After the House passed its fraught anti-bigotry resolution on Thursday, Democrats on Capitol Hill sounded ready to move on from the controversy sparked by their outspoken colleague, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.). But one way the controversy over Israel will keep going is through “anti-BDS" laws, largely pushed by Republicans.
Arkansas is one of 26 states that have passed anti-BDS laws, with help from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. All fairly identical, these laws require state contractors to sign a pledge vowing not to support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction movement, a consumer boycott of Israeli-made products, designed to punish the country for its treatment of Palestinians. (Israel calls the campaign anti-Semitic.) The backer of the 2017 Arkansas law was Republican state senator Bart Hester, who says he was moved by his evangelical faith and the religious affinity between Christians and Jews.
But newspaperman Alan Leveritt is one of the contractors resisting the pledge. The owner and publisher of Little Rock’s alternative paper, Arkansas Times, not only refused to sign it, but he's actually suing the state.
The paper doesn’t take a stance on the boycott, and Leveritt doesn’t support it himself. But he doesn’t think the state has the right to tell his paper — or any other business —whether it can participate in a political movement. Plus, his biggest advertiser is a state college, which said it could no longer advertise unless the Times took the pledge.
“They do not have a right to punish me for exercising my constitutional right,” Leveritt told VICE News. “To be silent in this instance. It's just to be silent… we don't take a position on this. Our job is to write about Arkansas. We're a lot more interested in Medicaid expansion here in Arkansas than we are what's going on in Jerusalem.”
Leveritt is represented by the ACLU, which has successfully fought anti-BDS laws in other states, citing the First Amendment. But a federal judge in Arkansas ruled that boycotts aren’t protected speech and threw the case out. That left Leveritt with a choice: give in, or keep fighting and risk his paper’s bottom line. For now, he’s fighting, appealing the case to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals. But he’s not sure how much longer he can afford the fight.
“I've got responsibilities to these people here at this organization,” he says. “I'm not looking to be a martyr. But I am willing to appeal and go through this process and let this go on for the next year. And I’ll do the best I can.”
This segment originally aired March 7, 2019, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.