Dueling protests in New York stemming from Ben & Jerry's decision to stop selling ice cream in the West Bank in 2021. Getty Images
"Make Me Smart” Newsletter

Are boycotts free speech?

Ellen Rolfes and Catherine Orihuela Mar 1, 2024
Dueling protests in New York stemming from Ben & Jerry's decision to stop selling ice cream in the West Bank in 2021. Getty Images

The Israel-Hamas war reached a grim milestone. The local health ministry reported Thursday that more than 30,000 Palestinians — civilians and Hamas fighters — have been killed in Gaza. The war began after Hamas fighters attacked Israel in October, killing about 1,200 people and taking 240 hostages.

“Hope springs eternal” for a ceasefire, President Joe Biden said Thursday after a deal he touted earlier in the week fell through. As casualties grow, many world leaders and private citizens have urged an end to the fighting. Since Oct. 7, close to 1.1 million have participated in 5,280 pro-Palestinian demonstrations in the United States, according to the Crowd Counting Consortium, which has traced all types of political crowds in the U.S. since 2017. The group also counted 736 pro-Israel events involving 308,000 people. Most occurred in the weeks immediately after the initial Hamas attack.

But protest comes in many forms. For decades, advocates for human rights in Palestine have also called on consumers to boycott Israeli companies and urged companies to divest from Israel, along with seeking economic sanctions. The Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement says several U.S. and European companies have exited the Israeli market thanks to its campaign. The actual impact is hard to quantify, but Starbucks blamed a recent quarterly earnings shortfall in part on the boycotts and “misconceptions about our position” on the war. McDonald’s also reported that “misinformation” about its politics and resulting boycotts have hurt international sales.

Most U.S. states limit anti-Israel boycotts. Thirty-eight states have anti-BDS laws or executive orders that punish American business owners and companies that sever ties with Israeli companies as a form of political protest. They generally restrict state funding from going to contractors that boycott Israel; they also require anyone employed by or contracting with the state to promise they won’t boycott Israel. North Carolina, which passed an anti-BDS law in 2017, this week ordered its state pension fund to divest $40 billion in assets tied to Ben & Jerry’s and parent company Unilever after the ice cream brand’s board decided to stop selling its products in Gaza and the West Bank and called for an end to the fighting.

Israeli public records obtained in 2020 show that the Israeli government has paid millions to American organizations that have pushed for anti-BDS legislation across the U.S.

Are boycotts free speech? The Supreme Court affirmed the right to boycott as a form of political expression protected by the First Amendment in 1982, but challenges to anti-BDS laws have been mixed. Courts in Arizona, Georgia, Kansas and Texas ruled the laws violated free speech and blocked enforcement. The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld an Arkansas law that prevented state contractors from boycotting Israel.  

Lawmakers in Colorado reviewed, though ultimately rejected, a bill this week that would have repealed requirements for the state’s pension program to divest from companies boycotting Israel.

This is about more than just Israel. Several states have introduced or passed similar anti-boycott legislation that restricts the ability of people and businesses to boycott specific industries, including fossil fuels, firearms, mining, agriculture and timber. Explore this list of anti-boycott legislation by state and issue.

The numbers

A record-breaking number of Americans will reach retirement age this year in what experts are calling a “silver tsunami.” Let’s do the numbers.

4.1 million

That’s how many Americans will turn 65 in 2024, equating to roughly 11,200 people a day celebrating that milestone birthday. The demographic surge is expected to continue for the next three years, and by 2031 a quarter of the U.S. population will be 65 and over.

2.7 million

The U.S. has more retirees than the Federal Reserve predicted — 2.7 million more since 2020. Baby boomers started to retire en masse during the pandemic, and a second wave is building. As a result, younger generations are less likely to have access to traditional pensions and Social Security benefits than current retirees. More retirements also means fewer workers overall.


Workers over 65 accounted for 7% of all wages and salaries paid by U.S. employers in 2023, compared to 2% in 1987. According to a Pew Research study that looked at data from 1987 to 2023, older people worked more hours and earned higher wages than the group had in previous decades.

1 in 5

That’s the proportion of senior citizens who were working last year. At 11 million, this figure is about four times the number of seniors who had stayed in the workforce during the mid-1980s. People delay retirement for lots of reasons. Some want to save more and take advantage of their company’s health coverage. Others simply like their job and want to stay active.


People 65 and older are also wealthier these days, generally speaking. The median net worth for this age group was $410,000 in 2022, a 45% increase from 2010.


While almost three-quarters of Americans are confident they’ll be able to retire by age 64, only 4 in 10 Americans say they currently have retirement savings. And only a fifth say they have a retirement strategy, according to the latest Wealth Watch survey from insurance company New York Life.

None of us is as smart as all of us

Tell us what’s making you smarter at smarter@marketplace.org. We’d love to include your recommendation in a future newsletter.

CAPE, explained

Writer Ellen Rolfes is reading an Economist article about an economic indicator that should instill caution about assuming that recent stock market gains will last.

Why men love Caesar

Intern Catherine Orihuela is reading Mary Beard’s “SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome.” The classics professor examines the early history of the empire and urges readers to engage with, but not blindly admire, the Romans. For a shorter read, check out this interview she did with Time in which she unpacks the TikTok trend of men explaining why they’re obsessed with the Roman Empire.

Pay hasn’t increased in two decades

Editor Tony Wagner is reading a JSTOR digital library article about incarcerated people paying more for goods at prison commissaries due to inflation without seeing increases in their subminimum wages. The law doesn’t require it.

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