Senate anti-boycott Israel bill to be reviewed amid criticism
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Senate anti-boycott Israel bill to be reviewed amid criticism

Democrat Sen. Ben Cardin says critics have it wrong, legislation will not affect freedom of speech

Protesters urging a boycott against Israel in Melbourne, file photo (CC-BY SA Takver/Wikimedia Commons)
Protesters urging a boycott against Israel in Melbourne, file photo (CC-BY SA Takver/Wikimedia Commons)

WASHINGTON — A bill extending bans on Israel boycotts to those initiated by international organizations is under review following criticism from civil libertarians, one of its authors said.

Maryland Democrat Sen. Ben Cardin defended the bill, saying critics — including the American Civil Liberties Union — had it wrong.

“The bill does not affect freedom of speech, it does not impose the jail sentences they were talking about, it does not penalize individuals for their activities,” Cardin, the lead Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a briefing Wednesday for foreign policy reporters. “The criticisms are just wrong.”

Nonetheless, he said, he was meeting with the bill’s co-sponsors to see if the bill could withstand “clarifications” that would address concerns raised by the ACLU and others.

“We can clarify certain additions that do not change the function of the bill, but will give people more comfort,” he said.

Sen. Ben Cardin speaking at a news conference with other leading Democratic senators at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, November 19, 2015. (JTA/Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Among other criticisms, there were concerns that the bill, which updates a 1970s law targeting the Arab League boycott of Israel, would also replicate its stiff jail sentences, and that simple expressions of support for a boycott of Israel would be criminalized.

Another criticism is that the bill extends penalties to entities complying with boycotts that target only settlement goods and not Israeli goods overall. Cardin has said this is necessary to keep outside actors from imposing a final status solution on Israel absent a peace process.

New York Democrat Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, withdrew her co-sponsorship of the bill in August after meeting with ACLU representatives and hearing from constituents at town hall meetings. She said she would reconsider were the bill to more clearly address civil liberties concerns.

Cardin appeared to rue having the ACLU as an adversary.

“I’ve listened very carefully because some of the groups that had concerns — I’m almost always on the side they’re on,” he said.

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