‘Combating BDS Act’ passes Senate, 77-23, as Dem presidential hopefuls vote No

Marco Rubio

Philip Weiss

Mondoweiss  /  February 5, 2019

This afternoon the Senate by a vote of 77-23 passed S.1, which contains the Combating BDS Act, encouraging states to pass laws that authorize economic punishments against those who support boycott of Israel. Faiz Shakir, national political director of the ACLU, says:

The Senate just passed a bill that tramples on the 1st Amendment rights of Americans. The House should refuse to take it up.

The ACLU led opposition to the bill and is already moving on to the House. It reports: 

Should the House take up similar legislation, we urge members to remove the Combating BDS Act from the package of bills due to the threat it poses to all Americans’ First Amendment right to boycott…

Senators who voted for the bill: we encourage you to read the Constitution, which protects against the McCarthy-era tactics this bill endorses.

I am told there is real hope that the Democratic House will reject the measure.

The 23 Senators who voted against include all likely or announced presidential candidates with the exception of Amy Klobuchar — who reportedly said she opposed the BDS provision but approved other parts of the bill. All the Nays were Democrats except for one Republican, Rand Paul, who warned that the majority is “paranoid” about the Israel lobby. The roll of honour:

Tammy Baldwin, Cory Booker, Sherrod Brown, Tom Carper, Dick Durbin, Dianne Feinstein, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Martin Heinrich, Mazie Hirono, Tim Kaine, Patrick Leahy, Ed Markey, Jeff Merkley, Chris Murphy, Rand Paul, Jack Reed, Bernie Sanders, Brian Schatz, Jeanne Shaheen, Tom Udall, Chris Van Hollen, Elizabeth Warren

The bill is a landmark in anti-Palestinianism. The IMEU relates: ‘It’s disappointing that the Senate has voted to undermine the free speech rights of advocates for Palestinian freedom.’ – Rebecca Vilkomerson, Executive Director of Jewish Voice for Peace.”

J Herbert Nelson II of the Presbyterian Church’s Israel Palestine Mission Network called the bill “unjust” for limiting what more and more people wish to do for Palestinian rights:

A growing number of churches and other faith groups, including the Presbyterian Church (USA), have endorsed time-honoured tools like boycotts to avoid profiting from Israel’s abuses of Palestinian rights. In passing the CBA, the Senate is condoning attempts by politicians at the state level to suppress our efforts to be true to our faith and avoid being complicit in the suffering of others.

There was an upside to the vote. “Ugly day for the Senate, but something important happened here: All serious 2020 candidates (Harris, Sanders, Warren, Gillibrand and Booker) bucked AIPAC and voted against this anti-BDS bill,” Ryan Grim tweets. “That tells you a LOT about the politics of Israel in the Democratic Party.”

The Jewish establishment was all for this bill. AIPAC urged its passage. So did Jewish Federations, the leading Jewish philanthropic organizations:

“The Jewish Federations and Israel Action Network applaud the U.S. Senate in taking this important action. Boycotting Israel is bad for business, and the majority of states and a bipartisan supermajority of the Senate agrees,” said William Daroff, Senior Vice President of the Jewish Federations of North America. “The Combating BDS Act (part of S.1) addresses the discriminatory nature of BDS and the ability for states to control their own commerce. We thank the Senate for their leadership on this issue, for ensuring that states can make their own commerce decisions, and for continuing to provide security assistance to Israel. We encourage the House to take up similar legislation in a timely matter. ”

The liberal Israel lobby group J Street opposes BDS but is fighting the legislation on free-speech grounds and because it wants the Congress to maintain a distinction between boycotts against the settlements and boycotts against Israel. It too is gearing up for the battle against the bill in the House.

“[T]his bill is a disaster that would undermine America’s commitment to a two-state solution and violate free speech… The fight is far from over. After an uphill battle in the Republican-held Senate, the debate moves to the House of Representatives, where our coalition has a chance to stop this legislation dead in its tracks.”

Alex Kane and Mairav Zsonzein in Vice News also say the vote is a sign of the change coming to the Democratic Party and a test of the House’s commitment to human rights.

“That every Democratic presidential candidate either voted no or did not vote for this law is a sign of a fundamental shift in political calculus on Israel in Washington, and that shift is not favourable to Israel,” said Mike Merryman-Lotze, Middle East program director at the American Friends Service Committee, which advocates for Palestinian rights.

…Instead of seeing Israel as a democracy in a sea of Middle Eastern tyranny, as establishment Democrats and Republicans do, a growing bloc of Democratic members of Congress are willing to criticize Israel’s human rights violations despite the risk of being deemed anti-Semitic.

“The right-wing, extremist government of Benjamin Netanyahu and its apartheid-like policies are at the core of what is alienating Democrats and a growing number of Americans,” said Congresswoman Betty McCollum, a Democrat from Minnesota who authored a bill during the last session of Congress to prevent U.S. military aid to Israel from subsidizing the abuse of Palestinian children. “What has changed is that there are now members of Congress who are not willing to ignore the Israeli government’s destructive actions because they are afraid of losing an election.”

Marco Rubio, sponsor of the bill, has an op-ed in the Times seeking to defend the Senate legislation as not an infringement on free speech rights. He says the bill merely reinforces our government’s foreign policy directives, support for Israel and sanctions against Iran.

Rather, the bill merely clarifies that entities — such as corporations, companies, business associations, partnerships or trusts — have no fundamental right to government contracts and government investment. Similar to federal statutes protecting state governments that choose to divest from companies engaged in business with Sudan and Iran, the bill clarifies that state anti-B.D.S. laws meeting its criteria are not inconsistent with federal policy. By empowering states to counter discriminatory economic warfare targeting Israel, this bill also reinforces American policy insisting that only direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations can resolve that conflict.

The one Republican to oppose the law, Rand Paul gave a stirring floor speech yesterday saying that the right to boycott is fundamental to American political action: Rosa Parks boycotted in Montgomery and the Boston Tea Party boycotted to found the United States. And he said the “lobby” strikes fear in senators.

There is a teacher in Texas who is Muslim. I think she teaches autistic or special needs kids. She is a contractor. She was asked to sign a statement saying that she would never boycott goods made in Israel. Well, she objects to some of the policies, I presume, on the West Bank. I don’t agree with her, but that is a fundamentally American thing–to be able to object. Should we have a law that says you can’t boycott your government and that you can’t boycott your government’s policy? To me, that is a real danger…

[B]oycotting or protesting is something so fundamentally American, so fundamentally associated with the First Amendment that even if we don’t like what you are boycotting, even if we don’t like what you are saying, that in America we allow that to happen because that is what freedom of speech is about…

Boycotting is speech. I went to a Baptist college. I remember when I was in college that the Baptist women of the Southwest Baptist Convention didn’t like pornography being out in front at the store where kids could view it. Do you know what they did? They marched. They didn’t hurt anybody. They didn’t commit violence. They did nonviolent protests by marching in front of the utility stores until–guess what–because of the economic boycott and the bad press, the people put the pornographic magazines behind the counter, and only adults were allowed to buy them and look at them. That is from a boycott.

We boycotted English tea to found a country.

Does anybody remember the boycotts in Montgomery? Rosa Parks didn’t like the fact that she was being separated and told to sit in the back of the bus, so African Americans from around the country but definitely across Alabama and Montgomery boycotted the bus system.

Are we here to say that we are going to forbid boycotting, that you can’t do business with the government? Here is the problem. People say: Oh, it is a privilege to do business with the government. What if you are a physician and half of your business is with the government? What if you are a nurse? Half of the healthcare in our country is paid for by the government. What if you are a teacher and you work in the public schools? Are we going to ask all of these people to take a litmus test that they are not going to boycott or protest against their government’s policy? What kind of country would we live in? Yet it is groupthink around here. Everybody is so paranoid and saying: Oh, we can’t object to this lobby. Because this lobby is so powerful, we can’t object to them. Look, it isn’t about the ideas; it is about the freedom of speech.

Philip Weiss is Founder and Co-Editor of Mondoweiss.net