Pledge loyalty to Israel, get US flood relief


Just when you thought you had seen and heard everything, out comes news from one Texas city whose residents are being asked to sign a loyalty oath to Israel if they want to receive funds for Hurricane Harvey relief.

The city of Dickinson, the hardest hit city in Texas, posted grant applications for anyone seeking money for repairs after the category 4 storm. But to get that help residents must in writing pledge fidelity to Israel.

The provision stems from a law barring the US state from entering a contract with any business unless it “does not boycott Israel”. The law, known as the Anti-BDS (Boycott, Divestments, and Sanctions) bill, was signed by Republican Governor Greg Abbott in May. “Anti-Israel policies are anti-Texas policies, and we will not tolerate such actions against an important ally,” the governor said in a statement earlier this year.

The American Civil Liberties Union criticized the city for the requirement, saying it was “an egregious violation” of free speech rights under the First Amendment. “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.”

In other words, this is arm-twisting: we’ll give you aid but there’s a catch: only if you sign on the dotted line. It is not clear why citizens applying for disaster aid would be subject to a law that nominally applies to state agencies and businesses, which makes the Texas law all the more dubious. Similar rules are approved in at least 20 US states and New York City but most specify a ban on companies that push back against Israel.

This Texas law takes advantage of desperate people who really need help. It looks for the times in which they are the most vulnerable. Hurricane Harvey provided the backdrop for just such a fraught situation. Harvey was extremely destructive, dumping in four days in August around 164 cm of water onto Texas, causing catastrophic flooding which inundated hundreds of thousands of homes, displaced more than 30,000 people and caused at least 90 confirmed deaths.

Harvey wrought a truly difficult and dangerous situation. When things get so bad and people fall into deep despair, they are willing to sign a pact with the devil in order to get the essentials they need.

No other clauses about political affiliations or beliefs are included in the Texas form. So why Israel? And what does Israel have to do with Texas? The state and the country are worlds apart figuratively and practically.

The Supreme Court has long held that political boycotts – like boycotts for Palestinian rights – are a form of expression protected by the First Amendment. It has also 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. Singling out and possibly punishing people for their political views is illegal. US legislators should be in the business of protecting rights, not punishing people for exercising them.

BDS works to end international support for Israel’s oppression of Palestinians and to pressure Israel to comply with international law. These anti-BDS laws are a sign of desperation by Israel advocacy organizations. Anti-BDS bills and laws have, if anything, galvanized BDS activists and free speech allies.

In September, President Trump designated $15 billion for Hurricane Harvey relief; however, since economic losses are estimated to be between $70 billion to $200 billion, that relief money is a drop in the ocean. Much more aid is needed but not the way Dickinson is willing to give it.