In “Boycott,” it comes as news to Rabbi Barry Block, the leader of Temple B’Nai Israel, the largest synagogue in Little Rock, Arkansas, that the state he lives in has begun insisting on a clause inserted on all government contracts prohibiting employees from engaging in boycotts against Israel. Although this wouldn’t seem to affect anyone in his neck of the woods — and surely not within his congregation specifically – the Rabbi is taken aback after learning of a lawsuit filed against the state by Alan Leveritt, the publisher of the Arkansas Times, over the obscure provision which he only discovered after a state official insisted on him assenting to it, though he had no history of association with Middle East affairs one way or another.
It is a slender thread that director Julia Bacha tugs at in “Boycott” to unravel an entire strategy for the Christian conservative movement in America to gradually erode various freedoms that America was founded on. Pairing well with Maya Zinshtein’s eye-opening “Til Kingdom Come,” chronicling the cynical partnership between ultra-orthodox Jews and American evangelicals to protect the state of Israel believing the end of days is on the horizon, “Boycott” tells of how conservative think tanks have begun aggressively sneaking in a seemingly benign stipulation prohibiting protests of Israel into any business agreement for those that work with U.S. state governments. Given America’s steadfast financial support of Israel since its founding in 1948, “Boycott” notes that 33 states have approved such a measure, which as of yet couldn’t possibly be rigorously enforced, but it has become a point of contention when in Austin, Texas, Bahia Amawi, a Palestinian-American speech pathologist is laid off for refusing to sign such a contract for her services, and it casts a far greater net than you might think when Leveritt’s apolitical publication depends on advertising from state-related schools and medical centers.
Still, the narratives of the individual cases pale in comparison to the grander point Bacha illustrates in “Boycott” as amoral policy wonks have taken advantage of the influence of lobbyists and state legislatures filled with politicians too lazy to actually read what they’re signing into law, using templates from one state to another that gradually erode individual rights such as free speech before anyone can take notice. It isn’t just the language of the proposed laws that are being copied, however, but perversely as “Boycott” shows, the very nature of organized efforts that are intended to empower people rather than take away their civil liberties, with the very notion of a Boycott Divestment in Sanctions (BDS) that has been invoked as support of Israel initially popularized by Palestinians as a way of gaining equality in the contentious region.
With a 70-minute running time, Bacha has only limited success in tying the BDS bills into an entire history in the U.S. of disingenuous political maneuvering by those in power to combat protests by those in marginalized communities, but where “Boycott” succeeds tremendously is clarifying the real stakes of purposefully ambiguous congressional action, putting a face to it quite literally with the cases of Amawi and Leveritt and doggedly following the flow of money and influence back from those that rubber stamp the laws in state legislatures to political action groups such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). When the expectation is that people won’t want to concern themselves with details, the accumulation of them in “Boycott” becomes quite impressive.
“Boycott” will screen virtually through the DOC NYC online platform on November 15th-16th.