In what legal experts say is a direct defiance of U.S. citizens' first amendment rights to free speech, there appears to be growing bipartisan support for a Federal-level Israel Anti-Boycott Act making it a felony to support boycotts of Israel and Israeli settlements.
The Boycott, Divest and Sanction movement targeted by the new act was launched in 2005 by a collective of Palestinian civil society organizations. The BDS movement, as it came to be known, is a major call to action to people around the world to force Israel to comply with international law regarding what have been labeled as illegal settlements and related humanitarian violations of fundamental Palestinian civil rights in the region. Based on a previous activist movement in South Africa to abolish apartheid, the BDS movement calls for individuals, companies, pension plans, mutual funds, and governments at all levels to take a stand against the settlements by boycotting those who support the settlements, divesting investments tied to those supporting the settlements, and help encourage an end to the settlements through sanctions.
The new proposed law would make it a felony for U.S. citizens to support boycotts of Israel and Israeli settlements. If convicted, those found guilty of the law are facing a minimum $250,000 fine running to as high as $1 million dollars, plus up to 20 years in prison. All that would come even just by voicing support for the BDS movement.
However unlikely the bill may sound, it already has a lot of backing within Congress. The pro-Israeli Legislative Branch of the U.S. Government already has 46 senators saying they will vote for the bill, 15 of which are Democrats and 31 of which are Republicans. There are also 234 members of congress who are supporting the bill.
AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, has reportedly been helping put together the proposed legislation for Congress.
The American Civil Liberties Union has opposed the bill in its current form, urging senators to block the bill. In the ACLU’s statement on the matter, it said, “We take no position for or against the effort to boycott Israel or any foreign country, for that matter. However, we do assert that the government cannot, consistent with the First Amendment, punish U.S. persons based solely on their expressed political beliefs.”
That may sound both logical and legally correct, but a surprising number of Senators from both the Democratic and Republican sides of the bill are supporting it. On the Democrat side, already apparently in favor of the bill are Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, both of New York, as well as Ron Wyden of Oregon, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Maria Cantwell of Washington. For the Republicans, Ted Cruz of Texas, Ben Sasse of Nebraska, and Marco Rubio of Florida are some of the more prominent ones who have expressed support for it.
The idea of criminalizing the BDS movement is not new. There are also laws that many do not know are already on the books at the state level around the country. The first of these was passed by the Illinois state legislature on May 18, 2015 and was signed into law by Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner on July 23, 2015. That bill, SB-1761, puts companies that boycott Israel on restricted lists related to public pension fund investments, in a sort of reverse-divesting counter-attack. Other laws that support the Anti-BDS movement include California’s tough law saying that the state will not do business with companies which do things “intended to penalize, inflict economic harm on, or otherwise limit commercial relations with the State of Israel or companies based in the State of Israel or in territories controlled by the State of Israel”. Other anti-BDS laws are also now on the books in Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, New York, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas. Few are as blatantly anti-“freedom of expression” in violation of the constitution as the proposed Federal legislation, but they all run very close to that by penalizing those who speak out against the Israeli settlements.
The new Federal law is coming up when the pressure against the Palestinians in Israel is reaching new levels of oppression. In Gaza, electricity is only on for between two to four hours per day, with internet access restricted and even data rates on smartphones held to as slow as 2G levels.
The Federal law has also appeared when the U.S. Congress and the White House are desperate to pass just about anything, now that the health care bill (at this writing at least) appears dead yet once again. That, together with what appears to be stronger-than-usual bipartisan support for any bill this year, could push this particular legislation over the edge to passage.
Without question, if the Federal bill becomes law it will be challenged in the courts. The outcome of that fight is also far from certain, despite what appears to be a strong Constitutional argument against the law in its current form.
Those interested in learning more about the legislation should contact their Senators and Congressional representatives for more details -- and to encourage those in charge to reconsider this serious infringement of Americans' Constitutional Rights.