‘Pummeled’ at town hall, Sen. Wyden says Israel Anti Boycott law is needed because ‘movement has grown’

US Politics
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Recent days have brought unmistakable signs that Israel is becoming a hot potato issue inside the Democratic base, and on Saturday Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon was repeatedly put on the defensive at a town hall at a Portland high school for his support of the Anti Israel Boycott Act, which would criminalize some forms of supporting boycott of Israel.

Wyden, who has a reputation for supporting civil rights, got flustered by hecklers and questioners. He said that he was “pummeled” by the matter and sought to assure the audience  the law protects free speech and only applies to support for a foreign government’s boycott. “Say like the Arab League. If you’re working with foreign government, that’s essentially what we restricted in the past.”

A young person challenged the senator, to applause:

“What’s the impetus behind the bill? What are the behaviors that merited this bill’s existence?”

Wyden said:

I believe the concern is that the boycott movement has grown. I happen to believe that there is a line to be drawn between protecting the rights of the individuals, that’s why I described all the things that I’ve researched that a person can do that speak to your First Amendment rights. I think that’s different than being part of a boycott with the Arab League, that’s the distinction.

Later Wyden conceded that the bill could also apply to a boycott measure urged by the United Nations.

The Israeli government and pro-Israel lobby groups here have expressed fears about the growth of the boycott movement (BDS). Leaders of the boycott campaign say that it has gained traction because of Israel’s own conduct, including maintaining an occupation for 50 years and colonizing Palestinian areas with illegal settlements.

Wyden stressed that as a journalist’s son, he had made sure that 7 or 8 traditional forms of free expression are protected by the bill. The bill is based on a forty year history of anti-boycott legislation, for which “nobody has ever gone to jail.” Wyden was referring to laws against complying with the Arab League boycott of Israel passed by Congress in the ’70s.

The Israel angle dominated news coverage of Wyden’s town hall. “Wyden pressed on Israeli anti-boycott legislation, talks healthcare at Wilson High,” says the Oregonian.  While the Portland Tribune headline says, “Wyden defends support of Israel boycott proposal: ‘no one has gone to jail’.” Jewish Insider and Haaretz have also grabbed the story.

The pushback against Wyden follows two Democratic senators going wobbly on Israel. Last week NY Senator Kirsten Gillibrand took her name off the anti-boycott legislation. She was promptly targeted by the Israel lobby group AIPAC; but when a questioner mentioned her stance at the Wyden town hall, Gillibrand got applause.

Also last week NJ Senator Cory Booker voted against a pro-Israel bill to cut off money to the Palestinian Authority over its support for families of people who have violently resisted the occupation.

Even Israel advocates have said there is a political calculus in these moves. “Democrats Who Want to be President Back Away from Israel” was the headline at the National Review, by Jonathan Tobin. While Noah Pollak the writer formerly associated with the Emergency Committee for Israel said Booker was making “a political decision — a choice to associate himself with the Linda Sarsour wing of the party, which he believes is ascendant.”

The Linda Sarsour wing was out in force at Wilson High School in Portland on Saturday. While Wyden was cheered for helping to block the destruction of Obamacare and the senator took a progressive stance against the Trump administration on immigration and healthcare, he got four or five questions on the Anti-Israel Boycott Act, which is opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union as a violation of the First Amendment.

Here are some of the exchanges from the Oregonian’s tape:

Wyden asks a questioner what sign he is holding, and the man says it says, “I support Palestinian human rights.” The man then challenges Wyden, “Congress as you know should be vigilant in protecting First Amendment rights. In this case, you don’t seem to be. I’d ask you to uphold my First Amendment rights by removing your name as a cosponsor of Senate bill 720.”

Supporters of Palestinian rights at the Ron Wyden town hall in Portland. Photograph by Lyndsey Hewitt of the Portland Tribune.

That question gets a big round of applause, and Wyden says, “This is exactly what town hall meetings are for,” then adds, “I happen to be one of the strong supporters of the two-state solution.”

It sounds like he gets booed or mocked for that, and a woman calls out, “Get to the point!”

Wyden responds by describing what “you can and can’t do” if the bill is passed. You still have free speech, he says. As the son of a journalist, “I do not take a back seat to anybody in terms of fighting for the First Amendment.”

As we have read the bill, it means that anybody in this audience can boycott Israeli products or say they intend to boycott Israeli products… If you want to pull out your cell phone… you are completely free to tweet about supporting the BDS [boycott, divestment and sanctions] program. You can post any criticism of Israel on your Facebook page, write an op-ed about your views for a newspaper, walk up and down your street with a megaphone, organize a big picnic in your back yard…

He states that the bill “doesn’t prevent or punish anyone who makes those choices,” and he’s researched the limits of the bill by “talking to scholars.”

As for what you can’t do under the law, Wyden then refers to 40 years of legislation to prevent compliance with boycotts of Israel.

What you can’t do under the bill, and it builds on 40 years long, is you can’t work with a foreign government to promote the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions legislation. In that sense it builds on a 40 year law…. That’s my take, and I spent a lot of time dissecting this…

Wyden continues to get pushback from several other questioners.

“I believe I speak for many of your constituents who are very concerned,” one says. “The bill you are referring to has been interpreted by constitutional experts including the ACLU as unconstitutional. How could you possibly support a bill that is so questionable in its constitutionality…. We urge you to do as Kirsten Gilllibrand has just done… remove your endorsement of this bill.”

As Gillibrand is cheered, Wyden protests, “She didn’t support it in its current form. She didn’t say she opposed it altogether.”

Later, Wyden appears to vacillate somewhat. He tells the audience “Let’s stay at it” to generate more information about the bill. “Let’s try and find out more information.”

He insists that, “No one has said Gee that’s wrong.”

More hecklers. “The ACLU!”

“The ACLU is opposed to the bill, but they haven’t said [unintelligible],” Wyden adds.

Wyden said he had researched the history of the law barring compliance with the Arab boycott of Israel and found that “nobody has ever gone to jail” for supporting boycott of Israel.

Another questioner pushes back against Wyden’s answer, saying, to considerable applause:

The ACLU does directly contradict things you’ve said on stage today. If the UN Human Rights Council calls for a boycott of Israeli settlements, I would face criminal penalties of up to 20 years in prison. That is not acceptable… It’s also Moveon, it’s J Street, it’s Jewish Voice for Peace…. Our free speech is jeopardized.

Wyden seems to quail.

We have asked repeatedly from all sources for information about how anyone has faced jail, criminal penalties like jail, and no one has been able to give us one example.

Hecklers shout responses, and Wyden gets nettled.

Whoa whoa…It’s built on a 40-year law sir… Let me make you an invitation, If you got an example of how somebody was put in jail under this..

The questioner points out that he’s talking about an existing law, and the Congress is seeking to amend the law, to change that.

Wyden wants to change the subject:

I have I think probably at least for purposes of today pummelled everything that I can say. I would invite you and welcome your input. We’ve had a law on the books for 40 years that prevents American commercial activity from participating in concerted boycotts led by foreign governments and I guess it could involve the U.N. But we cannot find one instance of anybody being put in jail.

Ron Wyden is Jewish and his parents escaped Nazi Germany. He cited this background during discussions of the Iran Deal, which he supported, though he expressed concerns about Iran’s alleged threat to destroy Israel.

About Philip Weiss

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

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45 Responses

  1. Annie Robbins
    August 7, 2017, 4:16 pm

    since we’ve had a law on the books for 40 years that prevents American commercial activity from participating in concerted boycotts led by foreign governments, why do we need this new legislation? bds is not led by a foreign government.

    If you want to pull out your cell phone… you are completely free to tweet about supporting the BDS [boycott, divestment and sanctions] program. You can post any criticism of Israel on your Facebook page, write an op-ed about your views for a newspaper, walk up and down your street with a megaphone, organize a big picnic in your back yard…

    we already know that. he’s evading. boycotts are protected speech under the first amendment.

    While Noah Pollak the writer formerly associated with the Emergency Committee for Israel said Booker was making “a political decision — a choice to associate himself with the Linda Sarsour wing of the party

    this cracks me up! now the sanders wing is “the linda sarsour wing”!! stated as a smear, as if people will back away from being associated with her. big fail in logic there.

    • patrickb57
      August 7, 2017, 4:41 pm

      How cynical the Senator is. If no one has been jailed (was anyone prosecuted?), then why the need for the bill? Is it merely to score points with AIPAC and Jewish constituents? Assuring the audience that no one has gone to jail for boycotting Israel doesn’t guarantee that our First Amendment rights will not be infringed.

      • JWalters
        August 7, 2017, 10:38 pm

        Wyden weasled his way around the topic. My thanks to the American citizens who cornered him with the facts!

    • genesto
      August 8, 2017, 12:23 pm

      If there truly IS a Sarsour wing of the Democratic Party, I’M BACK IN !!

    • Misterioso
      August 8, 2017, 3:43 pm

      @Annie Robbins

      Breaking news!!!

      http://www.haaretz.com/us-news/1.805759

      Haaretz, August 8/17

      “U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren Comes Out Against anti-BDS Bill”
      By Amir Tibon

      EXCERPTS:

      ” ‘I think the boycott is wrong, but I think outlawing protected free speech activity violates our basic constitution,’ she says.”

      “U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, one of the leading progressive voices within the Democratic Party, said on Monday that she opposes the controversial Israel Anti-Boycott Act. Civil rights groups have warned that the bill could hurt free speech by imposing penalties on U.S. citizens for supporting boycotts of Israel and the settlements.”

    • JanetB
      August 9, 2017, 10:06 am

      Support for equality, international law and human rights should be the concern of all people not just the far left.

  2. festus
    August 7, 2017, 4:44 pm

    He fears AIPAC and the rest of The Lobby a lot more than he fears his constituents.

  3. Ossinev
    August 7, 2017, 4:46 pm

    His “take ” appears to be some sort of knee jerk conflation of BDS with the Arab League Boycott legislation which specifically relates to the actions of “foreign governments”. As you have rightly pointed out Annie BDS is not led by a foreign government and so called “Democrats” who are supporting this unconstitutional Bill when challenged are frantically clutching at straws to justify their support for it.

    • ritzl
      August 8, 2017, 5:26 pm

      Agree.

      A) Even if BDS was lead by a foreign government, political speech cannot be restricted in the US. Period. It doesn’t matter who initiates or leads it. If you agree, you can say/do it.

      B) The anti-boycott law aimed at the Arab League boycott is concerned with restraint of trade as a requirement for doing business. Completely regulate-able commercial focus. This anti-BDS legislation is completely different. It’s telling individuals/citizens what they can and cannot do of their own volition in support of a political epiphany/goal.

  4. festus
    August 7, 2017, 5:23 pm

    Anyone signing an AIPAC drafted Act should receive no votes. We need to create that kind of climate.

  5. just
    August 7, 2017, 6:14 pm

    “… I believe the concern is that the boycott movement has grown. …”

    Hallelujah!

    “Son of a journalist” gives him cred wrt “free speech”? LOL.

    Another disappointing doofus for Israel first.

    • Annie Robbins
      August 7, 2017, 6:40 pm

      speaking of hallelujahs — did you read the national review coverage phil linked to? http://www.nationalreview.com/article/450209/cory-booker-kirsten-gillibrand-move-left-signal-palestinian-sympathies

      wow, the author jonathan tobin launches off claiming

      influence of the far left is the only thing that might explain why Booker and Gillibrand are presenting themselves to their party’s base as less than fully supportive of Israel.

      then he writes it’s the “left-wing grassroots” of the party that’s changing views towards isreal;

      The left-wing grass roots of the Democratic party are increasingly hostile to Israel, something that became clear in 2012 when the delegates at the Democratic National Convention revolted against their leadership’s efforts to include in the party platform a recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The delegates booed loudly and rejected the measure in a voice vote while the convention chairman ignored the crowd and declared that the measure had passed. The spectacle was a benchmark moment.

      and finally, towards the end:

      Democrats growing split over Israel

      so we go from far left, to grassroots of the party to a split party. and then to top it off:

      edging away from Israel in order to be more attractive to the voters who might decide the next Democratic presidential nomination.

      voters who might decide the next dem nominee? that’s sounding more and more like the majority of the party to me. but he still calls these people “radicals”! you can’t be in the majority and radical at the same time, can you?

      it was only the heavy-handed tactics of the Democratic establishment and its super-delegate rules that dragged the more centrist Clinton over the party’s finish line in 2016. All the energy within the party was on the left.

      ;)

      the left, the far left, the radical left, the grassroots left… call them what you will, are the center (the heart) of the party, the anti-democractic establishment dems just won’t give up the power.

      • JWalters
        August 7, 2017, 10:52 pm

        It sounded to me that Gillibrand may have been motivated by facts, integrity, and courage. America needs a president with the inner strength to stand up to Israel. After all, if Israel were a company and the US its customer, then based on its advertising and actions Israel would properly be considered a lying, thieving, gang of pirates – lying to the American public, stealing American nuclear secrets and materials, slaughtering and plundering the innocent people of Palestine, and sabotaging America’s foreign policy in the Mideast.

      • RoHa
        August 8, 2017, 12:23 am

        “the left, the far left, the radical left, the grassroots left… call them what you will,”

        It’s US politics, so I’ll call them the extreme-but-not-quite-loony right.

      • ritzl
        August 8, 2017, 5:29 pm

        “might” decide…

        Sounds ominous. :)

  6. Scott
    August 7, 2017, 10:20 pm

    http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/a-radical-option-for-trump-on-middle-east-peace/
    Here’s a piece on the subject. Range of comments different from here, obviously, but interesting

  7. Paranam Kid
    August 8, 2017, 7:14 am

    1. To date I have not heard/read 1 single, cogent reason as to what about BDS it is that is antisemitic
    2. Why has that 40 year law that prohibits U.S. companies from furthering or supporting the boycott of Israel sponsored by the Arab League, and certain other countries, not been repealed? It was fine to engage in that sort of activity against former apartheid South Africa, now it is fine w.r.t. Russia or Iran. Why is Israel exceptional, when it has racism enshrined in its law, whereas Russia & Iran do not.

    What seems to be missing in the Israel-Palestine debate in the US is the absence of calling on anti-BDS’ers to expound the objectionable part of BDS, and the challenge of lawmakers about why Israel is exceptional and therefore deserves special protection.

  8. AddictionMyth
    August 8, 2017, 8:41 am

    Wyden is pretty good on civil liberties and I see this as an uncharacteristic aberration. Here he’s aggressively attacking government ability to intercept communications of foreign targets –
    https://www.cato.org/events/future-surveillance-reform-repeal-or-renewal-section-702

    So I think we need to give him credit for his support for civil liberties and simply help him to understand that this is a real threat, not just empty rhetoric. He’ll come around. Rand Paul (who he did the panel with) says that he can’t see how this bill could possibly be constitutional. So – just get the two talking again!

  9. retired
    August 8, 2017, 9:30 am

    Here in Oregon Wyden is referred to as New York’s third Senator. His base in Portland is more radical than he is, and the state and local Democratic machine is at best lukewarm about him, despite the national attention he has gathered on civil liberties. Congressman Blumenhauer from Portland is in the seat Wyden used to have, is a Sanders progressive, against this bill, supportive of the Iran deal while Wyden was really on the fence, and could be a challenger, particularly since he’s seen as representing Portland, not New York.

  10. hophmi
    August 8, 2017, 9:32 am

    Most Senators, including Wyden, understand that the BDS community would restrict the First Amendment rights of Israel supporters if they could. So they lack all credibility to raise First Amendment concerns here.

    • Annie Robbins
      August 8, 2017, 10:04 am

      the ‘you lack credibility cuz you would do the same thing if you could’ defense — sans sourcing or an iota of evidence. #fail

      • Mooser
        August 8, 2017, 1:51 pm

        “Hophmi” has become a sort of Zionist parrot lately. Every so often he screeches one of a small stock of phrases he knows. He’s only a bird in a guilted cage.

        A mere shadow of his former self. Here flies free! The brilliant “The Phils Will Fall Away”

      • Annie Robbins
        August 8, 2017, 4:42 pm

        true, a mere shadow. but but, i mean, how many of those “Phil has internalized anti-Jewish hatred” comments could he possibly write? shh, we shouldn’t kick up the dust.

      • Mooser
        August 8, 2017, 5:38 pm

        ” how many of those “Phil has internalized anti-Jewish hatred” comments could he possibly write?”

        Wordsearch “Phil” in “Hophmi’s comment archive. A whole lot.

    • Elizabeth Block
      August 8, 2017, 10:38 am

      Nonsense. Wouldn’t if we could, couldn’t if we would.

    • John O
      August 8, 2017, 10:57 am

      OK, hophmi, let’s compromise; we’ll stop telling the truth about Israel if Israel stops telling ies about us.

    • Misterioso
      August 8, 2017, 3:46 pm

      @hophmi

      Sigh.
      Give us a break. Shut up!! You just keep digging your hole deeper.

    • eljay
      August 8, 2017, 10:54 pm

      || hophmi: Most Senators, including Wyden, understand that the BDS community would restrict the First Amendment rights of Israel supporters if they could. So they lack all credibility to raise First Amendment concerns here. ||

      I wonder if most senators, including Wyden, understand that Israel supporters would restrict the First Amendment rights of the BDS community if they could. So they lack all credibility to raise First Amendment concerns.

    • Sibiriak
      August 9, 2017, 2:20 am

      hophmi: […]BDS community would restrict the First Amendment rights of Israel supporters if they could. So they lack all credibility to raise First Amendment concerns here.
      ———————-

      Even if that were true–and it isn’t– the validity of any First Amendment concerns is completely independent of the “credibility” of those raising the concerns. (Two wrongs don’t make a right.)

    • a blah chick
      August 9, 2017, 11:12 am

      “… the BDS community would restrict the First Amendment rights of Israel supporters if they could.”

      hopmi, you are a treasure trove of self-owns.

  11. Elizabeth Block
    August 8, 2017, 10:41 am

    When politicians, about to pass a law forbidding or restricting or punishing — , tell you, “Oh, it will only be used against —,” or “Oh, it’s not intended to do —,” they are prevaricating or worse. If a government gives itself the power to do something, eventually if not sooner it will use that power.

  12. amigo
    August 8, 2017, 12:01 pm

    Big news.

    “U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren Comes Out Against anti-BDS Bill

    ‘I think the boycott is wrong, but I think outlawing protected free speech activity violates our basic constitution,’ she says
    read more: http://www.haaretz.com/us-news/1.805759

    Get ready Elizabeth , AIPAC is coming after you. You are now an official self hating Jew and supporter of terrorism.

    • The JillyBeans
      August 10, 2017, 10:53 pm

      Warren is so wrong. BDS is the most humane way to get change. No one dies. Doesn’t cost a penny.

  13. James Canning
    August 8, 2017, 1:00 pm

    The senator from Oregon should be able to comprehend that BDS movement can be a good thing for Israel. Surely he understands the effort by Aipac et al. to suppress free speech in the US, to facilitate Israel’s endless occupation of the West Bank.

  14. henspert
    August 8, 2017, 8:47 pm

    I think the progressive community can make a serious impact here by contacting President Trump and asking him to Veto it. Get him to make a statement that any such bill that threatens Free Speech that he will veto it! Robert

    Jewish Voice for Peace – If Not Now – Americans United for Palestinian Human Rights AUPHR SUPER Students United for Palestinian Human Rights etc… Universalist Unitarians, Quakers of which I practice Quakerism…

  15. mcohen..
    August 9, 2017, 4:48 am

    BDS puts both sides under the spotlight and given the Palestinian track record of murder and corruption I would say that anti BDS legislation draws much needed attention to Palestinian policies.a good example is paying the families of martyrs salaries.
    this had now led to accusations of incitement by western countries who are calling for an end to this practice.
    by shutting down qatari support and money from western donors BDS has become a double edged sword.

    https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-congress-palestinians-idUSKBN1AJ34R

    perhaps someone can explain this taylor act.quiet confusing for jubby

    • a blah chick
      August 9, 2017, 11:20 am

      I find it quite touching that you care about monies going to the innocent family members of dead or imprisoned Palestinian attackers. How about Israel paying Palestinians compensation for crimes committed by Israelis? And, yes, it’s true that the PA is corrupt but at least they didn’t have a president go to jail for rape.

    • DavidDaoud
      August 11, 2017, 9:09 am

      MCohen, if you knew a fraction of what I know about Palestinians, based on personal experience, you wouldn’t be so cruel.
      One compassionate act of Saddam Hussein of Iraq was to pay for rebuilding Palestinian homes destroyed by Israel. Of course that’s one reason why Israel wanted him eliminated.

      I once slept overnight in one such home just outside Balata refugee camp near Nablus. My friend’s father had been a resistance fighter during the first Intifada and was unfortunately killed.

    • LHunter
      August 12, 2017, 6:26 pm

      mcohen – yup BDS puts both sides under the spotlight. One side asks that the light be brighter – the other side tries to shut the light off with anti BDS legislation.

      Wonder why?

  16. Vernon Huffman
    August 10, 2017, 12:24 am

    If Ron “the Weasel” Wyden is concerned about Americans being influenced by foreign powers, perhaps he should insist that AIPAC, who bill themselves as “Israel’s lobby,” register as the agent of a foreign power.

  17. The JillyBeans
    August 10, 2017, 10:52 pm

    Ron Wyden loses credibility by the hour. The fact that we have to remind him so frequently that he is a senator for Oregonians in the US Senate, not Israel is beyond sad. If he wants to be a Zionist he should resign and take up that full time, but he doesn’t belong in the legislative branch if his first worry is for another country.

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