Ban boycotts, ban free speech

Three articles on the proposed bill to outlaw the practice of or proselytising for any form of boycotting anything Israeli : 1) clear account of the bill in the New Arab;  2) WAFA on the withdrawal of one of the sponsors; 3) That sponsor, Kirsten Gillibrand, explains her decision in Forward.

Jewish and Christian religious groups demonstrate in support of Israel near the United Nations headquarters September 21, 2011 in New York. Photo by Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

Anti-BDS bill in US Congress: Criminalising Free Speech

The anti-BDS bill violates the right to collective action which is protected under the US constitution

By Tamara Kharroub, The New Arab
August 03, 2017

Bills introduced in the US Congress seek to criminalise support for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movements, calling to pressure Israel to end abuses of Palestinians’ human rights.

The Senate bill, Israel Anti-Boycott Act (S.720), was introduced in the US Senate by Democratic Senator from Maryland Benjamin Cardin on 23 March 2017. The bill’s number of cosponsors has been rising steadily since then, reaching 46 currently; 32 Republican and 14 Democratic Senators, which constitutes close to half the Senate.

A similar bill, the Israel Anti-Boycott Act (H.R.1697) was also introduced in the US House of Representatives on the same day by Peter Roskam, Republican Representative of Illinois’s 6th District. The House bill has 249 cosponsors; 185 Republicans and 64 Democrats, constituting close to 60 percent of the House.

The bills were introduced at the time of the annual conference of the powerful pro-Israel lobbying group the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in March, and match one of its lobbying agenda [see below] items for 2017. The bills are even said to have been drafted with the help of AIPAC.

Israel Anti-Boycott have collected co-sponsors from across the political spectrum in the US, including right-wing and moderate Republicans as well as moderate and liberal Democrats. The support that this proposal enjoys confirms AIPAC’s powerful position in Washington, where this might be the lone instance of bipartisanship in US Congress.

The support that this proposal enjoys confirms AIPAC’s powerful position in Washington

Although they garner great support and popularity among Members of Congress, the bills have been heavily criticised by proponents of civil liberties for their infringement on the freedom of speech and by several groups for conflating Israel with illegal Israeli settlement in the West Bank and East Jerusalem with Israel.

The Israel Anti-Boycott Act

The Israel Anti-Boycott Act of 2017 seeks to amend previous legislation, namely the Export Administration Act of 1979 and the Export-Import Bank Act of 1945, to include prohibitions on boycotting Israel.

The Act would essentially prohibit US citizens and entities from supporting a boycott against Israel, conducted by foreign governments or international governmental organisations such as the UN and the EU. In these bills, Israel is discussed to include illegal Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

If the bill is amended to subject violators to ‘civil penalties’, that still means $250,000 in fines for expressing political views

According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), violators will be fined a maximum civil penalty of $250,000 with a maximum criminal penalty of $1 million, and 20 years imprisonment. The House and Senate bills would also expand the previous laws to include a penalty for requesting information about the boycott.

Opposition to the bills


L, ACLU’s National Political Director Faiz Shakir, urges Representatives NOT to support anti-boycott bill. The bill “targets free speech and political beliefs”


In the letter to Congress members, ACLU’s National Political Director Faiz Shakir urges members of Congress not to co-sponsor or support the Israel Anti-Boycott Act of 2017. While the ACLU clarifies that the union takes no political position on the matter, the letter warns that the bill “would impose civil criminal punishment on individuals solely because if their political beliefs about Israel and its policies”.

Under this act, the lack of business relations with Israel is only fined when it is politically motivated. According to Shakir, such punishment of entities based on political views is unconstitutional as it violates the First Amendment and the right to free speech and expression.

The proposals also violate the right to collective action, as a form of expression. As such, individuals protesting Israeli settlement policies would be subjected to severe fines under this bill.

Other organisations have also come out against the bills.

The self-identified “pro-Israel pro-peace” group, J Street, which does not endorse BDS, issued a document detailing concerns about the legislative proposals. Most specifically, J Street expressed concern about blurring the US legal distinction between Israeli settlements and Israel, and thus breaking with established US policy of 50 years and making it a federal crime to boycott settlements.

This essentially limits freedoms for academic discussion and the free exchange of ideas at academic institutions

The proposals currently under consideration in Congress would also threaten academic freedom, and used to punish faculty, students and the American universities that host them, for expressing certain points of view regarding the boycott of Israel. This essentially limits freedoms for academic discussion and the free exchange of ideas at academic institutions.

Possible amendments?

Following the ACLU letter, the primary sponsors of the Senate bill, Benjamin Cardin and Republican Senator from Ohio Rob Portman, sent a response letter to Faiz Shakir claiming that the bill does not infringe on free speech rights or punish entities for their political views on Israel. The senators insist that the bill is based on already existing laws and is “narrowly targeted at commercial activity”.

Senator Ben Cardin, proposer of a bill to outlaw imposing boycotts on Israel, speaks for maintaining sanctions against Russia on NBC news. Screenshot.

However, those seemingly minor amendments to existing laws have potential major constitutional violations. ACLU responded with an op-ed confirming that collective actions such as boycott are protected under the US constitution. “When government takes sides on a particular boycott and criminalises those who engage in a boycott, it crosses a constitutional line”, David Cole and Faiz Shakir of the ACLU said, adding that the bill “does not target commercial trade; it targets free speech and political beliefs”.

Legal experts have also noted that the term “United States person” includes US residents or nationals, businesses and foreign subsidiaries of a US business.

Opponents of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s executive order prohibiting state investments in any company that supports a boycott of Israel hold a rally in the War Room at the New York state Capitol on Wednesday, June 15, 2016, in Albany, N.Y. Photo by Mike Groll/AP

Members of Congress co-sponsoring the bills have also faced questions from their constituents regarding ACLU’s constitutional concerns. Some have even reported that lawmakers have rushed to sign as cosponsors of the AIPAC-drafted bills without being aware of their contents.

Following the ACLU’s public opposition to the bills, lawmakers are put under pressure to consider amendments that address ACLU’s concerns. Members of Congress said they are reviewing the bill and discussing possible First Amendment issues. Cardin himself expressed willingness to consider amendments, saying he only thought the bill involves civil penalties not criminal penalties.

The criminalisation of political activism against Israeli policies is taking place across the United States and Europe

However, if the bill is amended to subject violators to civil penalties, that still means $250,000 in fines for expressing political views.

While some amendments to the House and Senate bills may occur, the issue is far from over. The US Congress has passed bills that seek to combat BDS in the past and it is likely to pass future bills in some form.

The criminalisation of political activism against Israeli policies is taking place across the United States and Europe, with arrests, restrictions on freedom of the press and collective action, and outlawing organisations that support Palestinian rights.

What form of the Israel Anti-Boycott Act bills will pass in US Congress is yet to be seen, but this will not be the last bill targeting activism in support of Palestinian rights.

Dr. Tamara Kharroub is a Senior Analyst and Assistant Executive Director at Arab Center Washington DC.

US Senator withdraws sponsorship of an Israel anti-boycott bill

By WAFA (Palestine news and info. centre)
August 03, 2017

WASHINGTON, DC, — New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D) has formally withdrawn her sponsorship of the Israel Anti-Boycott Act following pressure from constituents who repeatedly questioned her support for the bill at recent town halls in New York City, according to a press release.

Residents were concerned about threats the bill could cause to the civil liberties of Americans and to the grassroots boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement for Palestinian rights.

Senator Gillibrand’s withdrawal marks one of the few times a member of Congress has removed their name from a bill supported by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

The Israel Anti-Boycott Act, which raised protests from civil liberties groups such as the ACLU, attempts to criminalize Americans who support Palestinian human rights. It seeks to impose fines of up to $1 million and up to 20 years in prison, as well as to deny government loans to corporations refusing to do business in Israeli settlements built on stolen Palestinian land in violation of international law and nearly 50 years of official US policy.

Not only does it infringe on the First Amendment-protected right to promote BDS but the bill also seeks to legitimize Israel’s settlements. The language of the Israel Anti-Boycott Act equates illegal Israeli settlements with Israel, breaking with decades of US policy of refusing to recognize settlements as legally part of Israel.

“It’s exceedingly rare for members of Congress to withdraw their sponsorship of bills, especially on this issue,” stated Josh Ruebner, Policy Director of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights. “We thank Sen. Gillibrand for listening to her constituents’ concerns about this bill and removing her sponsorship after realizing the draconian nature of the penalties it would impose on individuals exercising their First Amendment right to engage in boycotts in support of Palestinian human rights.”

Sen. Gillibrand’s withdrawal comes after pressure from national and grassroots organizers mobilized with support from the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, including WESPAC, Adalah-NY, Jewish Voice for Peace-Westchester, and Peace Action NY.

In front of a large crowd in Queens on July 24 and in response to local activists questioning her support for the bill, Sen. Gillibrand stated that she would not support it in its current form, strongly refusing to “support any bill that chills free speech.” In addition, the American Civil Liberties Union sent an open letter to members of Congress urging them to refrain from sponsorship on July 17.

The US Campaign for Palestinian Rights (USCPR) is a national coalition of hundreds of groups working together for freedom, justice and equality. Founded in 2001 as the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, USCPR has been a leading player in the movement for Palestinian rights in the United States. The coalition is bound by commonly shared principles on Palestine solidarity as well as anti-racism principles.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand: Where I Stand On Israel, BDS And The First Amendment

By Kirsten Gillibrand, Forward
August 10, 2017

L. Kirsten Gillibrand. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Over the past few weeks, a divisive debate has erupted that is pitting defenders of the First Amendment against supporters of Israel. This is a false choice, and many New Yorkers who care deeply about both Israel and free speech are finding themselves caught in the middle of an argument where people aren’t listening to one another. For example, recently I have been accused of trying to stifle people’s right to protest, of trying to delegitimize one of our most important allies, and of supporting a movement that is working to harm the State of Israel. These accusations are false, and I reject the notion that we must choose between equally supporting Israel and the First Amendment.

The debate is over a bill, called the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, which was written with the good intention of pushing back against the anti-Israel boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, better known as BDS. The bill takes an existing law that says Americans shouldn’t be able to side with foreign countries to undermine our allies, and expands it to include international organizations like the European Union and the United Nations.

I signed onto it because I have always supported Israel and opposed BDS. But when constitutional lawyers expressed alarm that the bill could have a chilling effect on the First Amendment, I took their concerns seriously. That is not how I interpreted the bill language, and I still don’t interpret it that way, but it’s clear to me that if reasonable people can come to diametrically different conclusions about what the bill does, then the bill as written is too ambiguous and needs to be written more clearly.

As I said publicly at a town hall, I cannot support the bill in its current form if it can be interpreted as stifling or chilling free speech. I would never put my name on legislation that would do that. So I took my name off the bill – until it is rewritten so the text is clear that it won’t violate our right to free speech. That doesn’t mean my positions on Israel or BDS have changed. To the contrary: they haven’t budged an inch.

So let’s clear some things up:

First, some have suggested that I want to delegitimize Israel because I took my name off the bill. That is not true. My record makes it clear that I am one of the strongest and most consistent supporters of Israel in the Senate. Israel is one of the most vibrant democracies in the world. In my visits to Israel, I traveled to Sderot, a town where Israelis fear that rockets from Gaza could hit their homes – or worse, the local kindergarten, where they set up beds in a local bunker in case of rocket fire during nap time. I visited an Iron Dome battery, which the United States and Israel are building together to protect Israelis from these very rockets. Every year, I lead the effort to make sure joint U.S.-Israeli missile defense programs – Iron Dome, David’s Sling, and the Arrow Programs – are fully funded in the federal budget, so that Israel’s government can better protect its citizens from threats near and far.

I have voted for round after round of sanctions against Iran to address its nuclear program and its efforts to harm Israel, support terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, and wreak havoc across the Middle East. I have spoken out repeatedly against the well-documented anti-Israel bias at the UN, which the Palestinian Authority has used to circumvent negotiations with Israel, and last year I led a bipartisan letter joined by 87 of my colleagues opposing any one-sided efforts to pressure Israel at the UN. I continue to believe that Israel will be best served by a two-state solution reached through direct negotiations with the Palestinians.

Second, some have suggested that I suddenly began supporting the BDS movement when I took my name off the bill. This accusation has popped up on the Internet in recent days – both from Israel’s supporters and from Israel’s detractors. This is just plain false. I cannot state this more clearly: I vehemently oppose the BDS movement, which too often is used as a pernicious vehicle for antisemitism; I would never support it, and I signed on to the Israel Anti-Boycott Act in order to push back against this effort to make Israel – and Israel alone – a pariah.

It is incumbent upon all of us to call out anti-Semitism and push back against this form of bigotry wherever it exists, whether it’s coming from pockets of the BDS movement or from the so-called “Alt Right.” Too many have used the BDS movement to veil anti-Semitic attacks that make students feel threatened on college campuses and attempt to delegitimize our ally, and I understand why this history has shaped many people’s views of the BDS movement. And in the past year alone, there have been a growing number of open, explicit acts of anti-Semitism across the United States – including in New York. I introduced a bipartisan bill to give more power to the State Department’s anti-Semitism envoy, and I also hosted an event to educate Congress about anti-Semitism on college campuses. Anti-Semitism is real, and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise.

Finally, my position on the First Amendment has never changed, and never will: it is sacred. If someone wants to protest Israel, that is their right – just as it’s their right to protest any other country in the world, or the United States, or our President, or me. But don’t twist my words. When I am defending my constituents’ right to protest Israel, it doesn’t mean I agree with what they’re saying. My record of support for Israel should make that clear. In nearly every speech I give as a Senator, I encourage New Yorkers to raise their voices and speak out about the issues that matter to them. But I never dictate to them what those issues must be.

We should never have to choose between supporting Israel and supporting the First Amendment. The oath I swore as a senator was to “support and defend the Constitution.” That means defending free speech, including protests I really don’t like. But it also means keeping our country safe – and an important part of that is protecting our alliance with Israel. I am proud to defend the First Amendment and support Israel, and I urge all New Yorkers to join me in fighting for both.

Kirsten Gillibrand is a Democratic senator from New York.

ACLU urges senators to oppose bill targeting Israel boycotts

July 18, 2017

NEW YORK — The American Civil Liberties Union called on U.S. senators to oppose a measure targeting boycotts of Israel and its settlements.

The Israel Anti-Boycott Act, introduced in March by Sens. Ben Cardin, D-Md., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, would expand 1970s-era laws that make illegal compliance with boycotts of Israel sponsored by governments — laws inspired at the time by the Arab League boycott of Israel — to include boycotts backed by international organizations. Those adhering to boycotts would be the subject of fines.

While the measure is aimed at the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, it also targets efforts by the United Nations and the European Union to distinguish products manufactured in Israel from those manufactured in West Bank settlements.

In a letter Monday, the ACLU urged senators not to co-sponsor the measure and to oppose its passage.

“We take no position for or against the effort to boycott Israel or any foreign country, for that matter,” wrote Faiz Shakir, ACLU’s national political director. “However, we do assert that the government cannot, consistent with the First Amendment, punish U.S. persons based solely on their expressed political beliefs.”

Shakir added that “the bill would punish businesses and individuals based solely on their point of view. Such a penalty is in direct violation of the First Amendment.”

The measure was drafted with the assistance of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and has the support of Christians United for Israel. It has 42 co-sponsors from both parties. A similar bill has gained 230 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives.

Liberal pro-Israel groups have objected in recent years to similar legislation, arguing that boycotting settlements — an action that some liberal Zionists support — should not be wrapped into broader boycotts of Israel, which most of the Jewish community rejects.


See also U.S. Lawmakers Seek to Criminally Outlaw Support for Boycott Campaign Against Israel, The Intercept, Glenn Greenwald and Ryan Grim, July 19th, 2017 

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