When I was a teaching assistant at Harvard, I had to sign a loyalty oath. The same was true when I took a full-time position at LSU. This trademark of the McCarthy era had been deemed constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. It had struck down oaths requiring a declaration that the signer is not now or ever was a member of “subversive” organizations, but it had upheld “affirmative” oaths, those swearing allegiance to the U.S. and state constitutions.
I don’t know exactly when loyalty oaths were discontinued. There must have been a repeal in each state, but although I was deeply involved in civil liberties work then, I can’t remember legislation to that effect. Public concern about the political loyalty of teachers just seemed to evaporate as the cultural tone of the '60s drowned out the '50s.
When loyalty oaths began reappearing in the past two years, I was distressed but not surprised. I’ve been aware that American Zionists have long tried to suppress any criticism of Israel, with considerable success. Requiring us to sign loyalty oaths to Israel is simply their most ambitious and arrogant move.
The oath that New York, New Jersey and other states have required isn’t an affirmative oath. It declares that the signer is not now or ever will be a proponent of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement that aims to induce Israel to end its oppression of the Palestinians. The penalties for not signing this loyalty oath to Israel can be severe.
For example, when residents of Dickinson, Texas, near Houston, applied for public funds to help them recover from Hurricane Harvey, the city required them to affirm that they do not currently support BDS, and won’t do so during the duration of the relief agreement. Dickinson officials claimed they were complying with an anti-BDS bill that became law in Texas the previous May. It forbids the state to contract with businesses that boycott Israel. And there is the case of Esther Koontz, a mathematics teacher who wasn’t allowed to train public school math teachers because she wouldn’t sign Kansas’ anti-BDS oath. Koontz is a Mennonite, and her church passed a resolution in July 2017 urging its members “to avoid the purchase of products associated with acts of violence or policies of military occupation, including items produced in the settlements.”
Support of BDS by businesses is what Zionists most worry about, given the impact the BDS movement had on apartheid South Africa in the 1980s. So they are the target of the Israel Anti-Boycott Act (S. 720, H.R. 1697). If it gets through Congress and survives a legal challenge (the ACLU strongly opposes it), the penalties for business owners will be intimidating. The act would bar U.S. persons from supporting boycotts against Israel, including settlements in the Palestinian Occupied Territories. It includes penalties for simply requesting information about such boycotts. Violators will be subject to a minimum civil penalty of $250,000 and a maximum criminal penalty of $1 million and 20 years in prison.
Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley hasn’t co-sponsored S. 720; Sen. Ron Wyden has. We should demand that he tell us why, if a required loyalty oath to the U.S. is an affront to conscience, a required oath to Israel isn’t worse.
— Herb Rothschild's column appears in the Tidings every Saturday.