A primary school teacher in Texas has been fired for refusing to sign an anti-BDS oath embedded in her employment contract. Bahia Amawi is a language specialist who works with autistic and speech-impaired primary school children. She has been told that she can no longer work in the state's public schools after she "refused to sign an oath vowing that she 'does not' and 'will not' engage in a boycott of Israel or 'otherwise take any action that is intended to inflict economic harm [on Israel]'," the Intercept revealed yesterday.
Amawi has held a contract with Pflugerville Independent School District – the body which oversees schools in and around Texas state capital Austin – for almost ten years, but upon renewing her contract in August discovered an additional clause had been inserted into the paperwork. The clause required Amawi to pledge that she "does not currently boycott Israel," that she "will not boycott Israel during the term of the contract" and that she will refrain from any action "that is intended to penalise, inflict economic harm on, or limit commercial relations with Israel, or with a person or entity doing business in Israeli or in an Israel-controlled territory."
Such phrasing would effectively bar Amawi from supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, boycotting goods produced on illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank or even expressing support for either of these actions since, as the Intercept points out, "such speech could be seen as 'intended to penalise, inflict economic harm on, or limit commercial relations with Israel'."
Speaking to the Intercept, Amawi explained: "It's baffling that [the school district] can throw this [clause] down our throats and decide to protect another country [Israel]'s economy versus protecting our [US] constitutional rights. If I [signed the contract], I would not only be betraying Palestinians suffering under an occupation that I believe is unjust and thus, become complicit in their repression, but I'd also be betraying my fellow Americans by enabling violations of our constitutional rights to free speech and to protest peacefully."
Upon refusing to sign the contract, Amawi was told by her school district supervisor that her employment would not be renewed.
The incident has sparked a fierce legal debate, with Amawi filing a lawsuit which argues the clause violates her right to free speech under the First Amendment of the US Constitution. According to Haaretz, the lawsuit claims that, "The Supreme Court has recognised that nonviolent boycotts intended to advance civil rights constitute 'form[s] of speech or conduct that [are] ordinarily entitled to protection under the First and Fourteenth Amendments'." The lawsuit will point to a precedent in which it was ruled that, "While states have broad power to regulate economic activities, there is no comparable right to prohibit peaceful political activity such as boycotts."
The clause was entered into Amawi's contract after Texas enacted a law in May 2017 prohibiting state agencies from signing contracts with companies that boycott Israel. The law – known as HB 89 – required the Texas Comptroller's Office to make a list of all companies that boycott Israel and to hand this list to state agencies, which would then be banned from forming contracts with these blacklisted companies. The law also prevented state pension funds from investing in companies which support BDS.
Texas is not the only US state to have enacted an anti-BDS law. Illinois became the first state to adopt such legislation in 2015, with a further 25 states following this model since then, including the State of New York, California and Florida. A further 13 states have anti-BDS legislation pending, including Massachusetts, Virginia and Washington.
US support for BDS was thrust into the spotlight in September when, citing the movement, a professor from the American University of Michigan refused to write a letter of recommendation for a student who wished to study in Israel. John Cheney-Lippold's stance drew anger from pro-Israel organisations in the US, including the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which have worked to counter growing support for the movement. Since then, other university faculties have vowed to back BDS, as has newly-elected Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, who in November became one of the first two Middle Eastern-heritage women to be elected to the US Congress.