WASHINGTON (JTA) — Pro-Israel activists in the Miami area plan to protest a Florida state senator active in the Black Lives Matter movement who visited the West Bank as the guest of a group that backs the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.
Organizers of the protest against Dwight Bullard said they object to the groups and people he met while visiting the region in May under the aegis of a Miami-based civil rights group, Dream Defenders. His delegation met with a founder of the anti-Israel BDS movement and were led by a tour guide identified with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a State Department-designated terrorist group.
The outcry against Bullard’s participation is one of several recent signs of emerging tensions between the Black Lives Matter movement and the mainstream Jewish community.
At least one major national pro-Israel group, the Israel Project, is backing the protest of Bullard.
“Any Florida state legislator who would go to Israel and choose to meet with those groups, it’s more than troubling, it’s deeply disturbing,” said Ken Bricker, the Israel Project’s Southeast Regional director. “I have to wonder if the constituents in his district [are] aware of who he is and what he believes in.”
Bullard’s trip is unusual in that it joins a lawmaker from a district with a substantial Jewish population – the Democrat represents a chunk of Miami-Dade country – with a cause, BDS, considered anathema for most of the mainstream Jewish community.
State legislators routinely travel to Israel and the West Bank under the aegis of pro-Israel groups, and some also go on trips hosted by pro-Palestinian groups, albeit ones that endorse a two-state solution and do not take a position on BDS.
On June 3, Bullard spoke at an event that explicitly linked the Black Lives Matter movement to the Palestinian cause titled “Struggles for Liberation: Injustice from Ferguson to Palestine.” Sabeel, a Christian group that endorses BDS, sponsored the event.
The police shooting death of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, two years ago sparked protests that are seen as the launch of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“As an African-American born to a mom who lived through Jim Crow and some of those things, people born in a certain place should be afforded political rights,” Bullard said Tuesday in an interview with JTA, explaining why he accepted the invitation to attend the Dream Defenders tour. “People should not be viewed in two different lights.”
His tour group met with Omar Barghouti, a founder of the BDS movement, among others. Pro-Israel groups object that BDS not only singles out Israel, but that it supports a single binational state — essentially a denial of Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign Jewish state.
Joe Zevuloni, an Israeli-American businessman in South Florida who is planning the Aug. 28 protest outside Bullard’s Cutler Bay office, expects African-Americans and other minorities, including Latinos and members of the LGBTQ community, to join the demonstration.
“We want to bring our message that we oppose hate in the strongest possible terms,” Zevuloni said. “His message of BDS is not welcome here.”
Most of the country’s largest Jewish groups objected this month when a coalition of Black Lives Matter groups issued a platform that in addition to addressing racism and police violence, described Israel as an “Apartheid state” carrying out “genocide” against Palestinians. A co-author of the position on Israel was Rachel Gilmer, the chief of strategy for Dream Defenders.
On its website, Dream Defenders rejected criticism of the platform from members of the Jewish community who might otherwise embrace the Black Lives Matter agenda.
“As long as we stay silent about Israeli apartheid, they will ‘stand’ with Black liberation in the US,” reads the statement. “We want no part in this quid pro quo form of politics.”
Bullard said he did not know until after the West Bank trip that its tour guide, Mahmoud Jeddah, was affiliated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. During the same trip Didier Ortiz, a Green Party candidate for the Fort Lauderdale City Council, posted on Instagram a photo of Jeddah and noted his PFLP affiliation. (Ortiz also said in another Instagram posting from the trip, from a checkpoint in Hebron, that “Zionism must be eradicated.”)
Bullard told JTA that he joined the Dream Defenders trip seeking facts, and was ready to engage with Jewish and pro-Israel groups as part of his constituency outreach, as well as travel to Israel with a pro-Israel group.
“If a pro-Jewish organization said if you want to go to Israel, I’d go,” he said. “I’m open to talk to anybody about my experience of what I saw.”
Bullard said he was alarmed by the vitriol he encountered subsequent to the trip.
“I want to be a public servant, open-minded,” he said.
An official of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation declined comment. Bricker questioned Bullard’s openness to such outreach.
“It’s hard to imagine a constructive dialogue with someone who thinks it’s acceptable to meet with a barbaric terrorist organization that has the blood of innocents on his hands,” he said, referring to the PFLP.
Bullard told JTA that he is agnostic about BDS, saying he opposed anti-BDS legislation as a member of the Florida Senate appropriations committee because of his concerns that laws targeting boycotters undercut free speech protections.
But he has responded to pro-Israel outreach: Bullard voted in favor of the anti-BDS legislation when it came to the full Senate floor earlier this year after groups that backed the bill, including the local Jewish federation, led a lobbying campaign with a special focus on lawmakers from districts with Jewish communities.
Bullard said he traveled with Dream Defenders in his quest to learn more about people suffering from discrimination; he had once traveled to Morocco with the State Department for similar reasons.
“For people who are indigenous to an area, they deserve rights and protections they are not afforded,” Bullard said, referring both to Palestinians and Israeli Arabs.
“The reality is a person born of Palestinian heritage in Nazareth does not have the same rights as someone born of Jewish heritage,” he said.
Bullard said he did not have a position on a two-state or one-state outcome, preferring to focus instead on enfranchising the marginalized.
“As an elected official,” he said, “I’m not in a position to advocate against a two-state or one-state solution.”