From the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 to the anti-Apartheid campaigns in the 90s, Senator Ben Cardin has spent his life supporting boycotts as a tool for achieving racial, social and economic justice. That all apparently changed when Palestinian civil society decided to adopt boycotts as a tactic to challenge Israel’s brutal military occupation.
This past Tuesday Senator Cardin introduced an AIPAC-backed amendment to a trade bill that seeks to thwart the growing boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement. Although it’s not yet publicly available, the text of Senator Cardin’s amendment is reportedly similar to an amendment that was passed by the House Committee on Ways and Means on Thursday.
The amendment in the House, which was introduced by Representative Peter Roskam, was attached to this year’s Trade Promotion Authority bill. The amendment sets as a principle negotiating objective “to discourage politically motivated actions to boycott, divest from, or sanction Israel and seek the elimination of politically motivated non-tariff barriers on Israeli goods, services, or other commerce imposed on the State of Israel.”
The amendment is designed to pressure the European Union (EU), which is currently negotiating the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T-TIP) with the United States, to reverse course on the steps it has taken in recent years to oppose Israeli settlements. These include new guidelines preventing entities operating from Israeli-occupied territory from receiving EU funding and a recent push to label settlement products entering the EU.
As written, the legislation also conflates Israel with the Occupied Palestinian Territories and directly contravenes decades of official U.S. policy. The language proposed by Representative Roskam reads in part, “the term ‘actions to boycott, divest from, or sanction Israel’ means actions by states, non-member states of the United Nations, international organizations, or affiliated agencies of international organizations that are politically motivated and are intended to penalize or otherwise limit commercial relations specifically with Israel or person doing business in Israel or in Israeli-controlled territories.” The reference to “Israeli-controlled territories” is a clear nod to Israel’s settlements.
Senator Cardin’s amendment represents an about-face on the use of boycotts at a time when lawmakers like himself have proven unwilling to hold Israel accountable for its routine violations of U.S. and international law. During Senator Cardin’s opening remarks during the mark-up, he seemed to contradict the spirit and intent of his own amendment, saying, “I think it’s critically important that the provisions that are included in here for good governance and respect for international human rights need to be a principle trade objective.”
In the end Senator Cardin’s amendment passed in committee by a vote of 26 to 0. A day later, the house passed Rep. Roskam’s amendment in the House Ways and Means Committee after an at times testy debate.
Questionable Process Raises Protest
In addition, the Senate Finance Committee’s own consideration of the amendments and related legislation have directly contradicted the good governance principles that many members of the committee have espoused.
For example, right before the mark-up on Wednesday, the committee moved its proceedings to a much smaller committee room in order to exclude the members of the public from attending. The text of the legislation being considered has been withheld from the public in a highly unusual move that’s arousing suspicions across the political spectrum. For more than a week, the legislation and related amendments were kept secret in ways that some insiders say is unprecedented.
Even some Members of Congress were perplexed on Thursday when Roskam’s amendment in the House was introduced without prior notice. Consideration of the amendment sparked a debate (1:24:00) among members who appeared confused about what was happening and frustrated that this particular amendment appeared to be singled out for special treatment. Representative Lloyd Doggett wondered why this was allowed in when the human trafficking amendment was excluded. Representative Jim McDermott followed up and challenged the double-standard being applied to the AIPAC-backed amendment. After some typical pro-Israel platitudes, Representative Bill Pascrell remarked, “this amendment is really ambiguous, at best. You know, we mentioned how many times…we mentioned the words delicate balance throughout the day, gotta keep that delicate balance. You proclaim this and you insert this as a requirement. What about public health? What about labor? What about food safety? Aren’t they as critical as what we’re talking about here? We couldn’t get some other things done, but we can get this done? It doesn’t make sense, where’s the delicate balance we’re talking about?”
Once it became clear that Senator Cardin’s amendment was being offered, a diverse range of groups organized a flood of opposition on Tuesday and Wednesday. Senate offices reported a very large volume of calls in opposition. When one constituent asked the staffer about the split, the staff member said nearly all the calls were in opposition to the amendment.
In a statement released by Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), Rabbi Joseph Berman, JVP’s Federal Policy Organizer noted that:
“This legislation, which actually encourages illegal settlement building while strengthening the far right in Israel, shows that BDS is an increasingly powerful means to challenge Israel’s impunity when it comes to Palestinian rights. We urge Congress to reject this legislation.”
Senator Cardin was also criticized by Yousef Munayyer, who wrote in The Baltimore Sun:
“BDS is a legitimate, non-violent way for civil society and states to press Israel to comply with international law and end its human rights abuses. Boycott, as determined by the U.S. Supreme Court, is a constitutionally protected form of free expression.”
Even J Street chimed in to oppose the proposal also saying that the legislation defends Israeli settlement building. The J Street statement reads in part:
J Street is adamantly opposed to the Global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement. We’ve worked consistently, particularly on college campuses, to oppose BDS efforts that are often thinly-veiled attempts to delegitimize Israel.
We view the Roskam-Vargas “U.S.-Israel Trade and Commercial Enhancement Act” (H.R.825) as not simply unhelpful to the effort to combat Global BDS, but contrary to longstanding US policy opposing settlement of the territory occupied by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War.
In particular, the bill perpetuates and validates one of the BDS movement’s most harmful fallacies: that Israel and the territory it occupies in the West Bank should be treated as one and the same. . .
The current stalemate in diplomatic progress toward a two-state solution has led some groups to pursue more limited boycotts or divestment initiatives in opposition to only the occupation and not Israel itself. These “targeted” efforts do not call for a boycott of Israel itself or Israeli goods, but of settlement products, unlike the all-encompassing boycott of Israel promoted by the global BDS Movement.
While J Street does not participate in such targeted boycott or divestment initiatives, we do not believe it is productive or appropriate for the United States government to spend time and resources preventing or reporting on such efforts. In fact, this legislation would actually put the US in the awkward position of making it easier—by reducing potential liabilities— for companies to conduct commercial or related activity in occupied territory that is expanding and deepening the very settlement enterprise that the US opposes.
What Comes Next
Although Senator Cardin and Representative Roskam’s efforts received widespread support from the respective committees, these misguided proposals could backfire and or be stripped from the bill later on in the legislative process. Many may remember the stunning defeat of anti-boycott legislation in a number of different states following the American Studies Association’s decision to boycott Israeli institutions complicit in the occupation. In that case, groups in states from New York to Illinois roundly defeated state-based legislative initiatives aimed at curbing free speech on campuses.
As lawmakers negotiate how the measures will be considered before the full House and Senate, the special treatment these amendments received could prove to be their undoing. If the legislation does in fact pass in its current form, it would set a dangerous precedent for free speech and solidify the United States’ role as the chief enabler of Israel’s occupation.