There is only one story in the news, for followers of the Israel/Palestine conflict, and that is Glenn Greenwald and Ryan Grim’s report at the Intercept yesterday on new legislation in the Congress that would criminalize support for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS). Yes, criminalize.
The bill is such a crude example of overreach by the Israel lobby that it is sure to backfire on its supporters as Greenwald and Grim’s report ricochets around the Democratic Party:
But now, a group of 43 senators — 29 Republicans and 14 Democrats — wants to implement a law that would make it a felony for Americans to support the international boycott against Israel, which was launched in protest of that country’s decades-old occupation of Palestine. The two primary sponsors of the bill are Democrat Ben Cardin of Maryland and Republican Rob Portman of Ohio. Perhaps the most shocking aspect is the punishment: Anyone guilty of violating the prohibitions will face a minimum civil penalty of $250,000 and a maximum criminal penalty of $1 million and 20 years in prison.
The proposed measure, called the Israel Anti-Boycott Act (S. 720), was introduced by Cardin on March 23. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reports that the bill “was drafted with the assistance of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.” Indeed, AIPAC, in its 2017 lobbying agenda, identified passage of this bill as one of its top lobbying priorities for the year:
The bill’s co-sponsors include the senior Democrat in Washington, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, his New York colleague Kirsten Gillibrand, and several of the Senate’s more liberal members, such as Ron Wyden of Oregon, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, and Maria Cantwell of Washington.
There is similar legislation in the House, also sponsored by liberal heroes.
And the ACLU has opposed the act. It writes:
The ACLU wrote to members of the Senate to urge them to oppose and refrain from co-sponsoring the Israel Anti-Boycott Act (H.R. 1697/S. 720). The impacts of the legislation would be antithetical to free speech protections enshrined in the First Amendment and we urged members to oppose the legislation in the absence of significant revisions.
The Intercept notes that it was valiant of the ACLU to oppose the measure– “Even the bravest of organizations often steadfastly avoid any controversies relating to Israel” — and then does the yeoman journalistic labor of asking liberal Congresspeople whether they accepted the ACLU position. So far, no takers!
The Intercept also documented that a lead supporter, Senator Ben Cardin, had no idea what was in his bill, “particularly insisting that it contains no criminal penalties.” The piece contains an audio of an interview with Cardin.
What I can add to this story: If anything announces that a South Africa-style struggle has come to the U.S. over Israel, this story does. BDS is a nonviolent movement to put pressure on Israel to respect Palestinian human rights; and it arose 12 years ago from Palestinian activists because governments had failed to apply that pressure. All U.S. government pressure is on Israel’s side, as this bill shows. Israel vehemently opposes BDS because BDS has been effective; it has worked to put pressure on Israel and transform the politics of Israel around the world. Witness this bill. Benjamin Netanyahu gives speeches slamming BDS over and over, as an existential threat. Because he knows BDS helped to bring down apartheid South Africa.
This bill is the work of the Israel lobby. It was drafted by one of the lead Israel-support groups, AIPAC– “one of the most powerful, and pernicious, lobbying forces in the country,” as the Intercept puts it. Greenwald and Grim raise the issue of the American people’s interest:
In what conceivable sense is it of benefit to Americans to turn them into felons for the crime of engaging in political activism in protest of a foreign nation’s government?
I would answer that question frankly by explaining that the bill is about the Israel lobby’s presence inside the Democratic Party, and therefore of the role of conservative Zionist Jews inside the Democratic Party. The efforts by many to claim that the Israel lobby is also evangelical Christians (lately Paul Pillar at Lobelog) is pure deception when it comes to the Democratic Party. Evangelical Christians don’t tell Schumer and Gillibrand how to vote on stem-cell research or abortion, and they don’t tell them how to vote on Israel either. No, the organized Jewish community does.
Older Jews tend to be huge ideological supporters of Israel. Ben Cardin goes to synagogues and tells other older Jews that Palestinian statehood is “anti-American.” Schumer has called himself the “Schomer” or guardian of Israel and said that there is a Jewish interest in supporting Israel. A year ago Stephanie Schriock of Emily’s List and JJ Goldberg of the Forward described the “gigantic” and “shocking” degree of the Democratic Party’s reliance on Jewish wealth for campaign contributions.
Ultimately, this is a story about the fight inside Jewish life over Zionism and support for Israel. I believe we will win this fight, and that this legislation will help us. The legislation will shock many civil-liberties-loving Jews. The Intercept story will force legislators to redraft the legislation.
And, most important: a diverse coalition of human-rights-loving Democrats are enraged by this legislation and are organizing against AIPAC’s role in the party. Call it the Keith Ellison wing, the Sanders wing– young Jews, young Latinos, blacks, women — they want a more progressive policy on Israel and many of them support BDS. Bernie Sanders did not attend the AIPAC conference in 2016, because his base opposed such pandering, and that base is fighting for the heart of the party.
Lastly, remember this story and the frank declaration of support for a foreign nation by legislators the next time you hear about the insidious influence of Russia in our politics. As the Intercept notes, “Among the co-sponsors of the bill are several of the politicians who have become political celebrities by positioning themselves as media leaders of the anti-Trump #Resistance, including three California House members who have become heroes to Democrats and staples of the cable news circuit: Ted Lieu, Adam Schiff, and Eric Swalwell.”
Adam Schiff is worthy of special mention, as David Bromwich points out to me. “He is among the scores of obedient Democrats co-sponsoring the bill. Schiff has a high reputation in liberal circles, but he voted for the Iraq war, supported the Saudi intervention in Yemen, said the assassination of Qaddafi was ‘an end to the first chapter of another popular revolution,’ and approved of Trump’s bombing of Syria. On foreign policy he is a believer in the conventional wisdom of the Cold War and the War on Terror, that’s all; but his opinions have taken on an outsize importance since he is now routinely accepted as the party’s outstanding authority on Russia. He knows Russia about as well as he knew Iraq and Libya.”