For nearly a decade, speech language pathologist Bahia Amawi has worked with multilingual Texas school children facing speech difficulties. Then this year, the Pflugerville Independent School District slipped something fishy into her renewal contract. They asked her to sign an oath vowing that she:
1. Does not currently boycott Israel; and
2. Will not boycott Israel during the term of the contract.
The unexpected addendum to her job contract went on to clarify:
‘Boycott Israel’ means refusing to deal with, terminating business activities with, or otherwise taking any action that is intended to penalize, inflict economic harm on, or limit commercial relations specifically with Israel, or with any person or entity doing business in Israel or an Israeli-controlled territory…
The red flags went up. Why is a Texas school district requiring its contractors to pledge allegiance to Israel?
Furthermore, that word “intended” leaves a lot open to the penalizer’s interpretation. It could expose Amawi, an American citizen and mother of four, to legal penalties simply for expressing sympathy for Palestine, or verbally citing a boycott of Israel in any terms not explicitly framed as pro-Israel.
Forbidding people from expressing anti-Israel sentiments would seem very much like a violation of free speech, that “fixed star in our constitutional constellation”. The presence of the addendum is all the more strange considering no such oath exists for allegiance to the United States, or, say, the state of Texas. Rather, it requires economic and vocal allegiance to a foreign nation.
Amawi, an advocate for Palestinian rights who does in fact boycott Israeli products as a matter of personal protest, did not sign the oath.
“Ms. Amawi informed PFSID that she could not sign the addendum,” says a legal complaint she filed against the school district this morning, “asking why her personal political stances impacted her work as a speech language pathologist with PFSID.”
The school district responded by terminating her contract.
Citizen, Educator, Palestinian, Immigrant, but Most of All, ‘Busy Mother’
As an Austrian native born to a Palestinian family, Amawi is trilingual. She speaks German and Arabic in addition to English. A US citizen for over 30 years, she she received her master’s degree in speech pathology from Nova Southeastern University in Florida in 1999. She specializes in bilingual evaluations for Arabic-speaking children, a niche position for which she’s uniquely qualified in her community in Round Rock, Texas, outside of Austin.
“I got my master’s in this field and devoted myself to this work because I always wanted to do service for children,” she told The Intercept. “It’s vital that early-age assessments of possible speech impairments or psychological conditions be administered by those who understand the child’s first language.”
The termination of her position means more than the loss of a job for an educator and her family. It also deprives PISD’s Arabic-speaking children of a necessary educator and advocate.
Despite the sudden spotlight on her, Amawi describes herself as “not a major activist” but simply “a busy mom”. Setting an example for her kids by sticking to what is right and just played a central role in her decision not to sign the addendum, she says. “It was an easy decision in that aspect.”
“I always tell my kids when you see something wrong, you have to fix it,” Amawi explained. “The point of boycotting any products that support Israel is to put pressure on the Israeli government to change its treatment, the inhuman treatment of the Palestinian people.”
It’s a matter of great importance to her family. “Having grown up as a Palestinian I know firsthand the oppression and the struggle the Palestinians face on a daily basis.”
Texas-Enforced Allegiance to Israel
The pro-Israel addendum appeared in Amawi’s public school contract because of a Texas state law that passed in May of 2017. The law prohibits government entities from boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) with regard to Israel. It also forbids government entities from hiring or contracting with any company boycotting Israel.
The bill was written by evangelical Christian and Texas State Representative Phil King. “The intent of the bill,” said King upon its induction, “is to prohibit someone trying to cause economic harm to the nation of Israel or to the Jews or anyone within the nation of Israel by boycotting, by not doing business with them, by punishing others who do business with them.”
As Republican governor Greg Abbott signed the bill into law, he called Israel an “essential international ally,” and proclaimed to applause that “any anti-Israel policy is an anti-Texas policy.”
The law quickly had repercussions, as it blocked Hurricane Harvey victims from accessing relief aide unless they first signed an anti-BDS pledge similar to what Amawi received. In the midst of the confusion and outrage over “Hurricane Israel,” the ACLU was quick to call the legislation an unconstitutional violation of of free speech.
Don’t Look Now, But Texas Ain’t the Only One
Texas wasn’t the first, nor the last state to legislate allegiance to Israel. When the bill passed in 2017, Texas became the 17th of 26 states so far to pass an anti-BDS law. The list includes such liberal strongholds as New York and California. To date there are only 11 states in which no such anti-BDS legislation been proposed.
“The United States has historically discouraged Israeli settlements as ‘inconsistent with international law,’” reads Amawi’s federal lawsuit. “Overall, however, U.S. policy strongly supports Israel, and the U.S. and Israel enjoy close political and economic relationships. These friendly relations have tended to soften or mute the United States’ criticism of Israeli settlements.”
Amawi asserts that the oath and the loss of her job violate not only her principles, but her constitutional rights to free speech and protest.
“It’s baffling that they can throw this down our throats,” she says, “and decide to protect another country’s economy versus protect[ing] our constitutional rights.”