Senate Bill 720, the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, (and its twin in the House of Representatives, Bill 1697), are currently wending their ways through the national legislative process with all the usual front and backroom big money pressure from AIPAC, StandWithUs, and Co., as well as pushback from the less financially endowed citizenry. S. 720 is part of a host of national and state level legislation that seeks to suppress criticism of Israeli policy, to destroy BDS, the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction movement (as anti-Semitic hate speech dangerous to Israel), and to erase Palestinian history and narrative. Washington Senator Maria Cantwell who claims to support freedom of speech and human rights, is a cosponsor of S. 720 and we have a problem with that.
Six constituents (including myself) met with an outreach staffer in Seattle on September 7. We are activist Jews, a Unitarian, an Episcopalian, and an Anglican; we are a building contractor, doctor, Palestinian educator, psychologist, and folks active on community and social justice issues. Most of us have had personal experiences bearing witness and working in Israel/Palestine. The staffer was welcoming, interested, but clearly not well versed in the topic, as that is the turf of the DC office. So we started with the basics.
Cantwell claims that S. 720 is narrower than opponents of the bill have stated, and she is unfortunately mistaken, most likely bending to the talking points furnished by AIPAC and Co. The Israel Anti-Boycott Act amends the Export Administration Act (EAA), passed in 1979 in response to the Arab League boycott of Israel.
According to the ACLU: That law prohibits “U.S. persons” — a term that refers to both individuals and companies — from taking certain actions to comply with or support a boycott imposed by a foreign country against another country that is friendly to the United States.
The 1979 law responded to the Arab League’s boycott of Israel. At the time, countries in the Arab League would require U.S. businesses to boycott Israel and Israeli companies, and furnish information to verify the boycott, as a condition of doing business. To prevent foreign countries from dragooning U.S. businesses into these compulsory boycotts, the 1979 law prohibited U.S. companies from complying with foreign boycott requirements.
EAA prohibits US persons who are doing business, from boycotting a “friendly country.” (Friendly is not defined… are we talking France? Saudi Arabia? Philippines? Is Israel really friendly when it flaunts US demands to halt settlement construction, opposes the Iran deal, humiliates Obama, trashes Palestinian Prime Minister Abbas, the presumptive other “peace partner”?). EAA also prohibits the “furnishing of information” about US business persons’ relationships in the boycotted country. S. 720 takes this further.
Written in response to the UN Human Rights Council March 2016 resolution which called for a database of companies working in the occupied Palestinian territories, the bill’s statement of policy claims that these policies are part of BDS activities against Israel. The new bill prohibits US persons from boycotting Israel and Israeli businesses including in the territories, in response to calls from international governmental organizations like the UN and EU. It would make even requesting information about businesses in relation to boycott activities illegal.
Now let’s remember that the construction of Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem, the Israeli colonization and industrial development of the West Bank, and the extraction of resources are all illegal according to international law and this is not controversial outside the United States. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and even the Israeli group Peace Now have made similar calls for boycott of settlement products. According to a Brookings Institute poll, 60% of Democrats and 46% of all Americans support sanctions or stronger action against Israel because of settlement construction.
Senator Cantwell states, “Any allegation that this bill creates potential criminal or civil liability for individuals or organizations refusing to do business with Israel for these reasons is incorrect.”
Senator, this is just not factual. I know you have your hands full with Trump and DACA and North Korea, and Harvey and Irma, but did you actually read the bill?
According to the ACLU: The bill states that violators shall be fined in accordance with the penalties laid out in Section 206 of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act. That section provides that violations are punishable by a civil penalty that could reach $250,000 and that willful violations are subject to criminal prosecution, which could result in a fine of up to $1 million and 20 years in prison.
By expanding from boycott calls from foreign governments to calls from the UN or human rights groups, the bill explicitly attacks political speech. So it’s Passover, you’re thinking about liberation, and you would really like to honor the UN call to avoid settlement products plus you are feeling a little squirmy about the upswing in settlement building. You would rather not buy Israeli wines that are grown in vineyards on occupied land. So you search the web or post a question on Facebook requesting information…That request could make you vulnerable to a fine of up to $1 million and 20 years in prison. And even if it doesn’t happen to you or your Uncle Morris, there is a definite chilling of the political environment and the very real risk of self-censorship, a First Amendment harm.
Now put this in the context of more than 20 state legislatures working to criminalize BDS in the US, governors organizing campaigns opposing BDS, (including our Governor Jay Inslee), the muzzling and attacks on US campuses of students and professors, the frenzy of activity in Hillel’s to train students to stand up uncritically for Israeli policy and denounce BDS, similar activities amongst Christian Zionists, a proliferation of McCarthyesque groups like Canary Mission, and the rightward swing under the current administration, and we are on a slippery slope.
We explained the BDS call to the staffer, the difference between Judaism (the religion), Jews (the people, cultural group, lovers of matzoh balls, ironic self-deprecating jokes, Iraqi food, Ladino, you make the definition), and Israel (the state) and why criticizing the policies of the state is different from anti-Semitism. We explained that as Jews and Christians and social justice activists concerned with the well-being and future for Palestinians as well as Jewish Israelis, that after decades of failed wars, UN resolutions, peace processes, violent resistance, peaceful village protests, dialogue groups, etc., the BDS call is the most hopeful nonviolent resistance movement that has captured the hearts and imagination of many in the international community. As those of us who have traveled to the region know, it is clear that Israel has destroyed much of the Palestinian economy on the West Bank, totally crippled Gaza, created a second class disadvantaged status for Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, and thrown off any responsibility for the growing refugee crisis that now numbers millions of people waiting in limbo for a resolution to their displacement and loss of land.
Huda Giddens, a Palestinian whose family fled Jerusalem and Haifa in 1947-1948, pointed out that the Israeli government demanded compensation from Germany and other countries for the losses of Jews who were forced to flee. While she has no plans to return, she does recognize her right of return and demands compensation for her family’s extensive property. She brought a folder full of the original documents proving her claims. After the ’48 war, the Israeli government passed the Absentee Property Law and claimed that any property not inhabited at the time became the property of the state. She has never been able to return.
Thus the discussion turned to issues of ethnic cleansing, growing Israeli apartheid behavior, of the moral questions facing the US which is supporting the occupation and multiple violations of human rights. These are basic issues of equity, justice, and compassion.
Senator Cantwell, we are asking you to reconsider. Study the on-the-ground and historical realities that highlight the experiences of Palestinians as well as Jewish Israelis. Think about the historic role of the US as a defender of human rights, think about what we have learned from the study of our own indigenous peoples and our civil rights movements. We have been told you are “not a slave to AIPAC,” that you support human rights and freedom of speech.
Even if you do not feel comfortable supporting the BDS movement, let’s start with defending our First Amendment rights at home. Withdraw your sponsorship to S. 720. And then learn more about the issue of Israel/Palestine with a truly open mind. We would be happy to send you more resources and meet with you in the future. We are your constituents. That’s what democracy is all about.