I.T researcher Holly Jackson that analysed 33,000 New York Times articles linked to the conflict is passing proof of this strategy in effect.

With such little space for debate and the pendulum so skewed in Israel’s favour, it remains politically expedient to maintain this status quo.

It is within this environment that Boycott is filmed, and anti-BDS and anti-boycott bills are passed without scrutiny. Crucially, it is also why a documentary like Boycott is important to have in the public domain.

Eventually the pendulum swings

We meet Boycott’s “accidental” plaintiffs – Bahia Amawi, a Palestinian-American speech therapist based in Texas, Mikkel Jordahl, a human-rights attorney based in Arizona, and Alan Leveritt, publisher of the Arkansas Times – after the film’s stark opening.

A camera pans along a hallway of Arkansas’s State building. Legislators from both sides of the political spectrum chuckle with each other, exuding a confidence that a sedated bureaucracy brings. Watching law in motion, bills are passed, rejected, and forgotten as a formality.

Pro-gun law passed. Abortion bill rejected. Climate bill rejected. Anti-BDS bill passed.

By first introducing the viewer to the mechanics of government, Boycott does well to show the choreographed shadowboxing of American politics, with one's impression from the opening sequence two-fold: representation is redundant in the face of lobby pressure, and Arkansas is by no means an exception to the rule. This assumption is quickly proven: since 2015, 34 states have passed laws intending to silence boycotts of Israel.

"Whilst you may not want to deal with Palestine, Palestine wants to deal with you"

“We wanted to raise alarms over anti-boycott bills being passed with little to no scrutiny [in the United States],” Boycott director Julia Bacha revealed to The New Arab. “Often these films come across as quite legalistic – ‘Why should I care about a clause in a contract?’ With Boycott, we wanted to prove that whilst you may not want to deal with Palestine, Palestine wants to deal with you.

“Most Americans are unaware of the recent laws that silence boycotts and other non-violent means that pressure Israel on its human rights record. But this erosion of legal protection also acts as a template to grant governments the power to condition jobs on political viewpoints and threaten the constitutional right to boycott,” Julia remarked.

These templates or ‘bill imports’ should be a cause for concern for every American. The right to boycott remains ingrained in the American psyche, from the American colonist’s decision to boycott the British East India Company in 1773, to the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 and the American Right’s boycott of Nike over Colin Kaepernick’s decision to take the knee. 

“Throughout American history, boycotts have been emblematic of social change and justice,” Julia said. “The right to boycott is not reserved for one ideology or the other. It protects the right of choice, to care about what one chooses to care about. These egregious, and fairly recent, attacks on the freedom to boycott warrants some accountability.”

Fortunately, this wave of anti-boycott legislation was also met with a counter-wave of defence of freedom of speech. Plaintiff after plaintiff began to pop up in far-flung parts of the country, and it became apparent their stories were a compelling device to challenge 'bill imports' through the impact it has on everyday Americans.

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“Casting subjects for a documentary is always a challenge, especially when lives and livelihoods are at stake,” Julia told The New Arab. “You don’t know these people. You don’t know what their lives are like or what their realities are. But we were tremendously lucky with Boycott to find such principled people. Employees don’t often sue their employers, especially if their employer is the State. It’s rare to find people from such different walks of life willing to risk their jobs to protect people and ensure they have a place in the world.”

And it is through the three protagonists’ disparate narrative arcs that Boycott is able to shine. Their courage to defend freedom of expression is glued to the Palestinian cause, proving that decency doesn’t have a race, ideology, or postcode. In doing so, they lay bare what’s at stake – the constitutionally-protected right to boycott – if they are defeated.

The Three Musketeers

At 64, Arizona-based lawyer Mikkel Jordahl shows no sign of slowing down. A lifelong campaigner against racism, a trip to Palestine has since informed more than 40 years of advocating for civil rights, first amendment rights and boycotting apartheid. It was apartheid South Africa then; it is apartheid Israel now.

Mindful of the hostile climate toward Palestine in the U.S, it nonetheless came as a surprise to Mikkel in 2016 when Arizona approved legislation prohibiting the state from contracting for services unless the contractor signed a document saying that they wouldn’t boycott Israel. As with each of the three plaintiffs, Mikkel’s source of income was pitted against his moral compass.

“My legal practice had been providing services to the local Arizona government, such as advising prison inmates,” Mikkel told The New Arab. “By refusing to not boycott Israel, I was not only jeopardising my livelihood but also risking mine and my family’s security. This dangerous trend needed to be fought.”

“The fact that we’re stopped from even having a conversation about apartheid is deeply unsettling,” Mikkel continued. “It’s important to view these bills through the lens of rights – this is legal and non-violent resistance that affects BDS and the boycott movement as a whole. The same legislation used to penalise boycotts of Israel today will be used to punish contractors and government employees who boycott Planned Parenthood tomorrow.”

Mikkel Jordahl and son at US-Mexico border, as seen in Just Vision’s documentary Boycott [photo credit: Just Vision]
Mikkel Jordahl and son at the US-Mexico border, as seen in Just Vision’s documentary Boycott [photo credit: Just Vision]

It's also revealing that the bill in Arizona was supported by both Republicans and Democrats. “The proposed bill would have put me in prison for 20 years for not spending my money on illegal settlements in the West Bank. Why is bi-partisan support for Israel now more important than my First Amendment rights?”

Mikkel now fears that Arizona’s Israel anti-boycott law will become a template to crush rights on multiple issues. “This suppression extends beyond Arizona,” Mikkel wrote in an article published in Arizona Central. “Texas has banned contracts with entities that boycott firearms and fossil fuels. There are at least eight blatantly unconstitutional bills nationwide cutting the word 'Israel' and pasting it into other issues.”

Across Interstate-10 in Texas, Palestinian-American Bahia Amawi is teaching a child how to speak. The only Arabic-language speech therapist in the city, Bahia’s services are at the cusp of integrating the next generation into society. The irony that, by speaking out against anti-BDS legislation, Bahia now faced ostracization from her profession is certainly not lost. By joining the ‘cast’ of Boycott and becoming a plaintiff against the state of Texas, Bahia’s story is as much about the assertion of Palestinian-American identity and combatting invisibility as it is about boycotts generally. 

“As Palestinian Americans, we constantly have to fight to exist,” Bahia lamented. “It’s a continuous battle. I remember when I was in 4th grade one of my teachers asked me to find my country on the school map. When I couldn’t find it, I realised there are forces in this country that don’t want us as Palestinians to be seen or heard.”

Bahia Amawi (2nd from left) with her children and husband as seen in Just Vision’s documentary Boycott [photo credit: Just Vision]
Bahia Amawi (2nd from left) with her children and husband as seen in Just Vision’s documentary Boycott [photo credit: Just Vision]

The idea that Bahia has to renounce her Palestinian-ness to integrate into modern America is wrong. “We’ve seen how the government responds to the occupation, now we’re seeing it at the state level with the laws being passed. But by challenging these laws, we as the Palestinian-American community want to show that our culture continues to thrive, with this sense of activism passed down to our children,” Bahia told The New Arab with resolve. “Both as an American and as a Palestinian, this is worrying on so many levels.”

Copy, Paste, Print

As Boycott predicts, anti-boycott laws are now spreading vociferously. According to Just Vision’s anti-boycott legislation tracker, as of November 2022, 64 pieces of legislation have been signed to curtail the right to boycott, with issue areas ranging from Palestinian rights and gun control to environmental sustainability.

This trend is also no longer exclusive to the United States. This summer, as Britain waited for the Queen’s Speech to tackle the cost-of-living crisis, a backdoor bill restricting pro-Palestinian activism was instead squeezed through parliament. In a similarly ambiguous manner to their Atlantic counterparts, the bill stated that it would “prevent public bodies engaging in boycotts that undermine community cohesion.” Effectively this bans public institutions from promoting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

Beyond the legal battles of Bahia, Mikkel and Alan, Boycott’s lasting impact lies in its ability to investigate the organisations responsible for these under-the-table ‘template’ bills, with one group ALEC, the “American Legislative Exchange Council,” particularly liable. 

ALEC’s formula of “model bills” that can be customised and introduced in state legislature extends beyond assaulting Palestinian activism but rather quashes all forms of political dissent, striking at the very heart of American democracy.

As Palestinian scholar, Nada Elia wrote in a recent piece published in The New Arab: “ALEC has long attacked public education, environmental activism, trans rights… it previously promoted the 'Stand Your Ground' law that resulted in the murder of Trayvon Martin… and is also involved to ban the teaching of Critical Race Theory…and the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe V. Wade.”

What Boycott therefore achieves is unveiling the United States for what it is, not what it professes to be: a gang of institutions at the behest of big business on the one hand and a willing collective of citizens that refuse to cower on the other. Through Julia Bacha and Just Vision’s film, we’re awoken to the forces at play when placed ‘out of sight, out of mind'; learning what we stand to lose in the interest of ignorance. And through the trials and tribulations of Bahia, Mikkel and Alan, we’re compelled to remain vigilant and retain our inalienable right to fight for what is right.

Track anti-boycott legislation or attend a screening of Boycott here

Benjamin Ashraf is The New Arab's Deputy Features Editor. He is also a Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Jordan's Center for Strategic Studies and a board member of Red Pepper's Admin Collective. 

Follow him on Twitter: @ashrafzeneca