A local newspaper in the American state of Arkansas has complained that it is being pressured to declare its allegiance to Israel and that it will not boycott the country, as states in the US continue to pass legislation outlawing the practice.
In an article on the New York Times, the founder of the Arkansas Times, Alan Leveritt, recounts that, in 2018, he was given an ultimatum by the Pulaski Technical College that in order to "continue receiving its ad dollars, we would have to certify in writing that our company was not engaged in a boycott of Israel."
Leveritt described the demand as "puzzling," asking "why would we be required to sign a pledge regarding a country in the Middle East?" Despite the fact that "boycotting Israel could not have been further from our minds and though state funding is a significant source of our income, our answer was no," he said.
"We don't take political positions in return for advertising. If we signed the pledge, I believe, we'd be signing away our right to freedom of conscience," he stressed. It would also compromise the paper's role as a journalistic entity, making it "unworthy of the protections granted us under the First Amendment."
The demand to pledge not to boycott Israel is the result of a nationwide campaign to support Tel Aviv and protect it from the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Launched in 2005, the movement encourages the boycotting of Israeli products from the occupied Palestinian territories in the West Bank, as well as the boycotting of companies which deal with or have contracts with the occupation.
Senators and members of Congress have worked to tackle the BDS movement and crush any potential support for it over the years. As a result, over 30 states – the majority of the US – have passed legislation against it, of which Arkansas joined in 2017.
The reason why Arkansas caved easily to the anti-BDS campaign, according to Leveritt, was due to the conservative evangelical base that exists in the state, as well as the fact that its legislature is dominated by the group which believes that Israel's existence and prosperity is the precursor to Jesus Christ's second coming.
One of those who contributed to that legislation in Arkansas was the former Senate majority leader, Bart Hester. Leveritt wrote that, in a new documentary film 'Boycott,' Hester says that "there is going to be certain things that happen in Israel before Christ returns. There will be famines and disease and war. And the Jewish people are going to go back to their homeland. At that point Jesus Christ will come back to the earth."
Hester also believes that "anybody, Jewish or not Jewish, that doesn't accept Christ, in my opinion, will end up going to hell." That view, as well as the belief that Israel and Jews will not be saved from the Armageddon, has for years caused much-cited confusion surrounding the strange alliance between Western evangelicals and Israel.
Leveritt condemned the pressure to pledge support for Israel as essentially unconstitutional, stressing that "states are trading their citizens' First Amendment rights for what looks like unconditional support for a foreign government." He also scoffed at the state's argument that the practice of boycotting is not political speech but instead an economic exercise, which makes it subject to state regulation. "We found that argument absurd," he said. "After all, our nation's founding mythology includes the boycott of tea."
Despite the legislation and contradiction of the constitution being un-American, though, that has not stopped states such as Texas from passing into law, two months ago, the prohibition of state agencies "from conducting business with contractors that boycott fossil fuels and another preventing agencies from contracting with businesses that boycott firearm companies or trade associations."
Leveritt and the Arkansas Times have sued to overturn the anti-BDS law on the grounds that it violates the First and 14th Amendments, and they are being represented by the American Civil Liberties Union. Their case has now reached the Eighth Circuit Court of appeals, and with a decision on their recent hearing being expected soon, Leveritt admits that "we're concerned it won't go our way."
If they lose their case, it will end up in the Supreme Court. If that happens, however, Leveritt predicts that there would be "a slew of copycat legislation" enforcing blind support for Israel, which will cause a significant setback in the fight for constitutional rights.
"These anti-boycott laws, allowing government to use money to punish dissent, will encourage the creation of ever more repressive laws that risk strangling free speech for years to come," he warned.