Houston contractor sues Texas over state ban of Israel boycott

Palestinian American doing business with the city of Houston for 17 years is challenging Texas anti-BDS law.

Supporters of the BDS movement protested in Tel Aviv, Israel, in 2019 [ [File: Ammar Awad/Reuters]

A Houston company has sued the state of Texas saying the state’s ban on doing business with companies that participate in a boycott of Israel is unconstitutional.

A&R Engineering and Testing Inc filed the lawsuit in the United States District Court in Houston on October 29 arguing that Texas’s anti-boycott law is a violation of its free speech right guaranteed under the US Constitution’s First Amendment.

“Texas’s ban on contracting with any boycotter of Israel constitutes viewpoint discrimination that chills constitutionally protected political advocacy in support of Palestine,” said A&R Engineering’s complaint, filed against the city of Houston and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.

Russ Hassouna, the owner of A&R Engineering, is a Palestinian American who has been doing business with the city of Houston for 17 years. He refused to sign a renewal of his contract with the city last month after lawyers demanded he agree to its terms prohibiting any BDS activity.

“Israel is an occupier of my homeland and it is an Apartheid State. It is my right and duty to boycott Israel and any products of Israel. This policy is against my constitutional right and against International Law,” Hassouna said in the complaint.

The Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement seeks to generate international economic pressure on Israel to change its treatment of Palestinians. In the US, the movement is active on college campuses, echoing the anti-apartheid boycotts of South Africa in the 1980s.

Opponents of the BDS movement who support Israel view it as anti-Semitic and designed to destroy Israel’s economy. In 2017, the Texas legislature adopted an anti-BDS law that requires contractors with the state and local governments not to boycott Israel.

 

“Even proponents of these laws understand that these laws are pretty obviously unconstitutional and out of step with 250 years of American history,” said Gadeir Abbas, a lawyer with the Council on American-Islamic Relations who is representing A&R Engineering.

“There’s never been an historical analogue to states requiring their citizens to a pledge of allegiance to a foreign country,” Abbas told Al Jazeera.

In 2019, a federal judge in the Western District of Texas ruled the state’s anti-BDS law was unconstitutional, but the ruling was dissolved on appeal after the state amended the law.

“What’s been happening is like whack-a-mole,” Abbas said. “We file lawsuits against these obviously illegal laws and then the law is changed in ways that make it harder to get a judge to decide whether it’s constitutional or unconstitutional.”

Controversy over efforts to ban the BDS movement has accelerated in the US following the decision by popular ice cream maker Ben & Jerry’s to stop selling its products in Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories.

New York’s public pension fund with $268bn in assets announced last week it would sell most of its holdings in Unilever Plc, a publicly held company that owns Ben & Jerry’s.

The New York State Common Retirement Fund held $111m worth of Unilever shares, according to the Reuters news service. A 2016 executive order by former Governor Andrew Cuomo bans the state from doing business with entities that observe BDS.

The American Jewish Committee, a pro-Israel advocacy group, praised the New York sale of Unilever stock, saying in a statement, “boycotting Israel has consequences”.

Pension officials in New Jersey, Arizona and Florida have moved to sell shares in Unilever or restrict new purchases of the stock.

Unilever has said the decision to withdraw from the occupied territories was made by Ben & Jerry’s independent board, and Unilever remains committed to its businesses in Israel. Ben & Jerry’s said it would continue sales in Israel outside of settlements in occupied areas.

In a rare criticism of Israel, a Biden administration official voiced US opposition to Israel’s settlement expansion in the West Bank, saying that it damages “the prospects for a two-state solution”.

Source: Al Jazeera

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