Home Politics Free Speech Under Attack: Anti-BDS Law Continues

Free Speech Under Attack: Anti-BDS Law Continues

John Englart (Takver) via Foter.com / CC BY-SA
John Englart (Takver) via Foter.com / CC BY-SA

Free speech activists and leftists are up in arms over a proposed bill, the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, which would effectively criminalize business owners for supporting the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction movement (BDS). This bill is just the latest in a long train of attacks on protest and free speech that have cropped up recently.

The BDS movement is mainly a reaction to the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which the UN has declared illegal. These settlements are predicated on massive displacement of native Palestinians and a major stoker of the flames of anti-Israeli terrorism.  BDS is seen by supporters as a nonviolent method of forcing the state of Israel to change its practices.

Graphic by Colin Tooley
Graphic by Colin Tooley

The Israel Anti-Boycott Act (IABA) has its foundation in laws passed in the 1970s that bar American companies from “complying” with boycotts of Israel sponsored by foreign governments. IABA would expand these restrictions to include “supporting” boycotts called by International Governmental Organizations such as the United Nations (which has frequently sanctioned Israel for human rights abuses) or the European Union (which mandates that products made in illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank and elsewhere be labeled as such).

While the IABA doesn’t outright outlaw boycotting the State of Israel (something its sponsors are quick to point out), it is worded so vaguely that organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union worry that it would be “in direct violation of the First Amendment.”

If passed, it would effectively prohibit American businesses from participating in international boycott efforts, and it also forbids companies from disclosing whether they do business in Palestinian occupied territories (such as the West Bank) to organizations like the EU.

A seriously underreported aspect of the bill is that it also authorizes the Export-Import Bank to deny credit applications to any entity that intends “to penalize or otherwise limit commercial relations specifically with…the Government of Israel.”

An interesting facet of the IABA is its broad bipartisan support. In a hyper-charged political climate brought about by a contentious battle over healthcare, the IABA is sponsored by a Democrat (Sen. Cardin, MD) and has 45 cosponsors from both parties (14 Democrats and 31 Republicans).

This is unsurprising, however, as both political parties are extremely cozy with the Israel lobby within the United States, including AIPAC, which helped draft the bill. The IABA’s

Graphic by Colin Tooley
Graphic by Colin Tooley

Democratic sponsor, Benjamin Cardin, received over $218,000 in campaign contributions from pro-Israel groups in the 2016 election cycle alone, and has had more contributions from AIPAC than almost any other congressperson.

The IABA is not the only effort from American lawmakers to suppress the BDS movement – 17 states have enacted their own laws, including California, Texas, Illinois, and New York, most within the past few years. But most of these prohibit individual states from doing business with companies that support BDS; the IABA restricts what private companies, including small businesses, can and cannot do.

The United States has seen a spat of legislation in recent times aimed at clipping protest movements. It probably began in 2011 with the “Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act,” another bipartisan piece of draconian legislation which effectively makes protests illegal at the president’s discretion (hey, at least we can all rest easy knowing that the current president is a reasonable man who would never abuse such powers). That bill, which was happily signed by Barack Obama, was a reaction to Occupy Wall Street protests.

Since then and especially in the past year, protest movements ranging from Black Lives Matter to NoDAPL to the anti-Trump protests last November have galvanized state legislatures to crack down even harder. Dozens of states, most led by Republicans, have implemented or attempted to implement new laws such as ones prohibiting wearing masks, blocking traffic, or even large gatherings of people (something that is literally a constitutional right).

As more and more Americans take up the fight for progressive causes, the establishment is becoming more and more desperate to quash emerging social movements by any means necessary. The anti-BDS movement is one such cause, and it stands directly opposed to the foreign policy agenda of the DC establishment. This proposed bill, should it pass, is but another step towards crushing all dissent in the United States, and it should be vigorously opposed.

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