Residents of one Texas town are being asked to make an unusual promise in exchange for hurricane relief funds — they have to vow not to boycott the nation of Israel.
Dickinson, Texas was among the towns hardest-hit by Hurricane Harvey last month. But those hoping for some relief are being asked to sign on to an eyebrow-raising request. According to the grant application posted on the city’s website for the Dickinson Harvey Relief fund, those interested will need to refrain from boycotting Israel, now or in the near future.
“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 form reads.
It’s a strange request for a small city in Texas — one the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) says is completely unconstitutional. While the ACLU takes no stance on boycotts, the organization supports the right to partake in boycotts and protests.
“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,” said ACLU of Texas Legal Director Andre Segura in a written statement. Segura also noted the requirement recalled “McCarthy-era loyalty oaths requiring Americans to disavow membership in the Communist party and other forms of ‘subversive’ activity.”
Dickinson’s strange requirement could be the shape of things to come. Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R) signed a law in May actively targeting support for the non-violent Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. BDS is a broad effort opposing the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories and actively working toward, among other things, the full rights of Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel. On paper it has very little to do with states like Texas — or with hurricane relief. Jewish and Muslim communities are typically invested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but neither makes up a sizable part of the state — non-Christian faiths represent only around 4 percent of Texas. Of those, very few are Christian Palestinians, another group likely to be invested in the issue; far more Texas Christians are white, Latinx, or Black.
But Christian evangelicals across the United States have carefully cultivated ties with Israel over many years, something that has paid off in states like Texas.
“Anti-Israel policies are anti-Texas policies, and we will not tolerate such actions against an important ally,” Abbott said of House Bill 89, the anti-BDS law.
The bill prohibits state agencies from contracting with and investing in a number of efforts seen as pro-BDS. That’s now a problem for towns like Dickinson — and the timing is terrible.
Much of southeastern Texas has struggled to recover since Harvey roared ashore. Around 90 deaths have been connected to the storm across the United States and the Caribbean, and its effects are likely to be felt for years. Damages in the sprawling city of Houston alone amount to more than $100 million — the storm more broadly is set to cost the state upwards of $180 billion.
Houston itself has warred with Abbott over funds and state lawmakers have exchanged heated words over various barriers to statewide recovery after Harvey. Little has been said until now about the ramifications of the state’s anti-BDS law and its implications but Dickinson’s case is an example of the policy’s pitfalls, especially in a state reeling from a natural disaster.
For activists, it’s also yet another example of politics coming before people.
“This is an exposure of the absurdity of unconditional support for Israel. This controversy should be a clear signal to why these kinds of bills—regardless of how one feels about BDS—are morally repugnant,” Yonah Lieberman, of the anti-occupation U.S. Jewish organization IfNotNow, told ThinkProgress.
Along with other activists, Lieberman called on groups who have pushed for anti-BDS legislation to aid hurricane victims in light of the policy implications.
“For the sake of our shared humanity, the Texas Jewish community should step up to help the people affected by this draconian law,” Lieberman said. “The Houston Jewish Federation raised an impressive amount of money to help victims of Harvey—they should donate a portion of that money to the families in Dickinson.”
It’s unclear why the anti-BDS law is being applied to individuals seeking hurricane relief when the law itself targets businesses seeking contracts. Dickinson’s city attorney, David W. Olson, has said the city is only following Texas state law and intends to keep doing so. As of press time, ThinkProgress could not locate another city in Texas listing similar demands in exchange for hurricane relief grants.