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Need Hurricane Aid? In One Texas City, If You Boycott Israel, You May Be Out Of Luck

People discard possessions last month that were damaged by flooding brought on by Hurricane Harvey in Dickinson, Texas.
Win McNamee
Getty Images
People discard possessions last month that were damaged by flooding brought on by Hurricane Harvey in Dickinson, Texas.

Hurricane Harvey's floodwaters damaged many homes in the Texas city of Dickinson, and residents are applying for assistance and working to repair their properties.

But Dickinson's application for repair grants is raising eyebrows. Alongside standard items such as project descriptions and grant amounts, the city application reads:

"By executing this Agreement below, the Applicant verifies that the Applicant: (1) does not boycott Israel; and (2) will not boycott Israel during the term of this agreement."

In doing so, the application appears to make eligibility for hurricane relief funds contingent on political beliefs regarding Israel, which the American Civil Liberties Union describes as unconstitutional.

"The First Amendment protects Americans' right to boycott, and the government cannot condition hurricane relief or any other public benefit on a commitment to refrain from protected political expression," ACLU of Texas Legal Director Andre Segura said in a statement.

A city official told NPR that Dickinson is simply following a recently passed state law: "The city has nothing to do with it."

They are referring to House Bill 89, which came into force on September 1. But Rep. Phil King, who authored the legislation, told NPR he was baffled about why it was being applied here.

"We're eating this morning, having my oatmeal, and I see the article in the paper. And it's like, 'Oh no, what could they possibly be thinking?'" King said.

Gov. Greg Abbott signed the bill into law in May, saying that it was aimed at targeting companies that are involved in boycotting, divesting or sanctioning Israel, also known as BDS.

"As Israel's number one trading partner in the United States, Texas is proud to reaffirm its support for the people of Israel and we will continue to build on our historic partnership," Abbott stated. "Anti-Israel policies are anti-Texas policies, and we will not tolerate such actions against an important ally."

The law is limited in scope to companies, however – and the city has not explained why it would apply to all applicants for grants, which are open to people rebuilding both homes and businesses.

And, King adds, the law is aimed at preventing taxpayer money from going to companies boycotting Israel. But Dickinson's hurricane relief grant fund is made up of donations. "Those are not taxpayer dollars so they have nothing to do with the anti-BDS legislation," he says.

"It's not uncommon when you've got brand-new legislation, particularly substantive legislation, for it to be misinterpreted or for there to be some confusion," King says. "And I think that's all that's going on here. I think it's just a simple misunderstanding by the city."

Dickinson's grant application was put up on the city website on Monday and remains posted as of Friday afternoon.

Supporters of the BDS movement say it aims to put economic pressure on Israel in support of Palestinian independence, NPR's Daniel Estrin has reported, while Israel says "the boycott movement seeks to destroy Israel as a Jewish state altogether."

The ACLU has pointed out examples of other cities in Texas requiring potential contractors to state in writing that they are not involved in boycotting Israel.

For example, government contract applications from the cities of Galveston, Austin and San Antonio require a signed statement that the potential contractor is not boycotting.

The ACLU has also filed a federal lawsuit over a similar Kansas law, "on behalf of a high school math teacher who is being required by the state to certify that she won't boycott Israel if she wants to take part in a teacher training program."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.
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