Lawmakers are eager to infringe on our freedom of speech when it works to their benefit.
Over the past six years, 33 states have quietly passed laws to silence efforts to protest violence against Palestinians in the West Bank. The documentary “Boycott,” directed by Julia Bacha, reveals the implications of this by examining the cases of three people embroiled in legal struggles with unexpected international ramifications.
Bahia Amawi is a Palestinian American speech therapist living in Austin, Texas. When she was fired from her job for refusing to sign a contract that included an anti-boycott clause, she bravely sued the state of Texas, quickly becoming a symbol of strength in the Muslim American community.
Alan Leveritt, self proclaimed “recovering conservative,” is the plaintiff in a similar case with different motivations. As a publisher at the Arkansas Times, he’s concerned about the ways fundamentalism influences freedom of speech and can’t ideologically agree to have the newspaper sign anti-boycott clauses.
The third plaintiff, Mikkel Jordahl, is an attorney who worked without pay for a year when, after visiting Israel and seeing the violence inflicted upon Palestinians, he decided he couldn’t morally sign an anti-boycott clause for his job.
Looking beyond the subjects of the film, “Boycott” provides all kinds of context regarding lobbying groups and politicians’ ignorance, plus a lesson on the importance of boycotts in the United States. What makes this film so special is that it manages to take a clear, convictive stance on what is and isn’t right, while also letting its story unfold naturally.
Take, for instance, Arkansas State Senator Bart Hester. He proudly explains how his faith directs every decision he makes as a politician. He believes there is no separation between church and state, but that the state protects the church. He drafted a bill opposing the boycott, divest and sanction (BDS) efforts in order to support, as he puts it, “God’s chosen people.” When asked why he didn’t speak with local Jewish leaders — who are strongly opposed to BDS but don’t support anti-boycott legislation — he explained his choice was because they “don’t agree with him.”
His commentary is so outrageous it could almost be mistaken for comic relief, until we remember this man has been granted immense power and privilege over masses of people.
Bacha takes an issue as highly contested as the occupation of the West Bank and presents a facet of the conflict that feels borderline neutral. No matter one’s personal beliefs regarding BDS, it’s hard to leave this documentary without a sense that banning our right to boycott is not only objectively wrong but also a major threat to our personal and collective liberties. This message is incredibly useful, as the film is rooted in solidarity for the Palestinian struggle and so compels viewers to be invested in ways the United States curtails this solidarity.
We’re shown the ways fundamentalist right-wing organizations are working with, and are influenced by, Israeli lobbying organizations. There’s a sort of mutualistic relationship, where these groups benefit at the expense of everyone else. These anti-boycott laws applied to BDS have become a template for similar anti-boycott legislation referencing issues like gun rights and fossil fuels. In a world ruled by money, where we spend our funds is incredibly important. When this choice is taken away, so much more is at stake.
Because it’s impossible to pack entire histories into 70 minutes, this documentary might be difficult for someone who doesn’t have a preconceived understanding of international politics. However, “Boycott” could also be an interesting starting point for someone new to these issues, as it provides a foundation of understanding in the ways the United States and Israel work with one another financially and politically (oftentimes behind closed doors).
Without revealing specifics, the outcome of this film feels ambiguously uplifting. As is true with most political documentaries, the story doesn’t end with the film, and I found that the note “Boycott” ends on might not be in step with how these stories continued to play out after the cameras were put away. This isn’t a failure of the film, but it is important to note in the interest of understanding truth in its entirety.
Ultimately, “Boycott” is powerful, underscoring that our struggles are intertwined in ways we might not always recognize. In the face of imperialism and other large systemic issues, it’s hard to feel as if our personal choices make any difference. “Boycott” reminds us of why it’s important to continue taking those personal stands, regardless of the outcome.
Virtual screenings of ‘Boycott’ are available throughout October and November; check out justvision.org to find details.
Read more of the Oct. 19-25, 2022 issue.