Last week, Massachusetts lawmakers heard testimony on a bill that would require those seeking to do business with the state to affirm that they are in compliance with all Massachusetts antidiscrimination laws and that they do not refuse to do business with others based on race, color, creed, religion, sex, national origin, gender identity or sexual orientation. While opponents suggest that this bill would have a chilling effect on free speech, the only thing the bill would chill is discriminatory conduct.
The bill, called Prohibiting Discrimination in State Contracts, doesn’t affect an individual’s right to boycott a foreign state or to boycott a company based on its objectionable policies or actions. For example, individuals may protest the State of Israel or boycott companies operating in the West Bank while still enjoying the benefits of a state contract. This bill is applicable only when an individual categorically excludes another from a business opportunity based solely on who they are and what they cannot change. Targeting Israelis simply because they were born in Israel would fall into this category.
This bill also does not, as opponents suggest, shut down all boycott activity. It merely allows the state, when acting as a market participant, to choose business partners who are in line with its own values. While opponents of the bill are entitled to their own views and are free to engage in boycotts based on national origin, or race or sexual orientation, the state, when acting as a market participant, does not have to subsidize those views. The Commonwealth is free to use its economic influence to send a message of its own disagreement.
While proponents disagree with the characterizations of Israel being made by some opponents of this bill, we also vigorously defend their First Amendment right to express those opinions. Nothing in this bill would prevent them from doing so. They do not, however, have a right to force the state to agree with those opinions and to compel the state to subsidize boycotts that cross the line and target innocent bystanders for no reason other than their national origin. Instead, the Commonwealth can reach the same conclusion as Barack Obama, Pope Francis, and UN Secretary General António Guterres, who have all recognized that while Israel is not infallible, anti-Zionism, as distinct from criticism of Israel and her policies, must be taken seriously as a new form of anti-Semitism.
The so-called Boycott Divestment Sanctions campaign, when applied to Israeli nationals based solely on national origin, is illustrative of the danger that groups can cloak themselves in the guise of a political boycott to unfairly target others simply based on who they are. Governor Baker, along with all 49 other governors last fall, signed a bipartisan letter opposing this campaign of economic warfare against Israel and pointing out that its “single-minded focus on the Jewish State raises serious questions about its motivations and intentions.” The Commonwealth is, therefore, well within its rights to put forth its own view that targeting an Israeli with no connection to the government of Israel and no ability to influence that state’s policy is going too far.
We are witnessing the danger of national-origin discrimination unfolding on the national stage, where our country is turning its back on immigrants and refugees solely because of their religion and nationality. The Jewish community has called for humane policies that inspire our nation’s enduring mission rather than engaging in collective punishment. We have not forgotten our history; we have not forgotten what happens when the powerful turn a blind eye; and we have not forgotten what happens when we stop seeing people as individuals, but rather as a collective other. This common-sense legislation is an incremental step forward in the fight against discrimination in all its many forms, and Massachusetts’ leaders should all be proud to stand behind it.
Jeremy Burton is executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston.