On Tuesday night, the House easily passed a resolution that condemns the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. The vote was 398-17 with sixteen Democrats and one Republican opposing the measure.
H.Res. 246 was introduced by Rep. Brad Schneider in March and ultimately ended up with 349 cosponsors before it passed; 175 Republicans and 174 Democrats. Unlike other anti-BDS measures, H.Res. 246 doesn’t penalize individuals or companies that boycott Israel and many of its supporters insisted that it did nothing to restrict free speech or anyone’s First Amendment rights. As a result, the bill was able to generate an impressive level of liberal support. It was backed by groups like J Street, Ameinu, the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), Partners for Progressive Israel (PPI) and Reconstructing Judaism. One of its cosponsors was Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), a progressive and fierce critic of the GOP foreign policy agenda. Even Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) broke with the other three members of the popular, anti-Trump “Squad” to vote in favor of the resolution.
H.Res. 246’s critics pointed to the fact that the resolution effectively tags BDS supporters as anti-Semites. Its text claims that the movement sometimes targets Jews who support Israel, denies Jewish people the right of self-determination, and all but calls BDS co-founder Omar Barghouti a Jew hater. “It doesn’t explicitly call boycotts of Israel/settlements ‘anti-Semitic’ but..there is no way you could read this [resolution and] not conclude that the intent is to label boycotts/boycotters of Israel anti-Semites,” tweeted Foundation for Middle East Peace President Lara Friedman earlier this month.
Additionally, many worried that the passage of H.Res. 246 would merely pave the way for anti-BDS legislation that is much more severe. Before the vote, Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) rose in opposition to the measure. “Our right to free speech is being threatened with this resolution,” she said. “It sets a dangerous precedent because it attempts to delegitimize a certain people’s political speech and send a message that our government can and will take action against speech it doesn’t like.”
On July 16, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) introduced her own boycott resolution. H.Res.496 affirms that Americans have the right to boycott foreign countries in pursuit of civil and human rights. Its text identifies a number of historical examples, including the boycotts against Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa. Although Omar’s legislation doesn’t mention Israel or Palestine, the fact it was developed amidst a debate on an anti-BDS bill makes its intention clear.
“We are introducing a resolution … to really speak about the American values that support and believe in our ability to exercise our first amendment rights in regard to boycotting,” she told the website Al-Monitor shortly before introducing the resolution. “And it is an opportunity for us to explain why it is we support a nonviolent movement, which is the BDS movement.”
Omar’s bill only has six cosponsors so far, but one of them is Georgia Representative and civil rights legend John Lewis. Lewis also cosponsored and voted for H.Res. 246. This means that he’s now on record backing an anti-BDS bill that will presumably be used to target its supporters and also on record backing a bill that protects one’s right to boycott any country.
Lewis certainly hasn’t been the only lawmaker making seemingly contradictory legislative decisions this month. In fact, Rep. Pressley voted for H.Res. 246 and became a cosponsor of Omar’s bill in the same evening. Another fascinating example of congressional incongruity is Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA). H.Res.326 was a symbolic piece of legislation introduced by Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-CA) declaring that the United States is committed to pushing a two-state solution. It has 157 cosponsors, but none of them are Republicans. In an effort to gain more support, Rep. Bass added a substitution to the bill that cut out all the mentions of the occupation or settlements that were in the original text.
“When you want to get as many people on board as possible, you have to negotiate,” said a Lowenthal staffer after the changes were made.
Days after substituting the new text, Bass became the twenty-first cosponsor of H.R.2407, a historic piece of legislation introduced in April by Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN). H.R.2407 would amend the Foreign Assistance Act (commonly known as the Leahy Law) to block funding for the military detention of children in any country, including Israel. When H.Res. 246 hit the floor Bass voted “present.” When asked about the vote by Jewish Insider, Bass said, “I’m not going to talk about it.”
Despite Bass’s modification of the text to remove references to the occupation, H.Res.326 still has no GOP cosponsors, which is a great encapsulation of how these issues will presumably play out for Democrats. If they vote against anti-BDS legislation, Republicans (and some Dems) are liable to denounce them as anti-Semites. If they vote for it, they’re on the record agreeing that the boycott is antisemitic and that fact can now be wielded against them when more aggressive anti-BDS legislation is pushed.
In fact, Republicans began brandishing H.Res. 246 like a cudgel as soon as the legislation was introduced. In March, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) tweeted, “House Dems offer resolution rebuking #BDS but won’t pass bill protecting states & local govts who decide not to contract with firms that boycott #Israel. They hide behind 1st amend concerns yet promote boycotts of advertisers on conservative media.” A month before Rubio’s tweet the Senate passed his Combating BDS Act, a piece of legislation that provides legal cover for anti-BDS laws at the state level. The bill hasn’t hit the House floor yet and Rubio claims it’s being blocked by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) to appease “a radical, anti-Semitic minority in the Democratic Party.”
In the end, Democrats chose to throw Palestinians under the bus on Lowenthal’s two-state solution bill in the curious belief that Republicans were operating in good faith, and it backfired. Rising to oppose the measure, Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY) said he didn’t believe H.Res.326 was necessary because there was already a bill that highlighted the need for a two-state solution, but went much further. That bill was H.Res. 246, the anti-boycott resolution that passed last night.
Despite the fact that the resolution was identified by AIPAC as a “top priority,” many Democrats seemed to view H.Res. 246 as a compromise, somewhere between supporting BDS and criminalizing it. For many in the Democratic Party, such a sentiment certainly transcends this one particular resolution. There are a number of rabidly pro-Israel Democrats in Congress and a very small number of progressives that seem genuinely committed to furthering the cause of Palestinian self-determination. However, the vast majority of Democrats seem to land somewhere in the middle. They’re prepared to defend the First Amendment rights of BDS supporters, but not willing to endorse BDS as a tactic. They’re prepared to criticize Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly, but don’t generally have any ideas on how to pressure Israel’s government on any issue. When asked about the occupation or new settlements they might acknowledge them as problems, but their solution tends to be the same formulaic, two-state rhetoric that has been regurgitated for decades now.
This outlook has been on display throughout the Democratic presidential campaigns. When the New York Times asked a number of the candidates whether Israel meets the international standards of human rights, virtually none of them seemed willing to even criticize the country. Amidst the predictable mantras of a two-state solution, the only two exceptions were South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT). Buttigieg told the Times that he believed “Israel’s human rights record is problematic and moving in the wrong direction under the current right-wing government” and Sanders said he had “great concerns about the role that Netanyahu is playing in Israel and the relationship with the Palestinians.”
Notably, Buttigieg and Sanders have both indicated that they’d be willing to cut off any funds to Israel which would potentially be used to annex the West Bank. However, neither candidate has provided further details on how they’d control the use of Israel’s military aid. Ironically, Buttigieg is considered by some to be the most pro-Israel candidate in the race. Sanders certainly has a better track record on Palestine than his competition, but it remains to be seen how many potential punches he decides to pull. Last week The Intercept reported that Rep. Betty McCollum sent Sanders a letter on June 4 asking him to introduce a Senate version of her aforementioned child detention bill. He still hasn’t responded and he didn’t respond to The Intercept’s requests for comment.
Shortly after the New York Times questionnaire ran, the progressive Jewish group IfNotNow began confronting Democratic candidates on the campaign trail and asking them whether they’d pressure the Israeli government to end the occupation. Nearly every candidate they’ve talked to has said that the occupation must end (a position that Ariel Sharon voiced in 2003), but they’ve provided no details on how they’d go about making this happen. Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke talked about both sides coming together for four minutes but didn’t mention the occupation once, which was the basis of the question he was asked.
These views have perhaps never been more disconnected from reality. The President goes on racist Twitter tirades about how a group of first-term Congresswomen are anti-Semites who should apologize to Israel while his administration backs Netanyahu’s expansionist plans for a “Greater Israel.” BDS is consistently identified as a barrier to peace, but what peace have these nebulous positions produced over the preceding decades?
According to Palestine Legal, states and local legislatures have introduced 100 measures targeting boycotts and other advocacy for Palestinian rights since 2014 and 27 states have now adopted anti-BDS laws. That’s the political backdrop to the anti-boycott resolution the House passed. The other backdrop is what’s happening on the ground in Palestine. On Monday hundreds of Israeli troops began destroying Palestinian homes in an east Jerusalem neighborhood that were deemed too close to the separation wall. “We heard very loud bangs coming from a building right next door to where we are now. It was from a large mechanical digger that was ripping off part of the roof of a building that was home up until this morning to two families,” Al Jazeera‘s Rob Matheson reported. “The father of one of the families has been sitting on a chair in the street watching his home being torn apart.”
The same week that this occurred, the United States Congress overwhelmingly voted for a resolution that condemns nonviolent protesters who target Israel for human rights abuses.
Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted about the resolution this morning: “I would like to commend the US House of Representatives for overwhelmingly approving, by a great bipartisan majority, Democrats and Republicans alike, a decision against boycotts against Israel.”
The Prime Minister also posted a video in which he made further comments. “This attests to the support for Israel in the U.S.” he says. “This support is bipartisan and is important to us. I welcome this decision. It is right, it is correct, and it is very helpful.”