Runtime: 73 minutes
Director: Julia Bacha
By Valerie Kalfrin
Imagine losing a state job because you wouldn’t promise to agree with your employer’s political beliefs. The documentary “Boycott,” showing at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival, introduces viewers to three people who wound up suing their state governments because of legislation that affected their livelihoods.
Political boycotts are a form of expression that the First Amendment protects, director Julia Bacha establishes during the opening credits, showing people marching in protest and organizing boycotts for various causes.
However, some state legislatures are “trading away” these rights, said Brian Hauss, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in New York City. Hauss represented the three plaintiffs whom the film follows.
Each sued over legislation that punishes individuals or corporations that boycott Israel. Thirty-three states from 2015 to 2021 have passed similar legislation or executive orders against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, a Palestinian-led effort to pressure Israel regarding its occupation of Palestine.
Although Bacha (“Budrus”) front loads “Boycott” with this legal action, she also speaks with people such as Vince Warren, executive director for the Center for Constitutional Rights, who touches on America’s history of using boycotts as a political voice.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 led to an end to racially segregated seating on city buses, and college students in the 1990s organized boycotts to protest apartheid in South Africa, he notes. To penalize people for this form of expression is “really troubling and problematic,” Warren says.
Two plaintiffs say they knew of civil rights abuses in Palestine because of relatives there or from visiting the area. Neither wanted to sign a contract with language supporting Israel. Bahia Amawi, a Palestinian-American speech pathologist in Texas and married mother of five, found herself out of a job. Mikkel Jordahl, an Arizona attorney who provides state-paid legal services to inmates, wound up without a paycheck. Not wanting to leave his clients in the lurch, he worked for free.
Meanwhile, Alan Leveritt, founder and publisher of “The Arkansas Times,” a free community newspaper, lost advertising from state colleges over not signing a similar pledge. Leveritt thought the antiboycott pledge had no bearing on Arkansans and didn’t like the government telling him he had to meet certain conditions to access advertising dollars.
“If we’re gonna go ahead and punish people in Arkansas for not supporting Israel, let’s punish people for not supporting Planned Parenthood in Massachusetts and in California and in New York,” Leveritt said. “Where do you want this to stop?”
Although Bacha uses the lawsuits to look at foreign influence and funding in American politics, she also lets the ACLU, Warren, and others speak to the broader issue at stake: using legislation to quash debate. As the film notes, this type of legislation is a template for prohibiting support of other issues, such as Texas laws in 2021 that punish those who boycott fossil fuels and firearms.
Bacha also captures a few curious exchanges. Jordahl, who volunteers with his local Democratic committee, says that he’s distressed that many Democrats “just sign on” to such bills without debate. Greg Leding, an Arkansas state senator who is a Democrat, inadvertently proves this point when the filmmakers encounter him while interviewing Arkansas State Sen. Bart Hester, the Republican who sponsored that state’s bill.
Leding admits he forgot how he voted on the bill, regrets “not knowing more about the issue” beforehand, and says having now talked to some constituents, he’d likely vote against it.
As for Hester, he first says he drafted the bill because he wanted to support and protect Jews as “God’s chosen people.” Later, he tells the filmmakers that he didn’t talk with any local Jewish leaders because “I don’t agree with [them]. So I didn’t need the locals’ opinion on this.”
Rabbi Barry Block, head of Temple B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas, the state’s largest synagogue, confirms he was unaware of the legislation until he read about it. Supporting Israel is deeply important to him. “However, I was appalled that a newspaper would have to sign an oath that it would not participate in any kind of political action,” Block said.
Regardless of where viewers fall on the Israel-Palestine issue, “Boycott” is a call for Americans to protect their right to dissent. As one judge writes, such legislation “threatens to manipulate the public debate through coercion rather than persuasion. This the First Amendment does not allow.”