Two leading US senators on Wednesday urged Senate leaders not to include controversial legislation targeting boycotters of Israel in an end-of-year spending bill that must pass to keep the government running.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Sen. Bernie Sanders, both Jewish, warned that including the “Israel Anti-Boycott Act” in the bill would infringe upon free speech and violate Senate officials’ commitment to “oppose controversial riders on appropriations bills.”
The Senate is set to vote on the emergency short-term spending bill introduced by Republicans Wednesday. It averts a government shutdown and provide resources to continue operations through February 8th, and does not include funding that President Donald Trump sought for a US-Mexico border wall.
Senators were still deliberating the contents of the bill Wednesday and it was not clear whether the anti-boycott act would be included.
The bill — called the Israel Anti-Boycott Act — would prohibit American companies from participating in Israel boycotts, including those promoted by international organizations like the United Nations. The measure was advanced through the House Foreign Affairs Committee in June but later put on the back-burner after liberal advocacy groups and civil liberties groups objected to the legislation on grounds that it violated America’s speech rights.
Earlier this month Democratic Senator Ben Cardin was reported to be working to include the legislation in the spending bill.
In a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, Sanders and Feinstein said that while they oppose the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement (BDS), they were committed to “defend the right of every American to express their views peacefully without fear of or actual punishment by the government.”
They noted the American Civil Liberties Union’s opposition to the bill, and the fact that similar bills targeting boycotters of Israel had been blocked by courts in Kansas and Arizona.
By penalizing political activity that targets only Israeli West Bank settlements, the argued, lawmakers would be “extending US legal protection to the very settlements the United States has opposed as illegitimate and harmful to the cause of Israeli-Palestinian peace for more than 50 years.”
At a time when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government “is pursuing policies clearly aimed at foreclosing the two-state solution, it is deeply disappointing that Congress would consider penalizing criticism of those policies.”
J Street, the liberal Mideast advocacy group, applauded the two senators’ letter, calling the legislation a “misguided” effort that “extends US legal protections to settlements, infringes on First Amendment rights and hurts, rather than helps, efforts to counter the BDS movement.
“Quietly passing such a problematic and widely-criticized bill without full Senate debate on the merits would be a disturbing subversion of standard and appropriate legislative process,” it said.
Daniel Sokatch, CEO of the New Israel Fund, also expressed his support.
“Make no mistake: this is an Israeli settler policy designed to ensure that there will never be a two-state solution,” Sokatch said. “It harms Israel, and it harms fundamental freedoms in America. Any friend of democracy, and any friend of Israel — including those of us who do not support BDS — must, in good conscience, oppose this and any gag bill that silences dissent and erases the Green Line.”
The Israel Anti-Boycott Act has long been a subject of controversy. Faiz Shakir, national political director of The ACLU, wrote a letter to House members last year saying the bill “would impose civil and criminal punishment on individuals solely because of their political beliefs about Israel and its policies.” He urged them not to co-sponsor or support the bill.
The measure’s supporters counter that, if passed and implemented, this law would prohibit discrimination on the basis of national origin, in this case, directed at Israeli companies and individuals.
Several states have passed anti-BDS legislation, prohibiting the state from working with companies that boycott Israel, though none have passed measures making participating in a boycott of Israel illegal.
Eric Cortellessa and AFP contributed to this report