The United States is seeing a cultural shift toward increased concern over Israel’s human rights record. Over the past decade, groups from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to the United Methodist Church to dozens of university student governments have taken steps that challenge the status quo of abuses of Palestinian rights.1 Meanwhile, opponents have long argued that Palestinian rights work is anti-Semitic or anti-Israeli.2 In recent years, these accusations have escalated from a merely political or rhetorical argument to a claim of legally cognizable discrimination. Since 2014, twenty-seven states have adopted laws penalizing businesses’ participation in the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, and such laws are pending in another fourteen states.3 Facing First Amendment challenges, states have justified anti-BDS measures as standard antidiscrimination laws, combatting religious discrimination against Jewish people and national-origin discrimination against Israelis. Similar discrimination claims have been raised in other contexts, including: lawsuits against Airbnb under the Fair Housing Act4 (FHA) for withdrawing from West Bank settlements; Title VI5 complaints against universities for pro-Palestine student activism; and a new legal definition of anti-Semitism that includes criticism of Israel that is deemed disproportionate.6 Across these contexts, civil rights law has been leveraged to defend Israel against the movement for Palestinian rights. This Note focuses on anti-BDS laws as the most significant manifestation of the claim that anti-Zionist movement work unlawfully discriminates.
Much has been written arguing that anti-BDS laws violate the First Amendment.7 However, there has been far less focus on the discrimination claim itself. This Note debunks the claim that BDS constitutes legally cognizable discrimination. It argues that antidiscrimination doctrines do not support this claim. While BDS has grown into a diffuse, multistakeholder movement, this analysis focuses on BDS as led by the Palestinian BDS National Committee (BNC).8 Part I explains the background of BDS and anti-BDS laws. Part II explores how the discrimination claim has gained legal force through anti-BDS laws and other legal tools. Part III summarizes the implications of the anti-discrimination argument for First Amendment challenges to anti-BDS bills. A strong antidiscrimination justification for these laws would constitute a compelling state interest that could trump countervailing First Amendment interests. However, as Part IV explains, anti-BDS laws are not backed by a valid antidiscrimination interest.
I. The BDS Movement and Anti-BDS Laws
A. Palestinian Rights & the Birth of BDS
The Palestinian community today is made up of distinct populations, each facing a range of human rights abuses by the Israeli government. In Gaza, 1.8 million people live under an air, land, and sea blockade that restricts movement out of the Gaza Strip and access to basic necessities.9 Palestinians in the West Bank face a military occupation marked by segregated roads, home demolitions,10 unprecedented settlement expansion,11 and widespread military detentions — with as much as 40% of the male population having been detained by Israeli authorities.12 Palestinians in East Jerusalem without Israeli citizenship are regularly dispossessed of their property and residency permits.13 A matrix of over sixty-five laws systematically discriminates against Palestinian citizens of Israel,14 and Israel’s 2018 Basic Law established that only Jewish people have the right of national self-determination.15 Finally, Palestinian refugees comprise one of the world’s largest stateless populations,16 while a Jewish individual from any country who was “born of a Jewish mother or has become converted to Judaism” is automatically entitled to Israeli citizenship.17 Meanwhile, efforts to improve the situation for Palestinians have been almost uniformly unsuccessful. A generation of Palestinians has grown up seeing the Oslo Accords fail to produce discernable change, subsequent negotiation efforts break down, peaceful protests met with crackdowns, and construction of a separation wall that violates international law.18
Against this backdrop, BDS was founded in 2005 to leverage non-violent pressure on Israel, based on the recognition that “[t]he most fundamental problem . . . [is] not in deciding what sort of arrangement should replace the current system; the problem [is] forcing Israel to change it at all.”19 The movement aims to: (1) end the occupation and dismantle the wall; (2) secure the equal rights of Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel; and (3) uphold the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes, per UN Resolution 194.20 Inspired by the antiapartheid movement in South Africa, BDS leverages boycotts, institutional divestment, and government sanctions to target entities deemed complicit in Israel’s violations of Palestinian rights.21 The international movement has become increasingly mainstream22 and has successfully moved some companies to cease operations implicated in Israel’s rights abuses.23
B. Emergence of U.S. Anti-BDS Laws
Alongside its wins, BDS has seen substantial political opposition. In 2014, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s administration devoted $25.5 million to an anti-BDS task force24 and reportedly discussed “whether to activate the pro-Israel lobby in the US . . . to promote legislation” to undermine BDS.25 By September 2014, the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) was drafting legislation to counteract BDS in the United States.26 In 2015, fifty organizations met to coordinate a U.S. anti-BDS strategy, amidst concern over increasing criticism of Israel’s policies.27 As a former leader of Israel’s anti-BDS efforts conveyed, “The key for Israel . . . was winning the hearts and minds of centrist liberals and progressives abroad.”28 Part of this strategy became reclaiming the moral high ground by labeling BDS efforts anti-Semitic, including through anti-BDS laws.
In July 2015, Illinois became the first state to pass an anti-BDS law.29 Today, all but nine states have introduced or instituted anti-BDS measures that either require state contractors to pledge that they will not boycott Israel or require the divestment of state funds from boycotting companies that are placed on a “blacklist.”30 One anti-BDS law was met with international outrage in 2017 when Hurricane Harvey victims were required to pledge not to boycott Israel before receiving relief aid.31 Still, such laws have received support across most states, and fifty governors have signed a statement rejecting BDS.32
Recently, federal anti-BDS laws have also arisen, harkening back to 1970s legislation opposing the Arab League’s boycott of Israel.33 In 2017, Congress considered the Israel Anti-Boycott Act (IABA), which would have criminalized supporting anti-Israel boycotts fostered by international governmental organizations.34 In 2019, the Senate passed the Combatting BDS Act to clarify that state anti-BDS bills are not preempted by federal law,35 while the House passed a resolution condemning BDS and “all efforts to delegitimize the State of Israel.”36
II. Claims of Unlawful Discrimination
A. Claims of Discrimination Used Against BDS
Anti-BDS laws have been justified as tools for combatting religious discrimination against Jewish people and national-origin discrimination against Israelis. As nine states argued in an amicus brief: it is “intuitively obvious . . . [that] targeting a particular group (and those associating with them) for the intentional infliction of economic harm is discrimination, by definition,” and BDS does just that.37 Some note, just because BDS does not target all Israelis does not make the movement any less discriminatory: “[D]iscrimination is not immunized simply because it is not carried out to its furthest ends.”38 Moreover, the claim goes, BDS “doesn’t pass the anti-Semitism smell test”; supporters feed anti-Semitic stereotypes39 and single out the world’s only Jewish state — a democracy — “for the most exacting scrutiny,” while ignoring worse human rights abuses elsewhere.40 Opponents claim, of all groups on Earth, BDS denies only the Jewish people the right of national self-determination.41 Many trace a line from centuries-old exclusions of Jewish people from commerce to BDS, arguing that BDS is the latest manifestation of “economic warfare” against the Jewish people.42
This claim of discrimination is not new. It is commonplace to allege that anti-Zionism43 is anti-Semitic.44 A primary tool of Israeli advocacy organizations has long been public vilification of Palestinian rights supporters as anti-Semitic,45 a charge that carries a powerful chilling effect.46 However, in recent years, this allegation of anti-Jewish and anti-Israeli discrimination has transitioned from a political and rhetorical claim to one treated as legally cognizable. Several anti-BDS laws rest on the antidiscrimination rationale, alongside other justifications.47 Many of the laws penalize limiting business with Israel “in a manner that discriminates on the basis of nationality, national origin or religion.”48 For other laws, the antidiscrimination rationale is absent from the text but emerges in the legislative history.49 Alongside contracting laws, several states have passed virtually identical resolutions naming BDS “one of the main vehicles for spreading anti-Semitism.”50
States have partially relied on the antidiscrimination justification when defending anti-BDS laws against First Amendment challenges. Thus far, five federal cases have been decided at the preliminary injunction stage, reviewing challenges to anti-BDS laws in Maryland, Texas, Arkansas, Arizona, and Kansas.51 Texas defended that BDS engages in “invidious, status-based discrimination,” and the State has the power to prohibit “discrimination based on historically protected characteristics.”52 Arizona, Maryland, and Arkansas similarly argued that BDS is quintessentially discriminatory, “rooted in animus” toward Jewish people53 and constituting “national-origin discrimination under any reasonable construction of that term.”54
B. Claims of Discrimination Beyond BDS
Not only has the discrimination claim been used defensively against legal challenges to anti-BDS laws, but it has also been wielded offensively in complaints against entities advancing Palestinian rights work.
1. Airbnb Cases. — In November 2018, following advocacy by human rights groups,55 Airbnb announced that it would delist rentals in Israeli West Bank settlements,56 which violate Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention.57 The company was promptly met with four lawsuits.58 Some plaintiffs alleged that Airbnb’s policy violated the FHA by discriminating on account of race, religion, and national origin because it “effectively targets only those residential dwellings and accommodations in Judea and Samaria that are owned or managed by Jews.”59 In April 2019, Airbnb settled by reversing its policy, announcing that it “always opposed the BDS movement.”60
2. Title VI. — The discrimination claim has also gained traction through the U.S. Department of Education’s (DOE) response to Title VI complaints. As of 2015, at least six Title VI complaints had been filed against universities alleging that Palestine-related events harassed, targeted, or “create[d] a ‘hostile educational environment’ for Jewish students.”61 Under the Obama Administration, the DOE dismissed such complaints for lack of legal merit.62 According to Kenneth Marcus, the “architect of [this] Title VI strategy,” even when rejected, these Title VI complaints successfully chilled speech by “expos[ing] administrators to bad publicity” and “getting [students] caught up in a civil rights complaint.”63 In 2018, Marcus was appointed by President Trump to serve as the DOE’s Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights.64 Marcus is working to shift DOE policy toward upholding discrimination claims that were rejected under the Obama Administration through steps like reopening a previously terminated investigation against Rutgers University for alleged anti-Semitism.65
3. Redefining Anti-Semitism. — The discrimination claim is also gaining legal force through the formal redefining of anti-Semitism to include anti-Zionism. In 2010, the U.S. State Department adopted a definition of anti-Semitism that includes the “3 D’s” of demonizing, delegitimizing, and applying double standards to Israel.66 This definition regards as anti-Semitic acts like: “[m]ultilateral organizations focusing on Israel only for peace or human rights investigations” and “requiring of [Israel] a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.”67 In 2019, the Florida legislature passed HB 741, requiring state educational institutions to treat anti-Semitism — as defined by the State Department — the same as racial discrimination.68 A town in Florida has gone further, passing an ordinance that integrates this definition of anti-Semitism into its criminal law and directs police to investigate instances of demonizing, delegitimizing, or applying double standards to Israel.69 In 2016, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance promulgated a similar definition,70 which has been adopted by thirty-one countries, and eight have enshrined it into national law.71
In these ways, the claim that anti-Zionism constitutes religious and national-origin discrimination has gone from a merely rhetorical argument to one taken seriously by legislatures, federal agencies, and courts as legally cognizable.
III. Implications for First Amendment Challenges
The discrimination claim impacts whether anti-BDS laws that burden political speech can withstand First Amendment scrutiny. This Part explores whether BDS is First Amendment–protected and, if so, whether a valid antidiscrimination rationale could save anti-BDS laws from constitutional rebuke. The First Amendment protects both speech and expressive conduct.72 Under strict scrutiny, a content-based regulation of protected expression must be justified by a compelling state interest and be narrowly tailored to further that interest.73
A preliminary question in anti-BDS litigation is whether BDS is protected expression. Litigants who consider anti-BDS laws unconstitutional cite NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware Co.74 for the proposition that the First Amendment protects nonviolent, politically motivated consumer boycotts.75 Some note that anti-BDS laws are content-based by “singling out only politically motivated refusals to do business” with Israel, and even if BDS does not qualify as speech, the First Amendment still restrains the government from forbidding conduct precisely because of what it communicates.76 Conversely, supporters of anti-BDS laws’ constitutionality argue that BDS is not protected because it is merely the nonexpressive conduct of withholding business and requires additional explanation in order to be expressive,77 citing Rumsfeld v. Forum for Academic and Institutional Rights, Inc.78 They interpret Claiborne to mean that,
while expression supporting a boycott (picketing, marches, speeches) is protected, the act of boycotting itself is not.79
Almost all federal courts that have ruled on this matter have concluded that BDS is constitutionally protected expression.80 Therefore, if subject to strict scrutiny, anti-BDS laws can survive only if narrowly tailored to advance a compelling state interest. Roberts v. U.S. Jaycees81 and its progeny establish that “the State’s strong historical commitment to eliminating discrimination . . . serves compelling state interests of the highest order.”82 Thus, a compelling antidiscrimination justification could possibly trump BDS’s First Amendment protections. However, the Supreme Court has not fully resolved the core constitutional tension between First Amendment interests and neutral antidiscrimination laws.83 Under Supreme Court precedent such as Boy Scouts of America v. Dale,84 First Amendment interests may override antidiscrimination laws when discrimination is integral to the expression and the law forces individuals to “alter the[ir] expressive content.”85 If BDS’s policy of anti-Zionism were considered discriminatory, plaintiffs could argue that anti-Zionism is core to the organization’s purpose, at least as much as antihomosexuality was core to the Boy Scouts’s mission in Dale,86 and BDS’s integral expressive message is being unconstitutionally undermined. Thus, anti-BDS laws may not survive strict scrutiny even if a compelling antidiscrimination interest is at stake.
Still, the State may argue that it has an additional defense to First Amendment challenges when it contracts with private entities. Several cases affirm that the State may decline to contract with a private actor when doing so would effectively subsidize violations of public policy.87 Under this principle, in 2014 President Obama passed an executive order that prohibits federal contractors from practicing anti-LGBT employment discrimination.88 Obama announced that “America’s Federal contracts should not subsidize discrimination against the American people”89 — mirroring the justification States now use for anti-BDS laws.
Indeed, strong antidiscrimination interests should trump First Amendment rights. Progressive activists and lawyers have worked for decades to ensure that entities cannot opt out of antidiscrimination laws simply by raising an associational or expressive interest in discrimina-ting.90 And labeling discriminatory acts a political boycott shouldn’t shield them from antidiscrimination contracting laws. If Obama’s executive order were challenged by contractors claiming a First Amendment interest in banning LGBT employees, the Administration’s antidiscrimination interest should trump. If a white supremacist organization coordinates a boycott of black-owned businesses, the State should be entitled to refuse to contract with the organization. Likewise, if BDS were to invidiously discriminate based on religion or national origin, the State’s interest in combatting such discrimination may outweigh countervailing First Amendment claims. However, as explained below, BDS cannot properly be considered discriminatory. The State therefore has no legitimate antidiscrimination interest in suppressing BDS activity.
IV. Debunking the Discrimination Claim
Courts soon may have to decide whether BDS is unlawfully discriminatory. This question arises indirectly in First Amendment challenges to anti-BDS laws as a prerequisite to deciding whether states have a compelling antidiscrimination interest in penalizing BDS. The question also arises directly in lawsuits alleging that BDS participants violate existing public accommodation laws.91 And as anti-BDS legal strategies develop,92 a hypothetical state or federal statute could even be passed to prohibit religious or national-origin discrimination in commercial transactions, including consumer purchases, and be used to bring suit against BDS participants. In each scenario, courts should consider whether a valid, nonpretextual discrimination claim has been raised and whether BDS constitutes illegal discrimination. Because there is no specific test for whether a consumer boycott constitutes discrimination, courts can instead look to two types of discrimination widely recognized in existing law: discriminatory intent and disparate impact discrimination. This Part analyzes whether BDS can be considered discriminatory, borrowing from intent and impact doctrines developed to address employment, public accommodations, disability, and housing discrimination. Section A argues that the discrimination claim levied against BDS is likely pretextual. Section B explains why BDS cannot be considered discriminatory based on discriminatory intent and disparate impact doctrines.
A. Pretextual Nature of the Discrimination Claim
Governments likely adopted the discrimination rationale as pretext to help overcome anticipated constitutional challenges. Consider what these laws would look like if their goal were actually to root out religious and national-origin discrimination by state contractors engaged in boycotts. Anti-BDS laws as written would be both oddly underinclusive and overinclusive. They would be underinclusive because the vast majority apply only to discrimination against Israelis.93 Despite the range of boycotts practiced in the United States,94 no other nationality is protected by most anti-BDS laws. This sets anti-BDS laws apart from standard public accommodations laws, which “protect broad categories of people against discrimination,” regardless of the viewpoint expressed.95 As noted by the court reviewing Texas’s anti-BDS law, “[s]uch ‘[u]nderinclusiveness raises serious doubts about whether the government is in fact pursuing the interest it invokes, rather than disfavoring a particular speaker or viewpoint.’”96
At the same time, many of the laws would be overinclusive by prohibiting not just boycotts of Israel that are deemed discriminatory but all boycotts of Israeli goods, even absent a finding of discrimination. Kansas’s anti-BDS bill describes two categories of prohibited boycotts: (1) those undertaken “in . . . adherence to calls for a boycott of Israel” and (2) those that “discriminate on the basis of nationality, national origin or religion, and . . . [are] not based on a valid business reason.”97 If the second definition does any work, it must indicate that the Kansas legislature does not consider all boycotts of Israeli goods to be discriminatory98 — undermining the claim that BDS is inherently discriminatory. Meanwhile, some bills provide exemptions from the certification requirement for contractors who bid 20% less than the lowest business that is certified.99 If anti-BDS laws were meant to combat invidious discrimination, it would be inconsistent for states to freely permit such discrimination as long as the contractor offered a low enough bid. Finally, the legislative history of several bills reveals a desire to undermine BDS’s growth,100 further suggesting that the goal of chilling a disfavored political movement, rather than genuine concern over discrimination by state contractors, motivated the passage of anti-BDS bills.
B. Doctrinal Weakness of the Discrimination Claim
Even if we assume that combatting discrimination were the true motive behind anti-BDS bills, the argument would be legally baseless. This section explains that BDS does not manifest discriminatory intent or produce a disparate impact. Constitutional claims of discrimination under the Fourteenth Amendment require showing that a government actor has discriminatory intent.101 Conversely, many federal and local statutes address private discrimination and recognize disparate impact claims.102
1. No Discriminatory Intent. — The doctrine of discriminatory intent, or “disparate treatment,” entails decisionmaking that was “actually motivated by [one’s] . . . membership in a . . . protected class.”103 Intent can be shown through direct or circumstantial evidence.104
(a) Direct Evidence. — First, there is no direct evidence that BDS exhibits discriminatory intent toward Jewish or Israeli individuals. Direct evidence is evidence that facially links behavior to a discriminatory motive, such as “conduct or statements . . . [that] directly reflect the alleged discriminatory attitude.”105 Neither BDS’s conduct nor statements are facially discriminatory. The BNC’s official stance is that it “does not tolerate any act or discourse which adopts or promotes . . . anti-Semitism,” and it affirms Universal Declaration of Human Rights principles rejecting religious and national-origin discrimination.106 The BNC encourages supporters to select targets based on their complicity in Israel’s human rights violations, potential for cross-movement solidarity, media appeal, and likelihood of success.107 The movement does not select targets based on their national origin or religious identity.108
Opponents counter that BDS leaders’ statements advocating the end of Israel’s existence as a Jewish state are direct evidence of anti-Semitism.109 However, that argument assumes its own conclusion. Such statements are anti-Zionist, and equating anti-Zionism (a political ideology that opposes Jewish ethno-nationalism) with anti-Semitism (anti-Jewish animus) requires a logical leap that defeats finding direct evidence of religious discrimination. Similarly, opposing Israel’s existence as a Jewish state is logically distinct from animus toward individual Israelis on the basis of national origin, such that equating the two requires inferences, which are incompatible with what courts require for direct evidence.110 Because direct evidence requires facial proof without circumstantial inferences, such evidence of discrimination rarely exists111 and is absent in this context.
(b) Circumstantial Evidence. — Second, there is no circumstantial evidence of discriminatory intent. BDS’s opponents often infer discriminatory intent from the premise that the movement ignores human rights abuses in other countries and singles out Israel, the world’s only Jewish state, for disproportionate critique.112 This argument essentially says that anti-Jewish or anti-Israeli animus is a motivating factor, or even the but-for cause, behind BDS’s focus on Israel. The McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green113 framework applies to discriminatory intent claims resting on circumstantial evidence and “but-for” causation.114 A plaintiff must first make a prima facie showing of discrimination due to her membership in a protected class; the burden of production then shifts to the defendant to offer a “legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason” for the conduct, which the plaintiff can rebut by showing that the proffered reason is pretextual.115 This framework was developed for employment discrimination cases and would not be directly applied to BDS, but it offers a useful guide for assessing the claim that BDS would not target Israeli companies but for their Jewish or Israeli identity.116
(i) Prima Facie Showing. — First, it must be shown that BDS participants discriminate due to national origin or religion. This nexus cannot be established. Under Hazen Paper Co. v. Biggins,117 discrimination against an identity cannot be inferred from actions penalizing an independent, analytically distinct category — even if that category is related to the identity.118 Here, disfavoring a nation-state for its governmental policies is analytically distinct from national-origin discrimination, defined as disfavoring an individual due to “the country where a person was born, or . . . from which his or her ancestors came.”119 BDS can consider the former while ignoring the latter, which undermines a finding of discrimination based on national origin.120 The Supreme Court has declined to expand national-origin discrimination to include citizenship discrimination,121 and targeting nation-states for their policies is even further removed from the concept of national-origin discrimination than citizenship. If political boycotts of countries were cognizable as “national-origin discrimination,” all sorts of current and historical boycotts would be swept into the net of illegal discrimination.122 Furthermore, Israel’s religious character does not necessarily render such a boycott discriminatory. Analogously, Iran, like Israel, self-defines based on religion, yet current U.S. refusals to buy from Iran do not give rise to anti-Shia religious discrimination claims, because Iran’s national policies, rather than its identity, are the target.123
BDS’s opponents might counter that Israeli and Jewish identities are “closely correlated” with the conduct of supporting Israel in ways that put an entity on the boycott list — and therefore to disfavor the latter is to disfavor the former. This argument mirrors one that arose in Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission,124 where a baker refused to make a cake for a gay couple’s wedding ceremony125 — which some have likened to BDS’s refusal to engage economically with Israel.126 The baker argued that he was discriminating against the couple not based on their status as gay, but rather based on their conduct of entering into a same-sex marriage.127 The Colorado court rejected such a distinction when conduct is “closely correlated” with status and concluded that same-sex marriage is closely correlated with being gay because “it is ‘engaged in exclusively or predominantly’ by gays, lesbians, and bisexuals.”128 The Supreme Court has explained that, when conduct is disfavored, discrimination against a status can be inferred if the disfavored conduct is not only “engaged in exclusively or predominantly by a particular class of people,” but is also an “irrational object of disfavor.”129 For example, “[a] tax on wearing yarmulkes is a tax on Jews,” because it is irrational to disfavor yarmulkes and they are worn predominately by Jews.130 Conversely, disfavoring the conduct of abortion does not mean disfavoring the status of being a woman; even though abortions are engaged in predominately131 by women, in the Court’s view there are “respectable reasons for opposing [abortion].”132
By the Supreme Court’s logic, the analogy of BDS to Masterpiece Cakeshop falls flat. Disfavoring conduct that is complicit in Israel’s treatment of Palestinians does not imply an intent to disfavor the status of being Jewish or Israeli. If there are respectable political reasons for disfavoring abortion, there are certainly respectable reasons for disfavoring complicity in Israel’s human rights record. Moreover, the status of being Jewish is not “inextricably tied” to such conduct of complicity — and to suggest otherwise would in fact ring anti-Semitic.133 Zionism does not reflect the views of all Jewish people,134 and the types of conduct that lead to becoming a BDS target are not done “exclusively or predominately” by Jewish individuals. Similarly, one’s status as Israeli is not closely correlated with the conduct of operating a business that is implicated in Israel’s rights violations. The majority of targeted businesses are in fact not Israeli but are instead foreign companies that operate inside Israel and Palestine.135 Unlike Masterpiece Cakeshop, where the couple’s status as gay was necessary for being subjected to the baker’s discrimination, for BDS, it is neither necessary nor sufficient that an entity be Jewish or Israeli. To become a target, the entity must be actively complicit in Israel’s violations of Palestinian rights136 — conduct that is not closely correlated with a specific identity.
(ii) Legitimate, Nondiscriminatory Justification. — Even if a prima facie case of discrimination could be made, BDS can present a “legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason” for its actions through evidence that Israel’s human rights record, rather than religious or national identity, motivates boycott decisions. Some BDS opponents might argue that BDS’s political goals may constitute a legitimate justification but not a nondiscriminatory one, just as a boycott of Catholics to protest the Catholic Church’s policies could be motivated by a legitimate political reason yet still be discriminatory.137 However, this analogy fundamentally misunderstands BDS. Like boycotting Catholics, boycotting all Jewish people to challenge the Israeli government’s policies would indeed be discriminatory. But BDS does not boycott Jewish individuals. Nor does it categorically target goods made in Israel, individual Israelis, or Israeli-owned businesses operating exclusively outside of Israel and Palestine that are not involved in rights violations.138 Instead, the movement relies on thorough documentation139 to carefully select targets based on complicity in Israel’s alleged violations of international law. Unlike the hypothetical anti-Catholic boycott, BDS targets individual complicity rather than group identity.
(iii) Pretext. — Opponents could attempt to demonstrate that BDS’s human rights justification is pretextual by showing that it is implausible, inconsistent, incoherent, or contradictory.140 Persuading a factfinder of this point would be difficult given thoroughly documented rights abuses in Israel-Palestine141 and the longstanding role of boycotts as a tool for addressing such abuses. Some maintain that the human rights justification is pretextual because BDS ignores severe rights abuses outside Israel.142 However, the argument that BDS has “singled out” Israel by not targeting similarly situated countries would seem to require that a human rights movement focus on all injustices in a region or facing a community to overcome a claim that it discriminatorily selected a particular injustice as its focus. Such logic might have required the antiapartheid movement to address not just injustice by white South Africans, but also abuses by the black African National Congress leadership or by other African countries. This requirement is neither politically reasonable nor supported by existing law.
A more persuasive argument of pretext might say: even though BDS does not target all Israelis and targets many non-Israeli entities, it is still discriminatory if animus is the impetus behind focusing on Israel. Discriminatory intent against a group can exist even when some members of the group are exempted from disfavor and some non–group members are included in the disfavor. For example, many consider President Trump’s Muslim Ban discriminatory even though not all Muslim-majority nations are targeted and some non-Muslim countries are banned.143 For that reason, discerning discriminatory intent requires context. To many, including Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor,144 Trump’s anti-Muslim campaign statements were crucial evidence that his national security justification was pretextual. For BDS, there is no comparable evidence of pretext. While the movement displays blatant anti-Zionism, there is no evidence that the official movement displays animus toward Jewish or Israeli individuals. BDS is a diffuse movement rather than a centralized organization and, like in any movement, some individual supporters may be motivated by animus and fail to abide by BDS’s principles. But the principles, statements, and strategy of the official movement, as coordinated by the BNC, all point toward finding that the human rights motive is a genuine nondiscriminatory justification for its actions, defeating a discriminatory intent claim.
2. No Disparate Impact. — Second, BDS is not discriminatory under a disparate impact theory. The claim that BDS commits disparate impact discrimination says: in targeting entities complicit in Israeli rights violations, BDS may not intend to specifically hurt Israeli or Jewish entities, but in effect it disproportionately inflicts economic harm on them.145 Disparate impact law prohibits conduct that is “fair in form, but discriminatory in operation.”146 This doctrine was developed with employment discrimination in mind147 and often does not apply to public accommodations statutes,148 which anti-BDS laws are sometimes framed as.149 And for BDS participants that are not public establishments but are individual consumer purchasers, a disparate impact theory may be even less applicable. Still, even if a disparate impact theory were applied to BDS, the discrimination claim would likely fail. Under the traditional test: A plaintiff must establish that the challenged practice caused a significant disparate effect on a particular group; statistical disparities alone cannot create liability.150 The burden of proof then shifts to the defendant to show that its practice is based on a legitimate consideration, “consistent with business necessity.”151 The plaintiff can win by showing that a less exclusionary, “equally effective” alternative serves the same goal.152 Like the discriminatory intent test above, this framework was developed for employment discrimination cases and would not directly apply to BDS, but it offers a rough outline for analyzing whether BDS is discriminatory under a disparate impact theory.
First, it is unclear whether a prima facie case of disparate impact discrimination could be established. Because the majority of BDS targets are non-Israeli companies headquartered in Europe and the United States,153 statistical analysis actually may not indicate a significant adverse impact on Israeli or Jewish businesses — though a second-order impact on communities indirectly affected by boycotts may exist. Second, if a causal disproportionate effect can be shown, a BDS participant could then present a defense akin to a “business necessity.” Courts have struggled to determine how “necessary” a practice must be to constitute a business necessity but generally do not require that the practice be indispensable.154 Instead courts require it to be significantly related to the defendant’s goal, rather than an “artificial, arbitrary, or unnecessary barrier.”155 The challenged practice of boycotting Israeli goods could be likened to a “business necessity” because it significantly serves the legitimate goal of shifting Israel’s human rights practices. Some argue that BDS’s strategy is disconnected from its goal because boycotted companies are private, often foreign, entities that lack the influence to pressure the Israeli government to change its policies.156 While reasonable people can disagree about the efficacy of boycotts, they along with divestment and sanctions have helped shift government policies historically157 and have long been recognized by U.S. courts as legitimate political strategies.158 Though boycotting is not “indispensable” for individuals to assert political pressure, it does significantly serve to advance such pressure, and likely qualifies as a “business necessity.”
Third, once a business necessity defense is raised, BDS opponents must show equally effective ways to advance BDS’s goal without a disparate effect. While some strategies to advance Palestinian rights may produce no disparate harm for Israeli or Jewish businesses, courts do not require that defendants in disparate impact cases “adopt alternatives that are less effective” or more burdensome.159 Given the failure of other measures that have attempted to achieve basic rights for Palestinians,160 BDS can convincingly argue that alternatives to boycotts, divestment, and sanctions are ineffective or overly burdensome. However, as noted above, this test was developed to assess employment practices rather than political movements, and there is danger in courts weighing the efficacy of protest tactics — highlighting the limits of this framework for assessing whether BDS is unlawfully discriminatory. Still, even under this traditional test, challengers cannot successfully argue that BDS commits disparate impact discrimination.
To underscore the weakness of this claim, consider Claiborne, which vindicated black Mississippi residents’ boycott of white-owned businesses during the Civil Rights Movement.161 The Claiborne boycott no doubt disproportionately affected the local white community, given that whites were more likely to own and be employed by the businesses. However, it was the exclusionary policies of the businesses themselves that made their staffs white-only,162 resulting in a disproportionate effect on whites. Equally, Israel’s policies of carefully maintaining a Jewish-majority state and Jewish-only settlements in the West Bank would be responsible for any disproportionate effect that boycotts have on Jewish communities, and are precisely the policies that BDS seeks to change. For Claiborne’s boycotters and BDS alike, there is irony in the claim that a boycott challenging a group’s exclusionary policies discriminates against that group because only they are affected by the boycott.
Finally, disparate impact claims have become increasingly difficult to raise successfully. Conservative Justices on the Supreme Court have narrowed the disparate impact theory,163 and historically, “the Court has only seen discrimination . . . in the most overt or obvious situations . . . that could not be explained on any basis other than race”164 — which is not the case in the BDS context. The difficulty of raising a successful disparate impact claim reflects the concerning shortcomings of antidiscrimination law, but also means allegations that BDS is discriminatory should almost certainly fail under existing U.S. law.
At bottom, anti-BDS laws cannot properly be viewed as combatting discrimination. The claim that BDS constitutes religious and national-origin discrimination fits neither the framework of discriminatory intent nor disparate impact law. Some may counter that, while BDS may not be discriminatory as a doctrinal matter, BDS is conceptually discriminatory based on the legal philosophies underlying antidiscrimination law. However, common theories for when discrimination is wrongful — when it expresses prejudice, demeans individuals, structurally subordinates, classifies by identity, or penalizes identity-based expression — are inapposite in the context of BDS.165 Thus, BDS cannot be considered discriminatory even on a philosophical basis.
The weakness of the discrimination claim is constitutionally significant for anti-BDS litigation. It reveals that, despite states’ assertions to the contrary, the government does not have a compelling antidiscrimination interest that could trump countervailing First Amendment interests. Moreover, the weakness of the discrimination claim matters beyond anti-BDS laws. The past decade has seen antidiscrimination law weaponized to undercut a human rights movement that has opponents at the highest levels of the U.S. government — a trend that threatens other controversial political movements that the government may seek to undermine. Chilling disfavored political movements is precisely what the First Amendment is meant to protect against. While First Amendment protections can and should bow to strong antidiscrimination interests, governments must not adopt baseless discrimination claims in an attempt to override First Amendment protections.
Note: A prior version of this Note incorrectly suggested that the authors of the Dorf Brief — Professors Michael C. Dorf, Andrew M. Koppelman, and Eugene Volokh — are supporters of anti-BDS laws in the text accompanying note 77 and opponents of BDS in note 137. Dorf, Koppelman, and Volokh do not advocate for or against the laws in their brief, but only evaluate the laws’ constitutionality. The Review regrets the error.