Push for anti-BDS bill in Congress exposes rift among Jewish progressives

Jewish Democratic group urges supporters to back bill making boycotting Israel illegal, but J Street objects on First Amendment grounds

Demonstrators protesting against Israel in New York City, June 2016. (Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Demonstrators protesting against Israel in New York City, June 2016. (Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — With a US senator attempting to push controversial legislation cracking down on anti-Israel boycotts through Congress, progressive Jewish groups appear split on the merits of the proposed law.

While the liberal Middle East advocacy group J Street has vehemently opposed the bill, which would make it illegal to boycott Israel, the Jewish Democratic Council of America, an advocacy wing for more mainline Jewish Democrats, is supporting its passage.

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. It was castigated by liberal advocacy groups and civil society groups almost immediately upon its release on First Amendment grounds.

An amended version designed to address those concerns was advanced through the House Foreign Affairs Committee in June but later put on the backburner after liberal advocacy groups and civil liberties activists objected that it still crimped free speech  rights.

Democratic Senator Ben Cardin is reportedly now working to include the measure in a spending bill this month, as US lawmakers rush to finalize the package in a last-minute push during a lame duck session.

Halie Soifer heads the Jewish Democratic Council of America. (Courtesy of JDCA)

“We support the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, as amended, and urge passage of this legislation during the 115th Congress,” said JDCA Executive Director Halie Soifer in a statement. “We are encouraging JDCA members to write to their member of Congress to support passage of the bill by the end of the year.”

A campaign on the JDCA website urging support of the bill notes that the Democratic party platform adopted in 2016 includes a plank on opposing BDS and efforts to delegitimize Israel.

The drafting of that platform two years ago was the focus of a highly visible battle between the party’s more left-wing and centrist flanks, exposing rifts within the party over support for Israel.

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton gives a thumbs-up after accepting the nomination during the fourth and final night of the Democratic National Convention at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia on July 28, 2016. (AFP PHOTO/SAUL LOEB)

At the time, activists pushed for language mentioning Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Israeli settlements, but the camp of eventual nominee Hillary Clinton won out and managed to instead insert pro-Israel and anti-BDS language.

The 2018 midterm elections have pointed to a decidedly leftward shift by the party, though, with two incoming Democratic lawmakers openly supporting the BDS movement.

J Street, which in 2016 called for more balanced language in the Democratic platform, has launched a campaign against the anti-BDS act — arguing that such a law would impinge on the right of Americans to express a political point of view, and that it would not draw any distinction between Israel proper and West Bank settlements.

“J Street opposes the BDS Movement,” the group said in an “action alert” email to its supporters. “But we also oppose legislation that threatens free speech and erases the distinction between Israel and the occupied West Bank.”

“We’ve just learned that some members of Congress might try to pass this kind of law by quietly slipping it into a must-pass government funding bill,” it went on, before imploring its backers to reach out to their representatives on the Hill.

J Street Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami addressing the group’s conference in Washington, March 21, 2015. (Courtesy JTA/J Street)

According to reports, Cardin is looking to include the anti-BDS bill in a short-term two-week spending bill that lawmakers are currently hammering out to avoid a partial government shutdown. The bill must be passed by Friday.

US President Donald Trump has demanded that bill include funding for a wall along the southern border, which Democrats vehemently object.

The Israel Anti-Boycott Act has long been a subject of controversy. Faiz Shakir, national political director of The American Civil Liberties Union, 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.

The Israeli settlement of Elon Moreh as seen from the northern West Bank city of Nablus on December 7, 2016. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)

Sponsored by Rep. Peter Roskam, a Republican from Illinois, and Juan Vargas, a Democrat from California, the House bill includes a provision that would make it illegal for US businesses to join international boycotts against Israel. It would specifically amend the Export Administration of 1979, which bars US companies from adhering to Israel sanctions or boycotts administered by the Arab League.

Rep. Eliot Engel, a Democrat from New York, has defended the law’s constitutionality. “Current law already prohibits US companies from participating in state-sponsored boycotts of countries friendly to the United States,” he said in his opening statement before the House panel’s June vote.

“This legislation simply adds boycotts by international government organizations to that law,” he continued. “This bill does not infringe on free speech. It makes it clear that this prohibition only applies when a person is acting in an official capacity and if the intent was to comply with the international government organization’s boycott. Individual, personal speech remains protected. Period.”

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.

Two freshman lawmakers who openly support the BDS movement, Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib and Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar, are slated to be sworn into Congress when it reopens next year.

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