McGill BDS launch, 1/4/2016.” Credit: Sonia Ionescu

July 20, 2017; The Intercept and Mondoweiss

Last week, The Intercept broke the story of the Israel Anti-Boycott Act (H.R. 1697/S. 720), a bill that criminalizes support for the movement to enact a campaign of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel, which was launched to protest its occupation of Palestine. The punishment is a minimum civil penalty of $250,000 and a maximum criminal penalty of $1 million, plus 20 years in prison! Intercept reporters Glenn Greenwald and Ryan Grim asked, “In what conceivable sense is it of benefit to Americans to turn them into felons for the crime of engaging in political activism in protest of a foreign nation’s government?”

According to The Intercept, “The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reports that the bill ‘was drafted with the assistance of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.’ Indeed, AIPAC, in its 2017 lobbying agenda, identified passage of this bill as one of its top lobbying priorities for the year.”

As The Intercept noted, “illustrating the bipartisanship that AIPAC typically summons” on the Senate side, the two primary sponsors of the bill are Democrat Ben Cardin of Maryland (who introduced it on March 23rd) and Republican Rob Portman of Ohio. The co-sponsors include Democrats Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon, Democrat Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Democrat Maria Cantwell of Washington, Republican Ted Cruz of Texas, Republican Ben Sasse of Nebraska, and Republican Marco Rubio of Florida.

This may be one of the few issues in Congress that enjoys bipartisan support, with 43 senators—29 Republicans and 14 Democrats. A similar measure introduced in the House already has 234 co-sponsors: 63 Democrats and 174 Republicans.

The proposed bill is designed to “outlaw ‘campaigns by the Palestine solidarity movements to pressure corporations to cut ties to Israel or even with Israeli settlements.’” The ACLU sent a letter to the Senate warning that it threatens basic civic freedoms, as “it would punish individuals for no reason other than their political beliefs.”

Though the proposed bill is more extreme, the ACLU has opposed similar efforts at the state level, pointing out that “boycotts to achieve political goals are a form of expression that the Supreme Court has ruled are protected by the First Amendment’s protections of freedom of speech, assembly, and petition.”

So far, no member of Congress has sided with the ACLU in denouncing this bill, though Glen Caplin, Gillibrand’s senior advisor, sent The Intercept the following statement: “We have a different read of the specific bill language; however, due to the ACLU’s concerns, the Senator has extended an invitation to them to meet with her and discuss their concerns.”

The Intercept further noted that Senator Cardin insisted the bill contained no criminal penalties, revealing a serious lack of understand of what was in the bill. It also pointed out that some supporters of the bill, such as Democratic Representative Ted Lieu of California, Democratic Representative Adam Schiff of California, and Democratic Representative Eric Swalwell of California, are media leaders of the anti-Trump #Resistance and “have built a wide public following by posturing as opponents of authoritarianism.”

This snapping into line regarding Israel reflects AIPAC’s incredible power, and, as Phillip Weiss wrote in Mondoweiss, “the bill is about the Israel lobby’s presence inside the Democratic Party…A year ago, Stephanie Schriock of Emily’s List and JJ Goldberg of the Forward described the ‘gigantic’ and ‘shocking’ degree of the Democratic Party’s reliance on Jewish wealth for campaign contributions.”

Weiss thinks the most important thing to come out of all of this is that “a diverse coalition of human-rights-loving Democrats are enraged by this legislation and are organizing against AIPAC’s role in the party. Call it the Keith Ellison wing, the Sanders wing—young Jews, young Latinos, blacks, women—they want a more progressive policy on Israel and many of them support BDS. Bernie Sanders did not attend the AIPAC conference in 2016 because his base opposed such pandering, and that base is fighting for the heart of the party.”

However, as Weiss concluded, what underlies this story is that “Israel vehemently opposes BDS because BDS has been effective; it has worked to put pressure on Israel and transform the politics of Israel around the world.” BDS brought down apartheid South Africa, and it may do the same for occupying Israel.—Cyndi Suarez