A prominent US civil rights activist has been denied a prestigious award apparently after the Jewish-American community protested against her support for the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign (BDS).
Angela Davis, 74, has spent decades fighting for civil rights in the US and had been due to receive an award from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (BCRI) in the southern state of Alabama. However, the institute announced this weekend that it would no longer present Davis with the award, saying in a statement that, "Upon closer examination of Ms Davis's statements and public record, we concluded that she unfortunately does not meet all of the criteria on which the award is based."
It appears that the "statements and public records" to which the BCRI referred were Davis's vocal support of BDS and her advocacy for Palestinian rights, against which members of the Jewish-American community seemingly issued a complaint.
BCRI said in its statement that, "Supporters and other concerned individuals and organisations, both inside and outside of our local community, began to make requests that we reconsider our decision." Although the institute did not name the Jewish-American community specifically, Birmingham mayor Randall Woodfin said that he was "dismayed" by the decision which, he added, followed "protests from our local Jewish community and some of its allies," Haaretz reported.
Other sources have also claimed that the Jewish-American community was behind the pressure on the institute, though the exact details of the connection remain unclear. New York-based Jewish magazine Forward noted that the Birmingham Jewish Federation — an umbrella group which serves local Jewish institutions in the city — wrote an email to its members shortly after the decision was announced, thanking the BCRI for its change in position: "The Birmingham Jewish Federation thanks the BCRI board for its thoughtful and courageous reconsideration. BCRI is a great institution that does much to benefit our entire community."
The magazine also points out that: "The only [media] item criticising the award prior to its cancellation ran in late December in Southern Jewish Life, a Birmingham-based magazine serving Jewish communities in the south." In the article, Southern Jewish Life editor Larry Brook noted Davis's support for BDS, writing: "Something not included in their Institute's publicity for the event is that Davis has also been an outspoken voice in the boycott-Israel [BDS] movement, and advocates extensively on college campuses for the isolation of the Jewish state." Brook then launched into a long list of Davis's supposedly anti-Israel activities, including her criticism of Israel's detention of Palestinians and comparisons between Israel and Apartheid South Africa. Though Brook did not explicitly call for BCRI to rescind the award, his article reads as a damning account of her long history of Palestinian activism.
Davis herself issued a statement in response to the BCRI move, saying that she was "stunned" by the decision and calling it an attack "against the spirit of the indivisibility of justice," Al Jazeera reported. The veteran campaigner explained that the institute's board had "refused [her] requests to reveal the substantive reasons for this action," though she later learned that her long-term support of justice for Palestine was at issue.
This seemed particularly unfortunate, given that my own freedom was secured – and indeed my life was saved – by a vast international movement. I have devoted much of my own activism to international solidarity […] I support Palestinian political prisoners just as I support current political prisoners in the Basque Country, in Catalunya, in India and in other parts of the world.
She added that she has indeed expressed opposition to policies and practices of the state of Israel, as she expresses similar opposition to US support for the Israeli occupation of Palestine and to other discriminatory US policies, reported local newspaper AL.
The incident will be seen as the latest evidence of a widespread campaign by the Jewish-American community and the US more generally to crack down on and even criminalise the BDS movement. Just yesterday, US Senator Bernie Sanders slammed the introduction of a bill targeting BDS, despite the US facing a continued government shutdown. "It's absurd," he tweeted, "that the first bill during the shutdown is legislation which punishes Americans who exercise their constitutional right to engage in political activity." This was a reference to a bill that will protect the right of individual states to pass laws targeting BDS and ban contracts with anyone who boycotts Israel.
In December, a primary school teacher in Texas was fired for refusing to sign an anti-BDS oath embedded in her employment contract. A language specialist who worked with autistic and speech-impaired primary school children, Bahia Amawi was told that she could 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 clause was inserted into Amawi's contract after state legislators in Texas enacted a law in May 2017 prohibiting state agencies from signing contracts with companies that boycott Israel. Other states which have adopted such legislation include Illinois, the State of New York, California and Florida. A further 13 states have anti-BDS legislation pending, including Massachusetts, Virginia and Washington.