It is no secret that campuses are the new battlefront in the war for public opinion on Palestine/Israel. Just how much so has become very clear recently at the University of Houston, in Texas.
Texas is one of more than 20 states that have passed anti-BDS legislation. Although there are a few different versions of this legislation, in Texas the law forbids the state from contracting with any entity that engages in boycotts of Israel. This law became notorious last year when residents of Dickinson, TX were prohibited from receiving state monies to repair their businesses from damage wrought by Hurricane Harvey unless they declared that they did not boycott Israel. This prohibition was later removed when the ACLU challenged it as unconstitutional.
The effects of this law have now spread to university campuses.
Recently, the law has impacted two different faculty members who were invited on separate occasions to speak at the University of Houston. Both were asked to sign a certification that they do not now, and will not in the future, support BDS. One speaker who refused to sign this certification last week–some months after his invitation was issued and his plane ticket bought– would have had his funding pulled, if it were not coming from private sources, rather than the university itself. The other speaker refused the invitation because they were unwilling to sign such a certification as a condition of giving a research presentation. That event was cancelled.
When similar anti-BDS legislation was recently proposed in Massachusetts, activists mounted an enormous and eventually successful education, outreach, and pushback campaign to defeat it. Part of that campaign involved testimony from faculty and students at public schools and universities from across the state. Faculty at UMass Boston asked the state legislature what would happen if they or organizations of which they are a part endorse BDS. As state employees, could faculty be fired for boycotting Israel? Would student groups or unions who support BDS be de-funded? If there is a graduate student union on that campus that votes to divest from Israel, as the Graduate Employee Organization at UMass Amherst did, will all those graduate students who are members of their union lose their assistantships?
Courts have already expressed their skepticism regarding the validity of these anti-BDS laws. In Kansas, a federal court just struck down their anti-BDS law as an unconstitutional denial of free speech. The state had declined to contract with Esther Koontz, a curriculum teacher for the Kansas public school system, because she refused to sign a state-required form certifying that she did not boycott Israeli products. Koontz is a Mennonite, and in 2016 her church divested its financial holdings from companies that profit from the Israeli occupation. Because she did not sign this form, however, the state would not hire her.
USACBI is unequivocally opposed to litmus tests for faculty speech at any university, public or private. We find it chilling that any researcher would need to sign a certification form declaring loyalty to any entity as a condition of engaging in the public sharing of ideas and scholarship. Such actions reek of McCarthyism and do not belong on any campus that considers itself a space of academic and intellectual freedom. Anti-BDS legislation also implicitly protects Israel’s illegal Occupation and the Israeli state from criticism. The University of Houston has only furthered this agenda and made Israel into an exception on university campuses. As Palestine Legal has documented, there is a “Palestine exception” to free speech in the United States, and particularly on university campuses. This means that students, faculty, and staff who speak out about Palestinian freedom or Israeli abuses are censored, punished, and denied their Constitutionally-protected right of free speech. It seems the University of Houston is taking the Palestine exception to new lengths in its requirement that scholars who speak there take what is effectively a loyalty pledge to a foreign government on condition of sharing their research.