The US government is declaring war on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Since 2014, 11 US states have enacted legislation to criminalize the movement, which uses non-violent means to put pressure on Israel to end its occupation of Palestine. Washington is now leading the fight, giving federal legitimacy to the anti-democratic behavior of individual states.
Senate Bill 720, or S.720, also known as the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, would amend a 1979 export trade law to make it a federal criminal offense to support a boycott of Israel, punishable by a fine of up to $1 million and up to 20 years in prison. The bill was drafted largely by Israel’s powerful lobby group in Washington, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), and having it passed is AIPAC’s top priority.
If these efforts are successful, US democracy will take yet another step back, and many good people could be punished for behaving in accordance with their political and moral values. Worse, the legislation before the Senate is a clear violation of the right to free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment to the US Constitution.
Since AIPAC appears to have a stranglehold on the elected representatives of the American people, it is no surprise that 42 Senators and 247 members of the House of Representatives support the bill, which was introduced in March. Congress has habitually backed Israel and condemned Palestinians, and any politician or entity that dared to recognize Palestinian rights. With this bill, however, they have gone too far.
Both Republican and Democratic politicians often act in ways contrary to the interests of their own country, just to appease the Israeli government. That is no secret. However, this bill takes traditional blind allegiance to Israel to a new and dangerous level, where the federal government threatens to punish people and organizations for the choices they make, the values they hold dear or the expression of an opinion on an issue they find compelling.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) published a letter last month calling on politicians who signed the Senate bill to reconsider. “The bill would punish businesses and individuals, based solely on their point of view. Such a penalty is in direct violation of the First Amendment,” the ACLU said.
After meeting the ACLU, one of the bill’s sponsors, the Democrat junior New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, withdrew her sponsorship. She said she supported the bill’s intentions but was concerned that it could be viewed as infringing civil liberties. AIPAC immediately urged its army of supporters to pressure her to reinstate her name on the list.
Many US politicians are adept at defending the indefensible in Israel, but their latest effort may have unintended consequences.
Dire as it may seem, there are two positive aspects to all this. First, Israel and its cheerleaders have denied for years that soliciting American support for its actions against Palestinians and Arabs constitutes meddling in the US political system or undermining US democracy. The Israel Anti-Boycott Act, however, is such an egregious intervention that it cannot be defended: It not only negates the First Amendment, the very foundation of American democracy, but uses America’s own democratic institutions to do so.
This bill gives human rights advocates an opportunity to champion not only BDS and the rights of the Palestinian people, but also the rights of all Americans. Thus the fight for Palestinian rights can be openly discussed and placed in a context that most Americans find relevant to their everyday lives — one of the aims of BDS from the start. The boycott and de-legitimization of the Israeli military occupation are at the core of the civil society movement, but BDS also aims at generating an urgent discussion on Israel and Palestine. Albeit unintentionally, Congress is now making this very much possible.
There is a second bright spot. The bill, and other such legislative efforts in the US and Europe, recreates in the Middle East the events that preceded the demise of apartheid in South Africa.
It is telling that the US, UK and Israel were the most ardent supporters of that odious regime. The US and British governments, in particular, opposed the South African liberation movement, condemned the boycott of the country and backed the racist authoritarian rule of P.W. Botha to the very end. President Ronald Reagan viewed Nelson Mandela as a terrorist, and he was not removed from the US terror list until 2008.
Now, history is repeating itself. The Israeli version of apartheid wants to colonize all of Palestine, mistreat its people and violate international law without a word of censure. The US government has not changed much, either. It carries on supporting the Israeli form of apartheid, while shamelessly paying lip service to the legacy of Mandela and his anti-apartheid struggle.
For true champions of human rights, regardless of their race, religion or citizenship, this is their moment. No meaningful change ever occurs without people being united in struggle and sacrifice. As the American abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass said: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
The US Congress, with the help of AIPAC, is criminalizing this very demand of justice. Americans should not stand for it, if not for the sake of Palestinians, then for the sake of their own democracy.
• Ramzy Baroud has been writing about the Middle East for over 20 years. He is an internationally syndicated columnist, a media consultant, an author of several books, and the founder of PalestineChronicle.com.