Shouting “John Delaney, you will see, Palestine will be free,” 15 demonstrators gathered on a roundabout at the intersection of Washingtonian and Rio Boulevards in Gaithersburg on July 26 to protest a bill in Congress that would prevent American companies from supporting international boycotts of Israel.
The protesters were from a group of organizations that support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement including Freedom2Boycott in Maryland, which organized the event, and Jewish Voice for Peace. They chose the location because it was near Rep. John Delaney’s (D-Md.) local office. Delaney is one of 240 bipartisan co-sponsors of the House version and chanted calls of
The bill, known as the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, was introduced in March and would expand the reach of a 1970s law penalizing companies for complying with a boycott of Israel sanctioned by another country to also include intergovernmental organizations like the United Nations and the European Union. The maximum penalty for breaking the law would be a $1 million civil fine and up to 20 years in prison.
The protest came in response to a letter from the American Civil Liberties Union sent last month to Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who introduced the Senate version, on the grounds that their legislation abridges free speech.
Benjamin Douglas, a Washington resident and JVP member, said he finds it ironic that lawmakers in Washington who are concerned about threats to free speech from President Donald Trump are backing legislation that he feels would do the same. He said despite assurances from Cardin and Portman that their bill does nothing to prevent Americans from boycotting Israel on their own, he still sees their bill as an attack on the First Amendment.
“There’s all kinds of legal interpretations that they’re [politicians] trying to push,” he said. “They’re saying that it’s [the bill] only in response to an intergovernmental organization like the U.N. or the EU and they tried to argue that it only applies to commercial speech. But to a large extent that’s fat we need to cut through because you shouldn’t be attacking the right to boycott in the first place.”
Organizer Saqib Ali, a former Maryland state delegate and a member of Freedom2Boycott in Maryland, said when his group found out about the bill due to the ACLU letter they were outraged. He said the idea that the bill does nothing to obstruct free speech as Cardin and Portman claim is “disingenuous.”
“So they’re saying it doesn’t interfere with free speech but it will interfere with corporations boycotting Israel? It’s certainly interfering with free speech of those corporations and of anyone else who wants to boycott Israel,” he said. “And the ACLU strongly disagrees, and hey, if it comes to rights and liberties I trust the ACLU far more than I trust Rob Portman and Ben Cardin.”
The other element of the bill that the protesters objected to was a concern that it could redefine Israel’s borders by using a 2015 definition of boycotts against Israel that does not distinguish Israel proper from settlements in the West Bank.
Leah Muskin-Pierret, a Washington resident who works for the national coalition US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, said she is worried about both the free speech and Middle East conflict aspects.
“We’re very concerned about free speech because it’s specifically clamping down on free speech that our coalition engages in,” she said. “That being said, we’re also concerned about the way this is working to change longstanding U.S. policy.”
Muskin-Pierret said she thinks the purpose of the bill is to repress the BDS movement and pointed out that the bill punishes “entities,” an ambiguous term.
“Twenty years in jail can’t be given to an entity,” she said. “Twenty years in jail happens to a person, whether that’s a local wine store owner who de-shelves settlement wines or the CEO of Macy’s who de-shelved SodaStream.”
We need to recognize that the basic issue raised by the Israel Anti-Boycott Bill (S. 720) is not opposition to Israel’s policies (a topic for another day), but it is the freedom to boycott in general. Why should this freedom be selectively recognized? Americans are of course free to boycott U.S. products and services (as in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the grape and lettuce boycotts, and the Jewish boycott of the Ford Motor Company in 1927) — so why should we be forbidden to boycott the products and services of another country? It is irrelevant that in this case the other country is Israel.
The hypocrisy of this legislation is inescapable, un-American, and ultimately detrimental to anyone who values our Constitutional rights. We cannot pick and choose who benefits from our Constitutional protections and who does not for political reasons. Politicizing our Constitution is a major step in its demise.
Regardless of where one comes down on substantive issues in the Israel-Palestine conflict, all of us should be concerned about a bill that would repress a First Amendment protected right (that the Supreme Ct has upheld) to express our political view throughout boycotts. I personally supported the grape boycott and the anti-apartheid boycott. Under the First Amendment, a boycott to express my support for Palestinian rights is equally protected. Shocking that any Democratic would support such a bill–and the argument that the ACLU is wrong in its analysis is truly disingenuous.
By not distinguishing between boycotts of Israeli settlements and those of Israel in general, this bill would criminalize efforts to economically target the settlement construction that is jeopardizing the chance for a two-state solution. The bill thus encourages Israel’s drift away from the possibility of a secure, democratic Jewish state.
Even J Street, the moderate pro-Israel and pro-peace group which opposes BDS in general, has voiced opposition to this bill, saying “Trampling free speech is not the way to oppose BDS”.