Nearly two months after Hurricane Harvey socked the Texas coastline, residents are still in the early stages of the costly and complicated cleanup process. Now in one Houston suburb, residents hoping to receive aid to help relaunch their lives have to factor Middle East political tensions into their recovery efforts.
The city of Dickinson, Tex., located about 30 miles southeast of Houston, recently posted applications online for relief grants “from the funds that were generously donated to the Dickinson Harvey Relief Fund,” the city’s website says. The application, however, includes a provision requiring applicants to promise not to boycott Israel.
Section 11 of the four page document is titled, “Verification not to Boycott Israel.”
The text reads: “By executing this Agreement below, the Applicant verifies that the Applicant: (1) does not boycott Israel; and (2) will not boycott Israel during the term of this Agreement.”
The city attorney for Dickinson told a local television station he was only following a state law forbidding state agencies from doing business with Israel boycotters.
The aid grant application has triggered a strong rebuke from the American Civil Liberties Union.
“The First Amendment protects Americans’ right to boycott, and the government cannot condition hurricane relief or any other public benefit on a commitment to refrain from protected political expression,” Andre Segura, ACLU of Texas legal director, said in a statement Thursday night.
“Dickinson’s requirement is an egregious violation of the First Amendment, reminiscent of McCarthy-era loyalty oaths requiring Americans to disavow membership in the Communist Party and other forms of ‘subversive’ activity.”
The language is not out of nowhere.
In May, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed the Anti-BDS (Boycott, Divestments, and Sanctions) bill into law. The statute “prohibits all state agencies from contracting with, and certain public funds from investing in, companies that boycott Israel,” according to the governor’s website. “Anti-Israel policies are anti-Texas,” Abbott said at the bill’s signing. “We will not tolerate such actions against an important ally.”
How the law would apply to individuals seeking disaster relief — rather than businesses seeking contracts — is unclear.
The BDS movement started in 2005 as a nonviolent protest of the country’s treatment of Palestinians. It involved a call to halt business with Israeli companies, as well as corporations doing business with Israel, as a way to put pressure on the Israeli government. Legislation in a number of states pushing back against BDS has followed, including proposals in the U.S. Congress.
But as the ACLU pointed out in the organization’s release on the Dickinson application, “The Supreme Court ruled decades ago that political boycotts are protected by the First Amendment, and other decisions have established that the government may not require individuals to sign a certification regarding their political expression in order to obtain employment, contracts, or other benefits.”
Earlier this month, the ACLU filed a federal lawsuit challenging a similar anti-BDS law in Kansas.
In an interview with ABC 13, Dickinson’s city attorney David W. Olson said the city planned to follow the law and keep the provision in place until told to do otherwise.
Olson did not respond to an email for comment or immediately return a call to a number listed in his name.
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