Legislative efforts to condemn and criminalize the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement for Palestinian liberation are nothing new, but a particularly concerning effort emerging from the U.S. Senate is attracting attention from all sides. The Israel Anti-Boycott Act (S. 720), sponsored by Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Rob Portman (R-OH), would impose some of the toughest penalties on supporters of boycotts against Israel that we’ve ever seen–not only would those who violate the Act be charged with a felony, but they would also face minimum civil penalty of $250,000, a maximum criminal penalty of $1 million and 20 years in prison, according to a report on the bill by The Intercept.
While it’s worth noting that the bill targets businesses and commercial interactions and doesn’t explicitly target all individuals who support the BDS movement, it’s still highly alarming for a number of reasons. First, the bill is written in a very peculiar and shady, if not a downright deceptive, manner. Rather than explicitly listing the penalties mentioned above, for example, the bill merely amends the Export-Import Bank Act of 1945 to add joining boycotts against Israel that are led by foreign government or international governing bodies (think: the United Nations).
Thus, to see the full extent of what the harsh penalties for violating the Act would actually be, you have to do a fair amount of digging. As a result, we’re seeing a number of senators from both sides of the aisle (truly, nothing unites our country’s two parties like opposing anti-occupation efforts) who don’t actually seem to know that much about the bill they’re supporting. Even one of the bill’s main sponsors, Sen. Cardin, doesn’t seem to fully understand what his own bill does, insisting that the bill doesn’t impose criminal sanctions against people who violate the bill (even though it does).
Though at first, this may seem absurd, it’s actually not unheard of in this day and age for members of Congress to not have a full grasp on legislation that they decide to sponsor. The influence of special interest groups that we hear so much about during election season manifests itself in co-authoring and pushing legislation, and this case is no different: the Israel Anti-Boycott Act was “drafted with the assistance of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC),” a leading member of the pro-Israel lobby and a group widely acknowledged as one of the most powerful special interest groups nationwide.
As a result, we’re seeing a number of senators from both sides of the aisle (truly, nothing unites our country’s two parties like opposing anti-occupation efforts) who don’t actually seem to know that much about the bill they’re supporting.
Of course, aside from its shoddy drafting, the bill also raises some serious concerns about the idea of free speech. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has come out strongly in opposition to the bill in a letter that, “This bill would impose civil and criminal punishment on individuals solely because of their political beliefs about Israel and its policies.” Several Senators that The Intercept asked regarding the letter declined to comment, citing that they had not yet read the letter, but others, like Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), seemed unfazed by the ACLU’s concerns, stating merely that, “I continue to support a strong U.S./Israel relationship.”
This, too, however, is not uncommon in the broader scope of discussion surrounding the Israeli Occupation. Regardless of one’s party affiliation, an alarming common trend among U.S. public officials – members of Congress, governors, you name it – seems to be to be staunchly supporting of free speech in all cases except this one. As The Intercept points out, Palestine Legal and the Center for Constitutional Rights have seen so many instances where the right to free speech took a backseat in defense of Israel that they’ve actually come up with a simple, self-explanatory name for the phenomenon: “the Palestine Exception.”
What isn’t as common though, and what backers of the BDS movement may take a small bit of comfort in, is that at least one organization that is usually anti-BDS has actually come out against this bill, and it’s a big one. In a surprise move, J Street issued a statement urging senators to oppose the bill. In addition to citing free speech concerns similar to those brought up by the ACLU, the J Street letter mentioned the perceived danger of a bill so broad that it makes no distinctions between the State of Israel and Israeli settlements. While the State of Israel is an internationally recognized government, Israeli settlements in the Palestinian Territories are in direct violation of international law. To endorse a bill that calls for Americans to criminalize efforts to work against violations of international law is a level of absurdity that even J Street cannot get behind.
The most important thing to remember, even in the face of legislation this ridiculous and downright authoritarian, is that the fight for Palestinian liberation is far from dead, though its opponents repeatedly wish it would be. If anything, as Mondoweiss founder Philip Weiss points out, these constant efforts to shut down BDS are a sign that Bibi & Friends are scared of its power – and that’s definitely a sign that no matter how slow and painful the fight for liberation is, it’s working.