Nearly 50 Senators Want to Make It a Felony to Boycott Israel

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(Photo: Kate Ausburn / Flickr)

In 1966, the NAACP of Claiborne County, Mississippi launched a boycott of several white-owned local businesses on the basis of racial discrimination.

It was so impactful that the local hardware store filed a lawsuit against the individuals and organizations who coordinated the boycott. After 10 long years of litigation, the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled in favor of the white businesses and ordered the NAACP to pay for all their lost earnings.

Years later, in 1982, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-0 to overturn the lower court’s decision on the basis that nonviolent boycotts are a form of free speech protected by the First Amendment. In announcing the unanimous decision, Justice John Paul Stevens said, “One of the foundations of our society is the right of individuals to combine with other persons in pursuit of a common goal by lawful means.”

That should have been the end of it. But now, Americans’ right to boycott is under attack once again — thanks to a vicious anti-boycott bill making its way through the Senate.

In particular, it appears to target the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. BDS is an international movement calling on individuals, institutions, and governments to boycott Israeli products until it ends its occupation of Palestinian lands. The boycott is explicitly nonviolent and is supported by activists, celebrities, faith-based groups, and political and social justice organizations around the world.

The proposed Israel Anti-Boycott Act would make it a felony for Americans to support BDS, with a penalty of up to $ 1 million and 20 years in prison.

Unfortunately, the bill enjoys bipartisan support: 32 Republicans and 15 Democrats are currently signed on as cosponsors, including party leaders like Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Claire McCaskill (D-MO), and Ted Cruz (R-TX). In response, the ACLU issued a letter urging members of the Senate to oppose the bill based on its “direct violation of the First Amendment.” (Following the publication of the ACLU’s letter, several members of Congress have agreed to review their sponsorship, but so far none have removed their names.)

The Israel Anti-Boycott Act would function by amending an earlier law from 1979, which prohibits American citizens and corporations from complying with boycotts called for by foreign nations against U.S. allies. The new law would include boycotts “fostered and imposed by international governmental organizations” like the United Nations. In this, it’s a direct response to the 2016 UN Human Rights Council resolution discouraging businesses from operating in Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

In one way, it’s genius. By claiming a connection between BDS and the UN — a connection the UN has never embraced, in that resolution or any other — the bill attempts to work around NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware Co.

But the BDS movement is not a product of the UN — it has nothing to do with it at all, except to the degree that it’s based on international law. The BDS call to action was issued in 2005 by a coalition of 170 Palestinian political parties, professional associations, refugee networks, and civil society organizations. BDS is a tactic, not an organization, and the boycott has always been grassroots and decentralized, meaning anyone anywhere can partake in BDS by making the simple decision to do so.

Whether the congressional supporters of the Israel Anti-Boycott Act misunderstand or are intentionally misrepresenting BDS is uncertain, but the Supreme Court decision of 1982 is clear as crystal: Americans’ right to peaceful boycott with the aim to “bring about political, social, and economic change” is protected by the First Amendment. That means this bill is more than egregiously immoral — it’s unconstitutional.

The bill’s language also lumps Israel’s settlements in with the country’s internationally recognized borders.

Significantly, it declares the UN Human Rights Council’s 2016 position on Israeli settlements an “action to boycott, divest from, or sanction Israel.” Yet that resolution took no position on the boycotting of goods produced in Israel proper — it only took aim at Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory, which are illegal under international law.

U.S. policy since 1979 has recognized that the Israeli settlements are “inconsistent with international law.” By contrast, the new bill effectively erases any distinction between Israel and its settlements in the West Bank. If it’s passed, anyone who chooses not to do business with or buy items manufactured in illegal Israeli settlements can be convicted, fined, and even jailed.

Efforts to curb this kind of activism are often touted as efforts to combat anti-Semitism. Yet polls show that only 17 percent of American Jews support the continued construction of settlements. The bill is so controversial, in fact, that the liberal pro-Israel organization J Street, which has long opposed BDS, recently announced its opposition to the proposed law on the basis that it “divides [opponents of the global BDS movement] by making the issue about the settlements.”

It’s difficult to know exactly how broadly the law, if passed, will be enforced. Its intentionally vague language leaves a lot to the imagination, and perhaps that’s exactly what’s intended. The real goal may be to frighten people from engaging in the completely legal act of living out their values in their economic choices.

But we can’t let fear prevent us from exercising our rights and fulfilling our moral obligations. The silver lining is that every effort to quell the BDS movement has served to strengthen it. Each attempt at criminalizing the boycott, whether on the state or federal level, has been met with a spike in Google searches for BDS and related terms.

And with the uproar caused by this new bill, the right-wing pro-Israel lobby just may prove to be the BDS movement’s best ally.

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Senators: Read This Before Your Trade Vote

On November 17, 1993, Rep. David Bonior of Michigan, the Democratic House Whip, made a plea to his colleagues to listen to the voices of working people everywhere and reject the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). His speech failed to prevent passage of a trade deal that tilted the playing field away from workers, the environment, and democracy in favor of the largest globe-trotting corporations. But his words so captured what was at stake that I carried it around in my wallet for a decade until it literally decomposed.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Senate is scheduled to vote on another deeply flawed proposal to give up their authority to amend the NAFTA-style trade pacts currently being negotiated with nations in Asia and Europe. My Institute for Policy Studies colleague Sarah Anderson, along with Public Citizen, have recently documented a litany of failed promises by the Clinton administration to members of Congress as they rounded up votes to pass NAFTA in 1993. Senators: if the new round of deal-making hasn’t already repulsed you, please read Rep. Bonior’s words before you cast your vote on Tuesday. Undemocratic trade deals, shrouded in secrecy, were bad deals 22 years ago, and they are bad deals today.

Excerpts from Rep. David Bonior’s remarks to Congress before the NAFTA vote on November 17, 1993:

Mr. Chairman, we are not alone tonight.

The working people who stand against this treaty don’t have degrees from Harvard.

They don’t study economic models.

And most of them have never heard of Adam Smith.

But they know when the deck is stacked against them.

They know it is not fair to ask American workers to compete against Mexican workers who earn $ 1 an hour.

That is not fair trade. That is not free trade.

We stand here tonight with the people who can’t cut deals when they are a few dollars short.

To them, NAFTA isn’t some economic theory.

It’s real life.

When jobs are lost, these are the people who have to sell their homes, pull their kids out of school, and look for new work.

Those of us who take these concerns seriously have been called fearmongers, afraid to take risks, with no vision of the future.

That is an insult to the working families of this country.

These are the people who show their faith in this country every day.

They take risks every day that people who make their fortunes in the stock market would never understand.

They know we live in a global economy….

But they also know that the work of America is still done by people who pack a lunch, punch a clock, and pour their heart and soul into every paycheck.

And we cannot afford to leave them behind.

Tonight, we are their voices. And we must stand with them.

We stand tonight with autoworkers in the Midwest, who can compete with any worker in the world, but ask: How can we compete if we don’t have jobs?

We stand with the aerospace workers in California, who have seen jobs leave for Tijuana, and demand to know: why will we pay higher taxes to send our jobs to Mexico?

We stand tonight with church leaders, who have documented torture, corruption, and human rights abuses in Mexico, and ask us tonight: why does this treaty do nothing to stop that?

We stand with the workers in the maquiladoras, who hoped that when American companies moved to Mexico, they would have the opportunity to lift their families out of poverty, but instead find themselves mired in a river of toxins and when they try to raise their voices in protest, their own Government silences them.

We are their voices tonight.

We are not alone.

For standing with us in this Chamber tonight are all the Americans who came before us, who had the courage to fight against the odds and against the powers that be for a better future and a better life.

The men and women who struggled in sweatshops for a dime a day, who one day found the strength to stand up and say enough.

The farmers who faced drought and depression and foreclosure, who could have thrown it all away but found the courage to say never.

The farmworkers who saw children struggling 12 hours a day to work our harvests of plenty, who had the courage to stand up and say no more.

The men and women who crossed the bridge at Selma, who stood firm in the face of dogs, and hoses, and nightsticks. And when they were told that this was not the time to fight for justice responded we shall not be moved.

Those are the people who stand with us tonight.

Their voices echo throughout this Chamber.

We must not turn our backs on all they fought for.

We must not turn our backs on all that was earned through the toil and the tears and the courage of our parents and grandparents.

We must move forward.

This vote is about more than money and markets.

It is about more than tariffs and free trade.

It is about basic values.

It is about who we are.

And what we stand for as a people.

It’s about the dignity of work.

It’s about respect for human rights.

It’s about democracy.

Mr. Chairman, if we don’t stand up for working people in this country, who is going to?…

We have come too far and sacrificed too much in this country to turn the clock back now.

This NAFTA is not the best we can do.

We can do better.

I urge my colleagues;

Vote for the Future.

Vote for our jobs.

Vote for human rights and democracy.

Say no to this NAFTA.

The post Senators: Read This Before Your Trade Vote appeared first on Institute for Policy Studies.

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