Will the Federal Government Make It Illegal to Protest Israel?
A growing number of Republicans and Democrats in Congress are backing a bill that would criminalize support for the international boycott against Israel, also known as the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.
Named the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, the bill so far has garnered support from 29 Republicans and 14 Democrats in the Senate. A similar piece of legislation introduced in the House of Representatives has 237 co-sponsors—63 Democrats and 174 Republicans. With the intent to suppress the BDS movement and others allied with the boycott against Israel, the Israel Anti-Boycott Act imposes harsh punishments: any person guilty of violating the law faces a “minimum civil penalty of $250,000 and a maximum criminal penalty of $1 million and 20 years in prison."
The Israel Anti-Boycott Act was introduced by Democratic Sen. Benjamin Cardin on March 23 and was drafted with the help of AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. In fact, passage of the bill was listed as one of the group’s top lobbying priorities for 2017.
The bill would build upon two laws, the Export Administration Act of 1979 and the Export-Import Bank Act of 1945, the former law making it illegal for U.S. corporations to cooperate with the boycott of Israel. The Office of Anti-Boycott Compliance under the Department of Commerce was created to enforce this very measure.
In addition to its already draconian felony punishments, the law would penalize people for requesting information about boycotts against Israel and would extend the boycott ban into any parts of Israel, including the settlements that were deemed to violate international law by the United Nations. The act would also expand upon the prohibition of partaking in boycotts sponsored by foreign governments to include boycotts from international organizations like the U.N. and the European Union.
On July 17, the American Civil Liberties Union published a letter it sent to all senators urging them to not support the bill on the basis that “it would punish individuals for no reason other than their political beliefs.” While the ACLU clarified that it takes no position on the international boycott of Israel, the statement asserts that, under the First Amendment, the government cannot punish people just because of their “expressed political beliefs.”
The ACLU statement further criticizes the bill for specifically singling out businesses and individuals who do not do any business with Israel for expressed political beliefs.
“There are millions of businesses and individuals who do no business with Israel, or with companies doing business there, for a number of reasons,” the statement reads.
The statement notes that the bill ignores those companies that choose not to do business with Israel purely for pragmatic reasons outside of political belief, instead punishing “businesses and individuals based solely on their point of view.”
This is not the first time lawmakers on both sides of the political spectrum have attempted to infringe on First Amendment rights with the goal of silencing supporters of the BDS movement. Many college students in recent years have faced punishment for expressing support for Palestine and the BDS movement and for pushing their college administrations to cut ties with corporations that conduct business with Israel.
In 2015, members of the Board of Regents who oversee the University of California system—along with support from University president Janet Napolitano—attempted to pass speech codes that would severely crack down on forms of Israel criticism and anti-Israeli activism. Students at any UC campus violating the speech codes would be faced with suspension or even expulsion.
This March, the New York State Senate passed two bills that would strip funding from students and college organizations that participate in “hate speech related to Israel” or partake in boycotts of “Israel and American allied nations.” A third bill passed that same week would prohibit the state from contracting with or investing in businesses that support the BDS movement.
Ironically enough, a number of the bill's supporters include Democratic lawmakers who have positioned themselves as leaders of the anti-Trump resistance. California Sen. Ted Lieu, who is one of the bill’s co-sponsors, has previously championed the protection of civil liberties and announced he would send monthly donations to the ACLU to resist Trump. New York Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, the latter of whom has been floated as a potential 2020 contender to Trump, have also co-sponsored the bill despite their purported support of civil liberties.
It also seems that a number of Senate Democrats have blindly backed a bill they have little knowledge of, according to inquiries sent to co-sponsors of the bill by the Intercept. When told of the ACLU’s letter, Democratic Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan said, “What’s the Act? You’ll have to get back to me on that.” Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez from New Jersey, considered a reliable congressional ally to AIPAC, told the Intercept, “I’d want to read it....I’d have to look at it.”
With politicians providing lip service to protecting civil liberties and First Amendment rights, it is baffling and alarming that so many of these “free speech advocates” would throw support behind a bill that is not shy about its intent to punish people for their political beliefs.