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Sep 7, 2019

The right to boycott

Co-produced with PRX Logo

In a tweet last month, President Donald Trump urged Israel to bar two Democratic congresswomen from visiting that country. The women support a movement against Israel called BDS, which stands for “boycott, divestment and sanctions.” Trump said Israel would show weakness by allowing them to enter. 

Supporters say BDS is a nonviolent protest to pressure the Israeli government over its treatment of the Palestinian people. Opponents say its goal is to eliminate Israel as a Jewish state. 

Several U.S. states have tried to stop BDS by banning boycotts of Israel. We look at where this legislation comes from and weigh it against the First Amendment right to free speech. 

Then we travel to the occupied Palestinian territories to meet a man who wanted to protest the Israeli occupation by starting a purely Palestinian business. His answer was to start a mushroom farm. After initial success, he ran into unexpected challenges. 

Finally, we turn to the word “boycott” and ask where it came from. Its origin story takes us to a Catholic priest and rent collector in 19th-century Ireland. 

This show originally was broadcast March 30, 2019.

Credits

This week’s show was produced by Stan Alcorn and edited by Jen Chien. Reported by Julia Simon, Shaina Shealy and Stan Alcorn.

Special thanks to Diarmuid McIntyre, Ramya Krishnan, Maria LaHood, Amanda Shanor, Emilye Crosby, Brian Casey and Oyez, a free law project from Cornell’s Legal Information Institute (LII), Justia and Chicago-Kent College of Law.

Our production manager is Najib Aminy. Our sound design team is Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda, who had help from Kaitlin Benz and Katherine Rae Mondo. Hosted by Al Letson.

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Democracy Fund, the John S. And James L. Knight Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.
Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. When Democratic Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib wanted to go to Israel recently, President Trump urged Israel to keep them out. Here's Congresswoman Tlaib.

 

Rashida Tlaib: It is unfortunate that Prime Minister Netanyahu has apparently taken a page out of Trump's book, even direction from Trump to deny this opportunity.

 

Al Letson: Tlaib has planned to visit her grandmother in the West Bank. Israel eventually said she could make that trip, but she turned it down, saying the conditions of the offer were oppressive. Part of the reason for the flair up, the congresswomen support a movement called BDS, which stands for Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions. Supporters say BDS is a nonviolent protest to pressure the Israeli government about its treatment of the Palestinian people. Those who oppose BDS believe its goal is to eliminate Israel as a Jewish state. Even though there are both Democrats and Republicans who oppose BDS, Trump is casting criticism of Israel as a partisan issue.

 

Donald Trump: I think any Jewish people that vote for a Democrat, I think it shows either a total lack of knowledge, or great disloyalty.

 

Al Letson: Long before these controversies made their way to President Trump's Twitter feed, John [Plucker 00:01:22], known as JP, was losing work over it. JP, who uses the pronoun they, is a translator and poet from Houston, Texas. Last year, a curator at the University of Houston's art museum got in touch with them about translating a Spanish essay into English.

 

JP: He asked me if I would be willing to do it, and I said yes.

 

Al Letson: The curator emailed JP the contract.

 

JP: So, I got home, printed it out, was reading through it, and I found the clause. It's clause number 33, no boycott. Contractor certifies and verifies that it, one, does not boycott Israel, and two, will not boycott Israel during the term of this agreement.

 

Al Letson: So, under this clause, JP couldn't take the job because they boycott Sabra Hummus. It's made by a company with ties to the Israeli military. Refusing to buy this hummus is JP's way of supporting BDS. So, JP didn't sign the contract.

 

JP: As a poet, I think very hard about how I put words together and what words I put out into the world, and what those mean. That was a definite combination of words that I was not willing to sign my name under.

 

Al Letson: That meant JP didn't get the job. The contract clause comes from a 2017 Texas law. It says contractors who get money from the state cannot boycott Israel. Today, at least 17 states have laws or executive orders like the one JP ran into. For JP, this isn't just an issue of whether it's right or wrong to boycott Israel. It goes to a more fundamental American right.

 

JP: So, something like the First Amendment feels a little bit distant to me, but I definitely thought as I was reading it that I know that I have a right to hold my own beliefs, and this seemed like an infringement on that right.

 

Al Letson: Today we ask, who has the right to boycott, and who doesn't? Here's reporter Julia Simon with a story we first brought you back in March.

 

Julia Simon: (singing)

 

Julia Simon: If you want to understand the thinking behind Texas's anti-BDS law, a good place to start is in Washington D.C. at the conference where some of the boycott movement's biggest critics gather every year.

 

Speaker 6: This place is in the house. [crosstalk] Yee-haw. Welcome to AIPAC.

 

Julia Simon: This is AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a group founded to represent the state of Israel in America. This year's conference started with a giant singalong, thousands of people waving their hands back-and-forth.

 

Speaker 6: Put your hands up.

 

Julia Simon: After the music, the speeches started, and there was a theme.

 

Bill de Blasio: I deeply oppose the Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions movement.

 

Mike Pence: It is wrong to boycott Israel.

 

Jim Risch: BDS is pure unadulterated racism.

 

Charles Schumer: Even before Israel came into existence, boycotts were used as a weapon of those who opposed the very existence of the Jewish state.

 

Julia Simon: That was New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, Vice President Mike Pence, Republican Senator Jim Risch, and Democrat Senator Charles Schumer. Senator Schumer went on to explain that in his view, the current boycotts of Israel are part of a long history.

 

Charles Schumer: So, from the moment Israel drew our first breath, until this very moment, Israel has long been threatened by boycott movements, and I will always stand with Israel against those who seek to do her harm by boycott or by any other means.

 

Julia Simon: Back in Texas, JP, the translator, does recognize the complexity of the issue.

 

JP: How that gets sorted through, and how people within Israel and Palestine decide to deal with that, I don't know all of the answers there, but I do know that those specific claims of the BDS movement are important to me.

 

Julia Simon: Important enough to do more than simply refusing to sign the contract. JP joined a lawsuit brought by the ACLU challenging the Texas law. Without knowing it, they were joining a legal fight about the right to boycott that goes back to a tiny town in Mississippi during the Civil Rights movement.

 

Carolyn Miller: Yes, we met in the movement. Yes.

 

James Miller: We were comrades in the struggle.

 

Julia Simon: This is Carolyn and James Miller. They grew up in Port Gibson, Mississippi, met in the youth group of the NAACP.

 

Carolyn Miller: What, 17?

 

James Miller: I wasn't no 17.

 

Carolyn Miller: You four years older than I am. What are you talking about?

 

Julia Simon: As teenagers, Carolyn and James used to hang out at a local malt shop called Eddie Lee's. It was their spot. They would come, put a nickel in the jukebox, play some Curtis Mayfield, get a chili dog.

 

Carolyn Miller: Famous hotdogs and malts.

 

Julia Simon: Eddie Lee's was a safe haven for them. Even though the town was majority black, most of the stores were white-owned, and openly discriminated against black people, especially the Piggly Wiggly supermarket. Carolyn remembers having to enter at the back of the store.

 

Carolyn Miller: As a little kid, that's just the way I thought it was. I didn't even realize there was a front door.

 

Charles Evers: Oh, yeah, that damn Piggly Wiggly. They were some rude white folks.

 

Julia Simon: This is Charles Evers, brother of the famous Civil Rights leader, Medgar Evers, who was assassinated in the '60s. Charles is 96 now. After his brother was killed, he became the head of the Mississippi NAACP. In Port Gibson in 1966, everything was segregated, not just the stores, and besides voter drives and lawsuits, one of the main tactics the NAACP had to fight Jim Crow was boycotts.

 

Charles Evers: Wherever black folk were [inaudible] we'd boycott them, and we'd slap a boycott on whatever store they chose, that they felt like should be shut down.

 

Julia Simon: So, this was part of the movement?

 

Charles Evers: Yes. It was the movement.

 

Julia Simon: Charles Evers and the NAACP leadership wanted more job opportunities, an end to segregation, and just basic respect for the black community. So, they sent a letter to the local white leadership. When the white people didn't respond, the black community began a boycott. So, in Port Gibson, how successful was the boycott? Were most of the black folk participating?

 

Charles Evers: Oh, yes indeed. Yes, and then we began to open stores of our own.

 

Julia Simon: Black-owned businesses?

 

Charles Evers: Yes.

 

Julia Simon: Black people were going to places like Eddie Lee's, or even to neighboring towns for groceries, but not to white-owned stores, which started shutting down. Then the white businesses did something that the black residents didn't expect. In 1969, the local hardware store, the Piggly Wiggly, and many of the white businesses sued the NAACP and more than a hundred individual black residents of the county.

 

Carolyn Miller: Suing us for asking for basic courtesies? It made no sense to me.

 

Julia Simon: That's Carolyn from the NAACP youth group. It didn't make sense to her husband James either, and a warning to listeners, there's an offensive term in this next part that some might not want to hear.

 

James Miller: How can you sue somebody because they don't spend their money at your store when you called them nigger? I mean, you don't give them any basic respect.

 

Julia Simon: The white businesses were asking for millions of dollars lost from the boycott, and they wanted the boycott to stop. The case went to the Mississippi courts, and they sided with the white businesses. The NAACP appealed, and the case went on for 13 years. In 1982, they finally ended up here.

 

Chief Justice: We will hear arguments next in the NAACP against Claiborne Hardware.

 

Julia Simon: The Supreme Court of the United States...

 

Chief Justice: Mr. Cutler, I think you may proceed whenever you're ready.

 

Julia Simon: Attorney Lloyd Cutler stepped up. He was representing the NAACP.

 

Lloyd Cutler: Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the court...

 

Julia Simon: He started by going way back to the Boston Tea Party.

 

Lloyd Cutler: This nation was born out of a series of colonial boycotts against British merchants in support of petitions to the British king and Parliament for the redress of grievances.

 

Julia Simon: He said the Founding Fathers loved boycotts.

 

Lloyd Cutler: When they adopted the First Amendment, we submit, they could not possibly have intended to exclude from its protection the very means of petition that they themselves had employed. [crosstalk]

 

Julia Simon: Cutler argued that from the beginning, the founders were talking about using the power of the pocketbook to express political views and make change.

 

Lloyd Cutler: It is so wrapped into our history that we do not see how the First Amendment could be read as a contract.

 

Julia Simon: The Supreme Court agreed. In an eight-to-zero decision, Thurgood Marshall recused himself, because he used to represent the NAACP. The court said the right to peaceful boycott is protected by the First Amendment. The NAACP and the black community of Port Gibson had won. Carolyn and James Miller helped organize a victory party, but not at Eddie Lee's.

 

Carolyn Miller: Eddie's didn't have what we needed to go celebrate with.

 

James Miller: No, no.

 

Julia Simon: They wanted something a little stronger than a malt.

 

James Miller: It's been a long time, baby. We ain't doing malts no more. Now we're doing a little Jack.

 

Julia Simon: 36 years later, Carolyn's now a first grade teacher. James works with juveniles in the justice system, and to be closer to their grandkids, they now live near Dallas in Texas. I asked them if they had heard of Texas's anti-boycott law. They haven't, so I tell them about the law, and about JP.

 

James Miller: Damn. It's like an instant replay. It's like Port Gibson. It's the same thing that was happening in Port Gibson. I mean, how can that even be constitutional? I mean, come on.

 

Julia Simon: Well, there are definitely people who do think it's constitutional.

 

Eugene K.: I'm Eugene Kontorovich.

 

Julia Simon: He's a professor of constitutional law.

 

Eugene K.: At George Mason University Scalia School of Law.

 

Julia Simon: Eugene's Israeli-American. He also works for an Israeli think tank, and like a lot of people I met at the AIPAC conference, he sees the Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions movement as discriminatory towards Israelis. So, for the past few years, he's been working on a legal way to combat these boycotts. Eugene's actually been called the intellectual architect of America's anti-BDS laws because he's been helping elected officials all around the country make sure their laws pass a sort of free speech smell test.

 

Eugene K.: I helped advise them on different paths to take and a safe path to follow.

 

Julia Simon: What do you mean by safe?

 

Eugene K.: It would be widely acceptable, doesn't raise any constitutional questions.

 

Julia Simon: But as James Miller said, there are actually a lot of constitutional questions, and some of those questions go right back to Port Gibson, Mississippi, and the Supreme Court case, Claiborne Hardware versus NAACP.

 

Eugene K.: First of all, Claiborne Hardware involved a consumer boycott. That's the example of you buying Sabra Hummus. So, none of the state laws involve consumer boycotts.

 

Julia Simon: Eugene's saying all these recent anti-boycott laws around America, they don't affect consumers. They affect companies, and JP, the translator, Eugene says, is a company, a sole proprietorship, a one-person translation business. According to Eugene, JP can boycott Israel as a consumer until the cows come home, but if JP's one-person company boycotts Sabra Hummus, the state won't contract with that company.

 

Eugene K.: Now, in practice, a poet has a very limited ability, a translator has a very limited ability, providing translation services, to actually be boycotting Israel.

 

Julia Simon: I bring up the fact that JP can't get paid. So, doesn't the law have an impact on them?

 

Eugene K.: There's a difference between personal and corporate capacity. What I can tell you is these laws do not apply to individuals. They apply to businesses.

 

Brian Hauss: That's not exactly right.

 

Julia Simon: This is Brian [Hauss 00:14:28], one of the lawyers on the ACLU team representing JP. Brian says under Texas law and most state laws, JP the consumer versus JP the company, it's all the same.

 

Brian Hauss: The law says that there is no distinction between the sole proprietor as a business entity and a sole proprietor as an individual. So, when a sole proprietor signs a form saying that as a contractor they will not participate in boycotts of Israel, what they're certifying is that neither as an individual nor as a business will they participate in a boycott of Israel at all for the duration of the contract. So, I think this notion that you can cleanly separate a contractor's operations as a business entity versus as an individual, I don't think the law supports that.

 

Julia Simon: Some states around the US are now changing their anti-boycott laws so that they don't affect sole proprietorships like JP, and only affect companies with more than 10 people, but Brian says that even then, those companies still have the right to boycott.

 

Brian Hauss: The Supreme Court has been extremely clear for several decades that businesses have the exact same First Amendment rights as individuals.

 

Julia Simon: Brian and Eugene don't just disagree on the details of the laws, but on the very reason for being of laws that ban boycotts against Israel. Eugene sees these laws as a way to protect Israelis and Jews from discrimination, and he notes that BDS singles out Israel when it doesn't treat other nations the same way.

 

Eugene K.: Why do people who say they care about human rights, why do they only target Israel? It's a fair inference that this is a proxy for antisemitism.

 

Julia Simon: Brian says yes, antisemitism is a problem, and he says the government can make laws to curb some types of discrimination. For example, with public accomodation laws, the government can say to a hotel, "You must rent rooms to Israeli people. You can't exclude them." But if individuals are boycotting Israeli-owned hotels as a means of political expression, Brian says the government can't police that. As the 1982 Claiborne Hardware case showed, the government can't take away the right to use boycotts as a means of political speech, and, Brian says, the government definitely can't single out one type of boycotting in its laws.

 

Brian Hauss: The fact that the government in these cases is only targeting boycotts of Israel and not even attempting to prevent discrimination in any other circumstance gives rise to a strong inference that the government's real interest is not in preventing discrimination, but rather in suppressing speech that it doesn't like.

 

Julia Simon: In July, the House overwhelmingly passed a resolution condemning the movement to boycott Israel, 398 to 17. Meanwhile, the Senate passed a stronger measure sponsored by Senator Marco Rubio, allowing the states to continue their anti-boycott laws. I asked several lawmakers, including Senator Rubio, to comment for this story. They all declined or didn't get back to me. But there is a video of Senator Rubio defending his bill on the Senate floor.

 

Marco Rubio: This doesn't in any way prevent anyone from participating in boycotting or divesting from Israel. All it says is that if you do, your clients in the form of state or local governments can boycott or divest you in return. Free speech is a two-way street.

 

Julia Simon: But Dima Khalidi, a Civil Rights and liberties attorney, says free speech actually isn't a two-way street.

 

Dima Khalidi: That misses the entire purpose of the First Amendment, which is to protect us against government interference in our First Amendment activities.

 

Julia Simon: Dima's a cooperating attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights and the director of Palestine Legal, an organization that tracks anti-BDS legislation. She says people need to remember, the First Amendment starts with Congress shall make no law. The Founding Fathers were saying the government isn't allowed to retaliate against speech it doesn't like, because today the government doesn't like speech against Israel. But what about tomorrow?

 

Dima Khalidi: What will be next? If this boycott is unpalatable to our elected representatives, what is the next one that will be? You can imagine that they don't approve of a lot of boycotts and activism that happens. So, that's really important to understand, that punishing one kind of boycott really affects all of our First Amendment rights.

 

Julia Simon: As for JP, the translator in Texas, last fall a university offered them a teaching job.

 

JP: I just waited to see the contract, and I got it, and it had the same language.

 

Julia Simon: Another contract JP couldn't sign, another job they couldn't take.

 

JP: I've definitely lost money already. I mean, I definitely am looking forward to the day that this law no longer exists, and that I can go back to contracting not only with U of H, but also with other universities and other institutions around the state.

 

Julia Simon: In March, the ACLU took JP's case before a federal judge in Texas. The judge ruled that the anti-boycott law is unconstitutional. The state is appealing that decision.

 

Al Letson: Thanks to Julia Simon for that story. Brian Hauss and the ACLU are also working on lawsuits challenging anti-boycott laws in Arizona and Arkansas. We should also mention that Brian is part of a team representing Reveal in an unrelated case. Julia's story was about laws that could restrict people from taking part in a boycott, but what do you do if you live someplace where it's nearly impossible to find a way around buying stuff from people you want to boycott? That's next on Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

 

Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. The idea of boycotting Israel didn't start in the United States. It started with Palestinians.

 

Sameer Khrishi: Our families, we always used to try to get the local stuff, vegetables, food, drinks, whatever. So, it's an old blood.

 

Al Letson: Sameer Khrishi is a 35-year-old Palestinian entrepreneur. He says this idea he was raised on, boycotting Israel, is not an easy thing to do when you're living in a place like his hometown, Ramallah. It's a town of about 35,000 people in the occupied West Bank, which is controlled by both the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli military. Sameer walks up the narrow sidewalks of Ramallah's steep hills towards a vegetable shop and greets the owner out front. He points to vegetables inside the store.

 

Sameer Khrishi: These, yeah?

 

Speaker 21: Perfect.

 

Sameer Khrishi: These cucumbers are Israeli. This is Israeli potato. The apple, you can see the logo. It's in Hebrew. The carrots are Israeli carrots, as you see. It's produced some part in Israel. [crosstalk]

 

Al Letson: Most of the produce in this small shop comes from Israel.

 

Sameer Khrishi: That's sad.

 

Al Letson: Sad, Sameer says, because when Palestinians buy Israeli-grown cucumbers to chop into their salads, they're supporting businesses that feed the economy of the Israeli state. In Sameer's thinking, a military state, snipers, jeeps, an army of nearly 200,000 soldiers, forces that Sameer sees in his everyday life during military raids on his hometown or when he crosses a checkpoint to leave or enter Ramallah. He remembers the first time he encountered Israeli soldiers. He was just five years old.

 

Sameer Khrishi: Yes. Actually, I was sleeping, and the Israeli army broke into the house, and then they took my father. Of course, that's when I woke up because they were really loud. No one would forget such a horrible night.

 

Al Letson: Sameer's father, a journalist, was arrested and imprisoned for a half a year, and it wasn't just his father. Sameer has watched his friends and relatives get detained by Israeli soldiers his whole life, and his whole life, he's been looking for the right way to take a stand. It wasn't until his 20s that he found it, and the idea came from an unlikely place. Producer Shaina Shealy takes us there.

 

Shaina Shealy: It was a chilly spring night in 2012 in the Palestinian town of Jericho. Sameer was at a party with some buddies.

 

Sameer Khrishi: We were at the backyard of a friend. There was a lot of almond trees around us, and a few beers.

 

Shaina Shealy: These were old friends, close friends. They hung out a lot.

 

Sameer Khrishi: Sometimes watching a movie, sometimes going for a hike.

 

Shaina Shealy: Whenever they got together, the topic of conversation almost always turned to one thing, starting an entirely purely Palestinian business.

 

Sameer Khrishi: Every idea crossed our mind, like opening a bar, or even creating beer.

 

Shaina Shealy: In their minds, giving Palestinians the option to buy homegrown products instead of Israeli ones would be a step towards self-sufficiency. Right now, a majority of Palestinian imports come from Israel, as do many resources, like water and electricity. Sameer and his friends wanted to do something to show independence from the Israeli economy.

 

Sameer Khrishi: This one night, we were having a barbecue. A vegan friend of ours, she just left 10 centimeters for us to grill our meat, and we were like, "You can't do that. With your vegetables, you just took everything on this grill."

 

Shaina Shealy: Then she went on one of those vegan rants some of you might've heard before.

 

Sameer Khrishi: How healthy this mushroom is, and the fiber, and the protein in this mushroom, and she was explaining to us, and we listened to her, and we were fascinated by this idea of this creature, the mushroom.

 

Shaina Shealy: When Sameer saw that his vegan friend's mushrooms were from Israel, inspiration struck.

 

Sameer Khrishi: Then we decided that this is it, it's mushroom. Let's do mushroom.

 

Shaina Shealy: Sameer and his three friends decided they'd start the first Palestinian mushroom farm. Fine idea, except they didn't have a clue about this creature, the mushroom. Sameer was in his late 20s. He had a good office job at a development NGO, but he threw himself wholeheartedly into this new idea.

 

Sameer Khrishi: Yes. I quit a good job to start a mushroom farm, because I feel that I have to do it.

 

Shaina Shealy: To help me understand why he would drop almost everything to get this business started, Sameer tells me a story from his childhood. It was in the late '80s, around the same time his dad was arrested during the first Palestinian uprising, or Intifada, against the Israeli occupation. Palestinians collectively decided to boycott Israeli institutions, taxes, goods. They threw stones at Israeli delivery trucks and military tanks. There was a spark of revolution in the air. Sameer was in a taxi with his family on their way to a wedding when a group of men wearing woven scarves called keffiyehs halted the car to a stop.

 

Sameer Khrishi: They asked the taxi driver, "What do you smoke," and he said, "I smoke Times."

 

Shaina Shealy: Times is an Israeli brand of cigarettes. The men continued with more questions.

 

Sameer Khrishi: Don't you feel ashamed of yourself that you are smoking the cigarette of those who are arresting you, and of those who are killing your sons and daughters, for those who claim that you do not exist?

 

Shaina Shealy: The men threw away the driver's pack and handed him a new one of Palestinian-made cigarettes.

 

Sameer Khrishi: These two strange masked men, they had an alternative in their hands.

 

Shaina Shealy: Some 25 years later, Sameer now saw himself as one of those keffiyeh-wearing guys. Instead of a cigarette alternative, he'd provide mushrooms. I met Mahmoud Kuhail, one of Sameer's partners at the mushroom farm, off a dirt road with palm trees all around. He's wearing sweats and a V-neck, smoking a cigarette.

 

Mahmoud Kuhail: Good morning.

 

Shaina Shealy: Good morning.

 

Mahmoud Kuhail: How are you?

 

Shaina Shealy: Good. How are you? [crosstalk] About a year after that fateful barbecue, the guys found this piece of land in Jericho, the same town where they came up with the idea. They named the business Amoro Farms, from the Amorites, who lived on this land in ancient times, and they taught themselves how to grow mushrooms.

 

Mahmoud Kuhail: I usually like to start the tour from outside. [crosstalk]

 

Shaina Shealy: Amoro Farms looks more like a row of white double-wide trailers than a farm. Mushrooms are grown in insulated rooms, carefully controlled for humidity and temperature. Mahmoud unlatches a first door into a hallway, then a second into a small empty room, and a third into a dark sort of mushroom hall. All these separate entrances are to block outside air and to create a clean, sterile environment for the mushrooms. It's so cool to be in this room. It's like a big mold room.

 

Mahmoud Kuhail: Yeah, definitely.

 

Shaina Shealy: Mahmoud says the materials for growing mushrooms aren't available in the Palestinian territories, so since they wanted to avoid Israeli goods, the mushrooms guys imported stuff from all over the world.

 

Mahmoud Kuhail: Air condition, for example, comes from China. The exhaust fans, for example, to control the CO2 levels, come from Spain. The electric comes from France, for example, Schneider in Germany.

 

Shaina Shealy: Mahmoud shines a flashlight onto flat shelves of compost stacked like bunk beds. The shelves are completely covered with thready webs of white fungus.

 

Mahmoud Kuhail: I really like the shape of the mycelium. It's really trippy. It's like spider nets, but it's really, really, really white, and it goes into all directions, and you feel like it's infinite, that it's never-ending.

 

Shaina Shealy: In October 2014, about half a year after they bought the piece of land in Jericho, Sameer, Mahmoud and their partners harvested their first mushrooms and brought them to market. Sameer says seeing the mushrooms on store shelves was like showing off his babies.

 

Sameer Khrishi: I'll never forget that day. I saw a mushroom in the shop, and I really felt proud.

 

Shaina Shealy: Within two months, mushrooms were flying off the shelves. Amoro sold 22 tons of mushrooms in the first year, then 25 tons in the second. They hired 12 pickers, all local women, and fans posted mushroom recipes on the Amoro Farms Facebook page. Then in January 2016, an unexpected hitch, their compost, which they'd been importing from the Netherlands, didn't arrive. The guys waited, and after a month, Sameer hired a lawyer to go to the Israeli Port of Ashdod, where goods from Europe come into the country. Israeli customs was holding the compost there, but the lawyer couldn't figure out exactly why.

 

Sameer Khrishi: There isn't any form of response of why our product is being delayed on the port.

 

Shaina Shealy: Sameer says the compost was held for 90 days before it was released. Their next shipment was delayed for a hundred days, and the next for nearly four months. For each day the compost was held, Amoro had to pay a fine to the Israeli port for storage. Sameer still doesn't have answers about why the Israelis held his compost. I also tried to find out why they held up the shipments, but I didn't get much further. One possibility is an order from the Minister of Defense regarding certain materials like fertilizers that can be used to make explosives. Sameer says he suspects the compost was held because authorities saw his business as a threat to the Israeli mushroom industry and wanted to shut Amoro down. Eventually, Amoro Farms ran out of money. They had to close their doors. Sameer says he felt his heart break when he saw the empty mushroom hall.

 

Sameer Khrishi: It is one of the saddest images in my life, even much more than the bloodiest images, but like you're looking at an empty heart, like a skeleton.

 

Shaina Shealy: Dozens of Palestinians wrote to him and posted on the Amoro Facebook page. Sameer reads some of those messages.

 

Sameer Khrishi: Someone's asking, "I can't find your mushroom. We miss you." Someone wrote, "Good luck," and someone replied, "Your mushroom has a great place in our heart."

 

Shaina Shealy: The farm was closed for about a year, but they eventually came up with a legal workaround with help from a Palestinian man living in Israel. Because he has Israeli citizenship, he can import the compost himself, then deliver it to Jericho as an Israeli company.

 

Sameer Khrishi: That was a solution. He has all the papers that I'm sending this product from this company to that company.

 

Shaina Shealy: This new method still involved some risk, but Amoro was able to get back on its feet again in the spring of 2018. Though the guys are happy to once again be feeding mushroom-loving Palestinians, they're pragmatic about compromises they have to make. Back at the farm, I point something out to Mahmoud. So, I see those labels on the walls have Hebrew writing on them?

 

Mahmoud Kuhail: Right. This structure comes from Israel, this structure. So, again, we don't have a company that produces these panels. Unfortunately, in Palestine we don't have a capacity to produce those. Yeah?

 

Shaina Shealy: Mahmoud tells me it's sort of impossible to completely cut out Israel.

 

Mahmoud Kuhail: At the end of the day, the electricity that we use to run this farm comes from Israel, but again, can you substitute things, or you cannot? This is the issue.

 

Shaina Shealy: I ask Sameer where he draws the line for himself.

 

Sameer Khrishi: You could imagine a moving line. I feel I have the privilege to draw it and to erase it as I see it suitable and necessary.

 

Shaina Shealy: Sameer uses Israeli medicine, and even has guilty pleasure Israeli snack foods like Bamba, the peanut butter version of Cheetos. He simply can't draw a single line separating himself from the Israeli economy, no matter how much he may want to. One more question. Do you think of yourself as someone who is boycotting Israel?

 

Sameer Khrishi: Can I answer that question by a question?

 

Shaina Shealy: Sure.

 

Sameer Khrishi: Okay. Can you interact in a normal way with someone who beats you, harass you on a daily basis? No, you can't. So, for me, it is beyond boycotting.

 

Shaina Shealy: For Sameer, it's about the act of creating, about building a Palestinian economy rather than supporting an Israeli one.

 

Al Letson: Thanks to reporter Shaina Shealy for that story. Whether they know it or not, Sameer and anyone who engages in a boycott owes a debt to Ireland and to the protest that gave boycotting its name. That's coming up on Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

 

Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. As we were working on this show about boycotts, we started to wonder where the word boycott actually comes from. So, we looked into it, and it turns out it goes back to one man, Charles Cunningham Boycott, a.k.a. Captain Boycott. He was an Englishman living in Ireland in the late 1800s when all of Ireland was ruled by England, and the Irish countryside was divided in a way that was almost medieval. You had poor peasants who lived off the land, and then you had rich landlords who owned the land. Captain Boycott was right in the middle. Reveal reporter Stan Alcorn has his story, which we originally ran back in March.

 

Stan Alcorn: Captain Boycott was barely a captain. His parents bought him a spot in the British Army, and he quit after just two years at age 20. He spent the rest of his life farming, horse racing, and doing the job that would make him famous, collecting rent as the agent for a landlord who owned 2,000 acres on Ireland's west coast. I wanted to see that land, the stone houses and boggy fields, for myself, but my boss wouldn't pay for the plane ticket, so instead, I started calling up people who lived there, and I found a lot of them know the story of Captain Boycott as part of their family history.

 

Elaine Naughton: Hi. It's Elaine. How you doing?

 

Stan Alcorn: Elaine Naughton's ancestors were farmers who paid rent to boycott.

 

Elaine Naughton: My grandmother used to always say they were hard times, but nobody knew any better because everything was very equal back then. If you were running short on milk one day, you knew you could go to the neighbor, and you'd be given milk. In exchange, you'd give back eggs the following day. Everybody wanted the same thing for everybody else. They just wanted a fair rent.

 

Stan Alcorn: But what seemed fair to farmers depended on the harvest, and in 1879, the potato crop was the worst in a decade. There were reports of starvation and a fear that the Great Famine that had killed one out of every 10 people in Ireland just a generation earlier was about to repeat itself. So, Captain Boycott's tenants got together and sent a message to his mansion, the Lough Mask House, asking him to lower the rent by 25%. Boycott said no, and he had the local processor, that's basically the official court messenger, start serving them with eviction papers. He went house to house with an armed guard of 18 police officers.

 

Elaine Naughton: What seemed to have kicked it off was when they tried to deliver an eviction, or they did deliver an eviction notice to a widow.

 

Stan Alcorn: According to the local paper, the widow told them, "You'll not serve my house as long as I have life in my body."

 

Elaine Naughton: The story goes that she had a red flag, and once she raised the red flag, all the women and children came out from behind the bushes and basically just started pelting the process server with stones and kind of drove him back to Lough Mask House.

 

Stan Alcorn: The next day, a crowd of maybe a hundred men, women and children swarmed a hill near Boycott's house. It looked like things were about to get violent.

 

Elaine Naughton: Yeah, and from my understanding, I think Father John O'Malley kept control on that.

 

Stan Alcorn: If anyone could control the crowd, it was Father John O'Malley, the parish priest whose influence you can see in the rough limestone church he built, where today Father Paddy Gilligan has taken his place.

 

Paddy Gilligan: To keep out the rains.

 

Stan Alcorn: On the wall next to the altar, there's a small bronze plaque for Father John O'Malley.

 

Paddy Gilligan: Very simple. He will be forever remembered as a faithful priest and a defender of his people's rights in very hard and trying times, and I'd say that was certainly the mood of the people.

 

Stan Alcorn: Can you compare the role that he played in the community at that time with the role that you play now?

 

Paddy Gilligan: It would be to contrast rather than compare, I think.

 

Stan Alcorn: While Father Gilligan speaks gently about building community, Father O'Malley gave fiery speeches, warning that landlords wanted to annihilate the Irish people. He was the local leader of a political movement sweeping the Irish countryside called the Land League that saw the fight for the rights of Irish farmers as the first battle in a war for Irish independence. But he didn't want it to be an actual war.

 

Paddy Gilligan: Around that time, there were quite a number of incidents where the agents of landlords who were trying to collect rent were actually murdered. So, he tried to persuade them to make their protest, but to make it peacefully.

 

Stan Alcorn: He had a specific protest tactic in mind, one that had just been laid out in a speech by the president of the Land League, Charles Stewart Parnell. His speech was reenacted in that 1947 movie, Captain Boycott. At the speech's climax, Parnell asks the crowd, "If a landlord evicts a farmer, what should you do if another farmer helps the landlord by taking over the evicted man's lease?"

 

Speaker 27: I think I heard somebody say shoot him. There is a very much better way, a more Christian and charitable way. You must shun him, shun him on the roadside when you meet him, in the streets of a town, in the shop, on the fair green, and in the marketplace, and even in the house of worship, by isolating him from his kind as if he were a leper of old. If you do this, you may depend upon it, there will be no man so lost to shame as to dare to face the cold, accusing finger of public scorn.

 

Stan Alcorn: Scorn and shunning, these were the weapons of the Land League, and Father O'Malley helped convince his parish to use them on Captain Boycott.

 

Elaine Naughton: Apparently, he'd be walking down the street, and he'd be shunned.

 

Stan Alcorn: Elaine Naughton again.

 

Elaine Naughton: No one spoke to him. The postmen refused to deliver his post. Every single person participated in it, like he was completely left on his own down there.

 

Stan Alcorn: The blacksmith wouldn't shoe his horses. The baker wouldn't bake him bread. Not only did the farmers refuse to pay him rent for their land, they wouldn't do any work on Captain Boycott's farm, which left him with acres of potatoes and turnips that were about to rot in the ground, until in a plot twist in the movie version that also really happened, Boycott wrote a letter to The Times of London, where he found a more sympathetic English audience.

 

Speaker 28: Extraordinary letter here, Humphrey. [inaudible] Boycott out in the west of Ireland, can't get his harvest in.

 

Speaker 29: It seems his laborers have left in a [inaudible]

 

Stan Alcorn: As Boycott's story spread, 50 British loyalists from Northern Ireland volunteered to come help with the harvest, and the British government chipped in with an armed guard of hundreds of British soldiers.

 

Speaker 27: Didn't I tell you the landlord would fight to the last drop of the other fellow's sweat?

 

Stan Alcorn: Reporters came from all across Europe to watch them dig Captain Boycott's tubers. The so-called Boycott Relief Expedition worked, but it was expensive.

 

Elaine Naughton: It made no sense. It's reported to have cost 5,000 pound to save 500 euros worth of crop.

 

Stan Alcorn: Boycott couldn't afford another harvest like that, so when the army left, so did he. The shunning had worked.

 

Elaine Naughton: It was quite simple, but effective.

 

Stan Alcorn: As Captain Boycott fled, the word boycott was just getting started. Credit for coining it typically goes to two men, Father John O'Malley and James Redpath, an American journalist. According to local lore, it happened a short muddy walk from Father O'Malley's church in a house that's now a stone ruin covered in lichen and ivy.

 

Joe Graney: Stoop down when you come in.

 

Stan Alcorn: Joe [Graney] was born in this house, as was his mother and his grandmother and his great-grandmother.

 

Joe Graney: Now we're going into what used to be the kitchen.

 

Stan Alcorn: He believes a great-aunt of his rented a room to Father O'Malley.

 

Joe Graney: Right over here, in this room, inside that window is where Father O'Malley would sleep, because that was the bedroom when I was a child where my grandfather and grandmother would sleep, and left of that was a little pantry, we called it, where we left a bag of flour and old wet coats, and the dog slept in it, et cetera, et cetera. If you look, there's one stone there at an angle with a lovely little turn on it. That is most likely the stone they were sitting at the day that Father O'Malley used the word.

 

Stan Alcorn: In Joe's telling, Father O'Malley was talking to the journalist about another landlord, a man named Brown.

 

Joe Graney: Let's get Brown. Let's do what they did to Boycott. Let's do a Boycott job on this Brown. That's what we're going to do, we're going to boycott Brown. That's the stone that they were most likely sitting at, exactly at that fireplace in there.

 

Stan Alcorn: Boycott was catchy, and Father O'Malley saw that by putting it in the newspaper, James Redpath, the journalist, could help it catch on all across the country, like a 19th century hashtag.

 

Joe Graney: He saw him as the modern-day Twitter or the then Facebook where I can get a message from this little village to the world.

 

Stan Alcorn: A year later, there had been more than a thousand recorded cases of boycotting in Ireland, with tenant farmers winning millions of pounds in lower rents. A year after that, the word boycott was in the dictionary in the US, and it was being used in France, the Netherlands, Germany and Russia. In the place the word was born, people are proud of this history, but not everyone. I asked local producer Diarmuid McIntyre to knock on the door of Captain Boycott's old mansion.

 

Diarmuid M.: Hello there. I'm with an American radio station. [crosstalk]

 

Stan Alcorn: The current occupant is the grandson of the man who moved in after Captain Boycott left. His name's John Daly. He's nearly 90, and he has a dissenting view on Boycott.

 

John Daly: They say he was a good fellow and a jolly fellow.

 

Stan Alcorn: I have to say, you're the first person I've ever met who said that he seems to have been a nice guy, because the story that he'd [crosstalk]

 

John Daly: Yeah, yeah. But I remember when I was going to school, and the first thing the teacher said, "Boycott was a bad man. He wanted the money from the tenants, and he was this," and he was nothing, but he was an Adolf Hitler, according the teacher. But I couldn't see that at all. Could happen to anyone today.

 

Stan Alcorn: To John Daly, Captain Boycott was just doing his job, working for the landlord. Was it fair, what happened to him?

 

John Daly: Well, I wouldn't think it was fair, but it was, if you like, a sign of the times. That's the way it was, and we were taking over, the mob law, if you like.

 

Stan Alcorn: This view, that boycotts are a threat to the rule of law, was there from the beginning. Britain's prime minister at the time called boycotting intimidation for the purposes of destroying the private liberty of choice by fear of ruin and starvation, and it wasn't just the English. The first judicial opinion in the US to use the word boycott in 1887 upheld a charge of criminal conspiracy for passing out leaflets for a boycott against a publishing company. The judge called the boycott a power outside of law and said that like the taste of human blood by tigers, it creates an unappeasable appetite for more. Part of why the original Irish boycotters are mostly seen as heroes today and not blood-thirsty tigers is that mob law eventually became actual law. A few decades later, Ireland won its independence, and the new Irish state took farmland away from absentee landlords and gave it to their old tenants. A few acres of the old Boycott estate went to Elaine Naughton's family.

 

Elaine Naughton: So, my mother's family would own some of it, and then the majority of the land then around it is all owned by neighbors.

 

Stan Alcorn: Elaine is proud of her ancestors, but she's never taken part in a boycott herself.

 

Elaine Naughton: I haven't had need to yet, so not yet.

 

Stan Alcorn: What do you think it would take to make you join in a boycott?

 

Elaine Naughton: What would it take? Well, I suppose if it was coming to a point where I was losing my home and people around me were losing their homes, then certainly, yeah, you can imagine starting some kind of a revolution or a boycott or whatever. I just don't think you'd know where to start today.

 

Stan Alcorn: People are losing their homes today. It's just that it's often some international bank doing the evicting, and what do they care if one small town shuns them or stops paying rent? But then again, small-town shunning, that's not what most boycotts are today. Instead, they're people all over the world making individual gestures of solidarity that they hope add up to something greater. The word's the same, but the boycott, like the world, has changed.

 

Al Letson: That was Reveal's Stan Alcorn with help from producer Diarmuid McIntyre in Ireland. Jen Chien edited this week's show. Our lead producer was Stan Alcorn. Thanks also to Oyez for the Supreme Court archival audio. Also, thanks to Ramya Krishnan, Maria LaHood, Amanda Shanor, Emilye Crosby, and Brian Casey. Our production manager is Mwende Hinojosa. Original score and sound design by the dynamic duo, J-Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs, and Fernando, my man, Arruda. They had help this week from Katherine Rae Mondo and Kaitlin Benz. Our CEO is Christa Scharfenberg.

 

Al Letson: Matt Thompson is our editor-in-chief. Taki Telonidis is our senior supervising editor. Our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by Camerado-Lightning. Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. And Kathryn T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Democracy Fund, the Heising-Simons Foundation, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I'm Al Letson, and remember, there is always more to the story.

 

Speaker 33: From PRX.