US House’s big anti-BDS vote won’t be last word on Israel boycott legislation

4 takeaways from the House of Representatives’ overwhelmingly supported resolution this week against boycotting the Jewish state

A screenshot of C-Span at the end of a tally of a US House of Representatives vote to condemn the boycott Israel movement on July 23, 2019.
A screenshot of C-Span at the end of a tally of a US House of Representatives vote to condemn the boycott Israel movement on July 23, 2019.

JTA — The US House of Representatives this week approved a non-binding resolution that condemns the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement targeting Israel.

Much was made of the 398-17 vote, a tally that earns the hoary journalist adjective “overwhelming.” Democrats and Republicans at long last could bond on an issue — rejecting attempts to boycott Israel.

“It’s that bipartisan support for Israel that means the world understands that the United States is strongly in support of Israel,” Rep. Brad Schneider, D-Ill, the resolution’s lead sponsor with Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-NY, told me this week. (Schneider and Zeldin are Jewish.)

But despite bipartisan support for the resolution, it’s hardly the last word on the Israel boycott among lawmakers.

Here’s a look at what the resolution means, the politics behind it and what happens next.

The resolution does nothing — and a lot

The resolution is non-binding, so it doesn’t mean much, right? As a “simple resolution,” it does not require passage in the other chamber or the president’s signature. Simple resolutions are “used to express the sentiments of a single house, such as offering condolences to the family of a deceased member of Congress, or it may give ‘advice’ on foreign policy or other executive business,” a Senate explainer says, adding that they do not carry the force of law.

So what’s the point? Getting folks on the record, and daring them to vote “no” on what their constituents might consider mom-and-apple pie issues.

A screenshot of C-Span at the end of a tally of a US House of Representatives vote to condemn the boycott Israel movement on July 23, 2019.

The BDS resolution was definitely about the politics: Republicans since the beginning of this congressional session have sought repeatedly to embarrass Democrats with bills that would penalize Israel boycotters. A substantial portion of Democrats oppose the Republican measures, which would be legally binding, because the lawmakers say the bills infringe on free speech.

Even as they decried the resolution as toothless, Republicans almost unanimously voted in favor. Democrats control the House, and Republicans could hardly afford not to support a pro-Israel resolution that surely would pass without them.

But the resolution isn’t meaningless. Much of the business of the world’s most powerful parliament is to create boilerplate language to which it can return to again and again, in large part because overworked staffers would rather not reinvent the wheel every week. When 392 of 435 House members agree on a way to frame an issue, you can bet that policymakers will return to the resolution’s language as a reference and template for future legislation, including the binding kind.

The BDS issue is not going away

This isn’t going away anytime soon, if Republicans have anything to do with it. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has said he will press ahead with the anti-BDS bills that have bite. Democrats are split over bills that penalize businesses and contractors who support the boycott of Israel, because they fear they impinge on the right to free speech.

The non-binding resolution upholds speech freedoms three times, twice in the “whereas” clauses that typically start a resolution, and once in the “action” section that closes it. For example, the resolution “affirms the Constitutional right of United States citizens to free speech, including the right to protest or criticize the policies of the United States or foreign governments.”

Palestinian and left-wing Jewish groups stage a rally walking from Times Square to United Nations Building in New York Thursday, Sept. 15, 2011. The marchers are calling to end all US aid to Israel, end the Occupation and support Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) against Israel (AP Photo/David Karp)

None of these caveats explicitly mentions “boycotts,” however, which helps explain why two BDS backers who opposed the anti-BDS resolution, Reps. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, joined with Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, a civil rights icon who voted for it, to draft a separate resolution protecting boycotts in general. (All three are Democrats.) Their resolution does not explicitly mention BDS, but appears to allude to the resolution that passed this week by urging “Congress, States, and civil rights leaders from all communities to endeavor to preserve the freedom of advocacy for all by opposing antiboycott resolutions and legislation.”

Lewis said he backed the anti-BDS resolution because he’s a “longtime friend of Israel,” and supported the separate pro-boycott resolution because he upholds “the fundamental First Amendment right to protest through nonviolent actions.”

The resolution doesn’t like any kind of Israel boycott

The resolution derives its moral authority from its claim that the movement to boycott Israel seeks to destroy it.

“The Global BDS Movement does not recognize, and many of its supporters explicitly deny, the right of the Jewish people to national self-determination,” it says. Each of the nine times it refers to boycotts, the resolution specifically refers to the Global BDS Movement.

The reference is to the BDS movement of the Palestinian BDS National Committee, which does call for the absolute right of return of Palestinians who fled Israel in 1948, a population influx that Israeli officials say would effectively end the existence of the state. Moreover, one of the movement’s founders, Omar Barghouti, has said explicitly that the movement opposes a Jewish state.

Omar Barghouti gives an interview in the West Bank city of Ramallah on May 10, 2016. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)

But there are also boycotters who don’t necessarily affiliate with the “official” BDS movement and don’t hold by its binational, anti-Zionist goals. These include movements, more prominent in Europe, that target only settlements for a boycott. There are individual boycotters who insist that they also favor a Jewish state, Ilhan Omar among them.

Still, the resolution makes it clear that it doesn’t like any kind of Israel boycott. As Lara Friedman — the president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, a research and advocacy group that backs a two-state outcome — noted, the resolution opposes “boycotts of US companies ‘engaged in commercial activities that are legal under US law,’” which would include business carried out in the territories. The intent, she tweeted, “is to also indict boycotts aimed at settlements/occupation.”

US President Donald Trump may want you to consider “The Squad” as the new face of the Democratic Party, but in this case Tlaib, Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts did not vote in lockstep.

Tlaib, Ocasio-Cortez and Omar voted against the anti-BDS resolution, and Pressley voted for it. Tlaib cited Israel’s “racist policies” and the need to protect freedom of speech.

“I can’t stand by and watch this attack on our freedom of speech and the right to boycott the racist policies of the government and the state of Israel,” she said. Omar ahead of the vote and Ocasio-Cortez afterward stuck to defending boycotts as a peaceful means of protest.

Pressley, in a candid Twitter thread, suggested that lawmakers must be true to their districts — and BDS was toxic in her Boston-area district with its substantial Jewish population.

“What I heard resounding in community was that voting yes on this resolution affirmed to my constituents raised in the Jewish faith Israel’s right to exist, a view I share as a supporter of a two-state solution,” she said.

The two-state solution gets a boost

The resolution concludes by reaffirming Congress’s “strong support for a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict resulting in two states — a democratic Jewish State of Israel, and a viable, democratic Palestinian state — living side-by-side in peace, security, and mutual recognition.”

That may be the major “get” for Democrats scrambling to preserve the two-state outcome at a time when the Trump administration is at best ambivalent on its prospects and when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected it. More delicious for the Dems, all but one Republican signed on — the GOP pulled two states out of its platform in 2016.

The resolution also gets virtually the entire Jewish community on board: there was backing from right to left, from the Republican Jewish Coalition to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee to J Street.

There were opponents, however: On the left was the anti-Zionist Jewish Voice for Peace, which backs BDS and wants a single binational state. On the right was the Zionist Organization of America, which opposes what it calls a “Palestinian-Arab terror state” and said the resolution lacked bite.

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