Senators soften anti-BDS bill following criticism

Sen. Ben Cardin releases updated legislation to prevent companies from boycotting Israel, taking into account free speech concerns

Illustrative: Students protest at an anti-Israel demonstration at the University of California, Irvine. (Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images/JTA)
Illustrative: Students protest at an anti-Israel demonstration at the University of California, Irvine. (Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images/JTA)

A US Senate bill to intended to ban businesses from boycotting Israel has reportedly been scaled down, following criticism from civil libertarians.

Maryland Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin on Saturday released an updated version of the bipartisan legislation, which is aimed at combating the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign targeting Israel for what some see as its mistreatment of the Palestinians, after the American Civil Liberties Union said it would inhibit free speech.

The amended text of the bill is said by Cardin to affirm business rights under the country’s First Amendment, defend the right to engage in personal boycotts and limit proposed punishments for violating the law to just fines, the Baltimore Sun reported.

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.

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)

Another criticism was 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.

“We have welcomed the public discussions that have been essential in focusing this bipartisan legislation in such a way that definitively upholds the rights of individual Americans while clarifying decades-old legislation,” said Cardin, the lead Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Three more senators expressed their support for the bill on Saturday, the report said: Republicans Rob Portman of Ohio and Mike Crapo of Idaho, and Democrat Sherrod Brown of Ohio.

“I am confident this bill strikes the right balance between protecting US businesses and our Israeli allies from unfair targeting by international organization, while upholding America’s commitment to free speech and individual liberty,” said Portman.

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