Florida passes law protecting Israel from criticism

Nora Barrows-Friedman – 14 June 2019
Florida has passed a new law to redefine anti-Semitism.

Under the state’s legislation, it would be illegal to speak out in public institutions against Israel’s human rights violations.
This means that someone advocating for a single democratic state in which Israeli Jews, Palestinians and all others have full, equal rights could fall afoul of the law.
Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis signed the state bill while on an official trip to Israel and the occupied West Bank. During his trip, DeSantis visited Ariel University located in a settlement in the West Bank, which is illegal under international law.
At Ariel, he received an award in honor of “his dedication, leadership and commitment to the State of Israel.” He also met with Sheldon Adelson, a top funder of the Republican Party.
Florida’s House Bill 741 redefines anti-Semitism to include “applying a double standard to Israel by requiring behavior of Israel that is not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation or focusing peace or human rights investigations only on Israel.”
The law also says that speech “delegitimizing Israel by denying Jewish people their right to self-determination and denying Israel the right to exist” is considered anti-Semitism.
Such tropes are classic attempts to censor criticism of Israel’s state ideology, Zionism.
The law uses language similar to the definition of anti-Semitism from the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, which has been pushed by Israel lobby groups.
“Used as a tool to censor advocacy for Palestinian freedom, the redefinition [in the Florida law] chills free speech rights and suppresses badly needed debate about US and Israeli policies that abuse Palestinian rights,” warned the civil rights group Palestine Legal.
In March, Florida lawmakers advanced the bill with bipartisan support.
The bill claims that its examples of alleged anti-Semitism related to criticizing Israel do not “diminish or infringe upon any right” to free speech and “shall not be construed to conflict with state or federal laws.”
But FIRE, a free speech advocacy organization, called this caveat “an inadequate attempt to salvage the constitutionality of the bill.”
FIRE has pointed out that the law contradicts a recently-passed resolution that aims to uphold free speech on Florida’s university campuses.
“The new Florida law will invite punishment of students and faculty who wish to speak out for Palestinian freedom and human rights,” Meera Shah, senior staff attorney with Palestine Legal, told The Electronic Intifada.
The law’s specific targeting of human rights investigations into Israel’s record “will chill speech, reporting, research and advocacy around Palestinian human rights and will lead to a culture of intimidation on US campuses,” Shah added.
Palestine Legal and allied civil rights organizations are “looking closely” at a legal challenge, Shah explained, “not only because the law demands that schools violate Floridians’ free speech rights, but also because it undermines the right to advocate for justice and universal human rights.”
At least 27 states have passed anti-BDS measures. Laws in Texas, Arizona and Kansas have been blocked by federal judges over free speech concerns.
Increasing alliance with apartheid
While in Israel, DeSantis signed academic partnership agreements between Haifa University and Florida Atlantic University, Miami Dade College, Florida A&M and the University of North Florida. He also signed an agreement between the Israeli tourism ministry and Florida’s tourism department.
The governor announced that Florida would lift its official restrictions against the vacation rental company Airbnb following the company’s reversal of its decision last year to delist properties inside Jewish-only settlements in the West Bank, which Palestinians are prohibited from accessing.
Airbnb faced heavy pressure by Israeli and US officials, including DeSantis, who claimed that the move was “discriminatory” against Israeli settlers.
The governments of Florida and Texas had directed all state contractors to cease doing business with Airbnb in retaliation for its November 2018 decision to respect international law and delist the properties.
During his Israel trip, DeSantis said that Airbnb’s reversal in April was a “victory in the battle” against the BDS campaign, according to the Miami Herald.
DeSantis held a meeting of his cabinet in Israel. Prior to the trip, Palestine Legal and other organizations warned the governor that holding his cabinet meeting there would violate state law.
The groups argued that “conducting any state decision-making in a place that most Floridians cannot attend” was a “violation of the Florida constitution.”
Cory Booker supports restrictions on free speech
Meanwhile, Cory Booker, a New Jersey senator and Democratic presidential hopeful, stated last week that he supports federal legislation that encourages states to punish supporters of the BDS movement.
Booker’s move is a complete reversal of his decision to vote against the legislation in February.
The bill was introduced by four US Republican senators, including Marco Rubio of Florida and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. It would uphold the rights of states and local governments to pass anti-boycott measures and urges them to pass such laws.
In an interview with HuffPost, Booker says he “does not support BDS” and claims that the law will “protect American companies from being forced by foreign international organizations from complying with things that they shouldn’t have to comply with.”
Those “things” are international laws and human rights protections.
The website Mondoweiss has published a transcript of Booker’s comments.
Booker has been a top recipient of Israel lobby donations.
The senator has also insisted he wants to establish “a unified voice from Congress” in opposition to BDS, according to leaked recordings from a meeting he had with the leading pro-Israel group AIPAC.