US Senate passes anti-BDS bills, sending them to House
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J Street lobbies House members to oppose the legislation

US Senate passes anti-BDS bills, sending them to House

Strengthening America’s Security in the Middle East Act approved by a vote of 77-23; all Senate Democrats eyeing 2020 bid vote against

Eric Cortellessa covers American politics for The Times of Israel.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., walks to the chamber for the final vote to confirm Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, at the Capitol in Washington, Oct. 6, 2018. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., walks to the chamber for the final vote to confirm Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, at the Capitol in Washington, Oct. 6, 2018. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON — The United States Senate passed controversial legislation on Tuesday to curb boycotts against Israel, sending the bill to the Democrat-controlled House for full consideration.

The Strengthening America’s Security in the Middle East Act, known as S.1, was approved in Congress’s upper chamber by a vote of 77-21.

The legislative package includes the Israel Anti-Boycott Act and the Combating BDS Act, bills that are both supported by most major Jewish organizations but vehemently opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the left-wing J Street lobby group on the grounds that they violate free speech.

While the Israel Anti-Boycott Act would make it illegal under federal statute to boycott the Jewish state, the Combating BDS Act would grant federal protection to the 26 states that have already passed similar laws targeting Israel boycotters.

Shortly after the bill passed, J Street sent an email to its supporters urging them to lobby their House members to oppose the legislation.

“J Street has been clear about our opposition to the Global BDS Movement,” the group told its supporters.” But we’ve also been clear that this bill is a disaster that would undermine America’s commitment to a two-state solution and violate free speech. We aren’t alone. MoveOn, the ACLU and Indivisible are all fighting this legislation on the grounds that it suppresses constitutionally protected political expression.”

S.1 also incorporates a separate measure to codify into federal law an agreement for the US to provide Israel with $38 billion over 10 years in security assistance.

The Memorandum of Understanding was signed with the Obama administration, and has thus far been upheld by the Trump White House, but could be torn up at any time. Codifying it into law would protect the aid over the life of the agreement.

The act also included separate measures to aid Jordan’s government and Syrian civilians.

Illustrative image of demonstrators outside the offices of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo protesting his executive order calling for New York companies to divest from organizations that support the BDS movement, June 9, 2016. (Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket/Getty Images)

Every Republican voted to advance the legislation but the Democratic senators were largely split.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer voted in favor of the bill while every Senate Democrats eyeing a 2020 bid voted against it, including Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, New York Senator Kristen Gillibrand, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, California Senator Kamala Harris and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, who previously co-sponsored the Israel Anti-Boycott Act.

“There are ways to combat BDS without compromising free speech, and this bill as it currently stands plainly misses the mark,” Booker, who formally announced his presidential bid last week, told Jewish Insider on Tuesday, defending his change of position.

Sanders, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, has been a consistent critic of the bills. “While I do not support the BDS movement, we must defend every American’s constitutional right to peacefully engage in political activity,” he tweeted last week, after the bill initially advanced in the Senate. “It is clear to me that S.1 would violate Americans’ First Amendment rights.”

To become law, S.1 would need to pass in the House of Representatives, which is now under Democratic control, and be signed into law by the president.

But there are already signs the bill will face resistance in Capitol Hill’s other chamber. “This is an effort to politicize Israel, and we are not going to play ball with it,” a senior House Democratic aide told CNN.

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