At two town halls late last month, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand promised to reconsider her co-sponsorship of Senate Bill 720, the Anti-Israel Boycott Act, after a number of her constituents raised free speech concerns, to rousing applause, seemingly without dissent.
At the time, Gillibrand was one of 45 co-sponsors in the Senate and 234 in the House. Since the bill was sponsored by the Israel lobby group AIPAC, it was not surprising that, despite its attack on First Amendment rights, it would receive huge support before it was widely publicized, based solely on its AIPAC pedigree. Gillibrand herself agreed with my characterization that AIPAC was a lobby with a “stranglehold” on Congress (when I approached her after a town hall).
So despite her explicit commitment to take another look at the bill, and her expressed concerns about the government of Israel and its Prime Minister’s failure to have a vision for peace, it was reasonable to question whether the junior senator from New York would ultimately find the wherewithal to resist that stranglehold.
Well, lo and behold, this past Monday, Gillibrand withdrew her co-sponsorship of the bill. According to the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights, this is the first time since its founding in 2001 that a Member of Congress has taken his or her name off an AIPAC-sponsored bill.
It did not take long for AIPAC, recognizing the historic nature of Gillibrand’s challenge, to begin to mobilize its troops against her. Here is yesterday’s email from one Brian Tregerman, AIPAC’s Director for Westchester and Riverdale, New York:
From: Brian Tregerman [REDACTED]
Date: Wed, Aug 2, 2017 at 3:56 PM
Subject: URGENT: We need your help with Senator Gillibrand
We need your help. New York’s junior Senator, Kirsten Gillibrand, has withdrawn her co-sponsorship of the Israel Anti-Boycott Act (S.720), sending a powerful message to her constituents that she no longer supports the fight to combat the international delegitimization of Israel. Please call Senator Gillibrand’s office today at (202) 224-4451, and remind her how crucial this bill is in combating the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and reaffirming Congressional support for Israel.
Script: “I am calling to urge Senator Gillibrand to add her name back as a cosponsor for the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, and reaffirm her commitment to fighting the international delegitimization of our ally, Israel.”
Below are talking points (see attached for more extensive points):
- The Israel Anti-Boycott Act (S.720) would expand existing U.S. anti-boycott laws to international governmental organizations like the United Nations and the European Union.
- Congress and the Executive branch have long combatted such attacks on our ally, Israel, including legislation enacted in the 1970s which prohibits U.S. companies from complying with unsanctioned foreign boycotts imposed by foreign governments. The new bill would also prohibit compliance with boycotts imposed by international government organizations.
- Nothing in this bill restricts constitutionally-protected free speech or limits in any way criticism of Israel or its policies, and U.S. courts have repeatedly upheld the constitutionality of this law.
- This bill is designed only to combat foreign boycotts and other harmful actions against our ally, Israel. It purposely does not seek to specify “outcomes” of a negotiated peace agreement, including the disposition of Israeli settlements.
Senator Gillibrand needs to know that her constituents are disappointed in her withdrawal of support, and are deeply committed to reminding her how important this bill is in reaffirming Congressional support for Israel. Every call truly matters.
Thank you, as always, for your activism.
Director, Westchester and Riverdale
AIPAC • American Israel Public Affairs Committee
AIPAC’s false assertion that S. 720 does not restrict or punish “constitutionally-protected free speech” is belied by the ACLU’s analysis, on which Gillibrand relied in withdrawing her support for the bill. Tregerman’s email acknowledges the “powerful message” Gillibrand’s withdrawal of co-sponsorship sends to her constituents.
AIPAC, as is its wont, mischaracterizes that message by painting Gillibrand as a possible supporter of the “international delegitimization of Israel,” but the lobby is clearly serving notice that it now considers Gillibrand an enemy for breaking ranks.
It remains to be seen whether Gillibrand has really determined to cross the Rubicon. Now that AIPAC has her in its sights, will she be willing to lead the fight to break its stranglehold on the Congress, for the sake of the Constitution, if not yet for oppressed Palestinians? If so, will any other Senators or Representatives, of either party, have the guts to join her?