Backdoor legislative efforts show lawmakers' true intent: silencing advocacy for Palestinian Rights

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

H.Res. 246 won't be the last of anti-boycott action in Congress

U.S. Congress members advocating measures to discourage and penalize boycotts for Palestinian rights have seen increasing pushback from both the general public and from federal judges who have blocked states' anti-boycott measures because they raise serious constitutional concerns.

These measures have stalled so far, but House Resolution 246 condemning the boycott movement for Palestinian rights could be moving forward in the House Foreign Affairs Committee on July 17. Rep. Rashida Tlaib has issued a scathing criticism of the resolution.

While this non-binding resolution carries no legal weight, the text is a broad condemnation of individuals who boycott for human rights, raising concerns that it will chill activism and reinforce and legitimize other legislative attacks on protected speech, including anti-boycott laws. It currently has 336 cosponsors.

While some Democratic cosponsors might believe that passing this non-binding resolution will lessen pressure to consider more binding measures (such as the House version of the anti-boycott bill passed by the Senate in February), Republican efforts to slip anti-boycott language into broad and often unrelated pieces of legislation underscore that the resolution will only open the door for more attacks against advocacy for Palestinian rights.

Desperate Measures

Lara Friedman of the Foundation for Middle East Peace has tracked numerous recent attempts by Republicans to insert anti-boycott language into other measures, including:

  • April 4: Attempting to attach an anti-BDS amendment to a hard-fought joint resolution to end U.S. support for the war on Yemen. The motion would have sent the entire resolution back to the Committee on Foreign Affairs with instructions to add language that "It is in the national security interest of the United States to condemn and oppose the Global Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement." The motion failed.

  • May 9: Proposing an amendment to allow the Department of Defense to restrict the U.S. government from doing business with any entities that boycott Israel during the markup of the 2020 Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies appropriations bill. The amendment was not adopted.

  • May 16: Calling on the president to report annually to Congress on BDS activities. In a report on the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs appropriations bill, the House Appropriations Committee called on the president, in an annual report to Congress, to:

  • "add information about the BDS campaign, covering companies, international organizations, countries, and other organizations, including state investment vehicles, that are involved in promoting the movement,"

  • and to document "specific steps the Department of State has taken and expects to take to discourage or end politically-motivated efforts to boycott, divest from, or sanction Israel or Israeli entities"

  • May 20: Attempting to add language to an omnibus appropriations bill to prevent funding to groups that endorse BDS. The amendment was defeated in committee.

  • May 23: Proposing to alter the tax code to require people to report whether they boycott Israel on annual tax forms. The motion failed.

The Big Picture

Though none of these underhanded efforts have succeeded so far, it's worth noting the lengths to which unprincipled lawmakers will go in order to silence advocates for Palestinian human rights. Both domestically and globally, these measures have threatened civil liberties and humanitarian efforts.

As Lara Friedman wrote, "[the proposed amendment to the tax code] is also a McCarthyistic tactic of required self-reporting designed to enable – and legitimize – the U.S. government in building a list of Americans tracking their political views/activities. The amendment would also hold the possibility of tax penalties as a result of that reporting."

The proposed amendment to the Yemen resolution could have derailed months of consensus building against the U.S. backed Saudi war.

"It's clear that these efforts to chill advocacy for Palestinian rights will continue, and lawmakers who believe in defending free speech, the right to boycott, or the right to criticize a foreign nation need to stand firm," said Palestine Legal senior staff attorney Meera Shah. "The repression starts with silencing advocacy for Palestine, but will ultimately jeopardize the rights of all people to dissent."

Several pieces of anti-boycott legislation have been proposed and failed to pass in previous congressional sessions. The Israel Anti-Boycott Act (IABA), introduced in 2017, aimed to impose criminal penalties on those who engaged in boycott of Israel and originally proposed a $1 million fine and prison time. The bill was revised in 2018 but failed to pass before the end of the congressional term.

The “Combating BDS Act of 2019," known as S.1 in the Senate, was part of the first bill introduced this year in the midst of a government shutdown. The bill passed the Senate in February, but the House version (H.R. 336) has failed to move forward to date.

Palestinian civil society called for the international community to engage in BDS - boycott, divestment, and sanctions - campaigns to put non-violent pressure on Israel until it stops violating the fundamental rights of Palestinians under international law. Some of the largest BDS campaigns in the United States have taken place on college campuses, where dozens of student governments - from Brown to Stanford to the University of Florida and UCLA - have passed measures advocating divestment from companies complicit in Israel's human rights violations.

In response to these grassroots efforts, Israel and pro-Israel lobby groups and politicians have sought to change the terrain by condemning or punishing people's engagement in BDS campaigns through anti-boycott legislation on the local, state, and federal level. To date, 27 states have passed anti-boycott legislation. Last month, an Israeli government minister took credit for efforts to pass these laws.

Courts have issued orders blocking these laws in three states because they likely violate the First Amendment.

Read more about these legislative attacks on the movement for Palestinian rights at RightToBoycott.org.