Kansas Won’t Let Me Train Math Teachers Because I Boycott Israel

I’m a member of the Mennonite Church. I’ve also been a math teacher for almost a decade. Because of my political views, the state of Kansas has decided that I can’t help it train other math teachers.

I was chosen last spring to participate in a program that trains public school math teachers all over Kansas. After completing a two-day preparation course in May, I was ready to take on the role.

But  in June, Kansas passed a law requiring any individual or company seeking a contract with the state to certify that they are not engaged in a boycott of Israel. That law affects me personally. As a member of the Mennonite Church USA, and a person concerned with the human rights of all people — and specifically the ongoing violations of Palestinians’ human rights in Israel and Palestine — I choose to boycott consumer goods made by Israeli and international companies that profit from the violation of Palestinians’ rights.

I first became concerned with the situation in Israel and Palestine when I visited the region in the early 2000s, while serving a three-year term with the Mennonite Central Committee in Egypt. That interest intensified last fall, when our church hosted a weekly presentation series led by a member of our congregation. He told us about his trip to Israel and Palestine at the invitation of a group of Palestinian Christians. And he showed us video presentations by nongovernmental organizations, children's rights advocates, and former Israeli soldiers about the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians.

At the end of eight sessions, we talked about how boycotts, divestments, and sanctions could help bring about an end to the Israeli government’s occupation, in the same way those tactics helped dismantle apartheid in South Africa. I left the meeting with the conviction that I needed to do my part to support the Palestinian struggle for equality, even if it just meant not buying Sabra hummus or a SodaStream machine.

Then, on July 6, 2017, the Mennonite Church USA overwhelmingly passed a resolution calling for peace in Israel and Palestine. It called on Mennonites “to take active and specific steps to redress” the “injustice and violence” that both Palestinians and Jews have experienced. And it urged us “to avoid the purchase of products associated with acts of violence or policies of military occupation, including items produced in the settlements.” This resolution reaffirmed my decision to participate in the boycott.

Just a few days later, I got an email from an official at the Kansas State Department of Education. She said that, in order to participate in the state’s math training program, I would need to sign a certification stating that I don’t boycott Israel. Specifically, I would have to sign below the following statement:

“As an Individual or Contractor entering into a contract with the State of Kansas, it is hereby certified that the Individual or Company listed below is not currently engaged in a boycott of Israel.”

I was stunned. It seems preposterous that my decision to participate in a political boycott should have any effect on my ability to work for the state of Kansas.

After waiting for several weeks and considering my options, I emailed back and told the official I could not sign the certificate as a matter of conscience.  Could I still participate in the state’s training program? She responded that, unfortunately, I could not. I needed to sign the certification in order to get paid.

I am challenging this law because I believe that the First Amendment protects my right, and the right of all Americans, to make consumer spending decisions based on their political beliefs. You don’t need to share my beliefs or agree with my decisions to understand that this law violates my free speech rights. The state should not be telling people what causes they can or can’t support.

I am also sad that I cannot be a math trainer for the state of Kansas because of my political views about human rights across the globe. The two seem so distant and unrelated. My activism on behalf of freedom for all Israelis and Palestinians shouldn’t affect my ability to train math teachers. I hope this law will be recognized as a constitutional violation.

Esther Koontz is a curriculum coach at Horace Mann Dual Language Magnet school in Wichita, Kansas, and a member of the Mennonite Church USA. The views expressed in this post are those of the author; the ACLU does not take a position on boycotts of Israel.

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Anonymous

Your shedding light on Isreal's technological achievements is informative. During the 1930's and 40's some of the most advanced Technology in Europe was coming out of Germany. You can be morally corrupt and still make cool gadgets.

Fuck Israel

Your comments are the funniest (and least accurate) things I’ve read in a long time. I’d doubt you’re able to do so objectively but you might want to read up on the history of the conflict. Your ignorance is astounding. Please stop taking until you find your brain.

Jake Janzen

I’m grateful to the ACLU for taking up Esther’s case, and for all the people who are working against these types of laws. Zionists cannot make a moral case for the occupation, so instead they seek to stifle criticism.

Historian

Please do not generalize about Zionists. "Zionism" only means supporting the right of the state of Israel to exist. Within that group of people there is great diversity of opinion. For example, there are many Zionists who do not support the Israeli government's policies that oppress Palestinians, and who actively work against this oppression in many ways -- for example, by working side by side with Palestinian farmers during the olive harvest to protect them from harassment, by confronting members of violent settler groups (most settlers are not violent, by the way), and by participating in protests alongside Palestinians both within Israel and in the Palestinian Territories. Many former Israeli soldiers who testify against the occupation are among those who want their state to survive, so they're also Zionists who want to make Israel/Palestine a better place for everyone. I believe that people who wish to boycott should have that right, and that criticism should be heard (I'm an American, not an Israeli, by the way).

JillyBeans

Zionists are zionists, doesn't matter the degree, or land mass. Zionism is about a Jewish state. The achievement of that is no less than oppression of other populations. There can never be equality if a state is built for the preference of one people. Just as Saudi Arabia will be a Muslim led state, Israel will not permit a non-Jewish head of state.

Gary goodguy

The reason the law was passed is that boycotting a democratic country where Arabs have full rights is antisemitism .the Israelis have fought off attacks and by international law they are entitled to annex the land and give all residents full citizen ship.this mat teacher might be sincere but she has the wrong facts.her and the Mennonites don't boycott China or other countries who took over land .only they pick on the jews.they are an easy target due to the hatred of churches like the mennonites.an individual is allowed to boycott but not an individual that is getting a contract from the government.antisemitism lives in the Jew hating Mennonite Church.

Jake Janzen

Ok, help me out. My impression was that Palestinians living in the occupied territories do not have voting rights. Non-Jews (both Christian and Muslim) within Israel have voting rights, but there are still many privileges that are exclusive to Jews. Is that not correct? What if Israel did annex all of the land, but let go of the exclusive privileges and grant all citizens religious freedom and equal rights? It wouldn't be a JEWISH state, but it would be a democracy with a legitimate human rights record. Jewish people in the US live a prosperous life... couldn't Jewish people in Israel live and thrive in a similar way? Wouldn't they be SAFER, by undermining the terrorist message?

Anonymous

Stop playing a victim. If some disagrees with the way Israel is conducting themselves it's antisemitism? If someone chooses to boycott BOTH Palestine and Israel, that's antisemitism? That's not even the point. Is the state of Kansas asking people if they are or support White Supremacy? Members of the KKK? It's a FREE SPEECH issue here in AMERICA! Are we forgetting that VERY IMPORTANT POINT!

JillyBeans

So much victim, yet so much inaccuracy. Y'all just love your apples to oranges comparisons. Israel:Apartheid South Africa, which we boycotted too. Israel is a country by colonization, just as South Africa. Israel restricts living, movement, political participation, just as South Africa. Israel imprisons indigenous opposition, just as South Africa. China annexing lands without displacement, is not the same as Zionists forcing out Bedouins, expelling Palestinians, and then a history of denying building rights and rebuilding "Jews only" communities.

You cannot annex occupied lands, because no one supports it. The international community has already said no.

Zionists make themselves the right target, because of their war crimes and human rights abuses, while claiming to be democratic. The others are not democratic states, they are dictatorships and authoritarian.

JillyBeans

So much victim, yet so much inaccuracy. Y'all just love your apples to oranges comparisons. Israel:Apartheid South Africa, which we boycotted too. Israel is a country by colonization, just as South Africa. Israel restricts living, movement, political participation, just as South Africa. Israel imprisons indigenous opposition, just as South Africa. China annexing lands without displacement, is not the same as Zionists forcing out Bedouins, expelling Palestinians, and then a history of denying building rights and rebuilding "Jews only" communities.

You cannot annex occupied lands, because no one supports it. The international community has already said no.

Zionists make themselves the right target, because of their war crimes and human rights abuses, while claiming to be democratic. The others are not democratic states, they are dictatorships and authoritarian.

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