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Rhode Island Adopts a Loyalty Oath to Israel

Tuesday, August 09, 2016


Want to do business with the State of Rhode Island?  You will now be required to sign a loyalty oath to the country of Israel first.

A bill, H7736, passed by the Assembly in June and signed by Governor Gina Raimondo on July 14, is ostensibly about anti-discrimination in state contracting.  Its primary purpose, however, is to prohibit Rhode Islanders from boycotting business with Israel.  It is an effort to counter the growing Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, an international effort to put pressure on the Israeli government to end its nearly 50 year occupation of Palestine.

The new law, sponsored by Representative Mia Ackerman (Cumberland), requires Rhode Island companies who want to do business with the State to sign a statement that they are not boycotting any upstanding member of the World Trade Organization.  Israel is not actually mentioned by name. However, the bill is similar to other anti-BDS legislation being promoted around the country by right-leaning pro-Israel groups.

Representative Ackerman’s statements on the House floor and in interviews make clear that the law is primarily about shielding Israel from criticism.  In an interview with The Algemeiner, a conservative Jewish newspaper, on June 21, she described it as a pro-active step against the BDS movement, “which we want to get out in front of.”  She said that once she became aware of the BDS movement a few years ago, “I knew I had to do something.”  Ackerman added that for her “it’s very personal” since she has family in Israel.  “It is very important to me that on the world stage we show our support for Israel.”

The bill was pushed in Rhode Island by StandWithUS Rhode Island and Concerned Christians for Israel, hawkish pro-Israel groups.

Ackerman’s office did not respond to repeated requests for information about how many companies in Rhode Island are currently boycotting Israel.  That’s because there aren’t any.

Because there is no actual boycott issue in Rhode Island, the practical impact of this law is minimal. Instead, it is effectively a loyalty oath to Israel. It addresses a problem that does not really exist, but at the same time requires companies to sign a statement that they are not boycotting any trade partners (read Israel) of the United States.  It sets up a litmus test of support for a foreign government.

Loyalty oaths were widely condemned after the McCarthy era’s anti-Communist witch-hunts.  They are also deeply inconsistent with the values on which Roger Williams founded Rhode Island including freedom of thought, belief and speech.

Boycotts are a legitimate tool of peaceful social change, as witnessed by their use in the U.S. civil rights movement, in the movement to boycott grapes organized by Cesar Chavez in the 1960s to support migrant workers' rights, and in the anti-South Africa divestment movement. The Supreme Court has ruled that boycotts "to effect political, social and economic change" are protected by the First Amendment.

Rhode Island will now be asking companies who want state contracts to sign statements that inhibit their Constitutionally-protected right to engage in political activity. The state will also incur enforcement costs. This legislation will probably eventually be tested in court either in Rhode Island or elsewhere.  A recent analysis by the Harvard Law Review concluded that a similar law in South Carolina—on which the Rhode Island law is modeled---likely violates First Amendment protections on free speech. It noted the real point of the law: “State legislatures are not seeking to defend a valued ally from a fearsome, rapidly growing boycott campaign. They are announcing their disdain for a marginal political movement whose goals they strenuously oppose.”

It is unfortunate that the state of Roger Williams has now joined this anti-democratic trend.         


Nina Tannenwald is director of the International Relations Program at Brown University.


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