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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Bernard Harris

I find your views ill informed and wildly one sided. If your opinions aren't more nuanced than what you wrote, you're being far too immature for any teaching position.

Anonymous

Your views are condescending and MISSING THE POINT!!!! It doesn't matter what her views are!!! It's called Freedom of Expression!!! It's a fundamental American RIGHT!!!! Damn! People are dumber than a bag of hammers anymore.

John Wisdom

What is there to be nuanced? -- Her faith sees violence as a sin -- What she has seen first hand and what has been told to her by Israeli's is that Israel is engaging in violent acts. And thus, she has a deeply-held religious belief and a clear religious freedom here to be protected.

It's no different than a Christian baker feeling they are taking part in a sin by baking a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. If that is protected, this is too.

Anonymous

Just curious... Have you also chosen to boycott any Palestinian companies or affiliated entities?

Or is HAMAS above reproach? Just one side of that equation merits your sanctimonious and pious condemnation?

Bernard Harris

That's a valid point. There are so many countries that actually deserve to be targeted for their lack of human rights record, but Israel is the single country she chooses to boycott. That's weird and kind of stupid.

Anonymous

Hamas is a terrorist organization and you already can't do business with them in the US.

As to other Palestinian organizations can you please let me know which others are breaking international law the way Israel does with their illegal settlements and also has as much of a presence in the US as the Israeli government does? Because it seems to me like you're saying 'boycott the Arabs' instead of saying 'boycott those who break international law'.

Tim

Is this a political view or a religious view? By starting your article as "I’m a member of the Mennonite Church" leads me to believe its that latter.

The state is also not hindering your First Amendment rights. You are freely able to express that right. You made that choice, however you are not accepting the consequence, good or bad, for that choice. Something the First Amendment does not guarantee you.

You wanted a job, you didn't read the terms before applying for that job and now after the fact want them changed to fit your view.

I am more devils advocate here because I could care less either way. I see this as the state more than likely does business with Israel and you may as a course of your employment be required to interact with that business in some shape or form, in which case because of your beliefs would prevent you from performing the duties of your job.

Bernard Harris

I find your assessment to be fairly solid. Leave your beliefs, how strange they may be, at home.

Bigyaz

“...not hindering your First Amendment rights.” What????

This is the government taking away her ability to make a living because of her political opinion. That is the very definition of “abridging the freedom of speech.”

Anonymous

Well students shouldn't be taught by weird bigots so that's good, I wish they'd ban other racists but hey great start.

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