Senators behind a bill designed to fight the anti-Israel boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign are pushing back against claims by civil rights groups that their legislation would restrict free speech rights of those wishing to boycott Israel.
In a letter to the American Civil Liberties Union, the co-authors of the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, Democrat Ben Cardin of Maryland and Republican Rob Portman of Ohio, claimed that their legislation in no way denies private citizens their right to support boycotts on Israel or refrain from purchasing Israeli products.
“We cannot state this strongly enough: the bill does not ‘punish U.S. persons based solely on their expressed political beliefs,’” the senators wrote to the ACLU’s national director, Faiz Shakir. The letter came in response to a push by the ACLU to oppose the bill because of its possible infringement on free speech. The powerful progressive movement MoveOn.org also launched a campaign aimed at defeating the legislation.
The bill, strongly supported by the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC and the evangelical group Christians United for Israel, would expand existing legislation, adopted in 1977 in order to counter the Arab League’s boycott on Israel, to include also anti-Israel boycotts initiated by international bodies such as the United Nations or the European Union. The bill prohibits American businesses and individuals from adhering to boycotts not sanctioned by the U.S. government and includes hefty penalties to those who follow the boycott.
Cardin and Portman argue that the ACLU and liberal activists are missing a key distinction in their bill. It does not, they argue, penalize American individuals and companies that chose to boycott Israel out of their own political beliefs, but only refers to those doing so in adherence to an international or foreign government boycott. “This legislation does not encourage or compel persons to do business with Israel, nor does it punish individuals or companies from refusing to do business with Israel based on their own political beliefs, for ‘purely pragmatic reasons,’ or for no reason stated at all,” the senators’ letter states.
The letter is not likely to end the debate over the bill, though it frames the legislation in a narrower context that could help it avoid violating the First Amendment. But at the same time, narrowing the scope of the legislation may render it less effective for those seeking federal action to counter boycotts against Israel.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.