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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Jake Janzen

Thank you so much for bringing up the European colonization of North America. I think there are some real parallels between what happened then, and what is now happening in Israel. By looking at the situations, maybe there is an opportunity for a way forward in the Middle East.
There is no candy coating the fact that the United States was established on stolen land, and secured for one group of people at the expense of another, through ethnic cleansing. The difference between that and Israel is that most people in the United States (and most importantly the legal system) recognize that what happened in our country was a horrible tragedy. There can be debate about whether or not the measures went far enough, but attempts have been made at restoration for the descendants of indigenous North Americans. And today, they live with full and equal rights, even having a special status as nations within a nation.
In Israel, not only is there no recognition of the Nakbah, but the policies of ethnic cleansing continue.
If you find this perspective to be the result of indoctrination or ignorance, educate me. Help me understand. Why can't a land that has a special place in three major religions, have to be controlled and given exclusive privileges for just one of those religions? Why should the people living in Palestine have to suffer for European anti-Semitism?

Anonymous

The USA won the war against the natives. NOW THEY ARE NATIVE AMERICANS. Lincoln freed the slaves, Dr King gave them equal rights, Mike Brown robbed a store and fought with police. "Time keeps on slipping into the future"

Anonymous

https://m.youtube.com/watch?feature=youtu.be&v=K_pQfsi437A What Boycott Divestment and Sanction are simplified

Anonymous

https://m.youtube.com/watch?feature=youtu.be&v=K_pQfsi437A What Boycott Divestment and Sanction are simplified

Anonymous

Typical anti-Semite!

Anonymous

Boycott of Israel is pure racism and hate towards Israel and it's people. You need to go to Israel and see the struggle of the people with terrorism and violence on a daily basis by some of these palastinian you feel so heartbroken about. The Boycott organization is using twisted lies and hatefull propeganda against Israel to gain the trust of naive people like you to support them.Be smart and do your own investigation first hand by visiting Israel ,talk to people there and see for yourself what's going on. The University is right not to stand by for Boycott against Israel and they have the right to choose the people they find right to be their educators.what about the rights of the Israeli professors that can't teach overseas in universities because of your boycotting them ? Maybe now you can feel what it's like to be boycott yourself.If you want to help do it with love not with hate and discrimination of other people.

bdsisnotanitsemitc

"Boycott of Israel is pure racism and hate towards Israel and it's people." Really? Palestinians have worked tirelessly, mostly non-violently, and are calling for a non-violent strategy to simply make Israel stop abusing them. That's racist? You have to be kidding me. I've been to Israel/Palestine. I've heard the fear of the Israel people, talked with settlers moderate and radical, had stones thrown at me by Palestinian youths, been beaten, kicked and spit upon by radical settlers. The problem with the analysis as those poor Israelis trying to fight against Palestinian terrorism is that the context is a gigantic power imbalance in favor of Israel. How does and people being ethnically cleansed fight back against overwhelming power. BDS beats the hell out of terrorism as a tactic a lot of different levels. But you are stupidly against BDS, leaving terrorism as the most viable tactic. Yes, brilliant!

Jake Janzen

How can opposing the occupation be hate towards the Israeli people, when so many Israelis (past and present) have opposed the occupation themselves? It is heart-breaking to read about the violence Israelis and Palestinians experience on a daily basis. What would it take to de-escalate it? Those in power right now in Israel have chosen walls and weapons... is it working?

Anonymous

I would never let this person teach my children. Sick of this article showing up on my google news list. Google is so sickeningly liberal.

Anonymous

You have the right to boycott and the State of Kansas has the right to boycott you. It's a two way street.

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