Senator Susan Collins is co-sponsoring a new bill that would essentially punish a person or corporation based on their political beliefs about Israel.
Backed by 43 Senators and 247 House members, the Israeli Anti-Boycott Act is an amendment to the Export Administration Act of 1979 and a response to the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS), a nonviolent method of putting economic pressure on Israel to protest the human rights violations their government inflicts on native Palestinians. This bill would make anybody who shows support for the international boycott against Israel potentially subject to a minimum civil penalty of $250,000 and a maximum criminal penalty of $1 million and 20 years in prison.
The ACLU was quick to condemn the proposed bill as a violation of a person’s First Amendment rights.
"Boycotts, whether of a country or a company, are protected political speech,” said Zachary Heiden, legal director at the ACLU of Maine. “The government cannot punish someone for boycotting Israel any more than they can punish someone for showing their support for Israel. This is not an anti-discrimination bill. It is an anti-free speech bill."
The Intercept recently reported that even J Street, the pro-Palestinian but staunchly anti-BDS political advocacy group, called for politicians to rethink the bill as it would “undermine decades of US policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
This boycott arrives amidst a long and brutal occupation of Palestinian territory in Gaza and the West Bank which the United Nations has condemned as illegal. Just last week, Robert Piper, the UN Coordinator for Humanitarian Aid and Development Activities, told Reuters that after decades of occupation and degrading social services like education, health, and water, Gaza has become “uninhabitable.”
So why has our own Senator Collins — who could not be reached for comment on this story — thrown her support behind a bill that threatens Americans' constitutional right to protest these human rights violations?
The underlying forces, as they often are in these cases, are big piles of money.
The BDS movement, which launched in 2005, has severely impacted the Israeli economy. According to a 2013 report from Israel’s Finance Ministry, the boycott could cost Israel$10.5 billion a year. Although that figure hasn’t been confirmed by economists today, numerous companies have stopped doing business with Israel since then. According to the BDS Movement’s website, Israel has taken many economic hits in the past five years. The French multinational company Veolia withdrew their assets from Israel, costing the country billions of dollars. The state water company lost its international contracts, and Israelis ships were prevented from docking across the world. These are just the latest examples.
Governing agencies like the EU and the UN and organizations like Amnesty International have decried for years the oppressive nature of Israeli encroachment on Palestinian land, and have discouraged doing business with any enterprise on illegally settled land.
But here in America, pro-Israel legislation that inevitably fuels development in Palestinian territory and nibbles away at basic rights for the non-Jewish residents there continues to get bipartisan support. Even heroes of the progressive, anti-Trump resistance — like Democratic Congressmen Ted Lieu (CA), Adam Schiff (CA), and Eric Swalwell (CA) — have co-sponsored this bill. Apart from American politicians’ general inability to show compassion for the Palestinian people, financial interests are a major reason this bill is getting support; Israel is one of America's strongest military allies and trade partners.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is one of the biggest pro-Israeli groups in America, lobbying Congress for decades to counter what they call “diplomatic attacks and economic warfare against Israel.” Senator Collins received over $130,000 from AIPAC in campaign donations since 2000, and she’s not the only one in Congress to have her pockets padded. It’s no wonder Collins and others are co-sponsors of a bill that their biggest donors explicitly focused on in their recent lobbying agenda — AIPAC wrote that they'd “prohibit U.S. persons from cooperating with efforts by international organizations, including the U.N., to boycott Israel.”
The advocacy group makes their position on BDS crystal clear on their website: “The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign has emerged in an effort to stigmatize, delegitimize and isolate the State of Israel. BDS proponents seek to drive a wedge between Israel and the rest of the world—separating Israel’s government, businesses, universities and people from their partners abroad.”
Why Boycotting Israel Isn't Anti-Semitic
Apart from AIPAC’s concerns about the effect on Israel’s economy, there’s a lot of historically, culturally, and politically important baggage attached to the motivations behind this bill, and the boycott it responds to. Unpacking these forces for the Phoenix this week is Bob Schaible, the chair of Maine Voices for Palestinian Rights, a local group that fundraises for pro-Palestinian causes. He’s studied the conflict for over a decade, devouring dozens of books on the topic before traveling to the West Bank himself in 2010 to learn about the situation first-hand from the journalists, activists, students, youth-center directors, academics, and working-class people living there.
Schaible says his understanding of the conflict runs contrary to the mainstream narrative that paints Israeli Jews as well-intentioned settlers fleeing oppression, returning to their ancestral land and fighting against hostile Arabs who want to dismantle their entire state and push it into the sea — and anybody who suggests otherwise, or supports movements like BDS, is clearly an anti-Semite.
Schaible says that very little of this conventional perception is true.
It’s impossible to convey all the complexities of a hundred-year-old conflict that’s killed at least 10,000 innocent Palestinians since 2000, and economically deprived and displaced millions of others, in a short news piece. But many who do understand the nuanced history of Israel/Palestine relations — religious scholars, political scientists, residents, and even Jewish rabbis — stress that supporting BDS has little to do with religious differences, and everything to do with resisting a growing, authoritative, apartheid state.
For example, Schaible holds a deep admiration for Judaism (most of his knowledge on the subject comes from Jewish scholars) but still backs the Israel boycott. It’s important, he says, not to conflate Judaism with Zionism, a belief that Palestinian territories within Israel are the inalienable God-given possession of the Jewish people, and only them. Indeed many non-Palestinian people have voiced support for the boycott, including Roy Isacowitz a Jewish journalist who wrote a piece 2 years ago titled “Target me with your boycott please,” Rev. Charles H. Thomas of the United Church of Christ, who wrote last year “our quarrel is with the policies of a government, not Judaism,” and Archbishop Desmond Tutu who said this in an open letter to the German Evangelical Church Assembly in 2015: “BDS is not anti-Semitism. Do your business with Jews, organize with them, love them, but don’t support — militarily, economically or politically — the machinery of an apartheid-state.”
Schaible and his Palestinian friend Yasser Abudiah, a history teacher in East Jerusalem, whose family home and village were destroyed by Israel in its expulsion of Palestinians in 1948. (Photos Courtesy of Robert Schaible)
Plenty of Jewish people support BDS as well, according to Jewish Voices for Peace, a national organization with 200,000 members that seek to educate the public that “many Jews are opposed to the actions of Israel.”
These words greet visitors of the JVP website: “There are often attempts to silence critics of Israel by conflating legitimate criticism with anti-Semitism. Israel is a state, not a person. Everyone has the right to criticize the unjust actions of a state.”
Other Jewish voices, like ones from the Community Relations Council of Maine's Jewish Community Alliance, express vehement opposition to BDS, and support the Anti-Defamation League’s position on the issue: "The BDS movement, which rejects Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, is the most prominent effort to undermine Israel’s existence. The BDS campaign is rampant with misinformation and distortion."
Barbara Shaw, of the Jewish Community Alliance, told the Phoenix last week that: "while members of the Jewish community may differ on major elements of Israeli government policy, we stand united in our support of the right of the State of Israel to exist. We must remember that it was a boycott of Israel by all Arab governments starting in 1948 that increased polarization in the region, encouraged overt efforts to try to destroy Israel, and prevented negotiations for years."
"Rather than boycotting a valuable ally, we should be working to promote dialogue between Israel and its Palestinian neighbors and other ways to reduce the points of conflict which have plagued the two peoples for over a century," said Shaw. "If legislation is required to expose the BDS movement against Israel for the sham it is, then we support it."
Schaible, of course, doesn't think that BDS is a sham, but a "necessary, and vigorously anti-racist movement."
"We’re really just pro-human rights for all the people in that region," said Schaible. "Groups like AIPAC are a response to a fear that there’s going to be an open, global discussion on Israel's policies.”
This map, courtesy of the Palestine Awareness Coalition, shows how much land Israeli settlers have illegally colonized over the decades.
Why There’s A Boycott In The First Place
Today, Palestinians that live in the West Bank and Israel proper are subject to housing, religious, and economic discrimination, in what’s basically an ethnic-nationalist state that systematically favors Jews. Apart from the blatant disregard to their ancestral claims on the land, Palestinians don’t have the same access to fertile farming land, electricity, the Internet, or water resources as their Jewish neighbors. They can’t drive on major highways in the West Bank without being stopped in multiple checkpoints and searched. They are unable to move freely across borders, and to holy sites in East Jerusalem that hold immense significance to them. They don’t have an Army, Navy, or Air Force, and are surrounded by a technologically superior Israeli military, bolstered by the U.S. — Israel’s on the receiving end of a billion dollars a year in military aid for the next decade. And even the Palestinian’s own police force works in tandem with the Israeli police to enforce oppressive policies, one of those being stamping out political dissent. Protests often end in violence and later dehumanizing media reports that label Palestinians as aggressors, when often times they’re the victims —three unarmed activists were killed by Israeli authorities just last Friday after protesting against the shutdown of the Aqsa Mosque.
“Israel does have a great diversity of people, it’s just that legally speaking they only recognize one of those groups as having full human rights,” said Schaible. “The settlers have swimming pools while the Palestinians don’t have enough water for their crops. Is that justice?”
For decades, diplomatic talks and agreements have failed, protests have failed, and wars have even failed the Palestinian people. Schaible, and many others see the international boycott as a “powerful, civilized, and peaceful” way to combat Israeli oppression: not violence, not submission, but an impactful middle road.
“What they want is a state like America, a secular, multicultural state governed by a Constitution and laws that do not privilege any one religion, race or ethnicity,” said Schaible. “They just want to get on with their lives and live in peace.”
But regardless of your feelings about Israeli/Palestinian relations, it can’t be denied that this Israel Anti-Boycott Act is an unconstitutional threat to our ability to publicly acknowledge them.
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