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?”
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.
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.”
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.