WASHINGTON — Democratic Senator Ben Cardin is reportedly working to include controversial anti-BDS legislation to a spending bill this month, as US lawmakers rush to finalize the package in a last-minute push during a lame duck session.
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 backburner after liberal advocacy groups and civil liberties groups objected to the legislation on grounds that it violated America’s speech rights.
On Tuesday, the Intercept reported that Cardin, one of the authors of the House bill’s Senate companion, was making a behind-the-scenes effort to incorporate the bill into a larger spending bill that must be passed by the end of the month.
Washington lawmakers are currently hammering out a short-term two-week spending bill to avoid a partial government shutdown (they face a Friday deadline), but are also working on a larger package to last throughout the year.
US President Donald Trump has demanded that bill include funding for a wall along the southern border, to which Democrats vehemently object.
Cardin’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
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.
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.
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.