In Congress, Democrats and Republicans are trying to attach an anti-boycott bill to a mega-trade deal involving Europe and the U.S. In Tennessee and Indiana, state officials have passed a resolution criticizing the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement as anti-Semitic. And in Illinois, state legislators look set to approve an anti-BDS law requiring state pensions to divest funds from companies that boycott or divest from Israel.
It all adds up to a sustained attack on the BDS movement in the U.S. The methods differ: some are mere resolutions expressing an opinion, while others have teeth. But they are all united in seeking to stigmatize the BDS movement as beyond the pale.
The moves are part of a nationwide effort to halt a movement that has had symbolic success on college campuses, and some concrete success in forcing foundations and churches to divest from corporations that do business with the Israeli military. BDS has not succeeded in isolating Israel. But pro-Israel officials in the U.S. want to stop it before it gets close to harming the state.
The Congressional initiative, backed by the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), has attracted the most attention. In February, Representatives Peter Roskam, a Republican from Illinois, and Juan Vargas, a California Democrat, introduced the Israel Trade and Commercial Enhancement Act. It is designed to be attached to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, a major free trade deal with the European Union.
The legislation would require the U.S. to discourage European trade partners from boycotting Israeli products–even if they are made in West Bank settlements, products that EU nations have targeted. The amendment has passed committees in the House and the Senate. Earlier last week week, Senate Democrats held up moving forward on the trade deal votes. But a day later, the Senate struck a deal with Obama to allow votes on a number of trade related bills, paving the way for the EU trade deal to be debated and voted on eventually–BDS amendments included.
The measures have been harshly criticized by activists for Palestinian rights. Writing in The Hill, Jewish Voice for Peace’s Naomi Dann said the bill “would legislate support for Israel’s illegal settlements and would impede efforts to apply non-violent pressure on Israel to change its discriminatory policies towards Palestinians.”
Liberal Zionist groups opposed to BDS are also opposed to the Congressional effort because of legislative language that would, in a first, put the U.S. government on the record as recognizing Israeli control of the West Bank.
Meanwhile, state-level efforts targeting the BDS movement are moving ahead.
The Tennessee House and Senate have passed a resolution that declares the BDS movement to be “one of the main vehicles for spreading anti-Semitism and advocating the elimination of the Jewish state.” JNS.org reported that a Christian Zionist activist was initially behind the resolution.
The Indiana House and Senate have passed a similar resolution. The Indiana bill has been harshly criticized by a coalition of groups including the National Lawyers Guild, Palestine Solidarity Legal Support and Jewish Voice for Peace.
“While ostensibly opposing anti-Semitism, it erroneously conflates criticism of Israeli policies and practices toward Palestinians with hatred of Jewish people,” the coalition wrote in a letter to Indiana Governor Michael Pence, who is expected to sign the bill. “In its intolerance for political advocacy that it clearly misunderstands, the Resolution threatens to chill protected speech by intimidating people who wish to criticize Israel’s behavior toward Palestinians.”
The Illinois measure on state pensions, which has passed the state Senate, is now being debated in the House. This measure, like the Congressional one, is a law with some teeth. The legislation requires pension funds to stop investing money in foreign companies that have boycotted Israel.
In a statement, Palestine Solidarity Legal Support said that the bill forces “pension fund administrators to blacklist companies that boycott Israel or businesses that operate in ‘territories under the control of Israel.’ Illinois should not be shielding Israel from boycotts protesting human rights abuses and settlements, which are illegal under international law in what is considered occupied territory by the U.S. government.”
Dima Khalidi, the director of Palestine Solidarity Legal Support, told me in an e-mail that one of the dangers of the Illinois bill is that it would have a “chilling” effect “not only on companies that would consider making ethical business decisions, but also on people who advocate for such decisions. When the state takes a policy position such as this, it is telling people what the state believes is acceptable discourse and political activity, thereby dissuading viewpoints that are contrary to that.”
These efforts are looking to be more successful than the previous wave of anti-boycott bills that were debated after the American Studies Association voted to boycott Israel in late 2013. Many of those bills did not get support from pro-Israel lobby groups because of concerns over academic freedom and free speech, though. This crop of legislation has garnered more support from traditional bastions of pro-Israel advocacy.
After an Illinois committee passed the anti-BDS bill, the Jewish group B’nai Brith International applauded the state representatives in a statement for “taking such a strong stance against a movement rooted in anti-Semitism that ultimately impedes the peace process by opposing constructive dialogue between Israel and Palestinians.”