WASHINGTON — Progressive advocacy groups have railed against an attempt by US senators to push through a bill that would protect states that penalize Israel boycotters, with one Jewish organization labeling it a “farce.”
Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Idaho Senator James Risch, both Republicans, introduced the first bill last week to be considered in the GOP-controlled Senate, which combined several bills that died in the last Congress.
One of those is the Combatting BDS Act, legislation that would grant federal protections to states that target the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel, including states that ban contracts with individuals and entities who partake in Israel boycotts.
The bill has been fiercely criticized by progressive activists and civil libertarians who say these laws infringe on Americans’ constitutionally protected rights to engage in political boycotts, with liberal Mideast advocacy group J Street excoriating the measure.
“While millions of Americans suffer from the effects of the ongoing government shutdown, it’s outrageous that Senate Republican leaders are prioritizing legislation that tramples on the First Amendment and advances the interests of the Israeli settlement movement,” said the organization’s president, Jeremy Ben-Ami. “Not a single Democrat should vote to enable this farce.”
The Rubio-Risch bill also included the Ileana Ros-Lehtinen United States-Israel Security Assistance Authorization Act, named for the Republican Florida congresswoman who just retired, to codify into law $38 billion in defense assistance for Israel over the next year, based on a deal struck during the Obama years.
But the anti-BDS rider in the bill has been far more controversial. Over the weekend, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders tweeted that it was “absurd that the first bill during the shutdown is legislation which punishes Americans who exercise their constitutional right to engage in political activity.”
He linked to a story in The Intercept that quoted a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, which has been vociferously opposed to this and similar legislation.
“The legislation, like the unconstitutional state anti-boycott laws it condones, sends a message to Americans that they will be penalized if they dare to disagree with their government,” said ACLU Senior Legislative Counsel Kathleen Ruane. “We therefore urge senators to vote no on the Combatting BDS Act next week.”
More than 25 states have passed measures that target BDS adherents. Those laws have already been challenged in the courts. In September, an Arizona judge ruled that the state’s law that required state contractors to certify that they are not participating in boycotts of Israel didn’t hold constitutional muster.
“A restriction of one’s ability to participate in collective calls to oppose Israel unquestionably burdens the protected expression of companies wishing to engage in such a boycott,” US District Court Judge Diane Humetewa wrote in her decision.
A Kansas judge also struck down a similar law in January.
The vast majority of American Jewish organizations have supported anti-BDS laws at the state level, including the American Jewish Committee, the Israel Project, and StandWithUs.
AJC filed an amicus brief supporting the Arizona law that was eventually overturned, arguing that the law “advances Arizona’s legitimate interest in protecting its commerce with Israel and insuring that Arizona can take full advantage of what Israel has to offer in its contracting.”
The law did not “infringe on private citizens’ rights,” to take actions against Israel, the group asserted, because “contractors can choose to boycott Israel in their private capacities as long as those private activities do not affect their contracting activities.”
The bill was fiercely criticized over the weekend by freshman Democrat Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian-American member of Congress.
“They forgot what country they represent,” the Michigan Democrat said in her tweet, referring to lawmakers’ attempts to pass the Combatting BDS Act. “This is the US where boycotting is a right & part of our historical fight for freedom & equality.”
Rubio, who introduced the bill, castigated Tlaib’s attacks as anti-Semitic.
“This ‘dual loyalty’ canard is a typical anti-Semitic line,” Rubio tweeted. “#BDS isn’t about freedom & equality, it’s about destroying #Israel.
“And if boycotting #Israel is constitutionally protected, then boycotting companies that boycott #Israel is also constitutionally protected.”