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Mar 30, 2019

The right to boycott

Co-produced with PRX Logo

Support for boycotts of Israel has been growing in recent years, along with an increase in legislation seeking to curb this kind of boycott. Our story is about a contractor in Texas who feels they have no choice but to turn down a job when they realize the state requires they agree not to boycott Israel. We look at where this Israel boycott clause in employment contracts comes from and weigh it against the First Amendment right to free speech.

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

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. Original score and sound design by Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda, who had help from Kaitlin Benz and Katherine Rae Mondo.

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, 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: So the best way to get all of our stories without anything in between is just an email in your inbox. Our investigations change laws, minds, and sure, we'd like to say it, the world. Be among the first to read them. To sign up, just text "Newsletter" to 63735. Again, text the word "Newsletter" to 63735. I'll see you in your inbox.

 

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Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. John [Blugert 00:01:17], known as JP, cares a lot about words: where to put them, where not to put them, how to translate them.

 

JP: [Spanish 00:01:24]. Other nights, I dream you are a child in the river by the cypresses. [Spanish 00:01:32].

 

Al Letson: JP is a translator and poet from Houston, Texas. One day early last year, a curator at the University of Houston's Art Museum got in touch with JP about this Spanish essay he needed translated 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 would not be allowed to do work for the university because JP has been boycotting an Israeli product for the past few years, Sabra hummus. It's made by a company with ties to the Israeli military, and refusing to buy this hummus is JP's way of supporting a movement called BDS which stands for Boycott Divestment Sanctions. BDS supporters see it as a way to use nonviolent protests to pressure the Israeli government about its treatment of the Palestinian people. Support for BDS has been growing here in the US in recent years. Sitting at home staring at this clause, JP had to figure out what to say to the curator.

 

JP: I initially crossed out that clause and I put my initials next to it, scanned it, and sent it back to him. I think the next day, he told me that that wasn't a possibility, that I couldn't just cross it out, that I needed to either sign it or not sign it.

 

Al Letson: JP didn't sign and didn't get the job.

 

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: This clause in JP's contract comes from a law that the state of Texas passed in 2017, a law that mandates that contractors who get money from the state agree that they will not boycott Israel. It's not just Texas. Today, at least 17 states have laws or executive orders like the one JP ran into. All of this is happening at a moment when how Americans talk about Israel has become one of the most controversial questions in politics today, but no matter where you stand on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we're not here to talk about whether boycotting Israel is right or wrong. We're here to talk about the right to boycott itself because when JP saw the clause, JP was not just thinking about Israel.

 

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 on the show, we ask who has the right to boycott and who doesn't. Reporter Julia Simon takes it from here.

 

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

 

Speaker 5: Is Texas in the house? [inaudible 00:05:01]. Yeehaw. 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 sing-along, thousands of people waving their hands back and forth.

 

Speaker 5: 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 and 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, Senator Jim Risch, and 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 her first breath until this very moment, Israel has long been threatened by boycott movements. 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, JP was 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 you in Port Gibson, Mississippi, met in the youth group of the NAACP.

 

Carolyn Miller: What, 17?

 

James Miller: I won't no 17.

 

Carolyn Miller: You're 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 00:07:48]. 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. There was 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. Besides voter drives and lawsuits, one of the main tactics the NAACP had to fight Jim Crow was boycotts.

 

Charles Evers: Where the black folk were and not to mention we boycotted them, 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.

 

Julia Simon: So in Port Gibson, how successful was the boycott? Were most of the black folk participating?

 

Charles Evers: Oh, yes, indeed. Yes. Then we began opening 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 business 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 100 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 call 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.

 

Speaker 13: We'll hear arguments next in NAACP against Claiborne Hardware.

 

Julia Simon: The Supreme Court of the United States.

 

Speaker 13: Mr. [Cutler 00:11:14], 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.

 

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 to the contrary.

 

Julia Simon: And the Supreme Court agreed. In an 8-0 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 get celebrating.

 

James Miller: No, no.

 

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

 

James Miller: It's been a long time. We ain't doing malts no more. We 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'd 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 and 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.: 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 til the cows come home, but if JP's one-person company boycotts Sabra hummus, the state won't contract with that company.

 

Eugene K.: In the capacity of his contractor as a state, he cannot boycott Israel. 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. So I would say this law has almost no application to him.

 

Julia Simon: Well he couldn't get paid.

 

Eugene K.: He could get paid because how as a translator is he boycotting Israel?

 

Julia Simon: He's-

 

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 00:15:56], one of the lawyers on the ACLU team representing JP. Bryan says, under Texas law and most state laws, JP the consumer versus JP the company is all the same.

 

Brian Hauss: The law says that there is no distinction between the sole proprietor as a business entity and the 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 accommodation 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: A little over a week ago, a bipartisan group in the House introduced a resolution condemning the movement to boycott Israel. Back in January, the Senate overwhelmingly passed the Combating BDS Act sponsored by Senator Marco Rubio. It's basically the federal government 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. 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 JP 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 didn't sign, another job JP 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: This past week, the ACLU attorneys went before a Texas judge for a hearing on the case to determine whether or not this anti-boycott law is constitutional. They're hoping to get a ruling soon.

 

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 Khraishi: Our families, we always used to try to get the local stuff -- vegetables, food, drink, whatever -- so it's in our blood.

 

Al Letson: [Sameer Khraishi 00:22:31] 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 Khraishi: Yeah. The cucumbers are Israeli. This Israeli potato. The apple, you can see the [inaudible] in Hebrew. The carrots are Israeli carrots as you see. It's produced and packed in Israel.

 

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

 

Sameer Khraishi: That sucked.

 

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 Khraishi: Yes, actually I was sleeping and the Israeli army broke into the house and then they took my father. Of course naturally, 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 half a year. 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. The idea came from an unlikely place. Producer [Shayna Shely 00:24:25] takes us there.

 

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

 

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

 

Shayna Shely: These were old friends, close friends. They hung out a lot.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Shayna Shely: Then she went on one of those vegan rants some of you might have heard before.

 

Sameer Khraishi: 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.

 

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

 

Sameer Khraishi: Then we decided that this is it. This mushroom, let's do mushroom.

 

Shayna Shely: 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 Khraishi: Yes, I quit a good job to start the mushroom farm because I felt that I have to do it.

 

Shayna Shely: 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 scarfs called kafiyas halted the car to stop.

 

Sameer Khraishi: They asked the taxi driver "What do you smoke?" He said "I smoke Times."

 

Shayna Shely: Times is an Israeli brand of cigarettes. The men continued with more questions.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Shayna Shely: Some 25 years later, Sameer now saw himself as one of those kafiya-wearing guys. Instead of a cigarette alternative, he'd provide mushrooms.

 

Shayna Shely: I met [Mahmoud Kuhail 00:28:34], 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.

 

Shayna Shely: Good morning.

 

Mahmoud Kuhail: How are you?

 

Shayna Shely: Good. How are you?

 

Shayna Shely: 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.

 

Shayna Shely: 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.

 

Shayna Shely: It's so cool to be in this room. It's like a big mold room.

 

Mahmoud Kuhail: Yeah, definitely.

 

Shayna Shely: Mahmoud says the materials for growing mushrooms aren't available in the Palestinian territories. So since they wanted to avoid Israeli goods, the mushroom 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 and Germany.

 

Shayna Shely: 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, really white and it goes into all directions and you feel like it's infinite, that it's never-ending.

 

Shayna Shely: 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 Khraishi: I'll never forget that day. I saw a mushroom in the shop and I really feel proud.

 

Shayna Shely: 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 expected hitch. Their compost which they had 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 Khraishi: There isn't any formal response of why our product is being delayed on the port.

 

Shayna Shely: Sameer says the compost was held for 90 days before it was released. Their next shipment was delayed for 100 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 Khraishi: It is one of the saddest images in my life, even much more than the bloodiest images, but like you're looking at any empty heart, like a skeleton.

 

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

 

Sameer Khraishi: 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."

 

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

 

Shayna Shely: This new method still involves some risk, but Amoro was able to get back on its feet again last spring. 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.

 

Shayna Shely: 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 the capacity to produce those. Yeah?

 

Shayna Shely: 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.

 

Shayna Shely: I ask Sameer where he draws the line for himself.

 

Sameer Khraishi: 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.

 

Shayna Shely: 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.

 

Shayna Shely: And one more question. Do you think of yourself as someone who is boycotting Israel?

 

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

 

Shayna Shely: Sure.

 

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

 

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

 

Al Letson: That was reporter Shayna Shely. People who boycott Israel and the people who boycotted white businesses in Port Gibson, Mississippi, really everyone who takes part in a boycott today, they owe a debt to a 19th century Catholic priest in rural Ireland, the man who coined the word boycott.

 

Speaker 22: And in the future, if any man offends against the community, you can ostracize him. You can isolate him. You can boycott him.

 

Al Letson: That story's coming out Wednesday, April 3rd on the this podcast. Do not miss it. That means just go ahead and subscribe. Make it official.

 

Al Letson: Our CEO is Christa Scharfenberg. Matt Thompson is our Editor-in-Chief. Our Executive Producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by [Commorado] Lightning. Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, 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. Remember, there is always more to the story.