Shortly after the election of Donald Trump, my congressman Ted Lieu (CA-33) emerged on the national stage as a leading critic of the president’s policy on health care, the environment, and the budget, as well as his alleged Russia connection. Unlike many other Democrats, he criticized Trump’s bombing of Syria on the grounds that the president acted without any congressional approval. He additionally opposed arms sales to Saudi Arabia due to that country’s war crimes in Yemen– something few other politicians have the courage to even mention. My congressman seemed anti-war, pro human rights, and driven by principle rather than political expediency.
Thus, I was disappointed when, in April 2017, he signed on as a co-sponsor of H.R. 1697, the Israel Anti-Boycott bill. Its provisions clash with the strong support for human rights he otherwise espouses. And although the congressman is a constitutional lawyer, he backs this legislation even though it threatens free speech rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.
The bill is a response to the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC) call for a database (termed “a blacklist”) of companies operating beyond, in the law’s whitewashed language, “Israel’s 1949 Armistice lines”–more commonly known as the Occupied Territories. HR 1697 (and its companion Senate Bill, S 720) explicitly mentions and targets the Boycott, Divest, Sanctions (BDS) movement. It bans U.S. persons and businesses from taking “certain actions” to support boycotts “fostered by international governmental organizations”– specifically the UN and the European Union–against Israel. It also prohibits requesting information about whether an entity is doing business in Israel, if such a request is intended to support such a boycott. Penalties range up to a $1 million fine and 20 years in prison. The Israel lobby, including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), is strongly pushing the legislation.
Based on the letter of the law, a social media post expressing “support” for BDS in solidarity with the UN and its member nations could expose one to liability. And a person who requests information about whether an Israeli business operates in the Occupied Territories could be charged—even if that person ultimately decides not to boycott the business. For these reasons among others, The ACLU and other legal analysts object to the law on First Amendment grounds.
According to a member of Congressman Lieu’s staff with whom I spoke, my representative interprets the law much more narrowly. Lieu asserts that the prohibitions only apply to transactions between a US and an international business entity where the former agrees to participate in the boycott as a condition imposed by the latter. This argument ignores the wording of the law, including its specific reference to the United Nations and its prohibitions around requesting information. However, the staff member assured me that the law does not ban constitutionally protected speech and assured me that, regardless of how it is worded, no one would ever be prosecuted for a social media post.
Maybe or maybe not–the Department of Justice can choose to enforce the law as it sees fit. But the law would clearly discourage public support for BDS. Anyone who reads it could reasonably conclude that is trying to ban BDS outright—its preface states explicitly that the U.S. opposes “actions to boycott, divest from, or sanction Israel.” And rightly so, most people would not trust the Israel-lobby friendly U.S. government to enforce the law leniently. Therein in my opinion lies the major purpose of the law: its sponsors intend to frighten activists and chill dissent.
Alarmingly, the law also fails to distinguish between the state of Israel proper and the occupied Palestinian Territories The law criticizes UNHRC for considering a resolution to withhold assistance from and prevent trade with “territories occupied since 1967” – quotations in the original, as if it were a demented anti-Semitic notion, rather than settled international law, that the West Bank and East Jerusalem are occupied. And the bill’s penalties apply to equally to boycotts of business in the Occupied Territories and Israel proper.
From a free speech perspective, any boycott ban is wrong. However, by treating the Israel and the territories as equivalent, the law implicitly validates the Occupation. Multiple U.N. resolutions and the international community’s consensus call for the return of occupied territories, and Israel continually expands its settlements in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Congressman Lieu’ s representative, despite his patron’s principled stand on international law applied elsewhere, had no response to my objections on these grounds.
Lieu supports this odious legislation because he is a PEP (Progressive Except on Palestine). Many PEPs are Jews, who, due to their religious or romantic notions regarding Israel, ignore or rationalize the nation’s human rights and international law violations. This stance, though wrongheaded, is at least more authentic than the congressman’s cynical calculations. Like many other left-of-center Democrats, he reasons that he can take a position contrary to his own values on this one issue, in exchange for the Israel lobby’s endorsement and financial support. That way, voters whose choice is driven primarily or solely by this one issue will support him, while progressives, viewing Republican alternatives as far worse on all other issues, won’t abandon him. In sum, Congressman Lieu and others like him sell out their principles in exchange for their political ambitions.
Of course, I don’t know exactly what the congressman thinks, but he has previously demonstrated that AIPAC can reliably depend on him. Recently, he declined to sign a letter from 32 congressional colleagues (including many who support his stance on Yemen) objecting to trumped-up charges against Issa Amro, a Palestinian rights activist and nonviolent resistance leader who is known worldwide as the “Palestinian Gandhi.” Additionally, in his first term, shortly after returning from an AIPAC sponsored trip to Israel, he became one of 25 Democratic Congressmen out of 187 to vote against the Iranian nuclear deal (I wonder if he would travel to the Occupied Territories as a guest of an Israeli-based pro-Palestinian human rights organization such as B’tselem). And according to the website maplight.org, pro-Israel interest groups donated over $56,000 to his 2016 congressional campaign.
As Congressman Lieu is a constitutional lawyer, I am sure he’s aware that no action challenging the legality of boycotts has ever succeeded in the United States. Since he strongly values individual freedom, he must recognize that protecting this legitimate, non-violent tool of protest—even when employed in support of a cause he might not endorse–is vital to the health of a democracy. As a human rights advocate, he must know that boycotts like the Boston Tea Party, Montgomery, and South Africa directly contributed to ending injustice and oppression. And as a spokesman for many national and international causes that concern people well beyond the borders of California’s 33rd, he seemingly understands that people around the world look to strong, principled international leaders for inspiration and guidance.
Thus, I urge Congressman Lieu him to withdraw his support for this poorly conceived and written bill. I respect much of his work and many of his courageous stances in support of progressive causes. But if he will not consistently live up to the principles he espouses, I will not support or endorse him as my representative in Washington.