The Politics of Boycotting Israel Are Creeping into the Race for Georgia Governor

In Georgia's Democratic gubernatorial primary, a law that would punish contractors who boycott Israel has become a divide between the candidates.

Rep. Stacey Evans, D - Smyrna, speaks in opposition to HB 37 during a legislative session of the Georgia General Assembly, Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017, in Atlanta. Chairman of the Appropriations: Higher Education Committee, Earl Ehrhart, R - Powder Springs, presented HB 37, under which private colleges and universities in Georgia could lose state funding if they declare themselves "sanctuary campuses." House Bill 37 would punish those schools that do not comply with state and federal immigration law. The bill passed and now goes to the Senate. (Bob Andres/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)
Rep. Stacey Evans, D - Smyrna, speaks in opposition to HB 37 during a legislative session of the Georgia General Assembly, on Feb. 22, 2017, in Atlanta. Photo: Bob Andres/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP

Deep down south in the state of Georgia, the Democratic gubernatorial candidates’ positions on a foreign conflict occurring 6,000 miles away became an issue in late November.

It started when Steve Berman, a prominent Atlanta-area real estate developer and Democratic donor penned an op-ed in the Atlanta Jewish Times implying that Stacey Abrams — one of two candidates vying for the gubernatorial nomination in 2018 — would be a “pro-BDS” governor.

BDS stands for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions, the economic pressure campaign being waged against Israel in response to its treatment of the Palestinians.

Berman complained that Abrams opposed the passage of a Georgia law that bars state funds to contractors who refuse to pledge that they do not boycott Israel or its settlements.

“Stacey Abrams’s tacit support for the BDS movement ignores years of solid Jewish support for the Democratic Party and brings into question whether this singular event disqualifies her as the standard bearer of the Democratic Party in Georgia,” he concluded, pointing out that her opponent Stacey Evans supported passage of that law.

Abrams was quick to respond, writing her own op-ed, in which she made clear she is a strong supporter of Israel, has been a “repeat attendee” to Georgia’s AIPAC events, and that she rejects “the demonization and de-legitimization of Israel represented by the BDS narrative and campaign,” which she refers to as “anti-Semitic.”

She, however, also defended her vote against the anti-BDS bill, noting that boycotts have been a critical tool in social justice fights. She suggested that the law could in the future be used to curtail boycotts aimed at different actors in different movements:

Judaism is a faith grounded in the importance of law, and the respect of the state of Israel for democracy is one of its finest features. While the instinct to use the imprimatur of the state to punish free speech, however abhorrent, is understandable — the law then becomes precedent. Boycotts have been a critical part of social justice in American history, particularly for African-Americans. As the ADL notes, the origin of BDS is based in the anti-apartheid movement. While BDS has devolved into a weapon of oppression and attack, the passage of SB 327 creates a precedent that could prevent a 21st century campaign similar to the actions taken by civil rights fighters (the economic boycotts of the 1960s and the anti-apartheid movement of the 1980s). Leveraging this law, angry state actors could prevent future movements from taking root in Georgia by allowing the state to cut off funds for participation in a boycott grounded in a different injustice.

“I think the op-ed runs through Stacey’s position on the bill and her reasoning behind it,” Caitlin Highland, a spokesperson for the Abrams campaign, told The Intercept in response to an inquiry.

Evans’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

In recent months, these laws have become increasingly controversial. In Kansas, a star teacher was denied payment for offering teacher trainings because she is boycotting Israel; in Texas, one town made contractors pledge they weren’t boycotting Israel before they received hurricane-rebuilding funds.

A federal version of the law is a top priority of AIPAC but has languished amid a backlash sparked by the ACLU over free speech concerns.

Top photo: Georgia Rep. Stacey Evans, D-Smyrna, speaks in opposition to HB 37 during a legislative session of the Georgia General Assembly, on Feb. 22, 2017, in Atlanta.

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